Written by Charlie Harlow Published on 31st March 2021

Take a moment to pause and think about how you define sex. Maybe even close your eyes. What images come to mind? If you jumped to thinking about ‘penis in vagina’ intercourse (PIV), then you're not alone. This is how sex is often defined in society. Certainly, most sex advice, whether in magazines, online or in books, refers to PIV intercourse with the goal of orgasm, with other forms of sex labeled as foreplay. But PIV should not be the "gold standard" of sex, and here’s why. 

Sexist roots 

Historically, there has been an obsession with classifying women as virgins and non-virgins, the pure and the impure. Do you know what the difference between the two categories has been? Whether they have been penetrated with a penis. Charming, right?! Legally, women used to be their father’s property and then their husbands' property when given away through marriage. That property needed to be ‘pure’ to preserve his bloodline, ensuring the husband was the father of any children. While these ideas are very outdated, the importance of women’s first PIV encounter still lives on. Women are not property, and our value is not determined by the sexual experiences we have or have not had. What exactly are we losing when we ‘lose’ our virginity? We are not losing our ‘purity’; we are gaining an experience. For too long, sex has been centered around men as active participants while women are considered passive receivers. We should have the autonomy to decide how we define our sexual encounters, how much we value them, and what they mean to us. This starts with broadening our definition of sex to include those experiences outside of PIV intercourse.  


On top of its sexist origins, our current definition of sex is inadequate because it’s heteronormative, excluding many people’s experiences. Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the ‘standard’ expression of sexuality. From romantic comedies and adverts to stereotypical gender roles, heteronormative attitudes are present throughout society, and how we have defined sex is not immune. 

When we say that ‘proper’ sex is equivalent to PIV, we’re invalidating the sexual experiences of LGBTQIA+ people. Sex doesn’t require two individuals, one with a vagina and the other with a penis. Forms of sex such as oral sex and anal sex are equally valid, yet our culture tends to dismiss them as foreplay and not ‘real’ sex. Our model of sex needs to expand beyond one form of heteronormative sex to include a broader range of sexual experiences—both for those who can’t engage in PIV and for those who can.

Under pressure

“Under pressure, pressing down on me, pressing down on you, no “woman” ask for!” Musical outburst aside, even for those who can engage in PIV, this model of sex is not beneficial. Assuming that PIV is ‘proper’ sex creates pressure for all sexual experiences to lead to intercourse. Which often means we’re not fully present during other sexual acts, thinking about the expectation of what’s to come. If we change the narrative to ‘I am already having sex’ when engaging in oral sex or hand play, it can free up our headspace to be in the moment to enjoy ourselves.

Using the heteronormative PIV model as a gold standard for sex also feeds gender stereotypes. It reinforces the idea of men as active participants and women as passive recipients, there to be ‘nailed’ or ‘screwed.’ This is a double-edged sword that can lead to women focusing solely on their partner’s pleasure and men focusing on performance. By widening our model of sex, we open up space for men to be sensitive and vulnerable and women to be active, empowered, and focused on their pleasure. We remove the pressure of what sex should look like, according to typical gender narratives, and open up to exploration.

Goodbye foreplay, hello play!

When we label kissing, oral sex, play involving hands, and other stimulation as foreplay, we limit ourselves. Often PIV is not the act that brings the most pleasure. This is unsurprising. Especially when you learn that the clitoris is the female equivalent of a penis. It’s the part of the body that enables orgasms and arousal, meaning intercourse is not necessary for sexual pleasure. 70% of people with clitorises cannot orgasm through penetration alone; they need external stimulation. When we define sex as PIV, we focus on the acts that often bring us the most pleasure, such as oral sex. Labeling them as side dishes or starters when they could make a Michelin star main course. 

What's your definition?

Instead of having sex with a pre-conception of what ‘good’ sex looks like, try liberating yourself and exploring forms of touch and pleasure, take the time to be in the moment, and find out what pleases you as an individual. You may find PIV does bring you the most pleasure, or you may not have it at all. The important thing to recognize is that what’s good for one person may not be good for another. 

At Elvie, we recognize that people’s sexual experiences and preferences are varied, and our definition of sex should reflect that. So, instead of thinking about your sex life based on a non-inclusive, outdated, and often unhelpful definition, come up with your definition and join us in a sexual-revolution!