What Counts As Sex

by Paige Leacey

on Jan 4, 2023

With such an array of activities to choose from, its common to feel confused about what does and doesn’t count as sex. This guide will help you categorise some of your own experiences and, with any luck, open you up other possibilities.

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At some point in our lives, we’ve all asked the question ‘What is sex?’ Maybe it was in the playground of primary school when we overheard the older kids talking about an activity they heard their parents doing together (we might have even phrased the question as ‘What is the sex?’ before we fully understood the concept). Maybe it was when we first asked the people who cared for us growing up where we came from? Or maybe it was when we got a little older, a little wiser and started to become curious about what sex meant to us, as individuals.

When asking, ‘What is the meaning of sex’, ultimately, we - as the participants - get to decide the answer. Sexuality is fluid, diverse and ever-evolving, so naturally what counts as sex isn’t a singular thing. That may be an exciting sentiment for those who don't see their own intimate experiences represented enough in popular culture; to know that penis-in-vagina-penetration isn’t the only avenue through which they can be considered as sexual beings. But it may also be daunting for those who aren’t sure how to clarify some of their experiences. With a plethora of acts to consider as getting jiggy with it, where do we begin with integrating and understanding what we may or may not have gotten up to behind closed doors. For that reason, this article breaks down some of the major categories often referred to as ‘types of sex’. It is by no means exhaustive and only an overview of each category. As we always say at Lovehoney, when it comes to sex, our imaginations are our only true limits.

Solo sex


When a person engages is the act of masturbation, or the stimulation of their genitals for sexual pleasure, for the first time, we don’t consider them having lost their virginity. Without going into nitty gritty of why the term a “lost virginity” isn’t really helpful or correct (what exactly did we misplace?), having a sexual experience with someone else is usually what society recognises as sex - in the most basic way.

Having said that, solo sex still a healthy act of intimacy, discovery, pleasure-seeking and sexual release. It is the safest way to have sex (because you can’t contract any sexually transmitted diseases and you won’t fall pregnant), and for some people it’s the most frequent type of sex they have when they are not in a relationship. But masturbation still needs to be demystified, and when we are thinking about it in terms of whether or not it counts as sex, it’s also a good opportunity to ask ourselves what we think about it in general.

Since we are the meaning makers in our own lives, here are some points for reflection:

  • Who first taught us about masturbation and what did they teach us? That it was good, bad, shameful, fun, normal?

  • Does being single versus being in a relationship change how we feel about masturbation?

  • How do we feel about the idea that other people also masturbate?


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When we think of foreplay, often our mind goes to kissing, grinding, and oral sex. But really foreplay can be any kind of intimate act that creates sexual arousal and desire for sexual activity. Non-physical or emotionally intimate acts may be extremely sexy types of foreplay for some people, and foreplay may begin any time before a sexual act - days or even weeks in advance. To keep things simples, we’ve broken this concept down the subcategories. As always, these lists are not exhaustive.

Physical foreplay acts

  • Kissing

  • Cuddling

  • Holding hands

  • Grinding

  • Oral sex

  • Fingering

  • Hand jobs

  • Mutual masturbation

  • Watching each other self-pleasure

  • Playing with vibrators

  • Playing with other toys

  • Non-sexual touch ie., spooning or embracing

  • Massage

  • Ear play

  • Ticklers

  • Sitting on each other’s laps

  • Anal play

  • Playing sexy games

Non-physical foreplay acts (some sexual, some not)

  • Texting

  • Sexting

  • Words of affirmation

  • Cooking together

  • Having a bath

  • Having a shower

  • Dancing

  • Playing truth or dare

  • Spending the day hanging out

  • Getting dressed up

  • Having a deep conversation

  • Booking a holiday together

  • Sending each other sexy photos

So does any of this count as sex? Well that entirely depends. Some of these acts might feel even more intimate than penetrative sex; and, of course, a number of them will often lead to penetrative sex. Every person’s body is different. What some people may consider an entrée, others consider the main meal. Broadly speaking, foreplay is what comes before sex, but what we decide either of those activities mean is entirely up to us.

Do I need to cum for it to count?

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The quick answer here is no. When we have sex and don’t come, we still had sex. It’s important to remember that not everyone orgasms in the same way, and for some, it may be a longer journey to get there. The big O is a nice addition when it happens, but it certainly shouldn’t always be the priority of sex. In fact, one in three people with vulvas find it difficult to orgasm during partnered sex.

It’s also completely normal if we don’t reach orgasms with our partners the first one, two or hundred times we have sex. It can take a little while to get comfortable with one another and to learn the patterns of our bodies.

It’s great to discuss what we like with our lovers (we’ve heard it before - communication is key), but having an orgasm usually requires relaxation. Our best bet is to speak openly and honestly about what feels good but to not focus too heavily on the idea of cumming, especially if we are having trouble with it. There is so much to explore, and sex and sexual experimentation can be a meaningful act of bonding without anyone reaching or even getting close to, a climax.

Partnership and consent


For some couples, penetrative sex looks different to the traditional penis-in-vulva kind. In relationships where there might be two vulvas, two penises, or perhaps one person (even both people) with varied ability, what counts as sex is whatever feels right within the partnership. What does sex mean to you? What does it mean when you and your partner have it? These might even be fun jumping off points for when sticky conversations about sex come up within our relationships. The most important thing, in any context where sex is involved, is consent. That is, the mutual agreement between the participants to engage in a sexual activity.

Ultimately the definition of sex doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that it feels pleasurable, and what all parties involved want to be doing. When pondering ‘What is the meaning of sex’, it’s important that we look more broadly to the structures that might refine or shrink our creative answers to that question. These might be our parents’ beliefs, our friends’ beliefs or even just societal expectations at large. We are allowed to be separate from those. The thing that makes sex alluring is that it’s all a huge mystery until it is a lived experience. Lucky for us humans, we get to have all sorts of experiences before we decide for ourselves which ones we want to count as sex.

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Paige Leacey

Written by Paige Leacey.
Paige is a sexual health and relationships writer who hails from the Northern Rivers of New South Wales.

Originally published on Jan 4, 2023. Updated on Jan 5, 2023