This guide to ‘what is sex’ aims to answer the most frequently asked questions about sex in a simple and short way. Although yeah, the whole article is like an essay. I’ve tried to define each thing and then give some pointers for how to do them more consensually and safely.
Click on the links below to take you to the answer and look out for the links to other articles.
Here’s another article about kink and how it can be done consensually and safely.
What is sex?
That’s one of the most important questions, so well done for asking. Most people think that ‘sex’ involves: penetration, or genital contact with someone else. But people also like (or prefer); kissing, stroking, licking, sucking, rubbing, holding, and grabbing. Folk can have sexy times when they are not together, like texting or emailing or sending pictures. Or people can have sex by themselves by masturbating or just thinking about sexy thoughts or stories (fantasies).
But sex is much more than just doing these activities to another person (or to yourself). Sex is also about; why you want to do it and how you want to do it. When you want to do it, and what you want to get from it. It’s also about how you’re feeling and what’s happening in your body. The chemistry between you and someone else, and the environment you’re in. Consent is also key (see below).
Try to forget about ‘what counts’ as sex
Try to forget the rules about ‘what is sex’ and try to think about ‘what is sex’ for you. If you want to do this with someone else you try to think about what kinds of sex you both want to have. You might be interested in starting to figure out what kinds of sex you might like. Maybe you’re not interested right now, or you might never be that interested in having sex. Perhaps you’re asexual for example.
What is Consent?
Consent is probably the most important part of having sex with someone. If it’s not consensual, it’s assault and abuse, not sex. Consent means agreement and both people have to agree for any sex that you have. People also have to be able to choose to agree or it’s not consent. So this means doing more than asking people to choose between ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Consent has to be on-going
Agreement doesn’t just happen once at the beginning, it has to happen all the way through sex. So it’s really important for people to be paying attention to each other during sex. Listen for what people might say and how they say it. Look out for eye contact and facial expressions. Notice how their whole body reacts — is the other person actively enjoying this or more hoping it will end soon?
There are tips on the rest of this page for how to do this for particular acts. If you want to learn some more about this then have a look at all the articles I have about sex. There’s also this video, how to be good at sex (which is basically all about consent).
What is an orgasm?
Orgasms are so different for everyone that they are hard to define but it’s basically like a climax of pleasure.
They can feel relaxing, exciting, a big release, powerful or a bit meh. Some people ejaculate when they orgasm some not. People’s muscles can contract and relax really quickly or sometimes their skin goes all tingly, or sometimes both.
Some think they are really important to have, some not. Some find them easier to have by themselves, some find them easier to have with other people. Kinsey found that men’s orgasms and women’s orgasms are actually pretty similar (p163) and can happen just as quickly or slowly or not at all.
If you are planning on having penis in vagina sex, remember that it’s much more likely that the person with the penis will have an orgasm from this than the person with the vagina. This is why a lot of people think that penis in vagina sex is meh.
So instead, find out what kind of sex they may really enjoy: it might be stroking, licking, kissing, sucking or rubbing different parts of their body. It could be something that you both do with each other or something that they want you to do to them. Find out what you enjoy, and do that.
Don’t try to ‘make’ someone orgasm
Keep paying attention to how much they are enjoying it. If you keep doing this and are patient and gentle they may have an orgasm with you.
Putting pressure on someone to try and have an orgasm for you will make it harder for them to have an orgasm. So don’t try to make someone have an orgasm (you shouldn’t be trying to make anyone do anything) but make a big effort to help them to enjoy sex instead.
What is foreplay?
What people often call foreplay is actually just different kinds of sex that doesn’t involve penetration – things like kissing, stroking, licking, rubbing. People can find these things just as or even more enjoyable than penetrative sex, so if you just want to do those things and enjoy those things great!
Instead of calling it foreplay you could call it ‘sex’.
The reason foreplay is called foreplay is that for penetrative sex to feel nice it’s good to do some other kinds of sex before.This is to make sure that the vagina or the anus is relaxed and wet enough, if they aren’t then it might be painful (which it shouldn’t, here’s how to avoid painful sex). Everyone is different, so some people need touching to be ready for penetration, others can get excited enough just by thinking about it.
Just like with any other sex there aren’t any special moves that always work for every person. The key with sex is not just to focus on what might happen next but on what’s happening now. So if you’re having a kiss – try to focus on that. The noises, the breathing, your heart rate, how your bodies respond to each other. If you think of ‘foreplay’ as just something to get out of the way so that you can have ‘real’ sex you might not enjoy either very much.
Click here for more tips on how to have sex without having entry sex (what a lot of people call foreplay but are wrong).
What is Masturbation?
Masturbation is a way of touching yourself in a way that makes you feel sexually excited. You can do it by yourself or with someone else. If you masturbate each other then we sex educators call that mutual masturbation – keeping it really sexy.
It’s more than just using your hand to touch your genitals. Any part of your body can feel sexy to touch if you’re in the right mood. You can explore the outside of your body or, if you want to, you can explore inside your body. You can do this with your fingers (make sure they are wet and with clean and not sharp nails) or with sex toys.
It totally counts as sex and it can be as exciting than other kinds of sex. For a lot of people it’s their favourite thing to do and that’s totally chill.
There’s a guide for how to masturbate safely here.
What is sexting?
Sexting is a way of having sexy times with someone when you are not actually with them. It can involve sexy stories, or sexy thoughts, or ideas on what you would like to do together. It can also involve sending sexy pictures, but it’s actually illegal to do that if you are under 18. There is also a risk of someone sharing that picture with people who you don’t want to see that picture.
Consent is important with sexting
The important thing to remember about sexting is consent. Unless someone has given you permission to just send them sexy things whenever you want, then it’s a good idea to find out if it’s a good time for you to be sending a picture of what’s under your top or what’s in your pants. They might be with their mum, or on the bus, or hanging out with their mates.
When you are sexting, pay attention to how much they are into it right now. How long are they taking to get back to you? Are you getting the double tick quite quickly? How much are they texting back? Remember some people like sexting more than others, and some people prefer to have bit of a think and have one big sext rather than getting into a conversation. So try not to make someone sext in the same way you do. Here are some more tips about how to be good at sexting.
What is French Kissing?
French kissing is kissing that involves tongues — it’s also known as deep kissing, or snogging, or getting off with, or lipsing (en français il s’appelle ‘galocher’). It can be different from person to person because people have different kinds of mouths and so have different things they like and dislike.
Some people like just to lick their partner’s lips or teeth, some like to put their tongues in as deep as possible. Some people like a bit of sucking or a little bit of biting.
If you feel confident enough to chat about this before then you can chat about what you like “I don’t really like deep tongue action” or “I really like it to be wet and messy when I kiss” (try talking via texts, it can be easier than face to face).
Alternatively if you can’t talk about it you could try slowly going in for a kiss on the lips. If you do this slowly then this gives them the chance to back away if they don’t want to do it. Then see how the kiss develops between you. Notice if they move towards you or away from you. Do they pull their tongue away from you and closing their mouth a little? Are they opening their mouth a little and licking your tongue, teeth and lips?
Slowing down like this and really trying to notice what is happening during the snog can help you enjoy it more. It’s more enjoyable to try to focus on what is happening now, not on what might happen next. Just because you are enjoying a snog doesn’t mean you have to then do anything else after.
Read more top tips about kissing.
What are Love Bites?
Love bites are when someone bites someone on their body — they are also known as hickies. Soooo some people like bites and others really don’t. Some prefer to bite, others prefer to be bitten. You might like a light nibble, others like a strong bite. Others like it hard enough to leave a bruise or teeth marks, others really won’t be into that. As you can tell, making sure that you both agree about what kind of biting is or isn’t okay is well important.
Often love bites aren’t so much about the bite but more about sucking. Depending on where you are biting you or they might like you to suck a bit of their fleshy bits into your mouth too. As you do this notice from the other person about how long they want this to go on for, or whether you need to ease off (or suck harder).
How to love bite consensually
If you can talk about biting first then great: “how do you feel about being bitten?” or “how do you feel about biting me?” are good questions here.
Give people chance to think about it. You really shouldn’t go in for a huge bite without checking in with them that this is something they might like first.
Even if you have talked about how much you are into biting it’s super important to be making sure that any biting you do is consensual while it’s happening. So if you are the biter, do it really slowly and softly at first, basically so it’s just resting your teeth on their skin. If the bite involves sucking, do that slowly and gradually too.
Being gradual gives the person being bitten the chance to say harder, softer or ouch or to direct you elsewhere. Remember that people don’t just use words to communicate, so a hand tap, a flinch, or a sharp intake of breath, or them going really still might mean that this is not for them or that it was too hard. If this happens please stop and ask how it was.
With anything new I think that you should try to have a bit of a chat afterwards about how it went (either by text or in person) and I think this is a really good idea when it comes to biting. “It felt nice, you could do it a little bit harder next time if you like.” “Try to aim for a more fleshy bit of my arse next time that would be better.”
What is Dry Humping?
Dry humping is when people rub themselves up against each other but with some or all of their clothes on. It can involve rubbing genitals together, or grinding against thighs, or pressing against someone’s bum cheeks, or massaging bodies together, or thrusting pelvises.
One of the advantages about dry humping is that there aren’t really any rules telling you how you should be doing it.
So I think this makes it easier for you to make up as you go along (which I think makes sex more fun and consensual). Like: does one person have to be on top? Do you lock your legs together? Is one person inside the legs of the other person? How many clothes do you take off?
Keeping clothes on means that it is a really safe form of sex so you really don’t have to worry about sex infections or unplanned pregnancy. Just remember not to do it so hard that you damage your skin against your clothes (particularly things like zips …).
Some people like to rub against each other with some or all of their clothes off (I guess this is wet humping?). Even this has a really low risk of sex infection and an even lower risk of pregnancy, but you could wear condoms or use dams to make it safer. Here are lots more tips about dry humping.
What is Oral Sex?
Oral sex is using your mouth on someone’s genitals or other bits near there. It doesn’t mean talking about sex (which a lot of people really enjoy too), think of it as a bit like kissing someone’s bits. For penises it’s called blowjobs, for vulvas it’s called licking out, and for anuses it’s called rimming. There’s more information below about all of these things.
The way people talk about oral sex makes people think that everyone likes doing it and receiving it. It’s not true. Think of it as a spectrum
Some people really like giving it but not getting it, others really like getting it but not giving it. What do you think about that? For example, would it be okay for a man to only like getting it but not to like giving it? Would it be okay for a woman to only like getting it but not like giving it? Are there times when people should give oral sex? Would that be consensual?
It should be up to you how much you like or dislike giving or getting oral sex and people should not be making you do it if you don’t want to. Sometimes people can have orgasms from oral sex but sometimes not. If you are getting tired or uncomfortable (for example jaw ache or neck ache) you can stop, even if the other person hasn’t had an orgasm.
What is a Blowjob?
A blowjob (the proper term is ‘fellatio’) is when someone uses their mouth, lips, tongue to suck, lick and stroke someone’s penis. You can blow if you want, you do you, but it’s more about sucking and licking I think. It can involve the head of the penis, the shaft, the base, the testicles, the thighs, the pubic area.
There isn’t one technique that will ‘blow someone’s mind every time’ because all mouths and penises are different and people want different things at different times.
Sometimes people want to be sucked, sometimes people want to lick. It can be gentle or hard. It can be fast or slow. The mouth could go fully around the penis or just around a little bit of it.
So the key to enjoyable blowjobs is communication, before, during and after. If you can have a conversation about what you both want from blowjobs then :thumbs up emoji: but some people don’t really like talking about it that much. You should always try to communicate during it. You could start with a ‘how do you feel about a blowjob?’ and then slowly see how it goes during it.
How to communicate during a blowjob
Because one person’s mouth is doing other things, verbal communication usually comes from the person receiving: “oh yes”, “bit harder”, “gently”. It’s also important to pay attention to body language and different ways of communication. Look out for changes in breathing, hand gestures, if their body is active or passive, and the noises they make.
If you are receiving a blowjob can you check in now and again that they are okay and make it okay for them to stop if they want to (even if you want it to carry on).
If you are about to ejaculate it’s good to give the person a warning so that they have a choice about what to do next: allow the semen to go in their mouth, or on them, or on you.
It is possible to get and give infections from blowjobs (though less risky than other kinds of sex). If you are worried about this you could use a condom on the penis. Sometimes people prefer blowjobs with condoms too: either because they are too sensitive without or because they might not like the taste of penises or semen.
There’s more about blowjobs they show in porn here.
What is Licking Out?
Cunnlingus is the ‘proper’ term for ‘going down’ or ‘eating/licking out’. So it can involve: licking or kissing or sucking the vulva. And that could be clitoris, pubic area, the labia, the entrance to the vagina, the inner thigh … anywhere around that area really.
It can be firm, or gentle, or wet, or more dry. Some people like gentle kisses, others prefer Vigorous Licking (great band name). Some people like hands to be involved too, other times not.
So to work out how to lick someone’s vulva, you’re going to have to find out from them.
In an ideal world you’d be able to talk about what kind of thing that you both might like before you do anything, but a lot of people find it difficult to do that. So often what happens is that people get started and then work out what they are both enjoying as they go. Even then the best thing to do would be to ask first “how do you feel about me going down on you?”
How to communicate during cunnilingus
It’s okay to say things like ‘bit softer/harder’ or ‘up a bit/down a bit’ during it as well as asking things like ‘is this okay?’ Also pay attention to how the other person’s body is responding and the noises they make. People also communicate with their hands: either by moving someone’s head, or stroking their hair, or by tapping them on the shoulder as if to say ‘okay that’s enough cunnilingus for today’. Hand gestures can be good because it can be hard to hear when someone’s thighs are clamped against your ears. If you feel that you are about to ejaculate it’s good to give the other person a heads up so that they can decide what to do next.
Try not to be too offended if your magic cunnilingus skills aren’t working and you get tapped on the head, sometimes someone just might not be into it.
Although it’s good to make an effort when giving oral you don’t have to keep doing it if you get tired, or if your neck gets achy.
If you are worried about the taste or infections you can use a barrier like a dental dam or a condom cut in half and opened up.
What are Rimjobs?
Rimjobs can involve licking or kissing or sucking around the bumhole. Like with all kinds of sex, a lot of people don’t like this. For times when people do like it might be a bit different every time. Some people might like to be gentle, others might like a firm touch. Some might like lots of tongue and wetness, some people like more dry touch.
People sometimes worry about what a rimjob might taste like (because …) and the possibility of infection. If you want to give it a go but are worried about that you could try a barrier between the anus and the mouth like a dental dam or a condom cut in half and opened up. You could also have a shower or a quick wash if you’re worried about the taste.
Ideally you could both chat about what you wanted from a rimjob but people often find talking about sex harder than doing it.
For those people they might get started but work out what they are both enjoying as they go. It’s okay to say things like ‘bit softer’ or ‘up a bit’ during it as well as asking things like ‘is this okay?’
Also pay attention to how the other person’s body is responding and the noises they make. Try not to be too offended if your rimjob skills aren’t working. Sometimes someone just might not be into it, or they might get distracted by something. Maybe they just would prefer to do something else.
What is Penetrative Sex?
I call this ‘entry sex’ on this website but it’s also known as intercourse, or shagging or ‘fucking’ I guess.
What it actually is is a penis, sex toy or finger(s) going inside someone’s vagina or anus. Another way of looking at it is someone’s vagina or anus enveloping or surrounding someone’s penis, sex toy or fingers.
A lot of people (maybe even most) actually prefer different kinds of sex instead of or as well as this.
For most people it is a lot more enjoyable if you have other kinds of sex as well, either before, during, after penetration. This could be kissing, stroking, masturbation, oral sex, grinding, that kind of thing.
What is Vaginal sex and How To Do It?
Just like the penis and the clitoris, the vagina can be turned on and, when it is, it changes shape and size. It can also get much more slippery. It’s important that the vagina is wet and relaxed enough before entry sex because otherwise it can be painful or uncomfortable (which it shouldn’t be). To do that you might need to do more different kinds of sex first to get turned on.
Sometimes the vagina might need a bit of help with a finger and some lubricant to make it wet enough and relaxed enough. This is especially true if you have a small vagina or a neovagina. It might be a good idea to do this if it’s your first time.
Slowly slide a finger in the vagina to make sure that it is wet or to put some extra lubricant in the vagina to make sure that it is wet enough. The key is to do this slowly slowly because that can feel more comfortable for the other person. It also gives you time to make sure that they are into it. You can also do this by yourself either with the other person or by yourself in the loo.
One the vagina is wet and relaxed enough and everyone involved is ‘okay let’s do this’ (look for nodding, smiling, hand gestures, how legs are positioned etc) then you could do a bit more if you wanted. This could be extra stimulation with the finger, moving it in and out or around a little bit. You could use a penis or a sex toy or more than one finger if this starts to feel nice. At no point should you try to force anything inside.
Communicating during vaginal sex
All the way through pay attention to whether you are both into it. Look at their face, listen to their noises and breathing and notice how their body responds. You can also talk during it: “how’s this?” “that feels nice,” “deeper?” “bit faster please” “softer,” “yes,” “OMG” etc. If sex feels painful, uncomfortable or ‘meh’ for you or them, please stop. Keep communicating all the way through about the speed, the depth, the angle and the position you are in.
You can stop at any time, you don’t have to wait until one or both of you has an orgasm or ejaculates. Often vaginal sex doesn’t do that for people anyway.
Vaginal sex has a risk of sex infections (if either person has an infection that can be caught) and also pregnancy (if a penis ejaculates inside the vagina). So you might want to find out more about condoms and also contraception to make this kind of sex safer.
What is Anal Sex and How To Do It?
Although the anus can get more relaxed and stretchy it needs a bit of help before you can have anal sex. So a good move here is to get some lubricant (condom friendly lubricant, if you’re using condoms) and to put some of this around the opening to the anus. Then you can slowly slide a small finger inside.
Slowly the anus will relax around the finger and then you might be able to slide another finger in. Then after this you might be able to slide a penis, or a sex toy in (although many people just use a finger or two and that’s fine). You really shouldn’t be having to force anything inside.
Once you’ve got to this point, you are having anal sex. It’s quite easy to slip out of the anus because the opening is pretty tight. So smaller movements might work a bit better at first. Pay attention to each other during anal to make sure that it feels good for both people.
So look for facial expressions and how their body is reacting. If you’re unsure about anything you can check in with them with a simple ‘how is this feeling?’
A lot of people do anal in face to face positions. If you’re doing it from behind then you might have to do a bit more talking and checking in to make sure that it’s okay.
A lot of people really enjoy anal sex and can have orgasms from it but not everyone. Don’t keep doing it until the other person comes, particularly if you are getting uncomfortable. It’s okay to take a break or do something else.
A lot of people worry about getting poo on them. There isn’t a lot of poo in the bum hole so you won’t be putting anything directly inside a turd. There can be small small traces of poo around and they can get mixed up with the lubricant that you’re using. If you are worried about making a mess you could go to the toilet first and maybe also just quickly wash your bum hole. However a lot of people say that isn’t necessary.
Anal sex has a risk of infection (if the other person has an infection that can be caught). So unless you know that you are not at risk of being infected or infecting someone else, it’s a good idea to use a condom. If using a condom is too difficult you can speak to your local sexual health service about alternatives.
PS if you have any others you’d like me to add let me know.
Do leave a comment below if you have anything you’d like to add or if you have questions. I moderate all comments before they go live. Click here to ask me a question
© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here