What is Sex Anyway?

Jan 21, 1999 |Matt Kaufman

Some college students play word games — just like the President.

Word is that Bill Clinton isn't the only one with shifty definitions of sex: A majority of college students go along with him.

That, at any rate, is the claim of a study that ran in the Jan. 20 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which — with interesting timing — came out just as the president's impeachment trial got under way. According to a survey conducted back in 1991, 60 percent of students at an unnamed Midwestern university said oral sex isn't sex, while 40 percent said it was. Voila, one of the co-authors, June Reinisch, told the Washington Times: "There is no right answer ... and a person who has either opinion would not be lying."

The study got a fair amount of media attention, not only because of its assertions but because JAMA editor George Lundberg was fired because he "inappropriately and inexcusably interjected JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine." This apparently was the last straw for Lundberg, who was already reportedly on thin ice with management — possibly due to several other politically charged and scientifically dubious articles he'd run.

Internal JAMA issues aside, though, the significant questions are these: Do students really think what the article claims they do? And if so, what does it mean?

The first part seems, at the least, dramatically overstated. It conflicts not only with common sense but with other surveys; an ABC News poll last October, for example, found that 81 percent of University of Connecticut students said oral sex is included in the common understanding of "sexual relations."

Then there's the substantial possibility of ideological bias by the JAMA study authors, Reinisch and Stephanie Sanders. Both worked for the Kinsey Institute, a "think tank" which crusades for the idea that pretty much any kind of sex, any time, is normal and healthy. The Institute rather commonly puts out sloppy research, much like the man for whom it's named, the late Dr. Alfred Kinsey. (Dr. Kinsey is the source of the often-heard notion that one in 10 Americans is homosexual — a notion he derived from a study heavily laden with prison inmates.)

All things considered, then, I suspect that Reinisch's and Sanders' results are wildly inflated. Still, there probably are a fair number of college students (even 10 percent would be a lot) who at least say they believe in a narrowly technical definition of sex. What does that mean?

The most obvious thing is that lots of people adopt conveniently self-serving positions. What they say isn't necessarily what they believe. "Hey, it's not really sex" sounds unmistakably like a lot of other lines that guys on the make have used for years: "You would if you really loved me," "Baby, you're the only one," and so on, all the way back to the famous "Of course I'll respect you in the morning."

Yet for every blatant cynic who uses the line, there's usually someone else who's trying to believe that the line is the truth. This latest line — that oral sex isn't sex — is aimed at people who want to think they've avoided doing something degrading and wrong — just so long as they've stopped short of actual copulation. Even some professed Christians take this position.

Christ knows better. Far from indulging narrow technical evasions, He says that sexual sin is a thing of the heart — that, in fact, lust alone is adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). Some people look at those words and throw up their hands in frustration: What do I do if even lust qualifies as sin? But that is just Christ's point: to expose the depth of our own sin and our need for His salvation.

That, you'll notice, is the opposite of the worldly position that "everybody does it, so it's no big deal." (It's so big a deal He had to die for it.) It's also a warning that if we let our corrupt hearts have their way, we'll start down a dangerous path. That's what James 1:24-25 is about: Each of us "is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."

Talk of sin isn't popular, of course, and for the most basic of reasons: because everyone knows it's true. At some level we all know that sex has moral significance, and lots of it. Otherwise no one would bother trotting out the phony lines they do.

But "phony" is just the word. There's no real doubt what sex is. The real confusion comes from the failure to understand what sex is not. It's not true love. Outside the context of true commitment (a.k.a. marriage), it's counterfeit love.

The good news is that the counterfeit isn't all there is in the world. God, happily, has the real thing for us. We just have to look for it — and that means accepting no substitutes.

Copyright 1999 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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