There is a prevalent belief that the sole purpose of sex is procreation – if an act cannot lead to reproduction, it is not considered sex. However, the reality is far more complex. Just as individuals are more than the sum of their physical components, sex encompasses more than a mere mechanism for making babies. Yet, mention 'sex' to most individuals and they will immediately associate it with heterosexual intercourse. This definition, however, has not always been so restrictive.
According to Phillips and Reay, the latter part of the 18th century witnessed a heightened emphasis on sexual intercourse, resulting in a shift towards a penetrative-centric sexual culture. Prior to this, historical references to activities like kissing, mutual fondling, and touching hint at the possibility that many unmarried couples limited their sexual experiences to such interactions, suggesting that intercourse might not have held the same central role in desires as it does in modern sexual cultures.
Sex being more than a mere procreative mechanism is a concept that extends beyond ancient history. With the introduction of the Pill, women experienced a significant shift, decoupling sex from strictly procreative purposes. Hite perceived this era as a transitional phase, where norms were still taking shape, presenting an opportunity to modernize traditional notions of sex. She emphasized that while we often view "sex" as a fixed pattern or specific set of behaviors primarily related to reproduction, there's no necessity to confine ourselves to such limitations. Despite her insights, her message largely went unnoticed.
Even today, the definition of sex continues to predominantly revolve around "penis-in-vagina" intercourse, leaving numerous women unable to categorize the diverse range of sexual experiences they imagine as "sex."
An incorrect interpretation of sex exerts authority over individuals' sexuality, suppressing both sexual liberation and accurate dialogue. Many participants surveyed in Garden of Desires found themselves constrained by this notion. One respondent expressed, 'I encountered difficulty with the phrasing of "sexual" fantasies and fantasies during sexual activities, as many of my fantasies (and a significant portion of my "sexual" experiences, for lack of a better term) are centered around sadomasochism and lack explicit sexuality.
My fantasies frequently revolve around beatings devoid of orgasm or genital involvement. What's commonly perceived as sex, such as penetration (by fingers, penis, or fist) or oral, constitutes just a single facet – and often an absent one – in my fantasies and actual sexual encounters.' Our current definition not only confines sex to vanilla heterosexual encounters but also disregards those who prefer non-procreative forms of intimacy. Additionally, it labels around 70–75% of women who struggle to achieve orgasm through penetrative sex as sexually 'dysfunctional,' irrespective of their personal perceptions.
This is illustrated by a 2008 study revealing that 'females with inhibited sexual desire fantasize less during foreplay, coitus, masturbation, and general daydreaming than the controls... The females with inhibited sexual desire do not masturbate less often and do not have fewer orgasms through masturbation than the controls. The females with inhibited sexual desire have fewer orgasms through penetrative intercourse alone.'16 Even though these women experienced orgasms through masturbation, they were categorized as having 'inhibited sexual desire' due to their lack of orgasm solely through penis-in-vagina intercourse.