Sexual practices

As with sexual identities there is often an assumption that ‘sex’ refers to a specific sexual practice: generally penis in vagina (PIV) intercourse or some other form of penetration (e.g. of mouth or anus). Actually sex can involve many practices: some are focused on genitals, some are not; some can be done alone, others require another person or people. All may or may not lead to orgasm. Given the risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) with forms of sex where bodily fluids are exchanged, and the sexual problems[25] which can result from continually having sex that a person does not enjoy, it is useful for people to be aware of the diversity of sexual practices that are possible. Just a few are listed here.

In relation to practices involving the genitals, as well as forms of anal and vaginal penetration, there is oral sex, manual sex, and also the practice of rubbing genitals against other parts of the body (for example, squeezing legs together, a thigh between another person’s legs to stimulate their clitoris, or a penis between the breasts) or against an object (such as a pillow). Manual sex and genital rubbing can be done alone or with others, as can anal and vaginal penetration (using a dildo or vibrator). Also, erect penises are not necessary for penetration because fingers, dildos or strapons (a dildo which fits into a hip or thigh harness) can be used. These kind of sex can be done in a simultaneous way (two or more people stimulating each other at the same time), or with the focus on one person at a time. Whilst orgasm can be the aim, it is useful not to put too much pressure on this (as that can make it difficult to achieve) but rather to enjoy the whole experience. Lubrication of the genitals is often helpful to avoid any discomfort. Water-based lubricants will be safe with condoms, gloves and other barriers.

Practices which do not involve genitals directly can still lead to orgasms for some people (through other physical stimulation, such as the nipples, or through mental stimulation alone). Many people physically stimulate themselves, or are stimulated by another, during the practices listed below. For others, orgasm is not the main aim and there may be other forms of climax in sensation or excitement.

Other physical sexual practices include forms of erotic massage, tantric sex, kissing, stimulation of parts of the body other than the genitals (e.g. with feathers, water, candle-wax, or clothespegs). Particularly popular forms of ‘kinky’ activity are bondage (tying people up) and spanking (hitting the buttocks with a hand, crop or flogger). People may be turned on by particular parts of the body (e.g. feet), or bodily functions (e.g. urination), or materials (e.g. denim).

Some sexual practices are more about the roles of the people involved, such as dressing up, playing a character (e.g. nurse or teacher), or engaging in dominance and submission (telling someone what to do, or waiting on someone).

Some people find it particularly exciting to have sex with more than one person at a time (e.g. threesomes or orgies). Others particularly like to be watched whilst they are having sex with themselves, or another person, or to be the one doing the watching.

Many people enjoy sexual practices which involve looking at images, watching films or reading sexy stories: often called pornography or erotica. There are also more interactive forms of all these activities, including people putting images of themselves online, writing erotic ‘fanfic’ (fiction based on characters in television series or movies), and engaging in cybersex (in chatrooms, with online avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft, or using webcams).

Some of these sexual practices raise questions about where the line is drawn between sex and other activities, such as sport, play and leisure (e.g. role-play scenes), art and creativity (e.g. writing erotic fiction or intricate rope bondage), spirituality and relaxation (e.g. massage)[26].

Why people have sex

25. Kleinplatz, P. (Ed.) (2012). New Directions in Sex Therapy. New York: Routledge.
26. All of the practices mentioned here are covered in more detail in Richards, C. & Barker, M. (2013). Sexuality and Gender for Mental Health Professionals: A Practical Guide. London: Sage.

Why people have sex