It can be tricky to define anything that involves sex.
Just ask former president Bill Clinton. When first asked about his alleged sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky, he pointedly said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
In grand jury testimony, he said that he had only had “an improper physical relationship” with her. And later he defended his denial of sexual relations by saying he “thought the definition included any activity where [he] was the actor and came in contact with parts of the [genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks].”
In other words, as many teenagers and young adults regularly tell researchers, “oral sex isn’t sex” – at least, in Clinton’s view, if he was receiving it and not performing it.
The common parsing of words that relate to sex may be the reason why it’s nearly impossible to come up with a definitive definition of the term “sexual encounters.”
And it’s why we’re basically left to use experience and common sense in order to figure out what might qualify as a sexual encounter.
Let’s do just that.
Definining Sexual Encounters
Look up the phrase “sexual encounters” online and you’ll be redirected to definitions of “sexual intercourse,” complete with 20th century-era references to “coitus” and “copulation.”
The only “reference” source willing to take a stab at defining sexual encounter is urbandictionary.com, which says it’s “any interaction involving two or more people that results in the sexual arousal/pleasure/fulfillment of the parties involved; usually in person but now commonly occurs through texting, social media, web chat, etc.”
That’s a good start. But it leaves several questions unanswered.
Consider, for example, a voyeur or fetishist who becomes sexually aroused by watching other people in public places. That activity probably isn’t a sexual encounter for the person who’s being watched – but what about the person who’s watching? You might certainly consider it a sexual encounter for them.
Now expand the question. Think about a busy street, with a group of “guys watching hot chicks walk by.” Is that a sexual encounter for the penis-havers? It’s not a sexual encounter for the “hot chicks” – but wait. What if the “guys” are whistling at them as they pass? Could that be considered a sexual encounter, even if it’s obnoxious and unwanted harassment? And is it a sexual encounter if the “hot chicks” like it?
How about former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, accused not only of multiple incidents of sexual harassment, but also inappropriate sexual behavior? Wouldn’t his alleged interactions with his accusers be characterized as unwanted and improper sexual encounters?
Here’s one more: what about the many categories of sexual assault? They obviously don’t “result in the sexual arousal/pleasure/fulfillment” of both parties – but would certainly seem like criminal sexual encounters. In fact, U.S. Justice Department documents explicitly discuss child exploitation as “perpetrators [having] sexual encounters with children.”
Lots of questions, few answers.
Since there’s clearly no universally-accepted definition of sexual encounters, we had to come up with one on our own. We’ve modified the one used by Urban Dictionary, and here’s what we suggest:
Sexual encounter: any interaction involving two or more people – in-person or virtual, legal or illegal – that results in the sexual arousal/pleasure/fulfillment of at least one of the parties involved, whether or not both parties consent to the sexual activity or behavior.
Hopefully, that will work for everyone reading. Let’s move on.
Most Common Types of Sexual Encounters
Researchers and organizations, for many years, have conducted surveys aimed at understanding sex in America.
The most authoritative ongoing study is the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), conducted since 2009 by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and led by noted researcher Debby Herbenick. And they regularly compile statistics on the most recent sexual encounters that respondents have had.
There are more than 40 different types of sexual activities reported, and the most common ones reported in the 2014 survey were kissing (87%) and cuddling (70%). Interestingly, young people (those who were under age 30) reported that kissing less commonly, because it would be “too intimate.”
The survey also went into depth to determine the most common types of solo and partnered sexual experiences. On the solo side, 64% of penis-havers and 41% of vulva-havers said they had masturbated in the previous month; nearly all had self-pleasured at some point in their lives. And it wasn’t surprising that the most common partnered activities were vaginal intercourse (52%/52%), receiving oral sex (38%/31%) and giving oral sex (34%/36%), and mutual masturbation (18%/19%).
At the other end of the scale were spanking (6%/10%), “insertive” anal sex (6%), receiving anal sex (2.5%/4%), role playing (2%/2%), whipping (2%/3%), foot or toe play (2%/1%), bondage (1%/1%), and sex in a public place (1.5%/1%). Under our definition of sexual encounter, “wearing sexy underwear or lingerie” for a sexual partner would also count, and the numbers were 3% for penis owners, 17% for those with vulvas.
What about virtual relationships, or use of what the survey calls “enhancement products and media?” (Again, the numbers are for the respondents’ most recent encounters.)
We’ll start with the latter, understanding that those products and media can be used by both individuals and couples. (And by throuples or other combinations, too.) Watching sexually-explicit porn was at the top of the list, at 35% for penis-havers, 13% for vulva-havers. Reading erotica was a distant second, at 8.5%, and reading “sexually explicit” magazines came in third (7/5%/2%).
As for “virtual” encounters, flirting over chat or SMS topped the list (15%/14%). Receiving (9%/4%) and sending (5%/6%) nude or semi-nude pictures was next – and reinforces our belief that including “the sexual arousal/pleasure/fulfillment of at least one of the parties involved” was a good decision, since sending a photo doesn’t necessarily mean that the receiver wanted it or asked for it. Having video sex over Skype or Facetime was a much less popular option, at 2.5% for those with penises, 1% for those with vulvas. (And since it’s the 21st century, “phone sex” didn’t make the list.)
There’s one more interesting category, which the researchers called “social sexual experiences,” but could just as easily be called “non-conventional sexual encounters.”
In the big picture, these were all quite rare as far as recent experience was concerned. Threesomes, group sex, swinger’s parties/sex parties and BDSM parties/dungeon visits all came in at 1% as the respondents’ most recent sexual encounters.
What may be more noteworthy, though, were the results when respondents were asked if they’d ever tried any of those sex acts. 18% of those with penises, and 10% of those with vulvas, said they’d had a threesome at least once in their life. The numbers were also rather high for group sex (11.5%/6%), but somewhat lower for sex parties (6%/5%) and BDSM gatherings (4%/3%).
There’s one important qualifier, and there’s one bottom line finding, in this comprehensive survey.
The qualifier is that almost one-quarter of the penis owners and one-third of the vulva owners reported that they hadn’t had sexual activity with a partner over the past year – meaning that lifetime experience might be more illuminating than recent history. The researchers theorize that some of the acts might have been tried during an earlier, more-experimental phase in life.
Sexual encounters that were commonly mentioned when asked “have you ever” tried these: role playing, sex in public, whipping, bondage, foot/toe activity, sex in public, threesomes/group sex and video sex. By contrast, the “past month” and “lifetime” numbers were pretty close for the big three: sexual intercourse, oral sex and masturbation.
Now for the bottom line finding, which is somewhat surprising. The sexual behaviors that were “most attractive” to respondents, regardless of their sex or gender orientation, were the ones associated with affection and romance – not the ones linked to sexual contact, orgasm or ejaculation.
More Interesting Statistics on Sexual Encounters
The NSSHB, and surveys by other organizations, provide some other interesting factoids on sexual encounters in America.
The latest Gallup poll reports that 5.6% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT. Of those respondents, more than half self-identify as bisexual, about 25% identify as gay, 12% as lesbian and 11% as transgender. Yet the latest numbers from the CDC and NSSHB report that more than 17% of vulva owners and 6% of penis owners say they’ve had at least one same-sex sexual encounter in their life – that’s obviously a much, much higher percentage than the 5.6% who identify as LGBT.
The NSSHB found that more than 95% of respondents who said that they were in relationships were in same-sex ones; 88% of them said they were either “very happy” or “generally happy” with their relationships.
There are numbers which seem to provide an interesting counterpoint, however. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior reports that penis-havers and lesbians say they climax between 85-95% of the time during their intimate sexual encounters, but straight and bisexual vulva-havers reach orgasm just 65% of the time. The implications for “very happy” or “generally happy” vulva-havers in relationships are obvious: their sexual pleasure apparently doesn’t depend on orgasms.
More germane to the topic of sexual encounters, though, only about three-quarters of those in a relationship said it was monogamous. 4% said their relationship was “supposedly” monogamous, about 1.5% said it was an “open relationship,” and more than 10% said they were in a “monogamous but sexless relationship.”
That brings us to the subject of how often people have sexual encounters, and the National Opinion Research Center has compiled data showing that it largely depends on age. For those in their late teens and early twenties, it averages about seven times per month, compared to about five times per month for people in their forties. Those aged 70 or older have sexual relations less than once a month.
Sexual Encounters and Sexual Risk
We mentioned earlier that many “young men” and “young women” say they opt for non-penetrative sexual encounters, notably oral sex, because of a belief that they’re “not sex.” That’s one common explanation, but another understandable one is a desire to avoid contracting sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) ranging from syphilis to HIV infection. Surveys show that, in particular, the HIV risk in the late 20th century led to a shift in attitudes among teenagers; noteworthy were a delay in beginning sexual relationships, reductions in the number of sex partners, or changes in preferred sexual activities.
Even so, the prevalence of STDs and STIs is greater than ever in America. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were diagnosed in 2019; cases of the latter two were up 56% and 74% respectively from four years earlier. And the CDC reports that at any moment in time, 20% of Americans are suffering from a sexually-transmitted infection.
Those numbers appear to be directly related to peoples’ sexual behaviors. A study at the University of Michigan drilled down and focused on single vulva-havers in their last year in college, and found that high-risk behaviors like casual partner choice and number of sexual partners were directly correlated with higher rates of STDs.
According to the CDC, nearly 65% of Americans with vulvas who are of child-bearing age use contraceptives. (That number includes condom use.) Interestingly, though, there’s research disproving a widespread belief: those who use birth control are not more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior.
But something else does contribute to that likelihood: substance abuse, particularly by adolescents. Studies have shown that teens who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to, among other things, have multiple sex partners, become pregnant before the age of 15, and contract sexually-transmitted diseases.
Improper or Illegal Sexual Encounters
Since we’ve defined sexual encounters to include some non-consensual and illegal activities, we need to briefly discuss those as well.
And some of the numbers are stunning. Two different studies investigated non-consensual sexual encounters from the viewpoint of penis-havers; at least 25% of them admitted having initiated at least one such interaction with a vulva owner – and 23% claimed that a vulva-haver had attempted to make them engage in non-consensual sex. Those encounters ranged from kissing and petting, to oral and penetrative sex.
We included incidents of fetish behavior like voyeurism in our description, because it’s unquestionably a sexual encounter for the person responsible for the one-way interaction. There isn’t much research, but one study in Sweden focused on this type of behavior. It found that nearly 8% of respondents said they’d been sexually aroused, at least once, by spying on others (human beings, not animals) having sex; 3% reported becoming sexually aroused when they’d exposed their private parts to a stranger. It’s not a prevalent type of sexual encounter, and it may or not be illegal depending on the circumstances, but it’s not uncommon.
Finally, there’s the category of clearly illegal (and heinous) sexual encounters. Statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (with their references to “men,” “women” and “sexual orientations” included):
- One in 71 men – and one in five women – will be raped during their lifetime.
- Almost one out of ten women has been raped by an intimate partner, and one of 45 men has been forced to penetrate an intimate partner.
- 34% of heterosexual women, 46% of lesbians and 75% of bisexual women have been the victim of sexual violence other than rape. The numbers are 21% of heterosexual men, 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men.
- One in every four girls, and one of every six boys, will have been sexually abused by the time they turn 18.
One final statistic, which indicates how much progress must be made in regard to illegal sexual encounters: a federally-funded study published by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 77% of older victims, and 57% of younger ones, didn’t report being sexually assaulted to authorities.
Have Your Needs Met
Learn helpful tips to establish healthier communication in the on-demand workshop Couples Communication, led by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC.