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Sexual Wellness

Types Of Sex: How Many Are There?

| 10/19/2020

comfort sex Illustration by Gica Tam

Most long-term relationships are likely to run into difficulties over time.

Some issues may be so serious that the relationship is unsalvageable. In many other cases, the problems can be fixed with better communication and a lot of hard work.

If the primary difficulties are in the bedroom, friends or therapists often suggest putting new life into the relationship by trying different types of sex.

But what does that really mean?

For some couples, it could be as simple as changing the pace: an unplanned quickie in the kitchen before breakfast, or a romantic overnight getaway at a local hotel. For others, it might involve coloring outside the normal lines of their sex life by trying anal sex or dabbling in BDSM. 

To figure out what might help revive or juice up a sex life, it helps to know how many different types of sex there really are. The answer might surprise you.

Types of Sex: Traditional Classifications

It might seem strange for someone to ask how many types of sex there are. At first glance, the answer seems obvious: sexual intercourse (often called penetrative sex or vaginal sex, since those terms expand the historical cisgender definition), oral sex, and anal sex.

But the word “sex” can be defined in many ways – just ask former president Bill Clinton. For instance, you can put solo and/or mutual masturbation on that list as well; after all, fingering a vulva-haver’s clitoris is unquestionably sexual activity. You might even think of more preliminary foreplay as a type of sex.

It’s pretty easy, though, to compile a “traditional” list.

Penetrative Sex

A penis penetrating a vagina – what many people think of as sexual intercourse – is the clearest example of penetrative or vaginal sex. The definition can get murky, though.

The insertion of vibrators (or other sex toys) into a vagina would seem to be penetrative sex as well, although some put that activity into its own “masturbation” category. And while inserting a penis or toy into body parts like the anus is certainly “penetration,” that type of activity traditionally has its own, separate category.

There are no reliable studies showing what percentage of couples regularly have penetrative sex. Existing research usually focuses on “frequency of sex” (usually by age groups), without specifying whether that “sex” involves vaginal penetration. It’s generally accepted, however, that sexual intercourse or other forms of penetrative sex are the most common form of adult sexual activity.

Oral Sex

The numbers are much clearer on oral sex. The authoritative National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior reports that well over half of U.S. adults, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or preference, have given or received oral at least once in the past year. The number is much higher, nearly 75%, among those in their 20s and 30s.

For that reason, trying oral sex is unlikely to be a viable option for couples seeking to revitalize their sex life. The majority already have it on their sexual menu.

Most oral sex involves contact between one partner’s mouth and the other partner’s genitals, with fellatio (stimulation of the penis) more common than cunnilingus (stimulation of the vulva). There are also several types of sex toys which can simulate oral sex quite well. Analingus (stimulation of the anus with the lips or tongue) is usually considered a variation of anal sex rather than oral sex. Speaking of which…

Anal Sex

Here’s the first type of sex you might consider if you’re trying to put new spice into your relationship, since the survey we just mentioned shows that only about one-third of adults have had anal sex in the past year. Fewer than half have experienced it during their lifetime, although many surveys show that the numbers are significantly higher for same-gendered couples (particularly penis-havers).

For those considering anal sex for the first time, there’s a good reason that butt stuff can introduce new sensations and satisfactions to a relationship. It’s one of the body’s most sensitive erogenous zones, with an enormous number of nerve endings stretching from the opening of the anus all the way through to the rectum.

That means that deep penetration isn’t always necessary to enjoy the benefits of anal sex. Activities like the analingus we mentioned earlier (commonly known as rimming), or the use of butt plugs which are generally smaller and “less threatening” than anal dildos or vibrators, can also provide immense pleasure.

For the more adventurous, the use of an anal dildo or prostate massager can produce earth-shaking orgasms in prostate owners. (It can provide health benefits for them, too.) Anal penetration won’t produce the same type of climax in vulva-havers, although the g-spot can sometimes be stimulated during anal sex. Opposite-gendered couples really looking to shake up their relationship’s dynamics might want to try pegging, which involves a vulva owner penetrating a penis-haver’s anus with a strap-on dildo.

A few important notes for novices: anal sex is often (and erroneously) considered “safer sex,” since it obviously eliminates the possibility of pregnancy. However, it poses more of a risk for transmission of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, so condom use is a good idea during anal penetration – not for contraception, but for protection against STDs and STIs. Ample amounts of lube are also a must, since the anus does not produce its own lubrication.


We’re including this primarily for the sake of completeness, since everyone knows about masturbation and virtually everyone’s done it. But couples who have been singularly focused on penetrative sex during their relationship could rediscover intimacy and closeness by adding mutual masturbation to their bedtime menu.

A slow and caring exploration of your significant other’s body allows you to learn more about their responses and their sexual desires – in simple terms, what makes them feel good and what makes them happy. Mutual masturbation can increase a couple’s levels of satisfaction dramatically, and may even awaken sexual feelings which have become dormant over time.

Types of Sex: Moral Judgments

The Rorschach test is a well-known tool used by psychologists over the last century. As you likely know, subjects are shown inkblots and asked to describe them. They all “see different things” in the inkblots; those perceptions are interpreted to provide clues about their personality and emotional well-being.

The important takeaway for this discussion is that people see things through different lenses. So when you ask experts to list the different types of sex, not all of them will answer the question in anatomical terms. Some may interpret the question as a religious or moral one instead.

Prolific sex author Michael Castleman took a look at this viewpoint for Psychology Today, and came up with three very different categories of sex:

  • Procreative sex: In the first book of the Bible, humans are told to “be fruitful and multiply.” That’s why traditional religions have approved of sex that occurs within marriage and is aimed at perpetuating the species. Procreative sex was also important for the survival of pre-industrial societies, since large families were needed to properly tend the land, do the chores – and maintain population levels despite the constant threats of illness, famine, and early death. 
  • Relational sex: Sex within marriage (or in some religions and societies, within a defined relationship) became more universally acceptable in more recent years, even if procreation wasn’t the purpose. Since industrialization largely negated the need for large families, and birth control had became widely available and practiced, societies (and some religions) viewed non-procreative sex as the glue that helped maintain traditional relationships and families. 
  • Recreational sex: The Kinsey reports, published in the mid 20th century, told the world a poorly-kept secret: a large majority of the population had sex because it was fun and enjoyable, not just to have babies or keep a marriage intact. There still are religions and societal leaders scolding those who have recreational sex, yet the numbers don’t lie. For example, the government’s National Survey of Family Growth reports that only five percent of American first-time brides are virgins, while nearly one out of five had had at least ten previous sex partners. Recreational sex is now the norm.

Now that we’ve taken a look at sex through a prism of morality, let’s get to more useful information that might help liven up a relationship: the many types of non-vanilla sex you can try.

Types of Sex: Alternative Options

Spontaneous sex

The morning sex in the kitchen (or anywhere else) that we mentioned at the start of this article is just one example of methods to fight monotony or boredom. For many partners, their day-to-day routine provides comfort, but being too comfortable can easily take the sizzle out of a relationship.

Don’t telegraph the move ahead of time; that will lessen the immediate sexual arousal (the first crucial stage of the Sexual Response Cycle) that’s the goal of spontaneous sex. But just as importantly, don’t insist if your partner isn’t willing or able to go along; that’s likely to make things worse, not better.

Pick-up sex 

Unless you have an open relationship, picking up a stranger in a bar just to have sex certainly isn’t going to improve things with your partner. But there’s a great workaround: roleplaying.

Roleplaying can let you simulate a number of exciting sexual situations that will get your blood pumping and your dopamine and adrenaline flowing. It doesn’t have to be pick-up sex; it could be cheating sex, teacher-and-student, prostitute-and-client – you’re only limited by your fantasies and imaginations. 

Drunk (or stoned) sex

OK, you’ve probably done this at least one or twice. It’s quite possible that it was during your misspent youth, though, not with your partner in a stable relationship.

It could be worth trying again. The relaxation of inhibitions that comes with consumption of copious amounts of alcohol or other substances can help couples break through their established sexual behavior patterns and discover (or rediscover) the excitement and passion that initially brought them together.

Rough sex

Unusual levels of aggression in the bedroom can deliver unusual levels of pleasure, while revealing previously-hidden desires. Be careful with this one, however. There’s nothing inherently wrong with rough sex between two willing partners, but a lot could go wrong.

Don’t try it with someone new, because it could be dangerous. Don’t try it with a partner who has very low pain thresholds, has difficulty controlling their emotions or is dealing with previous trauma; it could be an unwelcome trigger. Always discuss boundaries ahead of time, and stick to them rigorously. And be sure that neither partner is using rough sex as a substitute for therapy. That may not lead to a happy ending.

Slow sex

There’s an entire group of sexologists devoted to the benefits and practice of slow sex, which can provide couples with new levels of connection and intimacy.

In a nutshell, spending copious amounts of time pursuing shared mindfulness, slow foreplay and body exploration – followed by edging (deliberately-delayed orgasm and ejaculation) – gives partners new insight into each others’ sexual desires, reactions and satisfaction. In turn, that brings a sexual relationship to a new and more sensual level, also creating a greater appreciation of the sex itself.

Romantic sex is a close cousin of slow sex; the candles, rose petals, champagne, soft music or whatever else you don’t find overly cheesy can create a terrific break from an ordinary sexual routine.

Hotel or vacation sex

Getting away to a “fantasy location,” even if it’s just the Motel 6 down the street, is another way to break from the ordinary. Hotel sex is almost always better, by definition, than sex in your own bed. It can be even better than that if you really are visiting a fantasy location where you can have vacation sex on the beach, or sex in a public place where no one will recognize you. Hopefully, no one will report you to the police, either.

Fetish sex 

This topic is so vast that you could write a book about it. In fact, someone has. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: if there’s something naughty or “forbidden” that turns you and/or your partner on, you can try it in real life (or via roleplay). Feet, dominance and submission, bondage, voyeurism, hair, lingerie or nylons – that’s just scratching the surface.

In literal terms, a fetish involves an object that must be present for a person to experience sexual arousal or gratification. In practice, the term is often used to describe any object or practice that is a real turn-on. And exploring those types of stimuli can bring new life to a relationship, as long as both parties are interested and willing to play.

Pro tip: if your turn-on would involve someone other than your partner – for example, if you’re into interracial or plus-size sex but your spouse is petite and the same ethnicity that you are – role-playing would be safer for your relationship than finding another person to crush on. Just be sure that your partner is open to it, before pushing the idea.

Types of sex that won’t help a relationship

Makeup sex is certainly a “type of sex.” It’s often super-hot and passionate; in fact it may be the most primal sex you can experience. However, it’s usually an indicator of problematic sexual health.

Couples who regularly have angry makeup sex are likely to be trapped in a cycle of fighting and “making up.” They’re not simply enjoying intimacy after a minor blow-up. They may even be unable to have what most people (and therapists) would consider a “normal” sexual relationship. And they probably need therapy, rather than the temporary respite that breakup sex provides.

Of course, the other type of sex that won’t help rebuild a relationship is breakup sex. If a couple is parting on good terms, though, one last fling before walking out the door may provide a welcome moment of closure before moving on.

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