What is sex?

Image: Steven Weeks

Let’s talk about sex (baby!).

I mean, okay, you might well say that’s pretty much all we do here anyway. And you’d have a good point (it’s not totally accurate, but close enough for a cigar, perhaps). The Passionate Pantheon novels are studies in sex: weird sex, post-scarcity sex, sexual fetishes so niche they don’t even have names. We talk about the philosophy of sex, the ethics of sex, the social structures around sex…

…but what even is sex?

Seriously, stop and think about it. What is sex? Shagging, knocking boots, nookie, lovemaking…what is it? How do you know when you’re doing it? It’s a hard enough question to answer in the real world, coming as we do from a heteromononormative PIV-focused culture. What about in a world where the norms of gender, sexuality, identity, even corporeal consistency, are nothing like the culture(s) we grew up in? A world where most people change most of those elements of self routinely, even casually?

As usual, the citizens of the City would answer that question rather differently than we in the real world do. And as usual, that’s intentional on our part as authors, because the Passionate Pantheon novels are a way for us to explore sex from the viewpoint of people with quite different ideas from ours.

Without haste, she lowered herself onto him, taking him inside her. Donvin ran his hands up her back. She buried her face in his neck with a sigh. He stared up at the sky, lost in the tinsel chaos of the rain against the shield dome. Rippling streamers of light snaked across the sky. Rashillia rocked her hips, each slow, subtle motion igniting ripples of pleasure across his skin like the golden light above.

Gradually, Rashillia slowed, until at last they lay together unmoving for a long moment that stretched out to eternity, simply basking in the feel of one another. “You are delightful,” she said. Whorling eddies danced over Donvin’s body. She ran her fingers through his hair. “Thank you for sharing this moment with me.” She placed a gentle kiss on his lips, so softly it stole his breath away, then rose and vanished into the party.

Donvin lay on his back for a long time, relishing the hum in his skin and the silent spectacle overhead. Presently he rose, summoned a black robe edged in red and a glittering amber drink from the Provider, and wandered through the party. All around him, people chatted, or basked in the pools, or had leisurely sex. A lean, graceful man with white hair and deep indigo skin spun long metal rods with balls of fire at their ends.

—from the short story This Light Becomes My Art

Sex in the City is a strange beast. Sex permeates every part of civic life in the City: it’s religious worship, it’s social entertainment, it’s part of the system of justice and atonement, it’s deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life.

But with all that boot-knocking going on, the way the City defines sex is quite different from the way we in the real world define sex.

People in the real world sometimes struggle to figure out what “counts” as sex…especially those who had sex education that disregarded or downplayed the connection between sex and pleasure that isn’t aimed at procreation. “I’m a virgin, that’s why I only do anal!” “If two women have sex, are they still virgins?” Go on any social media where folks talk about sex and sure as night follows day, eventually you’ll run into this kind of confusion.

Most people in the real world, however confused their ideas about sex might be, will probably agree that if a penis enters a vagina, it’s sex. It’s practically the only act which the majority of people think of as “definitely sex” (regardless of what else they would include in that category). Which makes it all the more surprising to consider that, in the City, Donvin and Rashillia would likely not call what they did in the passage above “sex.”

Sex, for those of us who live in the real world, is largely about genitals and bodies and grunt-n-thrust. Most other “sex adjacent” activities are called foreplay. 

Sex to people in the City is not about what you do with your genitals (or whatever part of the body those particular nerves have been rerouted to), it’s about intent.

So how does the City define “sex”?

The quick, simple answer is that most people in the City, most of the time, regard sex as any activity which is primarily about orgasm. Not necessarily having an orgasm, mind you, but activities that play with orgasm—either inducing orgasm or causing some or all of the people involved to want orgasm but be denied. (When you live for centuries, and have access to almost unlimited biomedical nanotechnology, you can come up with some pretty innovative spins on orgasm denial.)

That near-unlimited biomedical nanotechnology kinda makes focusing on intent rather than genitals necessary, because when you can change your body at will, it’s not always obvious what bits are or aren’t genitals in the first place (which is one of the reasons that bowing is the usual mode of greeting between non-lovers, rather than shaking hands).

A small jeweled drone of blue crystal zipped over their heads and then just as quickly darted away. A moment later, Fyli appeared, resplendent in an elaborate dress of shimmering blue fabric that hugged her outlines, slit up both sides and descending to a deep V in front and back. Mahree crawled on hands and knees beside Fyli, nude except for metal manacles around her wrists and ankles, all connected to each other with lengths of heavy chain that clanked as she moved. She wore a wide collar of metal around her neck. Streaks of rust clung to the edges. A broad metal band of the same rusted metal encircled her head, covering her mouth. A chain ran from it along her back to metal plugs in vagina and ass, held in place by more chains that ran between her legs and wrapped around her hips. She gazed silently at Kaytin as they came near.

Fyli sat gracefully beside Kaytin. “Good afternoon!” she sang. “Are you glad you didn’t make a bet with me after all? I bet Mahree is wishing she’d done the same.” She slid her hand under Mahree’s breast. Mahree shuddered and moaned.

“As often as Mahree bets against you,” Kamra said, “you’d think she likes to lose. Or maybe she’s just slow to learn.”

“Yeah, about that,” Vekol said. “How come you locked all her useful bits away? What’s the fun of that?”

Fyli ran her fingers through Mahree’s hair. “I modified her body last night. Didn’t I, darling?” She stroked Mahree’s nipple. Mahree trembled violently, moaning. “If you lot want to play with her, I’m sure I won’t mind. And whether she minds, well, isn’t important.”

“How did you modify her?” Kaytin said.

“I rerouted the nerves from her clit to her nipples,” Fyli said. “Both of them.”

—from Book 4 (Unyielding Devotion), due out Fall 2023

We’ve explored the idea of bodies so radically altered, the concept of “genitals” doesn’t even apply. In Book 5, still untitled, there are musical performers who have no genitals whatsoever, but their skin is highly sensitive to sound vibration—so sensitive that the act of performing creates pleasure so intense it’s almost a single non-stop, continuous orgasm. (You can find out more about this when Book 6 publishes, most likely some time in 2025. Stay tuned!) There’s a lot to think about here: if two people wearing these bodies perform together, are they having sex with each other, even though they aren’t touching? We think the answer is ‘yes,’ for the same reason that if one person in the real world is wearing a remote-controlled vibrator with someone else at the controls, they’re engaged in sexual activity with each other even if they’re not touching. 

For those of the City, performing whilst wearing a custom body like that is having sex; but what Donvin and Rashillia did was more like cuddling, because they had no intent for greater pleasure than people in the real world might get from, say, kissing; and without that intent, it isn’t sex.

Focusing on the intent rather than on body parts opens, we think, opportunity to think about sex in ways that are a lot more nuanced than the ways people typically think about sex. It instantly answers questions like “is it possible for two women to have sex?” (yes, of course it is!) and “does it count as sex if we only do oral?” (yes, of course it does!).

So what’s the point? Why talk about any of this? Who cares what “counts” as sex?

Different societies do tend to put the line, even if it’s a fuzzy line, in different places, and those lines help shape how those societies think about sex and sexual relationships. Even what counts as an erogenous zone varies from culture to culture.

In the real world, a lot of people draw the line in a lot of different places. We don’t want to suggest that everyone defines sex only in terms of a penis entering a vagina, or has difficulty understanding that two women can have sex.

And similarly, we don’t want to give the idea that everyone in the City thinks of sex only in terms of playing with orgasm. Sex is complicated, and the line between ‘sex’ and ‘not sex’ is fuzzy. (Is an erotic massage sex? Sexting? Mutual masturbation? Solo masturbation? Voyeurism?)

In the City, not everyone plants the flag in the same place, either. Not everyone would define sex solely in terms of focus on orgasm, and some people doubtless would call what Donvin and Rashillia did “sex.”

How we think about sex, and what it means to us, matters, because the way we think about sex helps draw the borders of how we think about consent and agency. In the real world, we are a lot more permissive about doing things like making children hug or kiss people they might not want to be touched by right now—even distant relatives that the child might not know or even have met before—because we think of “consent” as something almost uniquely tied to sex, and hugging a relative isn’t sex. Therefore, we don’t see making a child hug someone they don’t want to hug as a violation of autonomy.

The residents of the City have a much broader idea of “sex” than we do, but they also have much broader ideas about agency, and are far more concerned with protecting agency. Demanding that a child hug someone they didn’t want to hug would be seen as a consent violation in the City (and the City does protect the autonomy of children as well as adults, to a much greater extent than we in the real world do). Even though it’s not sexual in the slightest. Residents of the City understand that sex is only one area that consent applies to.

Even with the City’s broader definition of ‘sex,’ there are still edge cases. (There are always edge cases, because humans are good at finding those niches that very few other people considered before, that’s part of what makes us fun!) If you’re giving someone a foot massage that neither of you think of as sexual, but they have an orgasm (when neither the giver nor the recipient expected it), is that sex? It’s a gray area. There’s no way to define a bright clear line between sex and not-sex. But we think it’s interesting to explore different social topologies around sex.

So are we any clearer about what sex is, and what sex isn’t? Not really. Humanity tends to be just a little too complex and nuanced (and, quite frankly, creatively kinky) for any one definition to apply to everyone. We picked a particular element to plant our flag on because so much of the City revolves around pleasure—sexual and not—that really, any place you planted that flag would have been somewhat arbitrary. 

But hey, this is porn. “Sex is when you play with orgasm” sounded like a good enough shorthand to us, no matter what many denizens of the City would get up to.

What about you? What do you count as sex?

Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.

New to the Passionate Pantheon? You can get a sense of the world from the short story This Light Becomes My Art, available on the Passionate Pantheon blog (Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3).

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