Do You Really Know What Sex Means?

07 September, 2020
When looking into the origins of a word, we can usually find usage guidelines as well as what it actually means. When we take the word “sex”, this is especially important. In this article, we'll be looking at how the word formed in order to understand its present day usage. Do you know what sex means?

Sex is, without a doubt, a peculiar and special word, loaded with all sorts of connotations for its usage. It’s always one of the topics most frequently searched for online, and is popular in conversations at the local pub or bar. But do you know what sex means?

People talk about it so much, and yet, at the same time, it can be equally taboo. Depending on the person, country, or situation, it can be either a very popular topic or one that people tend to ignore.

What we do know is that it’s a polysemic word. However, it’s curious how this polysemy is related to how badly we’ve used this word throughout history. The meanings of words change progressively. And, in the case of the word sex, its meaning has evolved and changed as a result of different events, whether social, political, or religious. Let’s have a closer look at all of this.

Where does the word sex come from?

The Athenian playwright Aristophanes (444 B.C. – 385 B.C.) is responsible for the fact that we have this word in our vocabulary. He’s one of the characters that we find in The Symposium, a series of dialogues of incalculable philosophical value written by Plato. These dialogues take place in the context of a dinner in which several guests, including Socrates and Aristophanes himself, talk about love and Eros.

Aristophanes, in this dinner, talks about the famous idea of androgyny. In this idea, beings can belong to three different categories: male, female, and androgynous. A person who’s androgynous would have both masculine and feminine characteristics. The word comes from the Latin (andrós, man and giné, woman), and is a union of these two characteristics.

However, this playwright took the idea to an extreme. He described androgynous people as “complete” beings with four arms, four legs, two faces, and two different sets of genitals.

A statue of Aristophanes.

These beings were defined as rounded, complete, and powerful. So powerful that they tried to defy the gods. Zeus decided to punish them for such an offense. Their punishment consisted of cutting these beings in half so that they wouldn’t be such vigorous, powerful and, above all, complete people.

This myth tells about every man and woman would then long to find their “other part”. Only then would they be able to feel “complete” again. Here we can find the origin of the phrase “our better half”. So, as the myth goes, these beings went from being complete to being “sectioned”, and this is exactly where we get the word sex from. Sex comes from sexare, which means “separated”, “severed”, or “cut off”.

What are the uses of the word sex today?

To find out what sex means, we need to look at the etymology of the word. This contrasts with the uses we usually give it nowadays, which are frequently summarized in these three:

The “sex that we have”

With this use of the word, we see that, nowadays, sex means an intimate sexual encounter with other people. Statements like “I haven’t had sex in a long time” or “I had sex with a guy yesterday” associate “sex” with intercourse. Such use is especially frequent in the headlines and articles we see in the media.

If we go even deeper and analyze what it means to have a sexual relationship based on the original meaning, then we’d talk about relationships “between sexes” (of any kind). That’s why we often talk about “erotic relationships”. This term describes a more specific and intimate type of relationship (it alludes to Eros, which implies desire, attraction, and love).

A couple finding out what sex means.

The “sex that you possess”

This usage refers to our genitals, but it isn’t correctly used. Despite what many people believe, our genitals don’t define our sex. Or, to put another way, our genitals don’t determine our sexual identity.

It’s true that this usage of the word sex as a synonym for genitals isn’t anywhere nearly as frequent as the previous use, but you can still read phrases like “she shaved her sex”.

The “sex that we are”

This is the most correct and harmonious use of the word with respect to its origins, and here we can find what sex means. This expression is the one that gives sense to sexology, since it’s the one that refers to sexual identity. This refers to the fact that we’re sexual beings, using “sex” as a differentiator and a powerful source of diversity.

Language builds behaviors, attitudes, and mental overviews. That’s why it’s important for the word sex to have a much more harmonious usage. This way, we can place each concept where it corresponds, allowing us to describe reality in the best possible way.

If reality isn’t described correctly, then we’ll never be able to ask the right questions about it, let alone get the correct answers.