The Word “Sex”

I’m afraid this post isn’t going to be very “sexy.” It is going to be about language.  It is going to about what I consider one of the most momentous events in the recent history of Western Civilization, not anything big, like a war or other mighty achievement, but a small event, the gradual change in the meaning of a word, and the consequences thereof.

It is an error, however, to suppose that momentous changes are always big and loud and noisy.  As Nietzsche observed, the opposite is true.  The big, loud, noisy events are always set in motion beforehand:


What does the word “sex” mean? Here is the Oxford English Dictionary:

sex, n.1
Pronunciation: Brit. /sɛks/ , U.S. /sɛks/
1. a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.

▸a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1959) Gen. vi. 19 Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex [L. sexus] & female: lyuen with þe.
▸a1398 J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 303, In suche Wormes is no sexe of male and femele.
?c1400 (▸c1380) Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (BL Add. 10340) (1868) iv. pr. vi. 137 Þilke same ordre neweþ aȝein alle þinges growyng and fallyng a-doune by sembleables progressiouns of seedes and of sexes, þat is to sein, male and female.
c1447 Queen Margaret To King in R. Willis & J. W. Clark Archit. Hist. Univ. Cambr. (1886) I. Introd. p. lxiii (MED), Docteurs sentences..parformyd daily laude and honneur of sexe feminine.
1532 T. More Confutacyon Tyndales Answere ii. p. clii, I had as leue he bare them both a bare cheryte, as wyth the frayle feminyne sexe fall to far in loue.
1559 J. Aylmer Harborowe sig. E4v, Neither of them debarred the heires though it had ben..vnnatural for that sexe to gouern.
a1586 Sir P. Sidney Arcadia (1590) ii. ii. sig. P3v, The sexe of womankind of all other is most bound to haue regardfull eie to mens iudgements.
1600 T. Nashe Summers Last Will sig. F3v, A woman they imagine her to be, Because that sexe keepes nothing close they heare.
1612 R. Johnson Crowne-Garland Goulden Roses sig. E8v, Our sex are given to range.
1615 H. Crooke Μικροκοσμογραϕια 274 If wee respect the..conformation of both the Sexes, the Male is sooner the wombe.
1671 Milton Samson Agonistes 774 It was a weakness In me, but incident to all our sex.
a1704 T. Brown Satire against Woman in Wks. (1707) I. i. 82 Thy Sex are all Pandora’s; Mischiefs all.
1730 Swift Let. to Mrs. Whiteway 28 Dec. You have neither the scrawl nor the spelling of your sex.
1763 G. Williams in J. H. Jesse G. Selwyn & his Contemp. (1843) I. 265 It would astonish you to see the mixture of sexes at this place.
1768 O. Goldsmith Good Natur’d Man iv. 54 Our sex are like poor tradesmen.
1780 J. Bentham Introd. Princ. Morals & Legisl. (1789) vi. §35 The sensibility of the female sex be greater than that of the male.
1839 H. Malcom Trav. (1840) 40/1 Neither sex tattoo any part of their bodies.
1846 Ecclesiologist Feb. 41 The propriety and necessity of dividing the sexes during the publick offices of the Church.
1847 Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xxv. 210 She was by no means so far superior to her sex as to be above jealousy.
1864 Dickens Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. ii. i. 161 It was a school..for both sexes.
1914 Amer. Med. 9 531/1 By nature all human beings are psychically bisexual—capable of loving a person of either sex.
1958 Listener 27 Nov. 891/2 By using this technique of ‘colour-ringing’ the author was able to record the histories of some forty birds of each sex.
1980 Times 22 May 12 Once you put them on a horse the female sex are far more deadly than the male.
2007 J. Mansell Thinking of You v. 30 Gavin was an enthusiastic chatter-upper of the opposite sex.

The word ‘sex’ in English originally meant the dimorphic biological distinction between males and females, based on their nature, more specifically their role in the reproduction of the species.  The term is not limited to human beings, but is used particularly for them.  There are two sexes, male and female, man and woman.

This usage goes back into the earliest English and is in turn derived from the Latin sexus, the

state of being male or female, specific qualities associated with being male or female, males or females collectively.

So, there are two sexes, and the basis for the distinction between the two is grounded primarily in their respective roles in biological reproduction.

Now, it should be obvious that, in reproduction, males and females engage in a characteristic act.  We could call this the reproductive act, or in understanding that in human beings this act is not merely an animal act, but also an act with transcendent implications, indeed in the Western Christian tradition, a sacred and sacramental act, the marital act.

We could also, with not too much linguistic drift, speak of “the act that is the characteristic act done together by the two sexes” as “the sexual act.

But now notice what happens. “The sexual act“, that is, “the act which is the characteristic act done together by the two sexes” becomes shortened simply to “sex”, which is now the name of the act, rather than the name of a fundamental characteristic that allows those participating in the act to do so.

In this usage, “sex” is now the name of “the characteristic act done together by the two sexes in reproduction.”

From here, “sex” then becomes “any act done together by the two sexes involving their reproductive organs, even if it is not the reproductive act.”

And from here, “sex” becomes “Any act done by any person or persons involving the reproductive organs, even if it has nothing whatever to do with reproduction.”

Let us return to the O.E.D. “Sex” is also defined as

b. Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with): to engage in sexual intercourse (with).
Now the most common general sense. Sometimes, when denoting sexual activity other than conventional heterosexual intercourse, preceded by modifying adjective, as gay, oral, phone sex, etc.

1900 H. G. Wells Love & Mr. Lewisham xvii. 144 We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.
1929 D. H. Lawrence Pansies 57 If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust At the core of your heart, the other creature.
1953 S. Kauffmann Philanderer x. 174 Her arms went around his neck and his hand rested on her waist, and they had a brief moment of friendship before the sex began.
1962 Listener 7 June 1006/2 Why wasn’t Bond ‘more tender’ in his love-making? Why did he just ‘have sex’ and disappear?
1971 Petticoat 17 July 6/2 The most conspicuous consequence of sex before marriage is the possibility of pregnancy.
1991 Locus May 38/3 She strongly disapproved of the sex and violence now making its way into young-adult fiction, under the guise of ‘problem stories’.
2005 Time 10 Oct. 45/3 Multiple studies have found most teens with same-sex attractions have had sex with both boys and girls.

Note the dates.  This usage of “sex,” which the O.E.D. rightly states to be “now the most common general sense” is very recent.  The O.E.D.’s earliest example is from 1900, technically the 20th century, albeit the very beginning. In any event, although there may be some isolated uses as far back as 1855 or so, the point is that this usage of the term “sex” is, historically, an extremely recent development.

Note what else has also happened: “sex”, reconceptualized as any act involving the sexual organs, that is, the reproductive organs, has now become a genus, that is, a class-kind under which fall many species: oral sex, anal sex, gay sex, ‘phone sex’, ‘cybersex’, etc.

The redefinition of the word “sex” forces a reconceptualization of the meaning of “sex.” If “sex” had a legitimate use as the name of an act, “the sexual act,” was synonymous with “the reproductive act,” since only the reproductive act could be “the characteristic act of the two sexes in reproduction.”

Now, however, “the reproductive act, the characteristic act that occurs between the sexes in reproduction” must be viewed as only one kind of sex among others.

Non-reproductive acts, essentially sterile acts which merely make use of the organs of reproduction now become alternate kinds of sex.  The transformation of “sex” into a genus of acts with many species thus inexorably sets up a conceptual equivalence between all kinds of “sex.”  That is, “all sex is created equal.” What was once alone entitled to be called sex, the reproductive act between male and female, the two sexes, is now implicitly placed on a par with any and all non-reproductive acts done with the organs of reproduction, and between persons of any sex.

There was a time, a very recent time, barely a century ago, when “oral sex” or “anal sex” or “same-sex sex” would have been nonsensical terms.  As non-reproductive and wholly unconnected with human biological embodiment, none of these acts could possible count as “the sexual act.”  As is known, the traditional word for such acts was “sodomy.”

I make no comment other than to note that this is how it happened:

  1. The term for the natural division of the human species into two biological “sexes” became
  2. the “characteristic reproductive act between the two sexes”, which became
  3. “any act between the two sexes that involves the reproductive organs, even if it is non-reproductive”, which became
  4. “any act involving the reproductive organs, usually but not always involving two people, sometimes the two sexes, sometimes two people of one and the same sex.”

“Sex” went from being the name of a natural characteristic of a human person, to the name of the characteristic act of the two sexes, and from there, to a genus of acts, with many species, all viewed as somehow equal—because they are all just various species of the (new) genus “sex.”

Much of the catastrophic collapse of Western Civilization which we are witnessing stems from this seemingly innocuous change in the meaning of this little word.  Here is the tiny seed that has grown into the monstrous tree we know as the sexual revolution.

If we were still capable of seeing in the term “sex” only “the reproductive act,” much could be salvaged.  I am pessimistic that this is now even possible however.

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