Word Play: The Linguistics of Sexuality
As a sexual health educator and Tulip employee I talk about sex a lot: on elevators, on the train, in the classroom, even on airplanes with the flight attendants (who, I might add, try to set me up with their gay sons). Through my conversations, I’ve developed a keen ability to discuss the embarrassing, the salacious, the filthy, and the extreme in a way which imparts confidence, objectivity, and accuracy. But not everyone uses my technique, nor could I expect them too. After all, most individuals are not paid sex-perts. But what is important to recognize that the language we use to talk when discussing sex says more than we intend. There are connotations and assumptions made through the use of certain diction, colloquial or medically accurate. For example, “I fucked him last night”, has a vastly different interpretation than “I penetrated him last night during anal intercourse.” I am not in a place to judge which is correct, but it’s vital to understand what we are truly saying. Be it misogyny, homonegativity, or even empowerment, our words speak volumes about what we value in sex to the trained ear. As marginalized communities seek to reclaim negative language (as evidenced by some in the gay community embracing the word “faggot”, and the same in the feminist community’s usage of the word “cunt”) it is ever more important that we investigate what is behind the words we use. Words like “fuck” and “bitch” (used as an alternative to “bottom” in the gay community occasionally) are ways in which power and domination are further exemplified. By contrast, phrases like “making love” and “intimacy” can elicit assumptions about romantic relationships, or limits on sexual expression depending on the listener. Even the words we use to describe genitalia can be indicative of how we view and value sexual activity. “It”, “down there”, or “my parts” can suggest discomfort while “pussy”, “cunt”, or “cock” can have dual meanings of either derogatory phrases or empowering terms. As in most aspects of sex in our society, nothing is simple. One can say the word fuck to ten different people and get ten different reactions and assumptions. However, it boils down to comfort. Not everyone will say “anal intercourse” just like not everyone will feel comfortable saying “I fucked him raw.”
I am not to place values on how individuals use phrases, for that would be irresponsible. But what I can say with an amount of ethical behavior is that we as a society must be vigilant in choosing our words carefully. We must be sure not to perpetuate unjust and unfair systems, and we must limit the derogatory and harmful phrasing which maintains oppressive structures, however intentionally. We must constantly look introspectively and analyze our sentences to ask “what am I truly saying?” Only then can the greater goal of social justice be achieved in regards to sexual relationships.