Thursday, November 5, 2009

Words, Part 1: Filthy or Clinical

A few weeks ago, I joined a group that meets every two weeks and discusses sex. That's no big deal for me -- I've gone to a lot of groups that have frank discussions about sex and most of them are very interesting.

However, this group is a little different. This group meets at a church and teaches comprehensive, sex-positive sex ed to adults, age 18-30. When I first heard about it I thought I would need to see it to believe it. I went for the first time a few weeks ago and it was as good as advertised, but what made me decide to register for the full course and go back was the fact that many of the members of the group grew up in religious environments some of them have some hang-ups talking about sex. This was fairly clear on the day where the discussion topic was sexual pleasure -- while no one had trouble discussing STIs and safer sex at a different meeting, even the group's organizers seemed a little bit at a loss for a natural way to discuss pleasure.

It strikes me that part of the difficulty is a question of vocabulary. The fact is no vocabulary exists to discuss sex in a frank and open way. Every word we have has some sort of unwanted connotation. For example, say you want to tell someone you had vaginal intercourse with another person. You could say, "I had vaginal intercourse with him," but that sounds clinical and not very enjoyable. It gives an overall negative impression, since it sort of sounds like a disease. To fight the strange hospital smell wafting from those words, one could try something a little more direct like, "I fucked her." To a lot of people, that would come across as extremely profane. It might be considered disrespectful, even misogynistic, by some. Sayings like "I screwed her," "I got some," "I scored," or "I got laid" are a surefire way to get asked which frat you pledged in college.

Most people, to express this idea, would simply say, "We had sex," which is a horrible expression because it enshrines vaginal intercourse as literally the defining act of heterosexual sex while belittling other sex acts. That idea has sunk in. You will hear people say, "We didn't have sex, I just blew him." It's difficult to imagine that most people think that putting someone's cock in their mouth until that person cums down their throat doesn't count as having sex but that is the reason that virginity-crazed Christian teens have been blowing, eating and saddlebacking each other guilt-free throughout recent history.

We could try making up a word that wouldn't have an unwanted connotation, I suppose. Polyamorists especially have tried this. The term "polyamory" itself was coined by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart in 1990, by most accounts, to disassociate that kind of nonmonogamy from the creepy connotations Mormons have heaped on "polygamy." But, seriously, who can keep up with the new vocabulary. Frubble, compersion, polyfidelity, polymophic, solo polyamorist, triad, quad, tribe, constellation. It's not a great idea to use any of these in a sentence if you want the average person to understand it.

My personal opinion is that we should go with the gutter. Words like fuck, cock, pussy, cunt, tits/titties, boobs, ass, blew, ate and buttfuck are efficient, evocative and they actually sound hot. It's easier to discuss sex when you can say (and hear) these words unabashedly.

But that's harder than it sounds. A few years ago I decided I didn't want to equate "have sex" with vaginal intercourse anymore. I was having sex with a girl at the time but vaginal intercourse wasn't a part of it. I made a conscious decision to start using the word "fuck." It turns out it was really hard. I remember standing in a room alone practicing saying sentences that employed the word "fuck" descriptively rather than as an insult. I had no difficulty saying "fuck you" or "I'm so fucking tired" in company, yet when I was all alone it was next to impossible for me to choke out the sentence, "Mary and Steve fucked each other three times a day on their honeymoon."

As a writer I'm very interested in the way our thought patterns are influenced by language. Every word we have comes with baggage, sex words most of all. When all the words you have to discuss sex are so medical that they evoke disease or so colloquial they evoke obscenity, it is difficult to think of sex as a hot, fun, positive activity that will make you feel good about yourself. Unless someone makes up some new words for what we need to say, we have got to learn to think of the words we have in a more positive light or we are never going to be able to think of sex in a positive light. Fortunately, you can learn with practice.


  1. You're right on the money here. The lack of every-day usage of sex words, sex conversations and shared sex language is a huge factor in our lives.

    We can talk about politics every day because we've practiced it, we know what to say, we feel comfortable stating and articulating our opinions about it - and we have practiced it until it's second nature.

    Talking about sex is something we rarely (if ever) do. We have this shared 'clinical' context that we can use among ourselves but it is very objective and not at all subjective or personal. The personalized sex talk, talk about what we like, how we feel and what it is for / in us - well, that's just not something we get a lot of practice in.

    So, let's practice. ;-)


  2. You are an excellent writer. I wish I could should this to my writing class I teach at a community college.