Language and sexual politics: How words matter

Debatten Analysen

Crispin Thurlow Dezember 2019

At its most basic, denaturalizing gender is about understanding how notions of masculine and feminine are represented and culturally produced. This happens daily, over and over again, and in ways which make gender and gender difference sound and feel simple, natural, or even God-given. As Judith Butler (University of California, Berkeley) famously put it: “Gender is the mechanism by which notions of masculine and feminine are produced and naturalized.”

To be clear, “denaturalizing gender” does not mean there is nothing natural about gender, or about sex differences and sexuality. Based on scholarly research and scientific evidence, however, the argument is that gender differences are not all natural, not simply natural. In other words, we can’t just take gender for granted. And if we do, it can have concrete, sometimes dreadful consequences for people’s lives. Especially for women and girls.

This is not something humanities and social science scholars have simply made up. So-called hard scientists like biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (Brown University) have carefully documented the ways gender is not straightforwardly wired into the body or brain, regardless how obvious gender differences may appear. Our bodies are actually a lot more complex and variable, and our brains more flexible and changing.

Gender differences inevitably feel very natural to us precisely because they have been so naturalized over many, many years. They are also very consequential in many aspects of our everyday lives. This is, however, less a matter of nature itself and rather one of culture, power and money. It is also a matter of language.

Language and the naming of parts

Language is one important site where we witness the everyday reproduction of a sexual politics. We use words to be masculine or feminine in particular ways, and we use words to talk or write about gender and sexuality. An ostensibly humorous but stereotypically loaded example of this is to be found in the signalling of women and men’s toilets in these restroom doors (see image in gallery below). This is a type of image circulating widely on the web and is a good example of the popular way long-standing beliefs are perpetuated – in this case the scientifically unfounded belief that women talk too much (or, at least, more than men) and that their talk is frivolous or pointless compared with the serious, information-rich talk of men. Indeed, it is through language – and talk about language – that we learn to treat women and men very differently, and sometimes quite unfairly. Words are also central to the way we understand or misunderstand our bodies. Language can inform (or misinform) our ways of knowing and using our bodies. It is with language that bodies are labelled, categorised and regulated – especially some people’s bodies.

With this in mind, I offer just a few brief examples of language-related research which demonstrates the power of words in shaping commonly held beliefs about  gender, gender difference and sexuality. In doing so, I want to show how language ties gender to the body and to sexuality. I start with some studies focusing on the linguistics of genitals and the naming of so-called sex organs as one of the most common ways we understand the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how language structures this understanding.

The first example is a study by Deborah Cameron (Oxford University) who examined the sexual politics of taboo language by looking US-American college students’ terms for the penis. This happenstance study ended up getting her into a lot of hot water – first with university administrators in the USA and then, back in Scotland, with the media who somehow picked up on the journal article as an example of scholars wasting tax-payers money. Regardless, the object of Cameron’s study was to map the link between meanings associated the penis and wider cultural beliefs (or stereotypes) about gender. The study involved two friendship groups, one female and one male. I want only to look at the young men’s responses for now.

To start with, the men in Cameron’s study produced three times as many items as the women did, and they listed their terms in a kind of competitive, game-like way. These terms included authority figures (“the chief”, “his excellency”) and mythological protagonists (“Cyclops”, “The Hulk”), as well as animals (“the dragon”, “python”), tools (“jackhammer”, “fuzzbuster”), and weapons (“squirt gun”, “meat spear”). Their responses were clearly linguistically creative and showed signs of the young men’s playful recognition of stereotypes. Nonetheless, as Cameron proposes, The vision the men’s list offers is banal and yet terrible, an experience of masculinity as dominance, femininity as passivity, and sex as conquest.

We can compare the findings of Cameron’s study with two studies by Virginia Braun (University of Auckland) and Celia Kitzinger (University of York, England), both focused on the representation of female genitals. The first study investigated dictionary definitions of women’s genitals; they found how women’s genitals were regularly defined in terms of their location on the body, while men’s were defined in terms of function. This could suggest that men’s genitals are treated as more purposeful. It is Braun & Kitzinger’s second study I want to focus on: a two-part study, rather like the one by Cameron, which investigated slang terms for female and male genitals.

Curiously but not surprisingly, their male informants likewise produced three times as many terms overall. Female participants were statistically more likely to produce euphemistic terms (e.g. “bits”, “down below”, “private parts”) and terms associated with space (“cave”), receptacles (“honey pot”, “disk drive”), abjection (“stench trench”) and money (“tuppence”). There was almost no slang differentiating parts of female genitalia. A second set of respondents were then asked to identify, name and locate 49 female genital terms. In short, there was an overall lack of specificity (e.g. vis-à-vis vagina, clitoris, vulva) in addition to derogatory or dismissive terminology.

For Braun & Kitzinger, these findings have concrete implications for the way women are able (or not) to talk about their bodies in sexual encounters with partners, but also when discussing their bodies with medical professionals and/or during child birth. As they put it: “A language that does not enable women to talk about the different parts of the genitalia … might perpetuate the absence of women’s genitalia from their conceptualized body.” All of which brings me to sexuality.

Sex talk and gender performance

The way we talk about our bodies and about sexuality are clearly caught up in the wider sexual politics of gender, and in supposed differences between women and men. Of course, “body talk” also reveals a lot about perceived differences between gay people and straight people, between black people and white people, between disabled people and able-bodied people, and between rich people and poor people. The bottom line is that some people are allowed to have sex – invited and encouraged even – while others are not. Some people’s bodies and sexual activities are considered good and normal, other people’s not. Needless to say, much of this in encoded in and perpetuated through language.

Even though sex is usually assumed to be innate, purely biological and solely about the body, it is not something are ever left to do or discover on our own. Sex is something we must be constantly taught – the vast publishing industry around sex is hinges on this fact. In fact, all the how-to books and films are proof that sexuality is not simply or straightforwardly natural in-built.

Like gender, therefore, we come to understand sexuality through language. We are everywhere confronted with language telling us not only who should and shouldn’t be having sex or being sexual. We also learn how we should being doing it, when we should or shouldn’t do it, how often we should be doing it, and where we should or at least could be doing it. The messages are relentless and the pressure to perform in particular ways is immense.

No-one likes to think of sex as being something performed, but the fact is sex is never as simply or completely natural as we think it is. However primal and bodily it is, sex is always to some extent a performance. And this has important implications for the relationship between sex, gender and sexuality – and the role of the body in all of it.

These essential truths about language and about gender/sexuality are at the core of an intriguing study by Kira Hall (University of Colorado, Boulder) from the 1990s. In this research, Hall examined the phone-sex business in San Francisco and conducted interviews with twelve sex workers or “fantasy makers” (their term). This is still big business even in the age of social media. In case of phone sex, we have sex being accomplished solely through language. More than this, as Hall documents, we find the use of stereotypically feminine “sweet talk” achieved through particular vocabulary and certain voice qualities. This enable workers to perform femininity (e.g. with words like ‘peach’ and ‘snuggery’), subservience (e.g. speaking quietly and at a high pitch) and arousal (e.g. breathiness, moaning). These are all stereotypes, of course. In fact, phone sex only comes off as sexy (and it evidently does given the number of returning clients) because of these ways of speaking were all so conventional and recognizable.

In the Hall study we witness how sex and sexiness are most definitely not tied to the bodies or identities of the workers. In fact, what Hall found were cases of “cross-expressing” where, for example, a Black worker was regularly performing as a White person, and where one male worker regularly performed as woman. Not only were the sex workers using words to generate a sexual encounter, they were also using words construct themselves as certain kinds of people. Once again, scientific evidence shows how gender and sexuality are not necessarily tied to or built into the body.

Conventional beliefs about sexuality are constantly repeated and endlessly recycled. This, of course, is precisely how gender likewise comes to be naturalized. Stereotypical “sexy talk” is, for example, taken up by writers like top-selling romance novelist Annette Blair who runs a workshop called "Spice Up your Romance Novel" where she recommends a number of “sensual words”. We are reliably told, for example, that “soft words beginning with, and including, the letter 'S' are the most sensual”.

What is striking about Blair’s list is not just the list itself – that it’s possible to draw up a neat, specific vocabulary of sexy words. This is certainly a very formulaic way of thinking about language: ablaze, aglow, ample, blithe, glimmer, groan, groin, gush, liquefy, lubricate, majestic, masterful, ravish, replete, squirt, steamy, stiffen, straddle, violate, virginal, volcano, wanton, whimper and wistful. Also note-worthy is the way this list encodes a very particular – some might say anachronistic – vision of female sexuality (and of heterosexual sex) predicated on the simpering, fay women and the masterful, dominant man. Just as we seem to be stuck with/in these scripts, so too are the words enmeshed in cultural stereotypes about gender and gender differences.

More than just words

I do not want to leave things on such a frothy, apparently frivolous note, so I offer one more case study of the sexual politics of language. This time, however, with reference to a single, very short, perfectly ordinary word. In a paper titled “No”, Don Kulick (Uppsala University) demonstrates how meaning is never really located in words themselves. Instead, as all good linguists know, meaning depends on the context in which the words are spoken. As Kulick also shows, though, meaning can also be shaped by a toxic combination of stereotypes about women’s sexualities and their ways of speaking. These stereotypes are summed up in popular gags of the female and male brains consisiting of different parts such as a huge “shopping lobe” or a tiny “commitment neuron” inside of a big section titled “sex” (see image in gallery below).

From this playful rendition of gender difference, we see the recognizable idea that men are preoccupied with sex and women not at all. (Note how women are depicted with a dedicated “gossip lobe”.) However humorous and ostensibly harmless the gag is, the stereotypes it relies on can themselves have a significant impact, as Kulick’s paper demonstrates.

Kulick cites the work of Susan Ehrlich who has documented rape trials where the apparent ambiguity – in men’s minds at least – of women’s “no” was used as an acceptable defence for men accused of sexual assault. In a nutshell, social norms hold that “nice” or “good” women should be inclined to say no to sex; as such, their no doesn’t necessarily mean no but can be taken to mean “try harder”. By contrast, “real men”  supposedly never say no to sex with women, to do so might makes them seem gay. If an unwanted sexual advance comes from a man, however, straight men could find themselves in a quandary because they don’t want sex but are supposed to want it all the time. These deep-seated myths are how so-called “homosexual panic” has been used successfully to defend case of homophobic assaults and even murder. When a man does say no to sex, his no means no! And so, argues Kulick, that the little word no comes to be so central in producing women and men in very particular, unfair ways. And it can have dreadful, very different consequences too. Such is the sexual politics of language.

This is the first of two sister posts arising from a talk given to University of Bern students in Spring 2019 as part of a lecture series called “Doing Gender: Linguistic and Literary Perspectives”. The two images or ones like them are to be found circulating widely on the web; they are reproduced here under Fair Use for the purposes of scholarly comment or criticism. The second post will be published on the Gender Campus Blog in January 2020.


18. Dezember 2019


Crispin Thurlow