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the need for a new lexicon for talking about sex



relationships • 08.07.11   

I enjoyed the clash between Samantha and Charlotte in Sex & The City over how they talked about sex. Charlotte recoiled, sometimes leaving gaps in her sentences where the dirty words went, whereas Samantha let loose. Neither woman had the right measure, each a polar opposite of the other, thus fuelling the comedy.

Their bust-up reflected how deficient the English language is when it comes to discussing relationship stuff, particularly the carnal pleasures. It’s either too formal or too slang. The formal words seem to convey embarrassment as much as anything else. To talk of having sex for example seems inappropriate for describing the act, the powerful and life-affirming experience it can be. Sex is a gender term encapsulating male and female. To talk of having the gender just isn’t doing justice to making love. Even that phrase - making love - is hardly any more romantic than having sex. It suggests a kind of manufactured bonding like it’s an industrial process.

I suppose these formal terms reflect the taboo in polite society around sexual love generally. Expressions for discussing romance and relationships fare no better. Take conventions like girlfriend and boyfriend. They sound like euphemisms. They are used to describe an exclusive partnership not legitimated by marriage. Maybe in their beginnings these words were used with a nod and a wink alluding to a sexual connection not explicit. Literally, a girlfriend is just a girl who is your friend. But in parlance a girlfriend is not just your friend. She might not even be a girl. She could be a fifty year-old woman. She is someone you have no formal arrangement with, yet someone you’re probably sleeping with. And there again - sleeping with - one of the many silly euphemisms for fucking.

Now there’s a fine old word, the fuck word. It is more like the real deal in its sexual context. It is so relished a term it is not to be kept just for sex. It has been commandeered for ordinary use as an all-purpose utterance. In its adjective form – the ubiquitous fucking this and fucking that – it has come to mean anything or nothing. Unfortunately it’s sexual prowess is diminished because of overuse elsewhere.

When respectable language fails there is no shortage of slang for those who need it. Long lists of words for every sexual activity can be found. There are dozens of terms for blow-job and wank. Interestingly a standard thesaurus I just checked provides no synonyms at all for masturbate. What a stiff word it is, more appropriate to a biology lab than an orgasm. And again – orgasm – surely that doesn’t quite capture a lover’s ecstasy. It has to be said though, occasionally the formal offerings are more appealing. I’ll have anal sex any day before fluff the duff or the meat-missile mud bath!

There doesn’t seem to be much gender equality when it comes to how certain sex words are used. Take genitalia: Whereas prick, cock and schlong are pretty harmless – even in their erectile forms, hard-on and boner - we are not appreciated for using cunt. For whatever reason that’s a no go area. Pussy slips off the tongue far easier being something of a cuddle-word like shag. These words convey soft and playful. Like the personified dick and fanny they have a jokey-ness about them. Not to be taken too seriously they mask embarrassment.

And I suppose there’s the rub, the embarrassment around sex. It mirrors the shame humans feel about many of their animal functions. Perhaps it is part of the denial over time, part of the pretence that we are essentially elevated, that we are spiritual beings set apart from the rest of nature. That may be true in respects but not fundamentally. At root humans are as biological and material as any other nature entity.

It would be a mark of species maturity I think if a new lexicon evolved for talking about sex. But before that is possible maybe people need to be more at ease with their sexuality in general, better able to discuss and disclose and find expression that actually points to the richness of the experience rather than the embarrassment. These terms don’t have to be slang. Somewhere between the bawdy and the prim, between Samantha and Charlotte, lies a fertile breeding ground.

After their fall-out the two women came to meet each other half way. Charlotte by then had noticed just how stuffy her old Park Avenue friends were and Samantha had met a woman whose overt sexuality offended her. The two women were not as far apart as they thought and found an accommodation. The English language could well do the same.