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Language and Pleasure: A Means to an End Through and Around Sexuality

Amophrast's picture
 “Sex and poetry cannot exist at the same time. Have you ever tried to write a poem while having sex? It’s impossible!”

– paraphrased from Michael Tratner, professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, ca. 2010

(Though not for everyone: “As in his earlier life, Yeats found erotic adventure conducive to his creative energy, and, despite age and ill-health, he remained a prolific writer.” (Wikipedia: W. B. Yeats))

"In Lacanian theory, the child suffers the threat of deficiency or lack. The child tries to find something to stand in for what he or she lacks. If we follow Lacan's line that the mirror is a metaphor of the symbolic order for the child, then symbolic activity, such as language, is something that the child needs, but lacks, or is always in threat of losing. Lacan believed that the child identifies with language as a 'stand-in' for the gap between what he or she means and what others can know of what he or she means."

- Wendy Atwell-Vasey, Nourishing Words: Bridging Private Reading and Public Teaching, page 104

Fuck me

Hold me closer


Lick lower

Bite me

Move to the right

Don't stop

This is not sexual language, but words used as instruction, and as a means to pleasure. "Fuck me" does not mean much with words, but it represents an action that is desired to take place, whatever action that might mean for any individual. With said action, if pleasure (or whatever desired result: pain, bruising, temptation, orgasm, etc) is received, this instructive method of language is no longer necessary.

In a state of pleasure, language becomes unnecessary.

Language can be sex, can become sex. Sensual poetry (such as Stein’s Lifting Belly), and phone sex, are ways to communicate and experience pleasure in the absence of touch. Though language may be sensuous and erotic by itself, it is so in a way because it mimics pleasure and represents pleasure. Alliterations, rich imagery, the ssss—ooooooooh—uuuuu—nnnnn…ahhhh—ddd of words along with meaning create this sensuality. For those who do not experience pleasure or who do not wish to tie words to pleasure, sensual words can be just as distancing as experiencing sensuality or sexuality. The day we discussed Lifting Belly in class, MC mentioned how much she didn’t enjoy it because as both an asexual and aromantic, it did not represent feelings that she was interested in accessing.

Language is an access point for

  • Pleasure
  • Bodies
  • Comfort within bodies and with other bodies
  • Fulfillment of desire

Language leads to pleasure, at which point the pleasure can replace language.

Language as a Way to Access Pleasure: Trans Bodies

Transsensuality: How to Make Love to a Trans Person

On April 13th I went to a Buck Angel event that involved screening clips of Sexing the Transman (documentary) and Sexing the Transman XXX (porn, but included interviews). Buck was also around to talk and answer questions.

Each interview would usually involve answering questions, stripping, and masturbating to orgasm. Some of the following questions were asked in combination to each interviewee:

-          What words do you use for your genitals?

-          How did transitioning affect your sexuality/who you’re attracted to/who you have sex with?

-          How did transitioning affect your comfort with your body/genitals?

DVD cover (front and back) of "Sexing the Transman XXX" porn by Buck Angel


Buck Angel says that in the early days, the word he used for his genitals was “cock.” “During sex it was not easy to say ‘suck my cock.’ Language is difficult sexually.” There was a disconnect between himself and his genitals, and he found that most transmen he interviewed also felt this way. There was discomfort with their bodies: they didn’t want to be nude around partners, they didn’t feel comfortable communicating with partners about what they wanted sexually, and some said they couldn’t even masturbate to orgasm. They could not be comfortable with their bodies in a way that would allow them to experience pleasure. Many did not penetrate themselves during masturbation or allow others to penetrate them, regardless of stimulated nerve endings that produced pleasure.

Now Buck is totally comfortable using the word vagina because it doesn’t even seem feminine anymore. Once he started to transition with testosterone and later with top surgery and the added help of going to the gym, he started to own his body and turn it into something he loved. Part of this was the fact that testosterone ups libido. Even people who considered themselves to have a rather high sex drive felt it increase, sometimes with the need to masturbate four to six times a day. Buck joked about how he now understood 14-year-old boys with the excessive desire to masturbate.

T (testosterone) and transitioning can change a lot about sexuality: it can change who you’re attracted to, who you want to have sex with, the kinds of sex that you want to have, methods of masturbation, the kind of porn you do or don’t watch... These changes do not “discriminate” against sexual orientation: for example, I know someone who is a transman and asexual. When told by his doctor that T would increase his sex drive, he reassured his doctor that it wouldn't be a problem because he is asexual. And while he doesn’t take part in partnered sex now, masturbation is a way to positively deal with the sudden increase in hormones. Buck also noted a phenomenon that seemed to occur with many people he interviewed regarding sexual partners: many people who had previously identified more as a butch, queer, or trans lesbian were now almost identifying as gay men, as a man desiring to have sex with men (and people of all genders, orientations, and bodies). It is also important to note that with T, they were able to feel like a man during sex—being fucked in a front hole was not something that feminized them because it was just a part of their body. Buck recalls “accidentally” penetrating himself during masturbation after starting T. It wasn’t something that he was necessarily conscious of doing, but it happened and it was pleasurable.

For Buck, his vagina is part of who he is, and he is a masculine person. I did not think of asking him at the time, but I imagine that if I asked him Eve Ensler’s question “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” that the answer would be “Leather, tattoos, and a cigar.” Maybe a goatee as well. However, Buck also only claims to speak for himself. He is not trying to represent all transmen, but he does represent one of many types of transpeople. Some other words transmen use for their genitals are hole, front hole, bonus hole, as well as using words like cock or dick instead of clit. T also made many of the transmen Buck interviewed more comfortable with communicating their desires to their partners. One thing Eddie Wood learned was to ask for what he wanted. “It’s okay to say no, but it’s also okay to ask what you want." Regarding the variety of people and bodies he’s dated and hit on (transmen, cissexual men, women, etc.), M.J. said “I realized a long time ago…I just kind of stopped thinking about [types] and just go with whatever I like.” He got to a point where labeling desire wasn’t necessary to experience it.

Excellent zine with many notes about how to use language for trans* bodies (PDF)

Video: Tyra Banks Interviews Buck Angel, via Queerty (Link will open a clip--select a media player or program to play)

When he told us about the interview with Tyra Banks, he said how he was shocked that a woman (and a woman like Tyra) did not love her vagina. She seemed to show the same disconnect from her body as pre-testosterone transmen did. That fact that she could say “I don’t love [my vagina]; it’s just a part of me” actually saddened me. Did she feel obligated to talk this way on television? She obviously seemed taken off-guard. Did she experience shame in owning pleasure, in owning her body? (Note: two separate things)

There is something to be said about the power of owning your body and doing what you like with it, whatever that may be. It may be the pursuit of pleasure, or a distinct desire to not seek sexual stimulation.

Language as a Way to Reframe Violence into Pleasure: SM

"...the rhetoric of SM in Caeden is the rhetoric of violence. Many SM participants speak with pleasure of 'getting beat,' or share that they 'bloodied her back' or 'pummeled the hell out of him.' Toys are sometimes referred to as 'arsenal,' and impact play, including spanking, is often called 'beating.'"

- Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, page 128

Language surrounding sex already has a layer of morality policing it without adding in the SM ways of pleasure. Think about it:





Bad (bad boy, bad girl)


Most of these words are words that were originally negative (and thus have been associated with sex) but are now often meant in ways that are positive or conducive to pleasure. Subcultures, such as various SM communities, redefine language. In the “Caeden” community studied by Staci Newmahr, “pervert” was redefined as meaning a person who was open-minded, geeky, and creative, all of which are staple and revered characteristics of the individuals in this community (Newmahr 46). Additionally, dirty talk can be very powerful, and can enhance or heighten the pleasure in a scene. These negative words are being recoded as positive, but these words still access a part  of the brain that has internalized and associated them with morally deviant things, and may still hold the original meanings and associations even as they are recoded. Nonetheless, subcultures use language as a system of support. One of the functions of subcultures is to neutralize the negative and marginalizing effects from the mainstream; they provide people with validation, and positive counter-images they can relate to away from the mainstream.

This relationship with words becomes intensified when considering language in an SM context. Language serves to both reframe and distance SM from violence, but to also allude to the power relations that exist from the connotations of the words. This same relationship exist for other kinks that may be tied to traumatic incidents, such as using the word "Daddy" to suggest incest  and the use of Nazi paraphenalia to suggest that dynamic of power. “Russ and Heather were not pretending to be father and daughter, but drawing on language and meanings surrounding power, abuse, and incest to form the narrative of their pain play” (Newmahr 61). Language is not meant to be taken literally, but as a symbolic way to draw on thoughts or experiences to make the play feel authentic and real for the players who wish to experience this kind of pleasure.

Language converts this experience of violence into pleasure by recoding the words. Sometimes this recoding happens more overtly, for the effect of the words. Using language such as “receiving pain” frames the experience as a positive experience compared to saying “being hurt.” “She is not a victim of pain in her reconceptualization of it. If she is not a victim, this cannot be violence. Being hurt indicates that violence is occurring; receiving pain does not” ( Newmahr 134). This description of transformative pain paints the situation as pain being positive because pain feels like pleasure rather than being hurt. Pain is not necessarily a bad thing. And as Jessica Benjamin says in the Master and Slave chapter of Bonds of Love, pain is not necessarily enjoyed in the moment, but rather the endurance of the pain strengthens the tie between the dominant and the submissive.

Language is also used to stop pain that is no longer pleasurable, or to re-guide the action of a scene to make it more pleasurable for those receiving stimulation.

Safewords are “…the community-wide practice of using code words in order to change the course of a scene without detracting from the various illusions being constructed” (Newmahr 64). For example, commonly used safewords are “yellow” and “red,” like traffic light colors. While it is assumed that it is unnecessary to say “green” or “go go go!” if consent is enthusiastically and freely given (though this may be conveyed through other language such as “fuck me”), using the word “yellow” can mean a variety of things. It is the job of the dominant(s) or the top(s) to read the reactions of the bottom(s) or submissive(s) (breathing rate, dilation of pupils, heart rate) in order to find out exactly what the safeword means in context. In some cases it may mean slow down, or otherwise a form of consenting for the activity to continue but in an altered form. “Red” means stop, and will (and should) cease all activity upon the utterance of. Thus, language serves  as a way to escape pain, with the potentialilty of being re-guided to pleasure.

Note: SM play is not necessarily sexual. In fact, in SM clubs and public play parties, genitals must be covered and any genital contact or masturbation is both prohibited and looked down upon.

Pleasure does not need to be sexual to be pleasure.

“The language of eroticism is an obstacle to the articulations of their experiences in a meaningful way. If desire feels sexual--that is, it manifests itself in bodily understandings, such that one can 'feel' it in one's body, but the site is not in genitalia (or other 'erogenous zones'), what do we call this? What if the for pain or tears or blood?” (Newmahr 128).

Through her ethnographic study of the Caeden community, Newmahr found words to be inaccurate and inadequate to describe the erotics of the SM community. Most words that were used already connoted images of (negative) violence. While it would be similarly inaccurate to not call SM activities violent, it has become too layered with meanings for most people to use it as an accurate description of what they do. Newmahr also notes that a lot of this difficulty comes from the talk of violence as being inherently or morally bad and undesirable. It obscures “not only the ways in which SM resembles violence, but countless other sites of intersections between violence and everyday life” (Newmahr 128).  

(A quick note on) Language as a Way to Deny Sex/(uality): Asexuals and Aromantics

At the same time that language can be a means to an end of pleasure, language can also exist as a way to deny or opt out of sex and sexuality. When I refer to asexuality, I refer to it as a sexual orientation. I remember MC disagreeing with me on this point, because she uses it to refer to the absence of sexual orientation and thus completely separated the two concepts. The way I view them is the same way in which I consider atheism a religion, or at least, an answer to the question of religion. It’s the opposite of Austin Powers: instead of “Sex?...Yes please!” it is “Sex?...No thanks!”

However, as I mentioned before, pleasure does not necessarily have to be experienced as being sexual.

A safe word or a simple no (denying consent) can give pleasure in the fact that the unwanted activity, stimulation, or proposition has ceased. Language can still serve as a route to pleasure.


Anne Dalke's picture

The pleasure of language? The language of pleasure?

So, Maria--
apologies, again, for being late in getting to this interesting project of yours….

You're right: it's long. It meanders. It turns from questions about the relation between language and sex, and language and pleasure,  to saying (what does this say?) that "there is something to be said about the power of owning your body and doing what you like with it."

You begin with the Lacanian move of naming "language as a 'stand-in' for the gap between what we mean and what others understand." I've always understood the gap a little differently,  as intrasubjective rather than intersubjective, as naming the disconnect and figuring the absence between what one has and what one needs. I suppose the two meanings collapse, though, once we acknowledge that much of what we need is dependent on other people…..? But what if we think that language is a way of communicating with the self about the self's needs and wants….?

I think here, too, of MC's summary of what she learned in this semester's class: "that communication is difficult…communication is impossible." Once you've traced here all the ways in which words are "inaccurate and inadequate to describe the erotics of the SM community," "too layered with meanings for most people to use it as an accurate description of what they do," what are you saying, finally, about the possibilities of communication?

For me, the strongest and most interesting part of this event is the first, ever shifting sequence:
with action, instruction is not necessary
in pleasure, language is unnecessary
[and yet:] language can be sex
language is an access point
language leads to pleasure
pleasure can replace language.

But then it gets complicated. You move, somewhat randomly, to various points--that language can be difficult sexually (your particular examples are drawn from the experiences of transmen); that the language of sex is policed by morality; that subcultures (your examples here are drawn from SM communities) can redefine language; that language is such communities "is not meant to be taken literally," but symbolically, "to make the play feel authentic and real" (so there's a deep spot: can you articulate the difference between "literal," "authentic" and "real"?). Language can convert an "experience of violence into pleasure by recoding the words,"  with "the potentialilty of being re-guided." Finally, language can be a way to deny sexuality, to "opt out of…"

So your final project will be working on the pragmatics of language use--but I'd urge you to go on w/ this project about the relationship between language and pleasure for your senior thesis: Joyce? Woolf? Stein? in combination with Buck Angel and Caeden….? Sounds delicious to me!