Thinking Sex: Representing Desire and Difference
A Feminist and Gender Studies Course
Bryn Mawr College, Fall, 2002

Archive 4: Language

Name:  HY
Subject:  Forum 3
Date:  2002-09-07 13:35:46
Message Id:  2539
Forum #3: Is it possible to "put sex into" language? Is it . . .
I think to ask whether it is possible to put sex into language is a useless question. This may very well be a Saturday morning cop out on my part. But I feel that the "policing" that we are trying to understand as well as overcome concerning sex and sexuality, has affected this very question. Why do we need, or fell the need, to put sex into language? Is it so that we may open an intellectual, theoretical question? Why can't we let sex be, language less, or rather, natural in its own language. No, today I do not feel that we can put sex into language because sex IS a language and has a language all its own. Translation is futile. Of course I do not disapprove (if I may speak so haughtily) of the desire to do so, I myself am, after all, enrolled in a this course! But I am willing to relinquish to the idea that I, we, are studying something to which there is no end, no solution, no neatly packaged, all encompassing thesis. We cannot begin to understand the language of sex, which our bodies, emotions, etc. create and succumb to. Why not just revel in it for a day?

Name:  Jenny Wade
Subject:  language of sex
Date:  2002-09-08 15:14:15
Message Id:  2553
The subject of whether "sex" can be put into language is extremely interesting. Sex is inherently based upon personal experience, both physical and emotional, embracing such intense experiences in both that in remains difficult, and rather frustrating , to put them into language. The "language of sex" seems concisely specialized, incorporating "language" in not only spoken word, but in the forms of color, visual images, other vocal articulations, body language, and music. It is a fusion of these (and many other) languages which incorporate not only description, but experience, to form the "language of sex." To me, music seems the most closely related language to sex, sexual desires, and variation. While music is written with a specific formula and notation, every performer of a specific composition alters it and makes it his/her own allowing room for various changes/additions in dynamics, style, and emphasis throughout the piece. Therefore, no two performances (experiences) are the same from individual to individual or for a specific individual. In fact, two performances of the exact same composition may finish in two very different spots and barely converge at all. Also the constant movement and inability to immobilize any given moment in a musical composition parallels the inability to capture and easily analyze a sexual experience, desire, etc. This is just one thought on the "language of sex" which seems to be so complex that the possibility of only one possible explanation or viewpoint is impossible.

Name:  Kathryn McMahon
Date:  2002-09-08 16:56:24
Message Id:  2555
Ironically the following was in an ad that popped up on my computer screen as I was getting ready to post my comments (capitalization is mine):

Is There Pornography on Your PC?

"I knew that my teenage son had a pornography PROBLEM but he told me that he was over it. I believed him until I found "ContentAudit." With this proof, I was able to confront him and get him the HELP he really needed."

-Thanks ContentWatch!

Yikes! This is exactly why it is necessary to put sex into language. Right now language is coded (to use Delany's term) to be anti-sex. Pornography is this teenage boy's "problem." Not interest, or curiosity natural to every teenager (or just boys, as some believe). The boy is curious not just about sexual information that if he's lucky he might be able to get from his parents and/or his high school sex education program, and he is curious about his own sexual desire. The ad did not state what kind of pornography the kid was looking at; whether it was of women and men having sex, women masturbating, lesbians, gay men, children, animals, S&M, etc. It could have been any number of things. We don't even know if it might have been "sexist." To lump all possibilities together presents a front that sex is bad as a whole (though we know that within this attitude exists a realm of sexual hierarchies). A simple description not only would have alienated consumers, but it also would have been over the top and impolite, for in polite speech sex is frequently talked about indirectly. To acknowledge the existence or absence of it in everyday life could offend others and leave one vulnerable for attack. Silence is currently the best stance on sex, while secretly the most unpopular. Thank you, Puritanism. The language that we do use regarding sex is alternatively dirty or sterile, vulgar or abstract. It is private and rarely made public unless it is used to uphold social "norms," such as sodomy laws or make an example of someone, i.e. Bill Clinton. Sex is viewed as impure; it is animalistic and uncivilized to discuss. Sex is an "adult" activity that adults are made to feel uncomfortable discussing. At best, we dismiss sex, taking it for granted that (married) couples "do it." At worst we use a passive voice (this may be in correct, I was never formally taught grammar): "they HAD sex." And, in fact, this dismisses the topic. It sounds disassociated from the people who performed the act. If you say "they fucked," it adds an entirely different dimension, one of passion and desire. Primal urges are supposed to be overlooked by civilized people. We need to use active language with sex; we need to call it what it is. We need to link sex with desire in our speech and thoughts and not be so clinical or removed. Having sex (fucking), eating, sleeping, talking, etc. are activities that humans engage in and are activities that the human body has evolved to do. Personal prefrences aside, we were meant to do it. To remove sex from language, with language being a component vital to humanity, is an attempt to remove it from the human experience. And that is absurd, unless the idea of human reproduction relying solely on in vitro fertilization appeals to you. It means that if we cannot communicate about sex, we cannot learn about it from one another, appreciate each other's different tastes, or find others who have similar tastes. In this case ignorance is far from bliss. The teenage boy, crucified in the ad above has no problem that I can discern from the ad, except a strained relationship with his parent, and a far from accurate introduction into healthy human behavior.

Name:  Anne
Subject:  Is it possible to "put "sex into language?
Date:  2002-09-09 12:01:52
Message Id:  2567
Several of you have already anticipated/begun to offer some answers to "this week's" range of related questions, which are these:
Is it possible to put sex into language?
Is it necessary?
If so, what use does it serve?
(Of what use was it, for instance, to "put into words," first in class, then on-line, your feelings and thoughts about Sharon Burgmayer's paintings?)

Name:  Lauren Friedman (again)
Subject:  thoughts on "Inside/Out" by Diana Fuss
Date:  2002-09-09 20:43:20
Message Id:  2572
I thought one of the most interesting and important points Fuss makes in her essay is that a sexual preference, by its very definition, must be in opposition to something else. Because the system of sexuality is presented, at least linguistically, as binary, one choice is naturally pitted against the other. The very roots of "hetero-" (other) and "homo-" (same) are opposites. Without blackmarking homosexuality as inherently deficient, people would be more inclined to dig up all the deficiencies of heterosexuality. Clearly, a new way of expressing different sexualities linguistically is necessary if different sexualities are ever to be equally respected.

This past weekend, I heard a new term in the vocabulary of sexual orientation. My friend met a girl who identifies as "flexual." I think this word is an interesting rejection of the automatically binary implications of the language of sexuality usually employed.

Name:  Monica Locsin
Subject:  Sex into language
Date:  2002-09-09 22:36:16
Message Id:  2576
Sex can be put into any language. However it is difficult for one to explain how. I am having difficulty actually. For me besides doing the act of sex, there is much more to sex. Without having passionate and deep feelings for a person, sex is not sex. Emotions is what I believe drives the act of having sex besides the fact that raging hormones do play a role in having sex. It is not really necessary to put sex into language, I think that actions are more necesarry than actually having to articulate feelings on sex.I might not make sense to some of you but this is the way I at least see it.
The article "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion" is what made me think that sex can be put into language. When I say language, it does not necessarily mean talking, but communicating in other ways such as gestures and touching.In this case, sex was not thought of a passionate rollercoaster that landed in bed but rather a intense sexual attraction. In this matter, this contradicts my definition of the act of sex but that is okay. In the part where the narrator says that the Hispanic man had a fetish for playing with feet, he did not go into detail on how the Hispanic man and the narrator got it on. Because there was no talk between them, they would just nod at each other and before they knew it, they were both enjoying each other.This is how I believe that sex can be put into body language.

Name:  Jessica Tucker
Subject:  Comments on Pictures and Questions
Date:  2002-09-10 00:31:57
Message Id:  2579
Comments: re: the questions...

I think it is possible to put sex into language. I think it's done all the time between lovers, and in pornography. But I also believe there are great social constructs that make it difficult to put sex into language in every day lives, because there is a great concern over what is appropriate. Unfortunately in the search for appropriateness, many just agree to avoidance of puting sex into language because it's easier not to have to figure out how to speak about sex. However it is necessary to put sex into language not only to deal with emotions and desires, but more importantly for health issues. By putting sex into language we can be come more self aware, but also create a forum for dialoge.

Name:  michelle mcgrath
Subject:  sex and language
Date:  2002-09-10 01:06:56
Message Id:  2581
By asking if we can "put sex into language" we in a sense have just answered part of our own question - we just did it. Of course we can put sex into some type of language if only so that we each have a common reference point. I think the more relevent question is "to what extent does the discourse capture the experince?" Perhaps it is the same question posed in a different way. At any rate I think that language may be an inadequate symbol system to capture the intracacies of sex, or any set of intense sensational experiences for that matter. There is no word or string of words that can capture the experience of an orgasm for someone who has never had one. Language allows us to help understand our sexual experience in a more intellectual and public way, yet I do not think it adequately captures the experience itself.

Name:  Anne Dalke
Subject:  Asking the Same Question Again--on a Larger Scale
Date:  2002-09-10 15:08:05
Message Id:  2598
At the end of our discussion today, about whether/how we can put sex into language--and what the use of doing so might be--I read you the invitation from Paul Grobstein to participate in the (reactivated) forum for 11 September. That invitation starts w/ the presumption that putting experience into language IS useful, that conversation among us in a web-based forum can be a force toward movement in a postive direction, a means for all people to feel a stake in common stories. I join in Paul's invitation to you to say what you think about these matters here:
11 September On-Line Forum

Name:  lindsay
Subject:  Putting sex into language
Date:  2002-09-11 19:27:26
Message Id:  2632
Subconsciously and consciously, we put sex into language every day. The most common references to sex in everyday language serve no purpose but that of amusing each other with innuendo or flirting. People find comfort in common interests, and everyone can relate to some form of sex because we are all influenced by sexual hormones. It is common for people in sexual relationships to question whether the act of sex has the same "meaning" to both parties. We communicate about our perceptions of different levels of intercourse by using terms like "fucking" or "making love." Although these words have varied meanings for everyone, the term a person chooses to describe the act says a lot about their attitude toward that relationship. But as to whether we can "capture" the experience of sex in language, I think not. Language is too arbitrary to fully capture any experience; our words can only serve as signifiers to whatever we are referring.

Name:  Chelsea
Subject:  Sex in Language
Date:  2002-09-11 23:18:36
Message Id:  2638
Putting sex into language seems to be something that, at least for my generation is a way to amuse ourselves, add some shock value to a conversation and feel clever about all the different and colorful innuendo we can think of. But it does go beyond that, as we were discussing on Tuesday. Language has always been the means by which we connect to each other. Whether it is body language, verbal language or merely looking into someone else's eyes and just knowing you understand them. Words truly do inhabit the entire spectrum from being everything to being asolutely unnecessary, even unwanted. I do think sex has a language of its own; and while verbalizing in a well-lighted classroom in the middle of the day isn't, perhaps, *the* language, there's nothing wrong with making these attempts to put sex into language. Listen to someone long enough, and eventually all the little pearls of wisdom will come pouring out and maybe, just maybe, we'll all get a little clearer picture of what sex means to that person, and that would certianly be worth the time.

Name:  2002 TS student
Username:  2002 TS student
Subject:  Language.
Date:  2002-09-13 09:46:41
Message Id:  2656
Is it possible to put sex into language?
Is it necessary?
If so, what use does it serve?

Language, i would argue is an insufficient means to convey human experience, but that rather we settle because its what we do have, and what allows us to communicate our thoughts, expressions and feelings with others. In so many ways language limits us and our abilitiy to convey the most intimate feelings and reactions, to something so enjoyable and sometimes violent experience of sex. Words/language can attempt to capture a rape victims story of abuse, and they can no doubt move the reader, but it is still an inefficient means of articulating such an experience.

When you study foreign languages you realize that there are different usages of words and sometimes when you translate languages you realize that there is no equivalent word in english that captures the meaning of the native tongue. in this example we can see how limiting language can be. If we don't have a word for it, we find the closeset word, but sometime making all these exceptions simply diminishes the purpose of the work to begin with.

Going back to the debate brought up in class, which came first language or experience, it reminded me of Hellen Keller, deaf and blind, who though as much as her teacher, Anne Sullivan, tried to teach her sign language it seemed rather hopeless. And then we remember the famous day at the water pump, when Anne ran keller's hand under the flowing water and signed "W-a-t-e-r" into her hand. At that moment it seemed that experience is what allowed language to flourish for her.

As a society we become so caught up in language, that sometimes we forget to simply experience the moment and try not to articulate it to others or ourself but just feel it. In this case language is a handicap we impose on ourselves, why we would do such a thing is still something that can be discussed. I would argue, that in a way we hold onto language as a means of proving our existence to ourselves and others.

Name:  Tamina
Subject:  Can sex be put into language?
Date:  2002-09-13 11:52:22
Message Id:  2658
I think that in order to find an answer to this question, one must look at language as a form of art. For instance, let me expalain this notion in terms of painting. Painters try to persent a picture on a canvis that represents their own interpretation, emotion, and personal style. Since no artist is the same, there are various types of art (impressionist, modern, classical, etc) that often represent the same idea but in a different way. Even if a painter is trying to create a photographic image that is an exact replica of ther subject, is it ever really exactly the same? Even photographs themselves (taken with a camera) may spark emotion in a viewer, but is it the same emotion that is felt when one is actually witnessing and present in the real situation. Finally, is it fair to ask: Is one form of art is considered more true than another?
Let me connect this ponit back to the presented question. A writer, similar to a painter, is creating his/her own articulation of sex. Whether or not we empathize with their connect or style, often reflects our own personal taste. Also like painting, it is a recaptured image and not the real thing. I find however, it is still an art that is too be appreciated.

Name:  Jill Neustel
Subject:  Fond Memories
Date:  2002-09-13 13:18:45
Message Id:  2659
I think that it is necessary to talk about sex for the same reason that it is necessary to speak in general. People talk in order to express themselves but also to fortify memory. When I have said something aloud, it is much more likely that I will remember it far into the future, just as when I have heard something that someone else has said, I am much more likely to remember it. The act of acknowledging something with speech makes it seem more real, more tangible.

When I went home for a break a year ago, I had a chance to catch up with a friend of mine from high school. The conversation, however, immediately turned to our sex lives. Although she had not seen me in over three years, the common ground that she felt necessary to explore was of sex. She told me stories of sex that she had enjoyed and loathed. Because they were spoken aloud, I have not forgotten them. In fact, I have since gagued my experiences against her descriptions.

Sex is an act that most adults and teenagers share. It gives them something to discuss when conversation is otherwise lacking. Beyond that, however, the discussion of sex helps people to validate and acknowledge the experience. The act that the two (or perhaps more) people have shared was not a dream but instead a real, orgasmic experience.

Name:  Nancy
Subject:  Putting sex into language
Date:  2002-09-13 13:59:52
Message Id:  2661
Can we put sex into language? I believe we can, but the reasons we do so are more complex than the actual act of 'speaking sex'. We are all curious about sex, but the stigma that sex is 'bad', 'dirty' etc is hard to escape for ,any people. Putting sex into language allows one to live vicariously through the heroine in the romance novel at night, without forsaking their daytime "morality".
The question does remain whether or not putting sex into language comes before or after the sex act itself. I think after. We all wish to be understood, to find a similar chord in those we interact with, and, since sex is such an emotionally charged aspect of life, we desire to have someone understand our sexual selves. The knowledge that language cannot fully express sexual intimacy comes after we have heard the stories and then experienced for ourselves, finding the act far beyond description.

Name:  Masha
Subject:  is it possible to put sex into language?
Date:  2002-09-13 20:34:49
Message Id:  2666
"Is it possible to put sex into language?
Is it necessary?"

Is it possible not to put sex, or for that matter any experience, into language? It is not a question of necessity or personal choice, rather an inevitable reality of human mind. Sure, we are equipped with other coding systems but they are limited, either in their accessibility (not every one feels comfortable using colors) or capacity (language seems to be the only coding system potentially applicable to any type of experience). However, all this is trivial.

What seems to be more interesting and is suggested by the question, is how and why some modes of language accept the status of cultural norm for "speaking sex" and others are marginalized. As our class gathering show, this is an endless discussion as it involves taking into consideration all culturally significant contexts, the speaker's intents and her cultural/linguistic proficiency.

Name:  Emily
Subject:  Sex is for everyone!!!
Date:  2002-09-13 21:12:18
Message Id:  2669
The most progressive sex ed cirricula I've seen (the ones that some of our classmates will be working with at PPSP) have just recently included images of not only man & woman, but of different men and women of all different races, ages, body types, and hairstyles. Even the cartoony versions force students to remember/realize that there is more than one version of the human body. Difference is something so rarely allowed for; not usually in body type and not yet in my experience, with differences in sexual response.
Part of the reason that it's completely necessary to not only attempt to put sex into language (to attempt it not only with each other, but perhaps with our parents and siblings) is so there exist alternitives to the bodies available in mainstream media, and the limited information that is increasingly dissappearing from the classroom.
Whether or not we communicate effectively about it, we establish a community where difference is acceptable.

Name:  LH
Subject:  do a little dance, make a little love. get down tonight.
Date:  2002-09-13 21:22:53
Message Id:  2670
As I read Samuel Delany's piece I kept thinking about sex and the way he described it. I felt his stories were missing something. I have an image of Carla and the sexual encounter they had, but I am missing something. I feel a connection with the emotions he is bringing to our attention, but I don't know if the connection is real. He didn't give me enough details, emotional or physical, for me to put together an entire story in my head. So I wonder if I just want to relate to him. I think its part of our nature to want to feel connected to people? It's probably the reason we have some sexual encounters. Who hasn't done something with someone just to feel, and I mean really feel, that person? I admittedly am one of those people who needs to tell my good friends when I have a sexual experience. When I tell the tales I want the person I am talking with to feel what I was feeling the night before, but I can't adequately explain it. I had a recent sexual experience (I figure it's alright to talk about this in this particular class) and the next day a good friend of mine came over and I told her about it. I didn't really want to give her the gory details, I just wanted her to know what had happened, and she asked me questions about it. I couldn't answer any of her questions. And they were basic questions, such as "how did it start?" and "do you see yourself with her again?" There were just no words for me to describe it. But I wanted to.

On the other hand there have been people who have had a sexual experience and told me about it the next day and just seemed totally in lust at the moment. And they get really excited about it. Waiting for the call.. We all know the drill. And then they never hear from the lover. And then the friend comes to me and will say things about how sweet s/he was and how generous and sensitive and caring that person was. I just want to say "wake up and smell the casual sex baby, cause that's what you just had." But then that doesn't make much sense to me. I guess I am wondering how much a person is really showing of her/himself when s/he says and does these amazing, beautiful, romantic things but all s/he wants is a one night stand. I don't know if I am describing this well.. (you know the problem of putting sex into language...) but I wonder if in that moment when your bodies are rising and sweating and you are caressing each other and saying things which you wouldn't say to a person in a bar, even after tossing a few back, do you really mean it. Do you really feel love or lust for that person or is that person a commodity to you? And just because you had one beautiful night, does that mean you will have another? Or that you need or want to have another? What makes us attached to sex? If the person is good in bed? Or is sweet to you? Or says s/he will call? So there is a tangent for you....

Name:  Jenny Wade
Subject:  putting sex into language
Date:  2002-09-13 21:53:02
Message Id:  2671
Whether or not language is sufficent in terms of explaining/recreating sex or why we feel a need to put sex into language are not really questions as much as inevitable outcomes to our own sexual experiances. Sex becomes language along with our many other emotions and experiances, and the language of sex is not an easily distinguishable category, but instead an addition to communication that has become intertwined within everyday language. Perhaps this is what makes it so difficult to put a single sexual experiance into a concise explanation: the sexual experiance has already had such an incredible impact that it is no longer a single explanable thing, but instead an experiance which can only in part be put into immediate words, leaving the rest of the experiance to still be understood in language, but in a more subtle sense
(perhaps of which we are unaware)revealed in smaller fragments through responses pertaining to other personal experiances (perceived by us to only partially, or perhaps fail completely, to relate to sex at all). This is just a theory (I myself am not sure yet whether it makes complete sense or if I agree with it), but the inability to relay a sexual experiance without these later fragments imbedded in other responses, is perhaps what makes language seem so incapable of describing sexual experiance.
Name:  sheri
Username:  sfernand@bmc
Subject:  sex lang
Date:  2002-09-13 22:14:19
Message Id:  2672
Although it is necessary, language in regard to a topic so sensitive as sex and sexuality makes me nervous. It reminds me of when the United States was called 'the melting pot,' people had the impression that all the different cultures should be mashed into one, to show that all citizens are the same. It was the new label, 'salad bowl', that gives people the idea of holding on to what makes them different. I worry that language and sex, especially labels, can cause limitations. Limitations in the language of sexuality can force people into becoming something that they are not simply because there is not a word for what they are.
Name:  Jess Tucker
Subject:  The importance of putting things into language...
Date:  2002-09-13 22:27:57
Message Id:  2673
I've been thinking a lot about whether it is important to put sex into language and I just now I realized that I'd already made this decision along time ago, in the 9th grade. I had a friend who was very naive and even ignorant about sex, boys, and her body. (Her family had kept her extremely sheltered.) At the time it was a great fear that because of her lack of knowledge, she would somehow be taken advantage of and end up being hurt. I made a point to be open and honest about sex with her, so that when she was in sittuations where she needed to make those decisions she would be informed.

Perhaps sex can never fully be put into language (while lanuage seems sometimes inadequate capture anything --- and maybe it never should be), but even a limited discusion is valuable. I think as a community, either small or large, we are doing a great disservice to others by not communicating honestly and opening. Not only do we have to worry about someone being taking advantage of. There are issues of couples being uninformed and therefore making very risky decisions. (Like middle schoolers having oral sex because its a "safe alternative" and you're still technically a virgin.) Not only are there issues of health and safety, but there is also the very important issue of understanding your own body, desires and emotions.--- A lack of conversation about both of these can leave someone feeling ashamed and alone.

In class the idea of putting Sept. 11th into language was brought up and it kind of helped to reinforce my impression of the importance of putting sex into language. I think it goes with out saying that what happened last year was very emotional and painful for many people and especially for those who lost loved ones. On the anniversary, I tired to avoid most of the coverage, but I happened accross a "town hall" forum type show. During which a mother became quite upset and started ranting--- letting her feelings, emotions, hurt, pain, and even hatred flow into language. It was one of the most powerful things I've ever watched on TV and I believe it added another deeper dimension to my understand of the effect of 9/11. It seemed to me that if I ignored her (turn her off), ignored the emotions she was putting into language, then I would be harming her just as much as the people who originally violated her (or that she feels violated her).

I think we do this when we don't talk about sex--- or we reject or condemn the sex that is put into language. Expression is a way of working through something (perhaps emotions or pain). Maybe (for some people) the sexual act (like the act of grieving) isn't complete until it is expressed and released. (Language is the one of the most abundant forms of epression.)

---- (I don't really know, just trying to work through this.)

Name:  Sarah
Subject:  Sex, Narrative and Language
Date:  2002-09-13 23:17:12
Message Id:  2674
I was reading an assignment for another class and came across a Toni Morrison quote describing the importance of narrative: "I have always thought it was the most important way to transmit and receive knowledge." I've read about narrative in the literary and historical context that constantly reiterates its neverending significance but I've never really understood why, what exactly it is about narrative that we use it in almost every aspect of our lives. Why can't we live without it? I started to think about this dual sided notion of transmission and reception of narrative and the symbiotic relationship that makes the existence of one impossible without the existence of the other. Then I thought about Delaney and his decision to use narrative in his speech in order to convey the importance of articulation and the danger of code in language (among other things). This process of considering seperately the role of narrative in language and sex in language left me wondering about the relationship between narrative and sex. Is it possible to put sex into language without using narrative? Reading sex manuals in an office the other day, I got the distinct feeling that I was reading about medicine and technicalities, certainly NOT sex. And any poem I've ever read that I consider "good" and to do with sex is written in terms of personal experience, some short, long or cut up piece of narrative. I feel that to accurately describe something sexual is to get as close as possible to the actuality--to the lighting in the room, the touch of the sheets, the feel of wetness on the lips, to who this partner is and to how he/she got in your room--to the story at its core. To cut any part out is to become part of the highly coded language to which Delaney refers and makes the transmission and reception of sex through language impossible. So maybe the reason we can't live without narrative is because we can't live without sex.

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