About Last night: Language is always gendered

July 24, 2017

Q: I’m interested in the language used to describe sex. If a male finds giving his partner pleasure so arousing that he climaxes it’s disparagingly called “premature ejaculation”, as if there is only one acceptable way to climax. Women are known to have a mixture of ways to achieve orgasm: clitoral, vaginal, nipples, etc. However, I’ve never heard of a term to describe a female orgasm that has been triggered solely by giving her partner pleasure. Is there one?

A: The cultural history of social attitudes towards human sexuality has left us with a lexicon that is often value-laden, pejorative and, in some cases, inaccurate and misleading. Much of the loaded language of lovemaking is heavily gendered, as in your example.
This is exemplified in the words we use to describe our sexual bodies. There must be a million slang terms for “penis”. Most of them are considered to be swear words, and few are acceptable in polite conversation.

However, female genitalia are even more taboo. The correct terms “vulva” and “vagina” are confronting enough, but the Anglo-Saxon “C” word is unmentionable, revealing the heightened anxiety caused by female sexuality.
As our attitudes towards sex become more open, we need to review and adapt the language we employ, and this is happening. Many sex therapists are modifying their terminology to make it both more accurate and more helpful. Today, your example would be described as “involuntary” rather than “premature” ejaculation. The word “involuntary” broadens the nature of what is perceived to be a “problem”. When a man’s ejaculation occurs before his partner has climaxed, it does not have to be a problem if the man is willing to continue stimulating his partner in other ways. The biggest problem is our mental reaction.

“Involuntary” also includes those men who have difficulty ejaculating at all. Longer sex is not necessarily better sex. Again, lovers need to understand, and work around, each other’s needs in order to achieve the mutual satisfaction that suits them.
The nature of female sexuality is complex. Because women can experience multiple orgasms, it is assumed that a woman who climaxes spontaneously is lucky, and can just keep going and get aroused again. There are a small number of women, however, who find that, like many men, their sexual interest disappears as soon as they come once. I suspect ignorance explains why there is not a term for this, although, “involuntary” would cover that, too.
“Involuntary” also allows for the possibility of learning practices that assist with control, not because you have something wrong with you, but because it is a skill you would like to acquire.

Another term that is unhelpful is “sexual dysfunction”, which implies that the person is broken. It is particularly damaging when it is applied to older women. Slow arousal is not a “dysfunction”, and older women can continue to enjoy sex once they adjust to certain changes.
While it is preferable to “self abuse”, the word “masturbation” is also ugly and off-putting, reinforcing another sexual taboo. Far better are terms like “solo sex” or “self pleasure”. Research is uncovering so many positive health benefits, for men and women, from enjoying making love to themselves, that supportive language is essential.

We constantly modify the language as we become aware of its unanticipated negative effects. We no longer call a female writer an “authoress”. A committee now has a “chairperson”. Mixed-race children are no longer “half castes”, the disabled are not “cripples”. Consciously modifying our sexual language is the same. Changes need to be made to avoid shame, sexism, homophobia, ageism and all the other hurtful results of unexamined language.

So, where the current terminology no longer serves, change it. Dr Janet Hall, for example, replaces the “doggy position” with the “cheeky position” (or, as comedian Wil Anderson quipped, the “we can both watch TV” position).
More seriously, I encourage everyone to replace the value-laden term “prostitute” with “sex worker”, and please stop calling a sexually active and adventurous woman a “slut”. Words are powerful, so use them thoughtfully, to ensure you are not continuing the damaging effects of sexual shame and prejudice.

Email your questions to abtlastnight@gmail.com

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One thought on “About Last night: Language is always gendered

  • What a great essay. Do you really mean we can all grow up now? I’ve wanted this discourse since forever. I feared this country would never get there. Thank You!

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