“Penetrate” v. “Engulf”: a note on power, sex, and words

From November 2009

Years ago, I wrote a brief post about feminism and language, but it didn’t go into very much detail. Here’s a new version, with a bit more detail.

One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of ’87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkin’s novel “Ice and Fire” and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) “Intercourse”. I hadn’t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. “Look at the language”, my classmate said; “penetrate, enter, and screw make it clear what’s really happening; women are being invaded by men’s penises.” Another classmate responded, “But that’s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like ‘envelop’, ‘engulf’, ‘surround’ and everything would be different.” The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified.

My classmates were having, as I came to discover, a classic intra-feminist argument: to what extent is the sexual domination of women by men part and parcel of our biology, and to what extent is it a construction maintained by language that deliberately disempowers women? The consensus seems to weigh more heavily to the latter position, particularly within the contemporary (so-called “Third Wave”) feminism which was very much still in its incubation when I was discovering Women’s Studies in the Reagan years.

In every women’s studies class I’ve taught here at PCC, and in many guest lectures about feminism I’ve given elsewhere, I use the “penetrate” versus “engulf” image to illustrate a basic point about the way in which our language constructs and maintains male aggression and female passivity. Even those who haven’t had heterosexual intercourse can, with only a small degree of imagination required, see how “envelop” might be just as accurate as “enter”. “A woman’s vagina engulfs a man’s penis during intercourse” captures reality as well as “A man’s penis penetrates a woman’s vagina.” Of course, most het folks who have intercourse are well aware that power is fluid; each partner can temporarily assert a more active role (frequently by being on top) — as a result, the language used to describe what’s actually happening could shift.

Except, of course, in our sex ed textbooks and elsewhere, that shift never happens. If the goal of sex education is to provide accurate information to young people before they become sexually active, we do a tremendous disservice to both boys and girls through our refusal to use language that honors the reality of women’s sexual agency. We set young women up to be afraid; we set young men up to think of women’s bodies as passive receptacles. While changing our language isn’t a panacea for the problem of sexual violence (and joyless, obligatory intercourse), it’s certainly a promising start.

As another part of my introductory lecture on language, I talk about “fuck”. I first dispell the urban legends that it’s an acronym (I’m amazed at how persistent the belief is that the word stands for “for unlawful carnal knowledge” or “fornication under the consent of the king”; I have students every damn year who are convinced the word is derived from one of those two sources.) I then ask at what age young people in English-speaking culture first encounter the word. Most of my students had heard the word by age five or six; many had started using it not long thereafter. I then ask how old they were when they realized that “fuck” has multiple meanings, and that its two most common uses are to describe intercourse and to express rage.

There’s a pause at this point. Here’s the problem: long before most kids in our culture become sexually active, the most common slang word in the American idiom has knit together two things in their consciousness: sex and rage. If “fucking” is the most common slang term for intercourse, and “fuck you” or “fuck off” the most common terms to express contempt or rage, what’s the end result? A culture that has difficulty distinguishing sex from violence. In a world where a heartbreakingly high percentage of women will be victims of rape, it’s not implausible to suggest that at least in part, the language itself normalizes sexual violence.

I challenge my students. I don’t ask them to give up all the satisfactions of profanity; rather I challenge them to think about words like “fuck” or “screw” and then make a commitment to confine the use of those words to either a description of sex (“We fucked last night”) or to express anger or extreme exasperation (“I’m so fucking furious with you right now!”) but not, not, not, both. Rage and lust are both normal human experiences; we will get angry and we will be sexual (or want to be) over and over again over the course of our lives. But we have a responsibility, I think, to make a clear and bright line between the language of sexual desire and the language of contempt and indignation. Pick one arena of human experience where that most flexible term in the English vernacular will be used, and confine it there.

Words matter, I tell my students. We’re told over and over again that “a picture is worth a thousand words” — but we forget that words have the power to paint pictures in our minds of how the world is and how it ought to be. The language we use for sexuality, the words we use for rage and longing — these words construct images in our heads, in our culture, and in our lives. We have an obligation to rethink how we speak as part of building a more pleasurable, safe, just and egalitarian world.

34 thoughts on ““Penetrate” v. “Engulf”: a note on power, sex, and words

  1. Oh this is very good. I had never thought of penetrate as a bad word, but it was always kind of iffy. Maybe it was programmed in me somehow as being okay. I had been violated since an early age and came to accept sex as something not in my control. When I write stories involving sex I use softer words.

  2. While it’s a nice theory Hugo isn’t one of the major aspects you are not really considering the context of the word? Fuck as a word used in a sexual context is completely different to that used in a violent context, it is quite hard to even mix them (I fucking fucked her/him would seem to be an affirmation of sexual context rather than a violent sexual encounter).

    It would be different if the word had a different meaning but a similar context (privilege vs feminist privilege) where the two could be easily confused but as long as the domains remain widely separated and hard to bring together without some serious wrangling it seems ok to maintain both.

  3. @2ndnin:

    How about the phrase, “I fucked the shit out of her”? IMO, that’s got sexual and violent contexts all kinds of mixed up. I don’t think it’s nearly as hard to mix the two meanings as you think.

  4. I’ve rarely if ever used ‘fuck’ or ‘screw’ in reference to consensual sex and I don’t like it when other people do. Never really thought about why, but you’ve pretty much explained it to me. They’re hardly words that bring to mind love and sensuality are they?

    A very long time ago during one of my own very poor sex-ed classes in primary school (age 11 I think), there was a ‘discussion’ about using terms like ‘fuck’ and ‘screw’ to describe sex and how they contrast to simply saying “have sex” or “make love”. I wonder if such discussions still happen?

  5. Hugo:

    Interesting stuff, and yes, penetrate is the dominant term, never read “engulf” in a sex ed book ever…be nice to switch it up! It is interesting however that BOTH terms, penetrate and engulf, can have negative connotations: we hear penetrate used in cases of stabbings and such, and engulf in the case of fires or drowning…i.e., the knife penetrated under the third rib, the house was engulfed in flame, so on….

    I would also say the word fuck itself is also used to express awe or surprise… “Holy Fuck”, ect….


    Actually, I think that discussion does still happen, at least amid various circles, and perhaps more often female ones. I think there is a distinction people draw between HOW the engage in sexual activity…sometimes they make love, sometimes they have sex, and well, sometimes they fuck. Often times different terms are used based on the level of affection held for their partner, often times the terms are based on the level of physicality/velocity with which the act is engaged in

  6. Even physiologically in the sex act, men are initiators and women are receivers. Women will respond in kind, or give back, that which they are given.

    Initiator/responder if true, based in biochemistry and physiology, including the b&p of the brain, and embracing this truth (and responsibility) is the pathway to complete mutuality, where the giving and receiving flows seamlessly, life long love affairs within committed and stable relationships, and nurturing children into loving, caring, and highly productive adults.

    The words: They are a lag time reflection of the much actual experience. In this day and age, we still have even human sex trafficking, mushrooming domestic violence (intimate partner terrorism), even female legislators blaming 11 year old gang rape victims for their own rapes, and egregious levels of adultery. (The WHO has studies showing a high correlation between domestic violence and adultery.)

    The words will change when the actions change first. There are lag times to everything.

  7. Typo: “Initiator/responder IF true,” should be Initiator/responder IS true.

  8. Interesting connection there– one of those things you never stop to think about, until it’s pointed out to you one way or another. But it’s true: when I (primarily a fuck-as-angry-word person) think of the word “fuck” for the sex act, I think of sex that errs on on the fast and rough side. Which, like everything else sexual, is OK if both partners want it that way at any given moment.

    Personally, I think it’s a lot more problematic that listening is conflated so much with obedience. We start to hear that one as kids. What do our parents say when we don’t do what they ask us? Usually, it’s not “You didn’t obey me”… it’s, “You didn’t listen to me.”

  9. The idea that language shapes thought is called the Whorf Hypothesis. It is true sometimes/sort of but not always. Someone who thinks about the words they hear and use is in a better position to stop being controlled and start being in control. In my own experience, not having a word for something at all is what stunts the growth of one’s thought about that thing, possibly worse than having a distortive word.
    Even if I was not asexual, I would use the F word for cussing and similar vehemence; it is quite handy. I also have some more refined options, as opposed to certain people I meet who seem to lack them. But I am afraid I can’t supply alternatives for talking about sexual activity.
    I am having trouble getting Charlie’s link to work.

  10. Asmo, I would say that “I fucked the shit out of her” doesn’t use ‘fucked’ as a violent term but rather to describe the type of action (intercourse). You could replace it with ‘waffled’ or pretty much any other verb and still get a pretty violent statement. Also you aren’t mixing the two contexts through one word so I wouldn’t count it personally. I suppose though it does come across relatively violently since we tend to utilise other softer phrasings for ‘making love’ verses ‘having sex’, and ‘fucking’. In that respect possibly the mixing of the violence and sex is intended in the word placing ‘fucking’ at the more violent / animalistic side of the spectrum?

  11. @2ndnin: C’mon. Would you say that in the sentence “I punched the shit out of her” that ‘punched’ is not a violent phrasing because you could use ‘waffled’ instead and it would still be pretty violent?

    It’s interesting that the same word can be mutual (“we fucked our brains out”) and subject/object violent (“I fucked the shit out of her”). The first implies something mutual; the second that the speaker did an act to another person.

  12. @Danna Wright

    Citation(s) needed backing up the idea that “men are initiators and women are receivers” and that this is due entirely to biochemistry and physiology rather than to culture.

    Gender essentialism doesn’t help anybody. Particularly since it erases the existence of people who do not neatly fit within the gender binary.

  13. mswyrr:

    since sex evolved as a method for procreation and since females are the one’s who receive sperm into their bodies in order to foster that process, it becomes pretty clear that females are designed to receive.

    so things were “designed” a certain why (by natural selection or, if you’re a little batty, “God”), but humans have found ways around those natural designs.

  14. Mythango, punched is a violent action on its own so adding a further violent qualifier doesn’t help. ‘Fucked’ is a potentially different word as it is not inherently violent as you demonstrated. If we take your example, ‘I fucked her brains out’ suggests to me (and you it seems) a pleasurable experience, while ‘I fucked the shit out of her’ suggests a violent experience so it’s not the ‘fucked’ that defines it but rather the context.

  15. “Even physiologically in the sex act, men are initiators and women are receivers. Women will respond in kind, or give back, that which they are given.”

    I don’t buy this at all. There’s nothing inherent about the physiology of men and women which makes men the initiators and women the receivers of sex. My sexual experience is very limited, but the one time I did have sex, I was very much NOT the initiator. She initiated everything, from the initial sexual contact, to taking it to the bedroom. She was on top and in totally in control the whole time and in a strange reversal of a very common sexual script, she has an orgasm and I didn’t. /overshare

    My experience isn’t the norm, but it’s enough to convince me that men being the initiators/agressors/active partners in sex is more about social norms than anything inherent in our biology.

  16. Can’t an entity be initiative/aggressive and receptive at once? I’ve suffered the attentions of enough mosquitos… Sorry you had a bad experience, Asmo, and hope that if you ever try again it goes better.
    Always had a bit of a problem with “penetrate” in the sense of sex…to me that word means going all the way thru something.
    Biology is not destiny; biology is density.

  17. This is one of the aspects of Gender Studies that truly bothers me.

    Yes, the language used to describe sexual intercourse could be different (engulf and penetrate could probably both be used).

    But this does not prove that the use of one word over another has any meaningful impact.

    Looking at linguistic studies, it is notoriously hard to prove (and vehemently debated) to what extent language impacts worldview. Counterexamples abound (Durkheim’s “linguistic culture” would seem to rule out revolutions that do not involve fundamental language change, meaning that 20th century Japan and 21st century China are glaring contradictions), and even then this usually refers to the impact of ENTIRE LANGUAGES, and not the choice of A SINGLE WORD.

    In any other field of social study (my background is in economics, but I know that the process is similar in sociology and psychology), this sort of assertion, that “society-is-as-it-is because of theory x” would need to be backed up with the painstaking leg-work of actual social science research.

    Yet in Gender Studies this tends to be waved away.

    This is why I often have a hard time believing that the entire field is not just tautological – a series of conclusions was decided upon beforehand (ideas about the patriarchy, oppression, etc.) and then a set of theories designed to underpin the conclusions were developed, with no attempt at disproving them.

  18. At some point within the resent past we realized that sex was not always about love. I’ve seen the “love” word used to quickly end it’s fair share of relationships. We fairly widely realize mistaking a hormone high for love is a bad idea. Sex can often occur before two people decide if what they have is love.

    I always thought “fuck” was an escape from the sexual framework of “lovemaking” as what sex is. Many people(many women as well) find lowbrow language sensational and exciting.

    However, I think anyone would agree the meaning of “fuck” extremely contextual. A girlfriend saying “we fucked” versus the boyfriend can change what the word implies.

    “Have/had/having [adj] sex” is probably as close to the middle on the road as you can get.

  19. “Even physiologically in the sex act, men are initiators and women are receivers. Women will respond in kind, or give back, that which they are given. ”

    I am not convinced that you’re doing it right.

  20. It would make sense that our dimorphic sex organs correspond with our dimorphic body shapes. Men are bigger than women because men evolved to aggress to a degree whereas women received. Why does this have to be controversial?

  21. @2ndnin: Right, in that sentence “fuck” is used to describe the physical act, but imo, the other potential meanings of the word means that it lends itself very well to being used in a violent sexual context. Also, “I fucked her brains out” is at least a little violent too.

    @Angiportus: I appreciate the sentiment, but when did I say it was an unpleasant experience? I barely had to do anything; she did all the work. It was great, actually. I apologize if my description somehow made it seem otherwise.

    @G.L. Piggy: I see what you’re saying about how we’re a sexually dimorphic species who evolved with certain roles for men and women. But, I take issue in applying what was seemingly true for our ancestors as being true for us today. Women are not always the passive partners in sexual acts. Men aren’t always the aggressors. My experience alone is enough to disprove that idea. Furthermore, reasons behind our sexual dimorphology are not convincing justifications for adhering to those roles in modern times. In fact, it’s easily enough to demonstrate that the opposite is true; that blindly adhering to the male aggressor/female receiver paradigm is actually harmful to a great many people. So… I’m not sure what you’re arguing.

  22. I’ve always been a big believer in the power of words, but never applied them this way. Thank you for opening up my eyes to this new perspective.

  23. GLP: Because not everyone is an MRA (thank God) and not everyone thinks women are designed to submit (thank God). Some of us are a bit more evolved than that.

  24. Cows are bigger than us, but they don’t eat us as often as we eat them (some of us anyway). We in turn get eaten by the much smaller biting insects I may have mentioned before. Size isn’t the main predictor of aggression, nor is it a predictor of receptive vs. releasive, or whatever the real opposite of receoptive is.
    In each of us there is a changing mixture of active-projective, active-receptive, passive-releasive and passive-receptive energies…sorry to sound so newagey, but that’s about the best I can describe it…in how we think and envision and act. Including, I guess, stuff we do with others in bed. I wouldn’t want anyone telling me I could identify with only part of that tetrad, and I wouldn’t presume to limit them that way. Maybe some of you know–how many men are interested in getting pegged? If that number is not negligible, well, then…
    Anything that’s too damned simple, I’d be suspicious of.

  25. @GLP: Because spotted hyenas and Myotis nigricans bats have the same basic penis/vagina sexual organ dimorphism, but females who are larger than males. This, to me, indicates that the cause of sexual size dimorphism isn’t anything that involves a male aggression/female submission dynamic being intrinsic to sexual intercourse.

  26. On the penetration point, I was never happy with the suggestion of replacing that word with ‘envelope’ or ‘engulf’, because it merely superimposes one power dynamic upon another – it’s still something one party does to the other. If we really want to start messing about with the language like that, wouldn’t it be preferable to have something more mutual – ‘linking’ ‘uniting’ or whatever?

    In the UK our defauly slang is ‘shagging’ which some people don’t like, but I think is a bit funnier and fluffier and is less gendered.

    As for ‘fuck’ I simply don’t accept that it is an aggressive word. It is a word of intense passion. That’s why when we win the lottery we’ll say ‘you fucking beauty’, why we say ‘fuck’ when we hit our thumb with a hammer, and why many of us will shout it enthusiastically in the throes of passion.

    To quote someone above, sometimes I like to make love, sometimes I like to have sex, and sometimes I like to fuck. By attempting to excise the last of those, you are risking excising a large part of human sexuality.

  27. Add some typse of hares I believe, and leopard seals.
    Those spp. in which males are larger get that way bec/ males fight each other, bigtime. The females apparently settle their dominance issues more quietly or something.
    As for the actual plumbing, I always thought it was because if it ran the other way it would leak–insects with suctional devices being an exception that might work only on that microscopic scale.

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