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.