It all started with a colleague asking our list-serv: “Is there another word for foreplay?”
Then a popular magazine called me, asking if there was a name for a supposed Asian sex move a reader had described to them.
Hmmm, nope, don’t think so.
Naturally, I found myself wondering why our sex vocabulary is so limited.
We’re all sexual beings. We’re inundated with sexual imagery and sexual messaging all of the time. But why are we so restricted in the way we verbally express our sexual dealings and relationships? There certainly are a number of reasons why we could stand to add some sizzling and sweet terms to the language of love. Among them are . . .
Some slang terms just don’t work. Informal and often facetious sex terms can be great in decreasing one’s embarrassment in inviting sexual discourse. Yet while urban dictionaries offer hundreds of words that succinctly describe a number of sex acts captured in no other way, slang doesn’t do us a whole lot of good when it can’t go to print in most news outlets. A great deal of slang is offensive and in poor taste as well.
Some words don’t exist. Whether prior to sex or during cuddling, a number of women enjoy the intimacy and feelings that arise from having her partner lie on her with his full body weight. Now why did it take me a full sentence to describe one easy act? Why don’t we have one simple word or short phrase to describe this interaction? This is just one of many sexual, sensual, and/or romantic exchanges we haven’t chocked up readily.
Some words aren’t totally accurate. Take, for example, that a person who has a one night stand can have trouble figuring out how to label the individual they slept with. To say the person was your “lover” isn’t exactly right for sex that was meaningless or lacking emotions. To say “partner” isn’t wholly precise since that tends to mean being invested in one another, especially long-term. So what is one to say?
Some words are too vague. Somebody declares “I had sex,” “I had intercourse,” “I practice abstinence,” or “I lost my virginity” and you know what they mean ... Or do you? People define certain sex terms differently, especially since the definition of what constitutes “sex” is slowly expanding.
The ambiguity of some words can be great for privacy purposes. Their obscurity can also make an individual’s “dirty” dealings more intriguing, with some liking that they sound more sexually accomplished than is truly the case. Yet their cryptic nature can make for misunderstandings, and they have been known to cause trouble between lovers — and to mislead parents.
Some words aren’t sexy enough. For lesbians, “having sex” is largely defined as involving genital contact. Genital contact — doesn’t exactly have you fanning yourself now, does it? Yet beyond vulgar vernacular, there’s no way of quickly and erotically describing “genital contact.”
Some words are too silly. Every semester, I ask my students to brainstorm terms for male and female genitalia, sexual orientation, masturbation and sex. They have a field day wiping away the cobwebs in remembering any and all terms they’ve ever heard to describe these sex terms. They always come to the conclusion: It can be a real challenge to think of words in these areas that are positive and sexy.
Some words are too male-oriented. A colleague of mine has criticized certain sex terms for being sexist. Penetration, for example, has traditionally described a power dynamic of what a male “does” to a female. His solution: let’s have a term for the same activity when initiated and controlled by a female partner. Any suggestions?
Some words we outgrow. Practically anybody over 30 who is single but partnered will complain that saying that they have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” sounds so adolescent. Yet the alternative — partner — feels cold to many, especially given its use in business. Heterosexuals often fear that people will mistake them for being gay or lesbian since “partner” is typically used to describe a homosexual relationship status.
Some words have been battered. When love conquered marriage, it used to be that describing someone as your husband or wife indicated great emotional significance. Thanks to the popular press, having a husband or wife means you’re wearing a ball and chain. Thanks to singles bitter over the pressure to get married or wanting to be married themselves, hearing husband or wife simply means that you managed to “get hitched.”
Sweetheart and other terms of endearment encompass the emotional feelings. Yet the problem with most of these substitutes is that they’re not exclusive in being used with partners. They further don’t necessarily convey the level of commitment.
In recent years, with more public discussions about sex, attempts have been made to introduce erotic terms into the English language. The challenges are many, including who is suggesting them.
I’ve found that authors with no background in sexuality often attempt to sell books or themselves as authorities in supposedly “inventing” a sex act and/or coining such with a witty label. But flip open the Kama Sutra or another ancient sex manual and it’s clear that their “new” twist on naked Twister is so yesterday. Regardless, readers of sex manuals simply get confused by the lack of consistency from read to read.
Then you’ve got the academics giving things a go, but in doing so live up to their reputation for making things unsexy. Northwestern Professor Gregory Ward has, for example, coined the term “coitocentric” to describe the fact that our culture is overly focused on intercourse. We’re “centered” on “coitus.” Something tells me that’s not going to be used much beyond a university’s ivory tower.
As any linguist will tell you, time will tell if humans can establish words that are more exact in capturing our sexuality and sexual experiences. Humans have long been coming up with scientific, medical, common, “street,” and childhood terms in explaining body parts, love, sexual development, expression, functioning, sexual interests, sexual behaviors... and many are here to stay.
Perhaps, with humans conversing about sex more than ever, we’ll find faster and more creative ways to communicate about sex. You can bet that the Internet – and perhaps another “Bootilicious” song from Beyoncé, may help to speed things along.
Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."