by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell
Introduction: How we talk about something can be, at times at least, as important as what we say about it. The language we use often says something about how we feel about the subject; likewise, our language is often impacted by our audience. When it comes to sex, the language, the terms we use at the bar drinking with friends, or with a sexual partner, may not be the same ones we use a classroom, at church (if we ever talk about “it” at church), or in print. In writing this blog, we have struggled with our language around bodies and sexuality, trying to speak to an audience that is ever fluctuating and changing. This week, we decided to explore the tension inherent in our “body language” and how we can bring the sacredness of our bodies and sexualities together with the vernacular language that is so often branded as “dirty”.
Malachi: Cunt. Dick. Pussy. Cock. Ass. The vernacular language describing different arrangements of genitalia may feel comfortable for some, while others find those words distasteful and prefer more clinical language, such as penis or vagina (or, in some cases, vulva). Language can be a tricky, complicated landscape to navigate. Perhaps we are more comfortable using words that describe our own anatomy, while those words that define anatomy different than our own might feel more awkward or foreign, particularly if we gravitate toward same-sex tendencies.
For myself, for example, the word “pussy” used to make me feel really uncomfortable, and not at all something that would describe any genitalia I have. Whenever I heard it used, it reminded me of watching heterosexual porn: some cisgendered man with a particularly prodigious member penetrating a petite cisgendered woman growling, “You like when I fuck that pussy?” while going at it.
Perhaps that’s too graphic of an image, although the reality is, many people watch porn and, in my experience, a considerable amount of porn, includes some aspect of “dirty talk.” It feels almost humorous to imagine that same situation wherein the man instead says, “You like it when I penetrate your vagina?” That feels less… sexy, less rough, less… something.
Having the vernacular language to discuss our genitals contributes something to our language and I think it’s an important component in how we talk about our bodies and our sexualities- as well as how we use our bodies and sexualities to denigrate one another.
There seems to be a time and a place to use certain language, and it’s something that Robin and I have struggled with in writing this blog. We are, after all, writing about bodies and sexuality, yet tend to favor the more clinical language of penis and vagina in our writing. That has been a conscious choice, but sometimes, it has felt awkward and clunky. So, like everything else that we struggle with, we’ve decided to write about the language itself.
I remember my partner, Kase, coming home one evening while he was in his last semester of nursing school. He was working with a group called the Western North Carolina Community AIDS Project (WNCCAP), and the person he was primarily working with gave workshops to different at-risk groups about safer sex practices. Kase was telling me this story because, at the beginning of the workshop, the man stood up and said something to the effect of, “I’m going to be talking about dicks and pussies in this workshop because people aren’t talking about penises and vaginas when they’re fucking.”
Many of the students in Kase’s nursing program were scandalized and offended. “That’s indecent and inappropriate,” many of them said. “I can’t believe he said that!” It made them incredibly uncomfortable…and yet. The workshop wasn’t for them- they were helping out at a location for high-risk individuals, and the workshop was aimed at people who were doing sex work, who were homeless, who were addicted, and part of the way to make that information relevant to that population of people was to use the language that was appropriate for them.
So when it is appropriate to use certain language? I’m not sure there is a good barometer. I don’t like the idea that language like dick and pussy is only applicable to high-risk populations- that is not only classist and creates a correlation between risky actions and risqué language, it’s also simply not true. Personally, I’m more excited and interested to listen to a workshop about cunts and cocks than penises and vaginas.
Perhaps, for many, the language feels intimate and personal, something that shouldn’t be shared publicly. “Suck my cock” is something that might be said to a lover and carries with it the intimacy of that experience, whereas “performing fellatio” is a term in abstraction, something we can distance ourselves from as an arbitrary sexual act. Perhaps the hypothetical feels safer because it reveals less of our sexual selves, and our sexual selves can feel incredibly vulnerable. We err on the side of safety because not only might our language come under fire, but the implication of using certain language makes us feel as though our sexual selves are also being criticized.
Which brings me to another very important point: nearly every single euphemism we have for genitalia is also a derogatory statement. “He’s such a dick;” “She’s being a cunt;” “That guy is an ass;” “Don’t be such a pussy.” In fact, the only term I can’t think of a vernacular, non-sexual phrase for is cock. The point is, though, that we use genital language as way to denigrate others; even “fuck” is used in a negative way (“Fuck you!”). It is telling, I think, as to our social attitudes toward bodies and sex, that the majority of our negative terms are directly related to terms for our bodies and sexual acts.
In all of this, of course, we cannot ignore that there is an inherent genderedness to this language. Cock and dick are in reference to the penis, whereas cunt and pussy are in reference to the vulva (of which the vagina is a part). A friend of mine has a button that said, “The Ass is the Great Equalizer.” It’s humorous, but the truth is, we all have an anal orifice and, for some, that is a component of their sexual experience. It can be so easy to get wrapped up in the gendered language of “frontal genitalia” that we forget to include the ways in which anal intercourse is also an important aspect of many people’s sexual lives- regardless of identity or genital configuration.
The language we use for our genitals gets to be an even more complicated discussion when referencing trans people. I, for example, tend to use both cock and cunt in reference to what’s in my pants, but that’s a highly individual choice. I have known many trans people across the spectrum of identity who refer to their anatomy with a wide variety of terms (“junk,” for example, tends to be a common term- and it bears noting that “junkie” is a term associated with heroin addiction).
Sometimes the claiming of language helps someone feel more comfortable and at home in their bodies, and that’s a powerful experience for a trans person. As a result, when I have sex with someone for the first time, I have the “what can I touch and what do you call it?” conversation- both to have active, enthusiastic consent for any sexual acts that occur, but also so I know how that person wants their body parts referenced.
It’s not always an easy or comfortable conversation. It certainly feels easier to reference bodies in abstraction rather than laden with both the intimacy of our own experiences and the connotation of negative association that often comes with the vernacular language. And yet, sometimes the clinical language is ill-suited for our purpose. While I strive to not cause unnecessary discomfort, I do believe that, sometimes, it is important that we push outside the box a bit. As someone with a history of writing and publishing, I know how important word choice is to convey a particular message- it can be the difference between a house and a home. So perhaps we should put just as much care into the words we use for our sexual selves- not to illicit the “shock factor” of using “dirty” words (a term I have always hated), but rather the willingness to be vulnerable with our language choices when the situation arises.
Robin: Recently, in preparing a blog post, I added a parenthetical note that went something like this: I just wish that sometimes I could say dick or cock; it feels so formal, clinical, to keep saying penis, especially when talking about my own. But, it was not really germane to the main point of the post and I chose to delete it before publication. But that sentiment kept haunting me, so during our most recent editorial conference when Malachi raised the question of language I agreed it is time to say something out loud.
My interest is not limited to wanting to be less formal and clinical. There is another aspect that strikes right at the heart of what Malachi and I are trying to do in this space. We really want people, all people, to feel comfortable talking about sex, and not just in clinical settings (with our doctor when we have a problem or in a sex education class, e.g.). We want sex talk to be everyday talk.
But how can we do that when we can’t use everyday language during the conversation? Indeed, how can we have conversations if we don’t, or won’t, use the language that is the most conversational ? I admit that our ideas of what is conversational will vary, but in truth there really is a line about sexual language that we are expected not to cross (no “dirty” words).
And how can we use that language when it is considered “dirty,” when the only time we hear it is as a negative—“He’s such a dick,” “She’s a cunt,” “What a boob!” “You’re an asshole,” or the angry, in our face (so to speak), “Fuck you!”
The truth is that a dick or cock or penis is a beautiful body part, as is a cunt or vagina or vulva and breasts/nipples, and yes, even the asshole or anus. And they serve important functions, including sexual pleasure. But in our embarrassment, and yes our shame, most of us have concluded the only way we can mention them openly is by making them negative.
Some non-mainstream print media may resort to a wink, saying c—k, or d—k, or c—t. I have not seen v—na, or v—va , but I have seen a-hole. The New York Times and others found themselves making a somewhat blushing reference to a less common term for the phallus, namely weenie, when writing about former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s penchant for sharing pictures of his via social media.
One piece of male anatomy seems to have escaped the negative connection. Occasionally, someone will talk disparagingly about a leader not having “the balls” to make a tough decision, the implication that the testicles, affectionately known as balls or nuts, contain real power. I think somewhere I read an appreciation of Hillary Clinton, or perhaps Margaret Thatcher, that included the idea that she (or they) have balls, they are tough, despite being female—and again in much ordinary conversation, it is the masculine term or aspect that conveys strength. They cannot be strong on the basis of being themselves, being women.
Can we not grasp the divine origins, the godliness, of our bodies—every part, every orifice, every appendage, every organ, every inch of skin? I have searched Genesis pretty thoroughly and do not find any qualifiers on God’s part. . . . and God saw that it was good (* Some Exceptions Apply, especially when speaking of the reproductive and sexual organs).
But if we actually used these terms positively, even joyfully, then we might have to admit that sex itself is not only good and necessary, it is a form of spiritual, indeed holy, conversation (unless, of course, it is used to violate someone’s body and sacred being). That would then bring the slang we have made “dirty” into the realm of the holy and beautiful, and that would really upset the world, we would really be troubling the waters.
It is my experience and study that convince me that this troubling the waters is what God does, over and over, again and again. Stirring things up is one of the main activities of God. It is thus, in my view, one of the main reasons we have been given sex. Sure, it is necessary to reproduce the species, but the fact that it can be so pleasurable means that we return to it, and each time we do, God sees an opportunity to help us grow spiritually. Sadly, we usually miss that part of the message, and think we are just having sex. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; sometimes sex is just sex, just as a cigar can be just a cigar (and not one of those four-letter male appendages we don’t like to name).
As a gay man, I admit to considerable fascination with those particular appendages—whatever the name. I also admit to less interest in cunts or vaginas. But a woman’s body is a wonder to behold, a creation of beauty, quite aside from sex, and that includes her “private parts.”
Where did that expression come from? How can something be private when we all have them, and we know we do? I know, I know, private is different from secret; nobody says that the fact we have genitals is a secret, just that we are to keep them covered in public (and in most homes, too, except in the bathroom or bedroom). But frankly, it feels more like an open secret, and sometimes those can be very destructive. I know of too many families deeply injured by open secrets, and sex is so often part of it. I also know that organizations, like churches, can have open secrets, and since everyone assumes everyone else is on it, no one ever takes responsibility for the ways the secret hurts some, or even possibly all, of the group.
And, as Malachi has written previously in this space, one of the challenges that many cisgender people who are insecure in their own bodies experience from transgender people is that all of sudden we don’t know just which parts an individual actually has. We claim these are private parts, but that is not really true. We do want to know, we want certainty, about who has what. So, the trans person’s genitals become a contested field, no longer private parts.
Partly in order to overcome my own secret shame about my private parts, I have written in this space about my small penis . . . er, dick, or as I prefer cock (a term that so far as I know is not generally used negatively). Probably some readers are tired of it by now (sometimes I am tired of dealing with it, too, but undoing decades of emotional and spiritual damage, in some senses, trauma, is not done overnight).
You may think it odd to quibble about which slang term to use for “my little guy” (I have referred to him this way at times). But as I have looked a explicitly sexual literature and pictures from time to time, I have picked up something which I think is true, namely that a dick is any size but a cock is always big (and that translates to powerful). Of course, this could be my imagination—I certainly have not spent a lot of time on this study, nor have I encountered any learned essays.
At any rate, I want to claim power for mine, and so I often refer to my cock. And then there is of course, the old English nursery rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” not to mention the rock band of that name, and just the fact that a male Robin bird is sometimes called a Cock Robin. That would be me, a male Robin, Cock Robin, Not Dick (as in Cheney) Robin.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? What are your thoughts on body and sex languages? Please share below (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.