The last workshop I attended at the Dismantling Rape Culture Conference was called “Revising Sex” and it was a reflection on how our culture views the act of sex and the relationships surrounding sex. The first thing the presenters had the group do was walk up to a whiteboard and write down the language they commonly heard surrounding sex. The exercise acted as a starting point for a really good conversation about how language shapes the way we think about sex. The presenters made the point that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected, and that language shapes all of them. Our thoughts about sex drive our feelings about sex, which dictates our behavior around sex. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are expressed internally and externally through language. So, the way we talk about sex is a powerful influence on how we perceive sex.
Looking at the whiteboard, I made a connection that I had never noticed before: many of the popular phrases we use to talk about sex are pretty violent. People had written things on the board like “I’d hit that”, “I’d tap that”, “I’d destroy that”, and “I’d smash that”. I am a twenty-something human, so of course I’d heard these phrases, but I had never noticed how inherently violent they were. I also noticed how these phrases were definitely from a masculine voice.
This language exercise clearly demonstrated how rape culture is present in our language about sex. Violence and sex have become so linked that it’s not alarming for a man to say “I’d hit that”. When you take any of these common phrases at face value the message they send is alarming. It sounds like men who use these phrases are talking about domestic or sexual violence, but they are talking about sex. The subtle link between the two is alarming, especially since it’s so commonplace it’s not questioned.
These phrases also objectify women. The purpose of the phrases is for males to evaluate a woman’s worthiness for sex, which is often based solely on their physical attractiveness. This process of evaluation turns women in to objects for the male gaze. The woman’s value is associated with whether or not the group of males would sleep with her. If they would not, she is entirely devalued and often completely ignored.
These phrases also objectify women by taking away their agency. When men use these phrases to evaluate women there is no question of whether the woman would have a choice in the hypothetical sex. These phrases are based in conquest culture, in which sex is a prize to be collected from women by males. The male is giving the woman value by rating her as “fuckable” and she would have sex with him for giving her that value. There’s no place for a woman’s decision in this sexual evaluation.
The other surprising observation I made from the language exercise was that there weren’t any examples of how women talked about sex. All the language seemed to be from the male voice. This suggests that our common language around sex does not take in to account female sexuality. The language we use to talk about sex does not suggest that women pursue sex. The language does not suggest that women’s pleasure should be taken in to account. The language does not even suggest that women want sex. Based on the language we use to talk about sex, it is still a male domain in which women participate. This is both a product of rape culture, where women’s consent and pleasure is not primary, and a continuation of rape culture, in that it ignores women’s agency in sex.
The way we talk about sex is both a reflection and a shaper of our perceptions of sex. The workshop proved to me that our language about sex is deeply rooted in rape culture. If we make changes to the way we talk about sex we can start to change our perceptions about sex, which is a good first step in dismantling rape culture. Be more aware of how you talk about sex and make these changes in your language. I know I will.