“Sex” – More on bigoted language

Why is there so much talk about “sex” around here? What is this “sex” thing that we are saving for marriage? And what is this marriage thing?

The whole conversation is based in hetero norms and assumptions. Dictionary.com mainly defines “sex” the way we talk about “gender.” It also links to Coitus, which it defines as hetero intercourse – a penis penetrating a vagina. According to all that, I don’t have any gay friends who have ever had sex (coitus) in their lives (though most have had sex (gender) since birth or soon after).

So much for promiscuity. By hetero norms, Gay and Lesbian people are generally celibate, and it all gets confusing when you start talking Trans-gendered.

And don’t say “you know what we mean” because I don’t. Where’s the line? What’s the definition? Holding hands? Kissing? Petting? Nudity? Orgasm? Genital to genital contact? It’s not only a continuum without clear delineations, it doesn’t all even line up. Which is worse, clothed orgasm or nudity without touching? What about orgasm without touching? Where is oral or anal sex in the mix? What makes them more “sex” than, say, petting? There is no answer. Coitus is a hetero concept, and a false delimiter.

Language is important.

And then you have marriage. You can claim that it’s only for heteros because God said so, but it’s a tenuous claim and along the lines of claiming slavery was instituted by God. Or you can claim psychological/relational reasons for marriage, only what you mean is long term committed relationships with church, state and community support. Because that’s what marriage is. “The social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.”

Oops, the definition is hetero again.

Gay marriage doesn’t exist because we said it doesn’t. But the psychological part has nothing to do with that. Long term committed homosexual relationships with church and state and community support CAN happen, and do some places, with as much success as hetero ones. Without that opportunity, there’s not a fighting chance. I’d certainly give up on the church’s definition of sexual morality if it clearly excluded me from loving who I love. Sex nothing, I’m just talking romance. Then I would end up in a series of short, secretive relationships doomed to fail because of the pressure. Then we could all call me “promiscuous.”

There’s another failure of a term. Promiscuous is someone who’s getting more than I am. Promiscuous is someone who might be more picky about life-long partners than I am. Where’s the line?

The entire conversation and the language involved is skewed to keep the terms straight. Now that’s broken.

Comments (10)

  1. Dan S

    Great post Eric.

    I’ve always chuckled at the term “traditional” marriage. If you go back just a few centuries in western culture, that meant a man acquiring property in his wife, who had no legal rights of her own.

    Or, we could go all the way back to biblical (OT) marriage, where a man had many wives if he was wealthy enough. That was certainly a traditionl marriage.

    The point about “promiscuity” is well-taken too. You have to wonder how many hetero couples would make a habit of leaving their spouses if they were not allowed by law to make legal commitments to each other. Every couple goes through rough stretches, and if society at large always expected them to fail, they probably would more often.

  2. Pingback: On the Choice of Sexual Expression - for clarification » Young Anabaptist Radicals

  3. DenverS

    Eric, thanks for brining attention to some assumptions on the definitions of “sex” and “marriage” that are derived primarily from a heterosexual perspective. There is another word I think we need to be careful about throwing around, “bigotry.”

    Sometimes I’m hesitant to comment on a post that I don’t completely agreement with, because to admit that makes me afraid I might get put into the “bigot” category (and if I am, please call me on that). Unfortunately there are bigots in the church whose attitudes are extremely hateful towards people of a different sexual orientation, sexual habit, or different world different view in general. Can we have personal standards for ourselves, and how does that affect our interaction with someone “outside” those “standards”?

    First I’d like to make a clear distinction between standards that I hold for myself, and standards I feel the need to impose on others.

    On SEX, however anybody else defines it, I personally see value in avoiding excessive physical contact (I think you personally need to decide where those lines are) until I am ready to make a long term commitment to my partner. It’s a struggle, and fortunately I have a community of supporters who help hold me to that standard.

    On MARRIAGE, the simplest definition for myself, is that long term commitment.

    On both of SEX and MARRIAGE, I don’t feel the need to impose my ideals on my European friend, where it’s culturally acceptable to live with someone as a trial for marriage, or impose them on a reader of this post who understand things differently. I think it’s unfortunate that the people making the loudest noises in the Christian have this attitude that they need to impose their “Christian values” on others.

    Speaking of Christian values, this whole conversation about standards gets MUCH more complex when you enter community models (church being one of them) because communities set standards for themselves as well. If you are a committed member of a community, you are expected to live by that community standard, and both receive and give accountability to those standards. For example on a very personal level, I have an accountability partner, and we keep ourselves accountable to sexual purity as we define it (which includes standards we have set with pornography and physical relationships with our girlfriends).

    The crux of the whole problem is that, whether we like it or not, these personal and communal standards DO affect the way we perceive others and relate to them.

    The crux of the whole problem is that, whether we like it or not, these personal and communal standards DO affect the way we perceive others and relate to them. There is a tendency to look down them, and the extreme form of this is bigotry. I think these community standards need to be constantly reevaluated, because they can become outdating, not practical, damaging, and wrong.

    But on the other hand I’m trying to make the argument that personal and communal standards are GOOD things if they are rooted in improving self and our relationships with the Almighty and those around us even if they have different standard than we do.

    So I want to be careful not to blast a community or individuals for its standards on sexuality or other well intentioned standards. Instead we should focus on how those standards prevent positive relationships with those who we don’t agree with.

    The homosexuality marriage question is tricky issue. Many church communities have made it a standard to oppose it within their community. It’s hard to suggest that this may be a valid group standard and not get thrown in the same category as the bigots who have mercilessly and hatefully blasted the homosexual community… On a society level and Christian level, I don’t necessary feel the need to impose the heterosexual marriage only everybody else as many Christians groups have done. What I’m hearing from several YAR bloggers is that we may need to look at this marriage standard in our communities again. I think it is necessary for our church communities to examine standards that that have been damaging and evaluate is it the standard or the way we impose it on others that is wrong?

    I’ve talked about personal and community standards, but what does YAR think about Christian standards? Obviously we have a bad track record when we set standards for the whole Christian community. But are there nonnegotiable standards that we expect to keep the whole Christian community accountable to?

  4. TimN

    The New York Times recently ran this excellent overview of recent research on sexuality, romantic love and gender:

    Pas de Deux of Sexuality Is Written in the Genes

    I highly recommend it.

  5. eric (Post author)

    Denver, I think it is more dangerous to avoid the term “bigot” than to use it. Bigotry is rampant and often subtle or candy-coated. Lots of very nice people are bigoted. I’m bigoted, and I hope people call me out on it honestly when I am.

    Who you feel like touching before or after marriage is not the point. Bigoted language places some people above other people, sets certain groups as the “norm” and others as “deviants.” That’s a problem that needs to be addressed for what it is, whenever it comes up. Especially in polite company and when it is unintentional or assumed.

    In other news: I was reading up on some more good-ol’ feminism today and found some great posts about sex that seemed related to this thread. From Rad Geek, in debunking the myths around Andrea Dworkin and sex:

    (1) that patriarchal culture makes heterosexual intercourse the paradigm activity for all sexuality; other forms of sexuality are typically treated as “not real sex” or as mere precursors to intercourse and always discussed in terms that analogize them to it; (2) that heterosexual intercourse is typically depicted in ways that are systematically male-centric and which portray the activity as iniated by and for the man (as “penetration” of the woman by the man, rather than “engulfing” of the man by the woman, or as the man and woman “joining” together–the last is represented in the term “copulation” but that’s rarely used in ordinary speech about human men and women); etc.

    There’s more from rad Geek.

    And the whole post that started my research is from Finally, a Feminist 101 Blog – called FAQ: But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? Read it. It’s very good.

  6. Skylark

    Eric, in my conversations with Christians and others who hold to similar sexual morals, the majority do view heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse as the “best sex.” They also tend to view homosexuality as a sin. Among those who see hetero- and homosexuality as equally acceptable, I don’t hear the same over-emphasis on penile-vaginal intercourse. I guess I don’t see much point in talking about the ways people talk about different sex acts until we’ve addressed the sin/non-sin issue. But maybe the people with whom you interact are to that point, while most in my life aren’t.

  7. eric (Post author)

    Maybe we should address the sin/non-sin issue. I suppose I’m game for that. I generally write about what I’m interested in more than what the broader church community might be interested in.

    But I don’t think the Rad Geek is talking just about heterosexual vs homosexual sex acts – but that even within heterosexuality we ignore all aspects of sex apart from the “engulfing” which is seen as the one and only “true sex.”

    (This could be seen, of course, as WHY we have such a hard time accepting homosexuality – and therefor key to any conversation about sin. Thinking of splinters and logs – maybe we should do some talking about sex BEFORE we go talking about any issues of sin. Or maybe I’m crazy.)

    The second part of the quote isn’t about sex acts at all – it’s about language. And I think it’s an important point about the language of sex being male-dominant in our culture.

    You don’t have to come down one way or the other on any sin issue to talk about either one of those topics, do you?

    Or is sex talk of any sort too far out there for this blog? Am I way off base?

  8. eric (Post author)

    [update: a link to consider more of the issues revolving purely around the ways we think about hetero sexual acts. We can say this is only for married people. It’s still an issue.]

  9. lukelm

    From the world of nature, we now have the 2-foot duck penis:


    (does anyone know how to do a hypertext markup in the comments to avoid these monster links?)

    Apparently the females have been evolving longer and longer complicated oviducts so they can be choosy about which sperm they keep and which they discard from various copulations (chosen and forced), so males have been forced to evolve these longer and longer penises.

    If you want to start breaking down one-dimensional views of what sex is, just take a five-minute look at nature. It makes all the diversity of human sexual experience seem rather – tame? Somewhat safe and familiar, at least. (Or maybe makes you start wondering whether there’s more diversity to human sexuality than we know.)

  10. Skylark

    Eric, I’m game for sex talk. I can’t speak for anyone else here, of course. It doesn’t bother me to use anatomically-correct terms, but I will admit to smiling when others squirm.

    I agree it doesn’t have to matter where a person falls on the sin/non-sin issue to talk about the language behind the various sex acts. I remember when I asked a Christian woman in my life why she never mentioned oral or anal sex, though she did caution me about penile-vaginal (she didn’t use such frank language, of course.) She shifted uncomfortably and said she thought oral and anal were “too far out there” and that it wouldn’t be an issue. I told her the world has changed. While perhaps once heterosexuals only engaged in penile-vaginal, it is increasingly common for even Christian heterosexual married couples to happily do oral and anal. Her response was to ask if I had ever been abused or molested. No, I responded. Certainly I appreciate her concern, but a willingness to discuss “nontraditional” sex acts in the abstract hardly indicates abuse or molestation.

    I recall a professor in college saying it was perfectly acceptable for Christian hetero married couples to do oral and anal–as long as it didn’t permanently replace penile-vaginal. I think, though I’m not sure, that he also held to the theology that sexual union in marriage must allow the possibility of childbearing. Even if a couple is using (non-abortifacent) birth control diligently.

    The question that arises then is, “What is the purpose of sex?” Is it to join two people in a way that emotional and spiritual intimacy alone cannot? Is it just to provide pleasure? If childbearing is indeed a purpose of sex, must it be the purpose (or at least a possible byproduct of) all sex? I’ve been told that’s the offical Catholic theology. It would certainly preclude gay and lesbian sexual unions, which are by definition sterile.

    While at one time it’s possible people needed to be reminded to procreate so the human race wouldn’t die out, we have no lack of people procreating now. Humans aren’t about to die out if the small percentage of the population that is homosexual is culturally permitted to have sex.

    Still, I can’t seem to satisfactorily answer the question of the purpose of sex. It seems to have several purposes that are not always in effect.

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