The Role of Language in Understanding Sexual Behaviour

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Lecture date: Sun, 23rd Oct, 2016
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Warning: this article contains sexually explicit descriptions.

This piece starts with a warning: if you are worried about explicit sexual language, you should consider skipping to a different article. The need for such warnings is one of the features of sex and sex research, and the line between ‘explicit’ meaning ‘precise’ versus ‘obscene’ is easy to cross by mistake. For instance, I helped advise on a survey questionnaire in Uganda that would ask young people whether or not they had ever had sex. We know that young people from many different cultures may not understand exactly what ‘sex’ is, particularly given that ‘sex’ can be interpreted in different ways. To make matters worse, the most commonly used local expression was very vague, roughly translating as ‘moving around in the night’. We wanted to be specific (penis in vagina) but when we provided the rephrased, more ‘specific’ question to the interviewing team they flatly refused to use it because they considered it too obscene. We were stuck with ‘moving around in the night’.

So using language to try to understand sexual behaviour can bring problems. We still use language for research, however, because sex is not usually observable by researchers and in any case observers would not be able to detect internal states such as people’s opinions about what is happening, whether they are consenting or not, and whether they feel pleasure or not. So what people tell us about sex is one of the only ways we can find out what’s happening at all. Of course, we know individuals may not want to tell us everything or may gloss over certain things that happened to present themselves in a particular light so if we want to know exactly what physically happened, we may find ourselves in difficulties – surveys about sexual practice for instance may record gender differences in reported sexual activity and it can be hard to know to what extent this reflects real differences and to what extent it reflects differences in how willing men versus women are to report what they do.

We have interviewed couples in depth about their sexual experiences and it is clear that two people’s accounts may not even be recognizable as being about the same event because of the different things they personally highlight in their narratives. For instance, we interviewed two individuals from a couple and both told a story that involved being caught in a heavy rainstorm, taking shelter in a hotel, then having sex for the first time. Almost everything else in the accounts was unrecognizable – without the key details about the rain and that it was their first sex together, we would not have necessarily interpreted it as being the same event at all.

Rather than to try to find out some kind of ‘truth’ about a sexual event, then, which as we can see may be problematic, another way to use language is to examine how people construct their identities in dialogue. What we say and how we present ourselves to others reflects something about us. The way we talk and the way people respond to us is affected by our personal characteristics, not just the words we use. The way people talk, then, often draws on shared norms – the things we need to be able to ‘read between the lines’ of what is said. For example, if we receive a reference for a new employee that says ‘John was employed in our organisation for ten years and was always very punctual’ but mentions nothing else, we might suspect that John also has less desirable characteristics that the referee does not wish to spell out, or even that the punctuality itself might be somehow problematic.

Another aspect of language that can be useful in understanding sexual behavior is labelling – we label things we need to talk about with others and so things with labels have a social reality although these labels may not be easily applied to individuals’ actual experiences. For instance, certain sexual practices have very common names and social significance, but that doesn’t mean that other practices don’t exist or are not important to people doing them. Some languages or slang from particular sexual subcultures might highlight certain practices that other languages do not and this is likely to reflect what is socially or culturally important to the users of those particular labels.

One example of a difficult phenomenon to research is sexual coercion. The WHO definition of sexual health includes freedom from coercion. Measuring sexual health therefore involves measuring sexual coercion. This can take account of internal processes (feelings of loss of control, fear, deception etc.) or external (an observer may interpret reports of an event and deem it coercive).

In a study we conducted in Mexico1, a girl we will call Blanca told us about her relationship with a much older man. For their first date, he had asked her to go with him to a major religious site called La Villa. She told us the story like this:

Blanca: He says to me: shall we go to La Villa? I say: let’s go. But instead of La Villa he took me to a hotel and that’s where it happened (laughs).

Int: And you, how would you describe what happened?

Blanca: Well, look, I didn’t want to, you know? I’ll tell you a funny story. I didn’t want to. He says to me: shall I go and wash? I say to him: yes. And after that, I crawled under the bed because I knew what I was there for, you know? I crawled under the bed. He was looking for me, he says: what are you doing under the bed? I say: oh, it’s because I dropped a peso. He says to me: go and wash. I say: yes, and I go and wash and he comes into the bathroom to wash at the same time. I say: no, no what are you doing here? – Just think! – I cover myself with the towel, everything getting soaked. He says to me: I like being with you, I’ve come to admire you. No, I say to him, get out of here! He says: no, you’ve got to understand me, I mean, even the first time I saw you I loved you, I found you attractive, I’d already seen you a few times but I’d never introduced myself. Okay, I say, and that was when the lesson began, and that’s how it ended. But, just imagine, how funny – crawling under the bed!

Int: How old was he?

Blanca: Him? He was 28

Int: And you?

Blanca: Guess!

Int: You said 15, right?

This is their first date, she is a virgin, he is nearly twice her age and deceives her about where they will go on their date. He is alone with her in a hotel room. Had their relationship not continued, it seems possible that she would have talked about this experience in a more negative way.

Blanca tells the story as a dialogue; we hear his voice, and the words she reports directly support the social requirement that the woman be in a loving relationship. They do the work in the story of constructing the relationship as something closer to the socially preferred loving relationship and further from something new and uncertain. In her telling of the story, the final, persuasive remark he makes is: “…even the first time I saw you I loved you, I found you attractive, I’d already seen you a few times”, which both lengthens the relationship to include time before they met (“I’d already seen you”), and introduces the crucial component of “love”. By using his voice, she implies that his motives were clear and directly stated. She is not interpreting his mood, she is simply being told that he loves her. Her agreement afterwards is immediate: he says he loves her, she consents to sex. The same story could be constructed very differently under different circumstances (“he locked me in a hotel room and forced me to have sex with him”). The construction of the event as positive requires certain parts of the dialogue to be reported, and reference to overarching concepts of ‘appropriate’ circumstances of sexual behaviour for women. Whether the event was ‘coercive’ or not is a complex question.

In a different study in the UK, we interviewed 16-18 year olds about their sexual experiences.2 This produced an example of how examining a label can help us to understand something about sex. One woman told us about her second experience of anal sex with her boyfriend. She told us about the same event in two separate interviews.

[First interview] We were having [vaginal] sex another time and it [her partner’s penis] just kind of slipped in [into her anus] that way.

[Second interview around one year later] He just sort of slipped in […] I think he thought it would make it less painful for me. And I think he
thought he can make me like it like that.

At the first interview, this interviewee was ambiguous about what happened, narrating the event as though it were accidental (“it just kind of slipped in”), perhaps reluctant to draw attention to not having been involved in the decision. At the second interview, she was clearer that he had deliberately penetrated her (she may also have spoken to her partner about it between interviews). She presents it in a somewhat positive way (“he thought he can make me like it”) but her consent remains unclear. At both interviews, she emphasised how much she enjoyed subsequent anal sex with the same man, and that either of them might initiate it.

The use of the label ‘slip’ recurred in different interviews with different people in the study. One young man, for example, mentioned a ‘slip’ in his first interview so in the second interview, the interviewer asks for more details.

[Interviewer] I think you said […] in the first interview that there had been a time where […] you said it [your penis] slipped.

[Interviewee] Well I, I tried, and I said it slipped.

[Interviewer] So it hadn’t actually slipped? It wasn’t an accident?

[Interviewee] No, no, no it wasn’t an accident.

Here the word ‘slip’ may be used in narrative as a way to gloss over or minimise coercive behaviour. A slip after all could be accidental, so referring to an event as a ‘slip’ allows the speaker to be ambiguous about what occurred.

When we have stories about sexual events to analyse, we can look for shared understandings implied in the narrative; look at labels (what is labelled and what is not, and how labels are used); look at how speech is reported in narratives; and look at pauses, laughter and hesitation to try to understand some of these nuances. Ignoring complexity and demanding a ‘true’ picture of ‘what really happened’ in sex is common. I have tried to show with the examples here that the reality can be complex. Analysing language can reveal some of this complexity to help understand the nuances of sex and society.

Dr Cicely Marston gave her talk as part of the 2016 Bloomsbury Festival, which was based on the theme of Language.


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Dr Cicely Marston is an Associate Professor in Social Science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her research interests include interdisciplinary work on sexual and reproductive health, sexual behaviour (including coercion), particularly of young people, and community participation in health. She also works with various external organisations,…