Language and Sexuality
The aim of Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick in Language and Sexuality is stated in the preface as being “how linguists and other social scientists might think about, research and analyse the complex and multifaceted relationship between language and sexuality” [p. ix]. By sexuality, they mean sexual identity—whose construction is indeed language-dependent—but also erotic desires and practices which they claim “depend on language for their conceptualisation and expression” [p xi]. Widening the scope from the individual to the group, they discuss the way certain studies have tried to define what elements of language could be seen as specifically reflecting group identity: is there a language of homosexuality (also labelled gayspeak or queerspeak), is there a language of heterosexuality? The authors being respectively a lesbian and a gay man, most of the examples they use are drawn from their social environments, but they also consider forms of language outside their own spheres—though far less frequently.
The authors begin by giving welcome—if polemical—definitions of gender (socially constructed), sex (biological and linked to desires), sexuality (often narrowed to sexual orientation, erotic preference), stating that these are interconnected. In order to make the connections more explicit, they first choose to explore the relationships between sexuality and gender. Then, they focus on the links between language and sexuality, showing how the latter can condition the former:
Are there specific patterns of discourse, phonetic characteristics, distinctive “lects” or registers reflecting how people “enact sexuality and perform sexual identity in their talk” [p. 12]? Is there linguistic information to be drawn from the unsaid or the unsayable? These are the issues debated in the following chapters and more specifically in chapter two: “Talking sex and thinking sex: the linguistic and discursive construction of sexuality.” The example given here is the orgasm-faking scene in When Harry Met Sally. The scene is commented on at great length, cultural presuppositions are said to constitute its unavoidable interpretative infrastructure, and the conclusions the authors draw from all this have a taste of déjà vu:
The authors go on to question the origins of what they call the “reality” of sex: “the ‘reality’ of sex does not pre-exist the language in which it is expressed; rather, language produces the categories through which we organize our sexual desires, identities and practices” [p 19]. Unfortunately, they do not actually discuss this point—which could have found an echo in the findings of present-day research on cognition and language. Instead, they propose diachronically organised considerations on the received idea that there was hardly any discourse on sex before Lady Chatterley’s Lover started the debate. To prove the importance of classification, the word “client” is then analysed in terms of context (prostitution) and identity before the authors propose to replace it by the word “homosexual.” The dialectics is somewhat surprising as the point made is:
Such rhetoric is not satisfying and can hardly account for the classifications under scrutiny, especially since the aim of this chapter originally was to demonstrate that classification produces categories and labels them, not that categories are a result of sensory experience, intuition or subjectivity. The authors also advocate that “since we use language to think with (individually as well as in conversation with others), any new way of thinking is likely to involve new ways of using language as well” [p. 25]. Does this imply a motivation to the creation of new words? The fact is that “labelling” has very little to do with “reality”—whatever this word may refer to—and the arbitrariness of the sign has so often been pointed at that such motivation would be difficult to establish. Labels sum up different ways of conceptualizing and enable differentiation, some being nearly neutral, others marked, more or less positively. They can even act as representations of political stands:
However willing the authors are to try and examine language, it just seems as if they should constantly fall back on the notion of identity. Dealing with the role played by grammatical construction in the representation of sex roles, they quote valuable work by Elizabeth Manning (1997) in which she examines verbs and their capacity to reflect mutual, reciprocal or one-agent structures of interaction. Semantic roles (theta-role theory) could have been used here to shed some more light on the agent, experiencer, patient, goal, instrument (etc.) subjects that these verbs select and on the consequent semantic structures they implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously help to construct. But Cameron and Kulick choose to concentrate more on nouns such as “slapper,” “slut,” the pair “good girl–bad girl,” to evoke their social uses and connotations, en route for behavioural considerations. The case of sexual assault is then used as an example of how things said or unsaid can be interpreted as ways of indicating consent or lack thereof. Not saying “stop” can be interpreted as meaning “go on”: “ ’Consent’ on this definition is inferred from the absence of strong [verbal] resistance” [p. 35]. According to the authors, people should therefore speak their desires as well as their refusals, special attention being given to the word “no” and its specific use by S&M partners.
The next chapter, “What has gender got to do with sex? Language, heterosexuality and heteronormativity,” first equates heterosexuality with a “patriarchal institution” and develops the point that there is some sort of a gender hierarchy “that subordinates women to men” [p. 45]. It goes on with an analysis of the positions of radical feminists and lesbians, wondering if there is such a thing as a women’s language that would speak out femininity, this hypothesis being supported by the attention male-to-female transpeople give to changing their speech, for example. Excerpts from Veronica Vera’s Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys who Want to be Girls (1997) and Jennifer Ann Stevens’s From Masculine to Feminine and All Points In Between (1990) seem to predicate that femininity is acquired, not innate, that there are gender-appropriate ways of speaking and behaving, and that different linguistic resources are used by men and women. Is gender therefore directly indexed by language? The author’s answer to this question (taking up the work of linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs) is that
Consequently, the use of gendered styles of speaking is shown to participate in the construction of sexual meaning—the example given is that of ”fantasy makers” working for telephone sex-lines, who can change their voices according to the settings they need to construct. In that case, the person the “client” is talking to is nothing but a linguistic creation often bearing no resemblance to its creator. Along the same "line," the authors try to prove that adolescents and pre-adolescents use linguistic strategies to display conventional heterosexuality, “a development imperative,” in order to keep their status in their peer groups. “Performances of heterosexuality [are] used to position the speaker in relation to three major distinctions: masculine / feminine, heterosexual / homosexual and dominant / subordinate” [p. 71]. Heterosexuality, the authors contend, is a principle organizing sexuality in general.
Chapter four concentrates again on “Sexuality as identity: gay and lesbian language” with a sort of boomerang effect that makes the reader believe the real subject of this book is indeed identity, not language: “An important goal of this chapter is to look critically at the role identity has come to play in studies of language and homosexuality” [p. 75]. The authors therefore examine the evolution of research on language and homosexuality in the twentieth century, dividing it into phases, the first of which is said to have occurred from the late 1920s to the 1940s, the second in the 1950s and 1960s, the third from the 1970s to the mid-1990s and the fourth from that period to the present day. A helpful summary is proposed in a synthetic table on page 76 and developed in the rest of the chapter. A special mention must be made of pages 79 to 81 which, for the first time, deal with the lexicon of sexuality, more precisely with what the authors call “the lavender lexicon.” Legman’s dictionary (1941) is presented, which listed the words supposedly used by the homosexuals of his time. Taken from their context of use, these words have a stereotypical gloss about them that reduces them to their gendered definitions. The inversion of gendered pronouns, the use of in-group fringe vocabulary unknown to heterosexuals, which used to define a homosexual sub-culture, are said not to characterize new-style, consciousness-raised gays any longer. The authors then quote Joseph Hayes’ research on gayspeak (1981) which showed that gayspeak has three specific functions:
The same question arises here as in the previous developments: if Gayspeak is gay because it is used by gays, what makes it so specific of this particular group? What does its “gay-ty” consist of? A vocabulary? A voice? Does sounding mean being? As the authors rightly point out, “symbolic representations of language” must not be confused with “actual practice.” The example of camp talk then developed would tend to point out that there are identifiable rhetorical strategies that can account for the constitution of a particular character: as far as camp is concerned, Keith Harvey has identified paradox (“the juxtaposition of contradictory or clashing meanings”), inversion (“the reversal of an expected order or relation between signs”), ludicrism (“linguistic playfulness,” ambiguity) and parody (“stylistic and pragmatic use of devices that both index and exaggerate speaker orientations to identities and social relations” [p. 100]). Which Mae West would have called “the kinda comedy where they imitate me”…
The chapter ends on the question of the epistemological subject, the “I that in some sense can choose among different discourses and determine what best corresponds with its (already somehow established) sense of self,” which unfortunately the authors do not explore and reduce to the “idea of identity that underlies the research that [they] have discussed [so far] [p. 104].
Chapter five at last promises to leave the recurrent and almost obsessive subject of identity, to focus on language and desire; which it does and does well. Starting from the necessity to “problematize” both the subject and the object of desire in order to show how language can mediate or interfere between them, the authors quote various theorists of desire—Freud, Lacan, Derrida essentially. That “desire is the essence of man," in Lacan’s words, is put forward as an unquestionable basis for all further reasoning. The origins of desire are to be found in “the gap between the need and its expression” but also between that expression and its fulfilment—desire being also the translation of the need to maintain a relation to the other and to the other’s recognition of one’s desire. Mention is made of the work of Deleuze and Guattari with reference to the ways desire "is made possible, the ways it moves, acts and forms connections” [p. 110]. Desire is the object of multiple constructions in the same way as language is. Drawing a parallel between the analysis of desire and Foucault’s study of power, the authors propose a “nutshell version” of the works of the latter which clarifies their comparison and underscores the fact that relations of power animate or inhibit both the workings and the "expression" of desire. But the final question is: is desire purely dependent on intention or is it conditioned by pre-existing semiotic channels “that constrain and enable the choices individuals make when they communicate desire”? Even repression can, to a point, be an instigator of desire, in the same way as “a refusal to acknowledge something” is “already a form of acknowledgement.” Thus silences and pauses can be interpreted as having the same interactive value as words with full semantic weight. Is it not essentially semiotic practices that make communication possible? After examining Austin’s point of view on performatives and intentionality, the authors tackle Derrida’s deconstructionist approach to language and adhere to his opinion that “performatives work because they embody conventional forms of language that are already in existence before the speaker utters them. Performatives work, and language generally works because it is quotable.” For Derrida, “iterability” (change and sameness) is the condition by which something may signify. And this would seem to apply to desire too: which seems to be expressed via codes and semiotic practices which are quotable and “iterable.” Desire, after all, depends not so much on the speaker’s intentions as on the receiver’s interpretation. Which leads to a discussion of reception (but the authors do not envisage this point). Comfortingly enough though, the authors conclude by stating that “erotic experience always exceeds the capacity of language to represent it.”
The book ends with chapter 6: “Language and sexuality: theory, research and politics,” which pulls together the same old threads about sexuality and identity, adding that the study could be extended to non-mainstream individuals and cross-cultural linguistic attitudes. The book therefore ends on the question of identity (associating it with politics, gender, sexuality… again), apparently forgetting its preliminary concern with language.
The reader feels somewhat frustrated after reading Language and Sexuality. The present reviewer decided to examine the book chapter after chapter because it looks more like a collection of articles than like a demonstration of the interplay of the two notions stated in the title, constructed as a whole. What had been expected was an analysis of words, collocations, metaphors, stylistic devices revealing the nature of that interplay, whatever the sexual identity of the speaker. What the reader is given is a focalisation on the construction of homosexual identity through attitudes to language. The field is more that of socio-linguistics than that of language per se.
However, such a "collection of articles” has one obvious
quality: its oecumenism. Try as we may, it seems very difficult
to dissociate the writing of Deborah Cameron from that of Don Kulick.
Could this mean that language is not gendered, after all?