Sex in the Linguistic Panopticon

Or, The Importance of Talking About Sex


We talk about sex a lot in our culture, and forward-thinking people talk a lot about sexual liberation in one way or another. I’ve been to a number of workshops and discussions about or related to sex and sexuality, but one thing I hear little about is the far-reaching importance of the ways we talk about sex. In my own efforts to reconcile a desire for sex positivity with the personal fear of talking about sex, I have realized that language is a fundamental axis of sexual politics. In other words, talk is one of the fundamental ways in which sex is policed—and through which we can find the sexual freedom and empowerment we desire.

As Americans, we talk about coming out of our historic “sexual repression” — evolving past Puritanism and arranged marriages, finding sex positivity. That is the idea that consensual sex can be a positive, pleasurable force in our lives and that we should not be ashamed of its multitude of forms.

As women, we talk about the sexism in sex: the ways sex centers on men; the way science studies male sexuality and ignores female sexuality, relatively speaking; body image; the male gaze; the male-centered ways sex is talked about in the media.

As queers, we talk about the freedom and equality of sexual orientation.

As activists, we talk about the need for comprehensive sex education.

But when and how do we actually talk about sex itself? How does power inhabit the words we use or don’t use to talk about sex? How might we, even as activists/queers/women/sex positive Americans in 2014, be participating in the policing of sex?

Michel Foucault, the most widely cited philosopher of sexual politics, proposed the concept of the metaphorical panopticon. The panopticon was a prison architecture through which prisoners could be observed without ever being certain that they were being observed. Now that we have surveillance cameras and phone/internet surveillance, this 19th century concept has become reality.

Through the panopticon, sexuality was not so much repressed as oppressed by a decentralized power of surveillance. Writes Foucault,

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

Wikipedia describes it better than I can:

Foucault offers still another explanation for the type of "anonymous power" held by the operator of the central tower, suggesting that, "We have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way the surveillance is practiced". By including the anonymous "public servant," as part of the built-in "architecture" of surveillance, the disciplinary mechanism of observation is decentered and its efficacy improved.
As hinted at by the architecture, this panoptic design can be used for any "population" that needs to be kept under observation or control, such as: prisoners, schoolchildren, medical patients, or workers…
By individualizing the subjects and placing them in a state of constant visibility, the efficiency of the institution is maximized. Furthermore, it guarantees the function of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it. It is in this respect that the Panopticon functions automatically.

Foucault’s metaphor is a visual one in which prisoners are observed, but critical to the panopticon is talk. Prisoners are not just being watched; just as importantly, the guards are listening in on their conversations. But metaphorically, as Foucault explains, the guards of the sexuality prison are everyone and society as a whole. Thus, through all kinds of conversation, sex becomes a topic of surveillance. In his book, The History of Sexuality, he points out that it’s not that we don’t talk or think about sex (i.e. repression). Rather, it’s how we talk and think about sex. Surveillance is an invisible, decentralized way in which we do so. In activist speak, we call it “[social] policing,” i.e. identity policing.

Two of the most recognized ways in which we verbally “watch,” or police, the sexuality of others as well as ourselves: by calling women sluts for having sex with multiple partners or wearing clothing associated with such activity; and by calling men fags for not being straight. Or being afraid of being called these things, and choosing our behavior and language accordingly. There’s an invisibility to these ways of talking about and policing sex. Sometimes this invisibility is literal: men filming porn where only the women are fully visible, then marketing the porn as depicting “sluts”; people making derogatory comments online, anonymously. Other times it’s less literal: these things are invisible in that we never know who is policing us and when, because it could be anyone and everyone. Sometimes the women are called sluts behind their backs, for example. Or without even saying it, people are thinking it.

But there are subtler and less acknowledged ways in which we police sex. I regularly attend a queer women’s discussion group, and I pay a lot of attention to the ways that sex is or isn’t talked about there. For example, I notice a tendency to critique institutions and other people for the challenges facing queer women in talking about sex and sexuality, while there is very little explicit discussion of the act of sex. What little there is usually consists of technical explanations, such as “what is fisting.” This is very interesting to me for a discussion group centered around a sexual orientation and a sexual community. The stated mission of the group is to discuss issues pertinent to queer women and our community.

I’ve tried to change this by becoming a facilitator of the group and facilitating discussions completely about sex. I knew I had to do it when I got so much supportive feedback in suggesting it. And the two discussions I’ve facilitated so far were well-received. But knowing when to hold back, knowing when I may be pushing people too far out of their comfort zone is a challenge for me, and one that I’m quite anxious about. My intro question the first time was, “What is a sex toy that you own or want?” Immediately the person to my right said, “WHOA! Can we pick a less intimidating intro question?” So we changed it to, “sex toy or non-sexual toy.” Ultimately, she really liked the discussion and told me that if she were me, she’d be basking in the glory of its success. After the next discussion, however, her comment was less encouraging. She said she didn’t think it was the right group to be having such personal discussions, and said she had blurted something out that was so personal that she was regretting it on some level. In the discussion, she had mentioned that she had never had sex with a woman to date. I assume that’s what she was referring to.

Most of the other feedback I got was positive, but I asked another person what she thought of the discussion, and the response was: “I felt awkward, because I never really talk about sex.” This was someone who mentioned having had female sexual partners.

I welcome such feedback, and I do think that people’s willingness and readiness to have these conversations should be respected. That discussion group is confidential. Without that trust, communication is much harder—the liberating power of talking about sex can be passed up. At the same time, I think these conversations are important to be had, and not just behind closed bedroom doors. I ask myself such questions: why is it intimidating to start off talking about sex toys amongst adults in a discussion group in which the topic is pertinent? Why would someone report nothing more than feeling awkward talking (voluntarily) about sex, simply because it’s a topic they haven’t talked about much before? Is this ideal? Does it have to be this way? How can we change the situation? If not in this group, where do we begin these conversations?

Because to me, reading articles on Autostraddle about how to have various kinds of sex is great, but not enough. It’s just not the same as actually sitting around and having a serious, in-depth conversation about sex with friends, peers, members of our sexual community (i.e. queer women), potential lovers, and actual lovers. Similarly, we watch porn from the privacy of our homes, but how sex positive does that make us? How comfortable does that make us in having real life conversations about sex? In some ways, listening to porn has actually made me less comfortable with talking about sex. Online how-to articles about sex are but one of the many modes by which we talk about sex, police it, and liberate it. If it is not whether we talk about sex, but how, then we need to consider the importance of all the ways we do or do not talk about it.

My goal is to scale back the discussions with this group a little, for now, and find other avenues for the more boundary-pushing conversations. I very intentionally started the first discussion off by going very meta as I am in this article: asking about the importance of talking about sex for queer women. I think that’s a great place to start. Acknowledging the discomfort and why it might be important and helpful to step outside of our comfort zones is important because of all the fears and negative associations that come with talking about sex. Trust needs to be established.

There’s something to be said in the silence: with the sexual policing comes a fear of talking about sex, in certain ways. Think about the LGBTQ closet. Queerness was a hush-hush topic, except in negative commentary and insults here and there. The National Day of Silence is a protest against the silencing, or closeting, of LGBTQ individuals.

Yet what isn’t talked about as much is the fact that we silence ourselves in many ways, that we are not merely oppressed by an Oppressor. Rather the oppressor is anonymous, decentered, potentially everywhere. Oftentimes, we are among the oppressors, the police, policing ourselves and others without even realizing it. Till the age of 17, I stayed in the queer closet, believing I’d be an outcast if I came out. I didn’t even know about the concept of the closet, but I thought about it. It’s human nature to more readily talk about how others are oppressing and harming us than how we participate in that process ourselves, whether to the detriment of others or ourselves or both. We fear the loss of social power — disempowerment—naturally. All the more important that we think long and hard about how to empower ourselves and our world in ways that respect others. All the more important that we reflect on how we talk and think about sex.

I ask myself, how do we come out of this sexual closet and form these strong identities and communities around sexuality, yet we find it very difficult to talk about sex in ways that we want or need to? Sexual orientation has become one of the ways it is widely acceptable to talk about sex—not everywhere, but in much of society. I find, however, that the polyamorous and kink communities are still relatively closeted in some ways. There may be less human rights violations related to being poly or kinky, but the kink community, for example, takes confidentiality at their events far more seriously than the LGBQ community does today. In some ways, at least. At some events, you can’t even pull out a phone without someone coming up and telling you to put it away. And name tags at kink events are mostly pseudonyms, known as “scene names.” This is not true of the LGBQ community, although transgender events tend to still be relatively confidential. Of course, kink is, by popular definition, sexual activity that is considered taboo. Maybe that’s why I’ve heard that gay men are the originators of the kink scene. Wikipedia defines it differently:

In human sexuality, kinkiness or kinky (adjective), is a term used to refer to an intelligent and playful usage of sexual concepts which are overt, accentuated, unambiguously expressive of sexuality.

[Warning: If you did not think this article so far was NSFW, some of the writing below might be.]

I notice that I post more on Facebook about sex as a pleasurable act than all my friends—with the exception of someone who works for Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit focused on sex education. And I don’t even post much about it. Interestingly, one British friend posted a link to a data cloud showing words commonly used by men vs women on Facebook. “Fuck” or “fucking” was among the top words for men. I commented on this and my friend replied. I then intentionally tried to push the envelope by using the word in a sexual sense, suggesting that they should talk less about fucking as a violence/aggression/domination and more as sex. I got crickets chirping after that. Okay, maybe that was a bad idea. Some people use it for professional stuff, and I respect that. Still, I think it’s ironic. It’s the same damned word. As an amateur linguist, that’s not true — it’s a homonym with a related etymology. Still. Why is it so taboo on certain levels?

Which brings me to something else I find very fascinating: the significance of vulgar sexual language. There’s some widespread public conversation happening in the feminist community about the ways in which we talk about female sexual parts and female sex. There’s The Vagina Monologues, which I woefully haven’t yet seen. There’s a project called Cliteracy that received at least one article on The Huffington Post. These are words that we can often talk about publicly and still be seen as professional, if with some limitations (thank you, Republican Congressmen): vagina, vulva, clitoris. These are technical, scientific terms. But what about the others? I’m going to push that envelope here. Here goes.

“Fuck” is an empowering or powerful word in some ways, in public and common usage, and is used more to refer to male sexual activity. “Pussy” is heavily derogatory, along with “cunt” and “twat.” “Dick” can be an insult, but isn’t as derogatory. “Cocky” is sometimes used as praise, or as a non-intense criticism. All these male-associated words are acceptable in common parlance if not in The Huffington Post. However, there are derogatory words for queer men, which come with not only homophobia but a sense that men should not be feminine.

My discussion doesn’t stop at a detached discourse analysis, however. How does the derogatory use of these words affect our ability and willingness to use them in empowering ways? Some derogatory words have been reclaimed and others haven’t and never will be due to their intensity and nature. The N word has been controversially reclaimed by some black people, to a pretty limited extent. “Queer” has been reclaimed by academics and young, college-educated adults. “Dyke” has been reclaimed, but due to its derogatory history, is far from overtaking “lesbian” in its usage. Remember, all of these, aside from the N word, are sexual terms.

But will these derogatory words for female sexual parts ever be reclaimed to the extent of “queer”? There are many women who are more than comfortable using such words in positive, respectful, empowering ways, as it is. Yet I, for one, still feel very uncomfortable with these words, despite having had sexual partners who used them respectfully, and despite a desire to find empowering words to communicate with partners about sex. I’m not here to dictate which words should be reclaimed, but I do believe that some derogatory words need to be either transformed and reclaimed, or dropped from the language. At least their derogatory meanings need to be dropped, let’s say. As there are already some people using these words positively and respectfully, who are the rest of us to force them to stop using such words?

I think vulgar sexual language is one of the most powerful examples of the ways in which sex is verbally policed. As one gay male friend put it, “pussy” is an “intense” word. “Fuck” is the most intense common swear word in the English language. Yet, to use these words to actually talk about their original, sexual meanings is scary. Furthermore, it seems to me that those who are already comfortable with using such language don’t have much conversation with those who aren’t, about this topic. Because many people are afraid to even have such discussions. I know I was. Still am, though that’s changing.

Which brings us full circle to why this whole matter is important. I got interested in this topic in part because of my own fears about sex and talking about sex. I have, of course, participated in the policing of sex: for one, my own. It’s easier for me to write this entire article than to actually get up and just start using language that is laden with so many ugly meanings, both for my audience and myself. For another thing, I kept myself closeted, not only from others, but from myself. The thought of female-female sex, when I was 15, was disgusting to me—that’s not what attracted to me to women, even if it might be a subconscious, evolutionary goal of that attraction. Even after I came out, I thought of sex as insignificant, superficial. Love was the goal of attraction, in my view. Sex was perhaps even pointless. Of course, I thought all these things without ever having sex.

That’s the nature of the sexual panopticon. We all enlist in the police force. Even if we don’t police others, we police ourselves. I still have these fears, but I’m eager to move past them. They are not logical, and logic alone does not defeat them. But talking in positive, open, respectful ways about sex is where we can collectively begin to change things: because the policing effort is collective, so the solution will be collective as well.

I felt very disconnected from those who did feel comfortable using what we consider vulgar sexual language. I saw them as being of a different world, a different nature, and I considered it distasteful for someone to get up on stage and read an explicit poem about their sex acts. Now, because I come from this place, I want to start these conversations, make these connections. With no acknowledgment of the discomfort of one’s audience in using vulgar sexual language, I think it’s easy to remain disconnected—there’s no communication of the importance and discomfort of talking about sex, so we continue projecting our discomfort onto others just as “guilt-101" (as a friend put it) was projected onto us. Knowing how alienated I felt from those who simply felt comfortable talking explicitly about sex, I fear being on the other side of things even if I now support it. I fear never bridging that divide.

And I’ve also had sexual experiences where we just didn’t talk about sex before having it, the first time. It’s like we were both too afraid, too shy, too embarrassed, too tongue-tied with a lack of inoffensive sexy language, to simply state or ask whether we or our partner was ready to actually have sex. I recall a partner stating afterward that she “didn’t know how far [I] wanted [her] to go.” She made no comment on the fact that she’d never asked. And maybe we were incompatible in that neither of us wanted to take the lead, not just in that moment, but in general. But if I were in that situation again, I’d do it differently.

And you know, communication is so often said to be crucial to a relationship—it’s important for a healthy sex life. So, beginning to talk more and differently about sex is part of my personal quest to be able to communicate better about sex with sexual partners, with friends, with community members, and beyond. It’s part of my quest to encourage others to do the same, both for my own benefit as part of the collective and everyone else’s. But it’s about many things: consent; safer sex; sex education. How do we properly ask for consent, if we’re so afraid to even talk about sex? How do we have difficult conversations about safer sex, if we struggle with even bringing up the topic of sex before it happens? Even in sex shops, people tend to whisper when talking about sex—no joke. I’ve read about it from a sex shop employee, and I’ve had a sexual partner do it, when we were the only ones in the shop.

How do we teach our children, our youth, about sex, if we as adults are too uncomfortable with talking about it? My dad gave me the “sex talk” when I was 7, and it was totally fine by me. Then I asked him a sex-related question when I was 10, and he merely said, “I thought you already knew about that… I don’t feel like talking about it right now.” And we never talked about sex again, as far as I recall. (Except for the time he explained to me that he liked to consensually dominate women.) I sensed his discomfort and became uncomfortable myself. It bothered me that he wouldn’t answer me. Even in my queer women’s discussion group, a theoretically sex positive group, I recall discussions where it was just assumed that kids need to be shielded from hearing about sex too early. But the reality is that kids hear about sex either way. By 8 or 10, we all knew what sex was regardless of whether we got “the talk” or not. Sex is being talked about (and silenced) all over the place, but once again, the important question is: how?

We can also look at various cultures and groups for comparison. In many Asian cultures, sex is talked about considerably less or differently than in the West. What are the implications? Asians in the U.S. report less likelihood of coming out to their parents as LGBTQ as compared to Latinos, blacks, and whites. And are women generally less comfortable talking about sex than men? That is what couples therapist Glenda Corwin claims in her excellent book Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same-Sex Couples. It is, she says, one reason why long-term female couples are much more likely to stop having sex than male-female couples—so much so that it has been pessimistically termed “lesbian bed death.” Long-term male couples are on the other end of the spectrum.

Finally, it must be said that talking about sex is important because sex is important. Corwin closes her book with this point, which hits home with me. As indicated above, I did not always see sex as important. I think this is a common perspective for Americans today, even among those who bleed leftist blue and have active sex lives. I was never Christian—my dad was hippie—but I grew up in Texas. I saw the metaphysical—i.e. love—as being superior to the physical and ideally separate from it. There was a sense of shame and self-loathing when it came to having intense attractions that weren’t based on a very profound love. Yet, I knew that sex was something I had to explore. Now that I’ve done so, I maintain a view of sex as being an important part of a fulfilling life for me.

If babies wither and die without physical intimacy, this is an adult example of the importance of physical intimacy to emotional well-being. Sex isn’t just about making babies, pleasure, or love; it’s a critical kind of physical and psychological need for most adults. We talk about how sex is overrated in American society, which in some ways it is, but there’s that question again: how is it overrated? How is it underrated? When do we ever talk about how sex is underrated as such, and not merely by those who truly believe that sex is merely for procreation? How do women like me reconcile a desire for sex with the fact that we won’t procreate? Without procreation, we find a need to reflect on the other reasons for choosing to have sex. Romantic sexual relationships tend to fall apart without the sex, even if that is the only element missing. The inability to admit this fact leads to cheating. That’s how people find out the hard way that sex seriously matters to them.

Talking about sex is important in accepting ourselves not just as queer, lesbian, or bisexual, but as sexual beings, period.

The ever-visible inmate, Foucault suggests, is always "the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

In the sexual panopticon, we are the objects of information, never subjects in communication—except whereas we are the police. We may talk about sex, but no matter how we do it, we are being watched. It can be used against us, to control us. We are not necessarily serving our own sexual needs and desires so much as someone else’s. But to be the subject of communication, of course, is to have the locus of power. This is the importance of talking about sex.

The ways we talk and don’t talk about sex reflect the ways we think about and understand sex, and greatly influence our behaviors. How can we achieve the fullness of sexual freedom as a society without reflecting thoroughly on the matter? One of the hardest things for Americans collectively (or at least American women), it seems, is to talk about the actual act of sex. And that’s the crux of it: all these sexual oppressions are related. They all connect back to this panopticon of sex and sexuality. Would there even be a gay rights movement without the sexual liberation of the early 20th century? Even today, to some extent, LGBTQ equality depends on the transformation of how we think and talk about sex more broadly. How will we find queer-inclusive sex education if we’re still dealing with abstinence-only sex education?

Because sex is so personal, too, it might require more self-reflection for many than accepting that they are kinky or something else. It’s harder to blame someone else for oppressing us into being afraid of asking for sex than for scaring us into the queer closet. Sex is often seen as simply a private matter that need not be talked about, and therefore unprofessional. To some extent, that may just be a cultural thing or personal preference. That’s fine. But I’m interested in the ways in which this thinking is problematic, oppressive. We do talk about sex publicly, if not so much the explicit details. I don’t know to what extent things should change or exactly all the ways, but I do believe that as a society, we would benefit greatly from pushing the boundaries further. That starts, in large part, with open discussion.

I recently submitted a proposal for a workshop on this topic at Woodhull’s 5th Annual Sexual Freedom Summit here in D.C. I think that will be a better place to have more challenging conversations. Regardless of whether that workshop gets approved, I’m excited about attending because I’ve never been before and it sounds amazing. I’ve just realized that my workshop may not be needed because the summit already includes:

An all-day “Let’s Talk About Sex: The Pleasure Principle” institute, in partnership with the US Human Rights Network and SisterSong to talk about SEX – pleasure, desire, conversations, expressions, enjoyment….all the conversations that are so rarely held!

Awesome! These sound like the people I’ve been looking for! I challenge you to start respectful conversations with your lovers, friends, and/or community about the importance of talking about sex: asking, how can we talk differently about sex to empower ourselves and others? Or attend a conference/workshop like this and join in the conversations that are already happening.

As a reminder, talking about sex face-to-face can be a whole lot of fun—that’s part of the pleasure principle mentioned above. That’s one of the reasons I do it, for sure! Because of the very nature of the topic, it can be uniquely exciting. Articles like this don’t quite capture the pleasure principle the way that sitting around a table talking with members of your sexual community often do.

Hit me up on Twitter and tell me how it goes: @purityismyth. Or follow me: I post about sex positive things there sometimes.

Thanks, and good luck!