Ambivalence About Our Sexual Bodies


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   2-22

ABSTRACT:  The mixed feelings human beings have about the sexual functions of their bodies, and hence about the bodies themselves, shows in our words for body parts and the emotional nature of how those words are expressed.

KEY WORDS:  sex, human sexuality, sex organs

Human beings give names to everything they wish to speak of, including the parts of our bodies that are involved in sex.  These names and how they are spoken reveal our ambivalence about sex, which is both one of our strongest motives and sometimes a source of violence and mistreatment.  The experience of sex, at least when it is pleasurable overall, gives rise to wonderful feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and bonding.  On the other hand, sexual possessiveness and jealousy, together with the strength of our drive to sex, do lead sometimes to violence and to destruction of social bonds and structures, as well as to mistreatment, usually of the weaker by the stronger (usually mistreatment of females by males). 

In order to control the negative results of sex, societies set up rules (e.g., about rape and monogamy), social structures such as marriage, and laws to protect those structures.  Because we are by and large “turned on” by seeing others engage in sex and feel drawn to intrude on what we observe, people seek to have sex privately (so as not to be interrupted or displaced).  This privacy concern makes enforcing rules about sex much more difficult—hence the long tradition of not prosecuting rape cases since convictions are difficult to obtain, because such cases usually devolve into “he said” against “she said.”

Our ambivalence shows itself in how we name our sexual parts and what we express in using those terms.  One might think that body parts that can produce such good feelings would get “good” names which would be said happily, but that is not the case.  Instead, the male organ (while it has a technical name, penis) is often referred to as “prick” or “dick” (or less often, “rod,” in reference to its tumescent state).  “Prick” has a negative connotation (as in “prick one’s finger” or one’s conscience), and “dick” is almost always said with a negative flavor.  You never hear “he’s a dick” said to mean that he is a nice person.  The penis is also often referred to as a “cock,” probably originating in the sexual prowess of roosters or perhaps because one’s cock “gets up” reminding us of roosters crowing at dawn and getting us up.  This term for the penis is relatively neutral, as we note that we don’t hear “you cock!” as an insult.  “Rod” shows up most often in romance novels.  “Joy stick” sounds more positive but has a technical connotation and a manual implication, as when we grasp the video game controller known as a “joy stick.”

The female organ is first of all misnamed by most people.  The vagina is the internal organ of female sex, but most people refer by that word to the external female genitalia (the “vulva”) together with the actual vagina.  Perhaps because the female apparatus is more mysterious, we don’t insult someone by saying “you’re a vagina” (analogous to “you’re a dick”).  “Twat” and “cunt” are good for insults, however.  “Hoo-haw” seems to be a term used more in regard to urinating than sex, and “pussy” is relatively soft but unfortunately brings up images of cats.  “You pussy!” is an insult for a man perceived as being weak or easily dominated, and “pussy-whipped” is the status of being dominated by a female.  “Beaver” usually seems neutral.  “Honey pot” is more positive, though it brings up images of things other than the vulva.  The term “joy juice” for the female lubricant is positive.  The external pleasure organ for females, the clitoris, does not seem to play a role in these word games, perhaps because its role is so precisely limited.  You never hear “you’re such a clit,” either positively or negatively.

The female mammary glands, the breasts, seem to fare better in this regard, perhaps because their purpose is maternal and not sexual (even though they are an important focus for sexual arousal for some males).  “Boobs,” “boobies,” “tits,” and “titties” seem neither laudatory or demeaning.  “Jugs” seems a little more judgmental but still not particularly demeaning.

The term that seems to be most on the outs at the moment is “bitch” for a woman.  The opprobrium for its use is similar to the total ban on “nigger” in the area of race relations.  Neither word, in its own naked meaning, implies anything bad. A “bitch” is a female dog in heat, which could never apply to human females since they do not have estrus cycles.  “Nigger” denotes a Black African slave and may have been derived from the name of the river Niger in Africa.

Of course, these words are used to degrade women or Blacks, so it is not the words themselves that are a problem but the feelings of the speaker who wishes to degrade women or Blacks in using the words.  This unspoken social rule against voicing these terms seems to come from our penchant for fantasy and magic—i.e., if we don’t say it or otherwise acknowledge it, then we can pretend that it doesn’t really exist.  We use this to ignore things that are too emotionally upsetting to deal with easily, and to pretend publicly to be proper in how we treat people even if we actually harbor negative thoughts and feelings.

It is likely that many of these emotional connotations relate in part to the aggressive-receptive gender roles in sex.  Males and females can be equally desirous and active in sex, but penile insertion carries inevitably the implication of “doing something to” the female, while receiving the penis into the female body has inevitably the implication of “having something done to you.”  Adding to this is the fact that the female body is inseminated and runs the chance/risk of pregnancy (something done to it).  These implications are reinforced if either party thinks that the appropriate female role is to be less experienced, less knowledgeable, and more fragile.

Perhaps some of the implied sarcasm in these negative uses of terms comes from the knowledge that no matter how strong the sexual bonding and pleasure are, both parties are quite capable of leaving the current partner for other partners—something that seems evolutionarily built-in to us perhaps to ensure that reproductive capacity is not wasted if one partner in a lifetime commitment becomes incapacitated.

Another contributor to the negative uses of our terms for sexual parts is that we attempt to control children’s sexuality by labeling it as bad and training children to view it as bad.  As a child matures, he/she must overcome this implied badness (reinforced by the “don’t talk/don’t acknowledge” rule) in order to find something positive in sex.

Demeaning words about the other sex are used more often by men than by women, partly because women swear less frequently and are forced by societal convention to mask and express anger mostly in more covert ways. Also, men are extremely sensitive to female rejection (including rejection for sex) and are more likely than women to be rejected after proposing sex, so they are more likely to be in the position of trying to save face by demeaning the rejecter. Negative words based on sex are easy handles to grab onto. In addition, since women’s appearance is more critical to their overall welfare than is men’s appearance, and since there are no hard and fast standards for who “looks good” and who doesn’t or for varying degrees of “looking good,” appearance is another easy target for criticism and demeanment.

A final associative contributor to negativity is the close proximity of our organs of elimination to our sexual parts.  We try to train children to urinate and defecate only in permitted places by labeling the waste products themselves as “bad” and nasty so children will not wish to display them.  Thus, children automatically wonder or assume that those nearby sexual parts (or double-duty parts in the case of the penis) are also “bad.”  (Insults like “shit head” and “piss ant” illustrate the use of elimination-related words as insults, used this way because we learn as children that these things are “dirty” or “nasty.”)

Despite these explanations, it still seems remarkable that so much of our terminology regarding our sexual parts is used to convey negativity.  It would be better to have exuberant words to express the positivity of sex, but all we have available are the pedestrian “penis” and “vagina,” and the practically unknown “vulva”!  If the speculations presented here about our simultaneous love and fear of sex are correct, then the dynamic solution would be to improve the ability of people in general to control their sexual behavior so as not to harm others, no matter how strongly they wished to carry out certain sexual behaviors, but this of course falls in the same area as self-control in general (to refrain from crime and demeaning and harming others in other ways), where our tried and true (even if not very effective) answers are physical and emotional punishment.  Perhaps better training in empathy (to be able to feel what others feel without being directly told) would help!