SEX occupies an interesting linguistic position. Its referent is not truly a discrete act of intercourse, but rather a set of circumstances and parameters. I have commented before that we can only recognize sex by the telos of orgasm, but is that really accurate? How many of you have ended a night of wretched and reckless drinking by taking a stranger to bed, only to discover that alcohol has encouraged your sympathetic nervous system to deny orgasm? After a night of fruitless, cumless thrusting, do you tell your inquiring friends the next day that you had sex? Most likely you do.
There are high schoolers right now giving and receiving their first blowjobs who were born during the Clinton impeachment trial, when the Saussurean dimensions of “sex” became a matter of national concern. Did a blowjob count as sex? Lewis Black and Ken Starr certainly thought so; most of Congress did not. Remember when Bill Clinton debated the meaning of “is?” At the time, we all had a laugh at the face value silliness of such a strategy. In retrospect, it only brought into focus the cloud of linguistic uncertainly that enshrouds our understanding of human sexuality—especially as it intersected with our equally nebulous political discourse.
We are at a point where the slipperiness of sexual activity within our language is a given. Ancient fogey Tom Wolfe lamented the rise of “hooking up” as a vague sexual verb du jour only one year after the Clinton trial, after all. “Hooking up,” of course, could mean the full gamut of human sexual experience. Maybe when you hooked up, you just made out and fell asleep watching Golden Girl reruns. Maybe when you hooked up, you had plain old missionary vaginal intercourse that promptly ended upon ejaculation. Maybe when you hooked up, you put on lizard costumes and took turns prodding each other’s genitals with curling irons.
So much of our sexual language, as an extension of the language of desire, has always been based upon elision, metonymy and metaphor—that’s Lacanian psychoanalysis 101. This is true even in the midst of a sexual experience. Do you shout about your penis or your vagina in those literal terms while in the throes of ecstasy, or do you use colloquialisms for roosters, cats, and men named Richard?
Insomuch as we are averse from using clinical descriptors of sex in our daily lives, it may not be such a bad thing. “Sex” has become a more inclusive term as its meaning has been muddled. Its strictest definition of one penis, one vagina, and a climax is heteronormative, after all. When anal sex, oral sex, manual and artificial stimulation did not count as sex in a proper sense, othering nomenclature such as “buggery” and “onanism” had to be used.
If our language cannot fully engage with the breadth of human sexual experience, it behooves us as responsible sexual citizens to monitor the relationship between the two carefully. Foremost, intentionality is not always preserved in the vagaries of sexual discourse—and this should be of concern to us all. Do you think the rapist describes what he’s perpetuated as rape, or as fucking? Even in the opening example of whiskey dick: if the involved partners do not have a consensus that orgasm-free penetration counted as sex, should it still be called sex? The flux between signifier and signified can be liberating and innovative, or it can be used to disguise wrongs both catastrophic and trivial.
I have, accordingly, designed some brief exercises to call attention to how thin the boundary can be between sex and non-sex; hopefully, it will make you consider how language codifies these activities as sexual events, or something else entirely.
Is This Sex?
1) Hold a fleshlight between your legs while your partner penetrates it with a strap-on. Increase strokes-per-minute and intensity as the exercise continues. After about 10 minutes of this, ask each other: is this sex?
2) Enter your partner and then pull out after one thrust. An hour later, re-enter your partner with two thrusts. Each hour, return and increase the number of thrusts by one. Continue this until the number of thrusts results in orgasm. At which point did that become sex?
3) Repeat activities 1 and 2, but reverse roles with your partner. Have your opinions changed? Is the definition of “sex” broader for the penetrator or the penetrated?
4) Try initiating sexual contact with your partner by using hand gestures and body language rather than outright verbal communication, and maintain this nonverbal contact during the sex act. Do not speak of the experience afterwards. Is this method more or less satisfying than verbalizing your sexual needs outright? Is it more or less direct?
5) For a month, replace most of your direct sexual contact with masturbating in opposite corners of the room. Do not touch each other. Call this sex. Any time you want to have an activity you’d consider “actual sex,” refer to the activity with mathematics terminology as free of double entendre as possible. For instance, “Would you like to divide by 3?” or “Let’s get drunk and graph a parabolic function.” Rename your genitals “integers.” Only engage in direct sexual contact no more than 25% of the time. After the month passes, return to your usual sexual retinue. Has the meaning of sex shifted during this period? Try solving some math problems and note your level of arousal.
 This is to distinguish from alcohol’s effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. outright impotence, the other kind of whiskey dick. That probably doesn’t count as sex, right?
 Featured in the titular essay, “Hooking Up,” Wolfe bemoaned the new sexual nomenclature as part of a typical old timey rant about the crazy words used by kids these days.
 There’s probably a whole column’s worth of material to be written about the power relations of verbs such as “fuck” which use a direct object, and “have sex with” which use indirect objects, but we are already too far afield in the abstract dimension of language as it is.
Mark André is a prose writer, information specialist, and minister counseling sinners in the sexual abyss surrounding Our Nation's Capital. Questions or feedback for Mark may be sent care of other [at] queenmobs [dot] com