Semantic space: Bringing lesbian language out of the closet
Semantic Space: Bringing Lesbian Language Out of the Closet
What do the words fuck and sex have in common? They were words that I thought about a lot after attending the “Language and Gendered Body” session of The Second American University Conference on Lavender Languages and Linguistics, the weekend of September 17-18. “Text and the Imagination;” “Performance and Plurality;” “Coming-out Discourse;” “Conversation, Identity and Identification” were the other four sessions of the conference organized by Drs. William Leap and Ruth Morgan. Major areas of concern were lesbians’ and gay men’s usage of spoken, written and signed languages, connections between lesbian/gay languages and cultures and coming-out stories as unique forms of lesbian and gay texts.
The first paper presented at the “Language and the Gendered Body” session was the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ Martha Clark Cummings’ The Body in Lesbian Conversation. Working from previous studies which have demonstrated that the “preferred” conversational topics among women are the physical self, the body and health (Coats 1994, Deakins 1989), Cummings examines lesbians’ talk about their bodies, as an object they want to maintain, control, keep healthy, keep slim. Second, in keeping with their sexual orientation, as both the subject and object of sexual desire” (abstract). From her data, “tape-recorded private conversations of 15 lesbian couples from a variety of ethnic, geographic and socio-economic situations”, Cummings found that the couples discussed most often, in order of frequency,
– illness, health, physical condition, work;
– dinner, food preparation, food, weather;
– friends, social details, shopping and vacation plans;
– and sports, the relationship, church and religion (abstract).
Concerning her data, Cummings noted that the time of day, namely late afternoon and early evening around dinnertime, had some effect on the topics discussed on tape. She also suggested that her participants’ knowledge that they were being recorded may have effected conversation. In addition, Cummings pointed out that, in general, her couples were intimate in subtle ways such as reading the paper to each other and using “couple” words and phrases, mainly pet names for each other and/or body parts and/or erotic activities. Cummings also noted that whenever there was any audible indication of (unreciprocated) intimacy or anger between them, a member of the couple generally directed conversation towards a pet, usually a cat. Cummings used an example: a member of a couple is being nudged to compliment the other, that partner responds by asking the cat to “comment” or somehow draws attention to the cat.
The second paper presented at the “Language and the Gendered Body” session was Nottingham Trent’s Elizabeth Morrish’s A Reference Space for the Lesbian Body. Following the lead of a number of feminist thinkers, which include Dale Spender and Julia Kristeva, Morrish asserts that lesbians, as well as all women, have yet to claim a semantic space “which could facilitate the articulation of their experience as women/lesbians” (abstract). Morrish set out to find data, by means of a questionnaire passed around a number of New York lesbian bars, showing that women, and lesbians in particular, have not “autonomously named their culture, bodies and sexual desires” (abstract). Morrish finds that, compared to the “gay male vocabulary [which] has lost no time in claiming an essentially male sexual experience” or using language to “convey a culture from one generation to the next and capturing gay male experience”, lesbians have yet to claim any form of language as lesbian specific. In essence, we are still using a language which is quite phallus-oriented and phallocentric. She goes on, in her abstract, to state that lesbian usage of such language “…contradicts the claim that we are expressing the lesbian experience at all.”
It may seem, as it did to a number of conference attendees, that the two papers contradicted each other. However, it is interesting to note where the language in question was being used. Cummings, who found that lesbians had concocted various ways of discussing their bodies and experiences, collected data from within the home, or private sphere. Morrish, who found that lesbians had no unique way to distinguish the lesbian body and experience from any other, collected data from within a social space, or public sphere. Although, in intimate settings, lesbian language abounds, in public linguistic settings, lesbians are invisible.
All of that said, what do the words fuck and sex have in common? They are vague words adopted from patriarchy’s lexicon and used publicly, and sometimes privately, with varying degrees of accuracy, to describe what lesbians do in bed and lesbian experience. Yet, what we do is simply more varied than the coitus which fuck, as generally defined, may imply. Considering the frequency of their use in discussions of lesbian sex and sexuality, fuck and sex encourage the haziness and often too fluid definitions which shroud lesbian sex and keep it hidden in the back closet. If we can speak of our sex, both real and imagined, with more precise language, we could lay to rest the age old question, “But what do you do…how do you…who’s the…?”
And what is the harm in redefining these words? The problem is that this lack of a public lesbian vocabulary is somehow a lack of a public lesbian identity. The fact that only alienating medical terms or patriarchal “dirty” words are available to publicly describe women’s bodies is indicative of how we, the speakers, feel about women’s bodies in public discussion. It says that women’s bodies are shameful and inappropriate for public discussion, and therefore real conversation. Women, and specifically, lesbians are frequently in conversation about womanness and, consequently, speakers of this language which deems us inappropriate.
A lack of public semantic space is erasure of experience, just as calling those who live in the United States Americans is an erasure of a North American experience outside of the U.S. borders. It is a symptom of the invisibility that activism such as the Lesbian Avengers’ and other lesbian activist groups attempts to end. We can’t very well end invisibility, if there is no language with which to speak about it.
This lack of a lesbian language effectively means that lesbians are still defined by their relationship to and/or at a distance from men instead of in our own terms. By not assuming the authority to name our existence and experience, we have given that authority to the patriarchy, the system whose language we use. The lack of a lesbian language that accurately or even begins to describe lesbian sex and sexual experience seems to relate that we aren’t at all sexual on our own, but playing at being men, the possessors of sex. In addition, not having words to describe our collective sexual being waters down the patriarchy-crushing potential of lesbianism and women’s sexual will.
Basically, this is a wake up call. At the risk of sounding like a sexual revolutionary who enjoys freedom at the cost of elevating the madonna/whore myth surrounding women’s sexuality, it is time to bring female and lesbian desire into the public forum. It is time to bring all of our pet names and couple words for female genitalia into public discussion. There is talk of sex and sexual appetites among women friends all the time. The same talk that need not be silenced whenever someone “not in the group” comes within hearing distance. While I am not necessarily an avid supporter of lesbian porn, I do recognize the potential of lesbian porn to change the way that women think about and discuss their sexual experience. I also eagerly await the lesbian porn industry’s move away from its predecessor toward its potential. But we need to also avoid using such “new” public language only within our marginalized community. Even a crowded coffee house is an opportunity to bring more accurate language about women’s and lesbian experience into mainstream usage if you talk long and loud enough.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov 1994
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