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Let's Talk About How We Talk About Sex

Sounds meta, right? But trust me: how we talk about sex is important.

How we think and talk about all things sex matters. What we call something has an impact and influences how we think and feel about it. This is what I frequently tell my clients: there is the sexual issue and then there is the story we tell ourselves about the sexual issue—and it is often the story we tell ourselves that is causing the most pain. So what if we worked on creating a different story?

That is why I cringe every time I hear the following:

  • What many in the media call the “vagina” is actually the vulva! A vagina is the birth canal and is internal. A vulva is all the external goodies: mons pubis, both labias, clitoris. The word vagina is very specific and refers to one part whereas the word vulva refers to several anatomical parts.
  • “Female ejaculation.” Calling this event “female ejaculation” is highly problematic because it is referencing a phenomenon of a male body and male body fluids. The fluid from “female ejaculation” does not match male ejaculate and is a different process with different body parts involved. When we describe a process in a female body as analogous to a process in a male body we are denying women the ability to define and describe the experience on their own terms and in their own way.

When did “vagina” become slang for vulva? And why do we use these inaccurate phrases — is it a deliberate attempt to keep people in the dark about sex? This is not that far off from the many, many euphemisms and slang terms we use for body parts and behaviors: pee-pee, wee-wee, hoo-ha, cooter, down there, choking the chicken, spanking the monkey, the little man in the boat, the beast with two backs. (Sorry Mom and Dad — but thanks for reading!) The list goes on. You get the idea. We use euphemisms and slang terms because we are embarrassed, uncomfortable, or maybe we don't know the actual term and do not want others to know we don’t know. More importantly, we use euphemisms and slang to create distance and an impersonal relationship between us and the source of our discomfort. Unfortunately, these two examples perpetuate people being uninformed about sexuality, the human body, and human physiology.

And while writing this piece, I thought of more ways we use language to shape our experience of sexuality:

  • Orgasm is the culmination of the sexual encounter.” I heard these very words from a client not that long ago. This was from a man who struggled to orgasm so it makes sense that the very thing that was so elusive would be the thing that he so valued. And it also makes sense that because he was missing out on what he considered the culmination, he was experiencing emotional and psychological pain (and as a result sought help). That being said, this idea that orgasm is what we are all having sex for, what we are all in pursuit of, is rampant and part of a larger problematic theme. Let’s look at why.

Sex, in many ways, is a psychodrama. It ends up highlighting each person’s psychological makeup (like wants, desires, risk tolerance, insecurity, your body image, sense of self-worth, a tendency for anxiety or depression, needs for bonding and closeness, etc.) and has a narrative quality to it. Most people create a narrative in their minds of what they do sexually: there is a beginning (usually foreplay), a middle (increasing tension), a climax (duh, orgasm), and an end/resolution (hopefully that warm, fuzzy feeling afterward).

If you have studied literature, you know these devices in storytelling. This narrative quality helps people settle into sex; they know what to expect. And every experienced sex therapist will tell you that long-term couples end up creating their own “sexual script.” Just like the actors on stage in a play who have memorized their lines, their fellow performers’ lines, and who is doing what, when, and where, so do long-term couples with their sexual activity. Each partner knows when one of them initiates sex, what that means and what will happen. It ends up becoming scripted. They know what will be done at the beginning, the middle, and the end.

But what happens when one or both partners find that sexual script (or parts of it) boring? Unfulfilling? Physically painful? Lacking pleasure? Many people do not know how to cope, let alone communicate with their partners about these things in a constructive way. So they wait. And say nothing. And keep doing that now-awful-to-them sexual script. Until they reach their emotional boiling point — and then it becomes a huge deal and the entire script becomes tricky and something to avoid. (And they enter couples sex therapy.)

  • To most heteronormative people, when they say “have sex” what they are really referring to is penis-vagina (a.k.a. P-V) intercourse. And when they define pleasure, it’s usually defined as intercourse + orgasm = satisfaction. The work that all LGBTQ+ and GNC (gender non-conforming) folks have to do is redefine for themselves what “having sex” is and means to them. What if there isn't one penis and one vagina in their relationship? What if there are two (or more) penises? Or two (or more) vaginas? Do they still “have sex”? Here is a perfect example of how language shapes our understanding and experience of something. Of course LGBTQ+ and GNC folks “have sex” too — just not the same way as in those heteronormative assumptions.

Interestingly enough, when older straight folks come to see me this is often the work we have to do: redefine what “having sex” means — especially if there are medical and/or health issues like inconsistent erectile functioning, insufficient lubrication, or medication side effects that now regularly interfere with their ability to have P-V sex. So in reality, it is not just sexual minorities that have to do this work; most people, at some point in their lifetimes, will.

If that beginning, middle, climax, and end do not happen or do not happen in that order, many people feel somehow unfulfilled sexually. “Sure it was fun, but it wasn’t sex” is what I have heard clients say. So just like the man I mentioned earlier, if one part of his linear psychodrama does not happen it has a psychological and emotional impact. It feels less than… he feels less than. Well, why is that? But great stuff still happened that was fun and sexy, right? So what is stopping you from appreciating that fun and sexy stuff for just what it was in the moment? This comes back to how the story we tell ourselves is often the cause of our pain. And so maybe letting go of that story and creating a new one in its place is the way out of your suffering.

© 2019 Diane Gleim