Our Ups and Downs: Sex and The American Language

Well, ’tis the Christmas season and all our thoughts turn to, well, the Russians and impeachment and afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable, and since the Weinstein revelations, to sex. Or is it power. But to tell the truth, when Harvey’s and Charley’s and Matt’s and the depredations of others came to light, I was already thinking about sex, although it’s true that I’ve been thinking about sex pretty steadily since my penis got bigger and my scrotum became rugated, so nothing new there. Actually, maybe it was before that, since I had a girlfriend in first grade, although maybe actually that wasn’t sex. I don’t think it was, I think it was something else. I’m not sure what it was. I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world and I couldn’t believe that she liked me too, but I didn’t disbelieve it, either. I accepted it, Connie, number one. Still like anyone named Connie. It was simple then, it seemed; now I’m not sure about a lot of things.

One thing I am pretty sure about, though, is that America has always been batshit crazy about sex. Start with a Puritan beginning, add in Victorianism, Irish immigrants. Catholicism, the Jews and Italians and Southerners and slavery and what do you think you’re going to come up with? America is batshit crazy about sex; how could it be otherwise?

Not that being batshit crazy about sex isn’t somewhat of a universal condition. One reason I spent a year in Sweden in the early 70’s was to find out what a reasonable and advanced society was like, not only with an advanced medical and welfare system, but with beautiful women who weren’t conditioned to say no, as were the women I grew up with, before the American women led us into the sexual revolution. God praise them for that! What a step forward! Tell you the truth, I was so indoctrinated by my one generation removed Eastern European derived parents, and the general American culture, that I could never really believe that girls wanted it, too. And if they did, that scared me. The women showed it to me more and more as I got into my mid-20’s and my 30’s, unmistakably, maybe I had something going for me, but it was still hard to believe. Which are you going to believe, your mother or your lying eyes? “Close your eyes and think of England.” That didn’t make sense to me, either, but what did make sense was that it was women who set the limits.

What was especially confusing to me as I grew up was the language. I loved anthropology and learned early that language can be key to understanding a culture. As with Eskimos having 50 words for snow. That’s a pretty well-known and anodyne example, of course. I wonder what their word was for what I read was the common and accepted practice in that culture with long and cold nights and a spread out population, to lend a wife to a friend. That’s what I read, anyway, in Anthro 1 in “Top of the World.” https://www.amazon.com/Top-World-Hans-Ruesch/dp/067173928X. And I also read that “Eskimo” is a term for the Inuit and Yupik peoples applied by outsiders. Common usage of a made-up word that applies to another people tells you a lot about dominance.

But I digress. Language codes our mindset, and a culture provides specific words as codes for ideas and values, which is why you have to learn a language to know a culture, to find the verbal shortcuts to a concept widely accepted, especially the proverbial “untranslatable word.” Maybe the first such Swedish word I learned was “logom,” which means “just right,” but actually more than that. “Logom” conveys a sense of quiet and peace and unhurried well-being—a balanced quality, and not too much of any one thing—as far as I remember it. Ease and simplicity have a special place in an introverted and communal society.

Not long after learning “logom,” I learned “ut i skogan,” which is literally translatable as “out in the woods.” But in Swedish, again, that’s not all it means. In that heavily rural country where even city dwellers have or would like to have a country cottage, or “stuga,” and a culture that accepts the presence and naturalness of human sexuality, “ut i skogan” has a distinct and universally recognized connotation of sexual congress. It is usually accompanied by a grin, and often used in conjunction with the term “Midsommar,” the celebratory day of the summer solstice and white nights, with obvious celebratory activities. Coming from the US it seemed like a different view of things to me, or maybe it was just my time of life and being in a foreign country. There are a lot of things I’m not sure about.

Like I’m not quite sure about lots of other cultures. Or what really happened, say, when the mutiny on the Bounty was sparked by the crew’s discovery of Polynesian women, who it seemed didn’t share a code of sexual activity with British women, at all. Probably it wasn’t even just the Polynesians saying yes instead of no; it was, maybe, their getting the sailors to say yes. I wish I knew the words, they would be key; I wish I knew the history in detail, although it was probably censored.

What I’m getting around to saying is that I found out early in life that it was hard to talk about some sexual things in English. Early on, of course, we didn’t have the words and we barely had the concepts. I remember in maybe 4th or 5th grade that my best friend Arnold Bernstein took me aside outside of Hamburger Haven across from Henry C. Lea Elementary School on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia and confided urgently that he had found out the word for what girls had. It was “cunt.”

I said, “Why is it called that?” It sounded like a hard and ugly word, Germanic, guttural.

“I don’t know, because that’s what it is,” Arnold replied. He was annoyed. I was less appreciative of his titillating discovery and more linguistically analytical than he wanted or anticipated. So I learned that word maybe not in the schoolyard, but across the street from the schoolyard. Close enough.

Again, not quite in the schoolyard but close, on the Red Arrow bus taking us home from school in probably 7th grade, I made another linguistic advance in my sexual knowledge, if you could call it an “advance,” or “knowledge.” I told Richie “Boop” Reinhardt – Boop was portly and had made an unfortunate sound when a forward pass met his protuberant belly in PE, hence his nickname – that I had figured out which word was dirtier, “shit” or “fuck.” It was “fuck,” because after all everyone had to shit, you couldn’t help it, but fucking was optional and you shouldn’t do it. I can’t remember what Boop had to say in return; maybe he accepted it as received wisdom. Who knows?

Of course, the schoolyard was only one source of knowledge. A couple of years after my conversation with Boop, my mother explained that babies came when a man and a woman “have intercourse,” and handed me two humorless books to read. In one there was a misprint and “vagina” came out as “regina,” and when I showed that to my mother there was a rather tortured conversation, examination of the book, and a frustrated maternal explanation that she didn’t know how that happened but it was a misprint, she was pretty sure. I spared asking her if “vagina” was the same as “cunt.” I feigned general ignorance and was dutifully attentive. My Mom always gave me books, but it usually went better than this.

My father also attempted to fulfill his parental duty, making a trip down the hall to my room to inform me that I was now old enough to “impregnate” a girl and I should use a prophylactic. “How do I use one?” I asked. Frustrated, he sputtered, “You just use it,” and beat a retreat. To my relief and his. I was the oldest, and maybe it came easier with my brother and sisters. Hopefully. We never talked about it.

Years later, I had learned a lot more words and actions to go with the words, not as early as I wished, but eventually I got there. But I found that there was still a problem with the words. In the early 1960’s, it was still hard to come up with words for “doing it.” There were lots and lots of words, maybe as many or more than for “snow” up north. “Making love” seemed to be socially acceptable in some instances, but so ethereal, with sentiments implied. “Getting laid” was also colloquial, and compared to “making love,” earthier and more urge-indulgent. “Going to bed” is too obviously euphemistic. I hadn’t heard yet of “getting it on,” which has some idea of a party to it, maybe. “Fucking” still seemed like a dirty word. When I heard the Yiddish term “shtupping” for the first time, it sounded even more guttural and dirty than “fucking.”

And medical school didn’t help at all. You would have thought it would, what with physiology, anatomy, OB-Gyn, psychiatry. Nope. Of course, I went to school in Boston, and maybe the New England environment was influential. In anatomy our team’s corpse was a woman, and I don’t think we leered, especially with a girl on our dissecting team of four, and the discussion of the anatomy was, well, clinical, with the course and relations of nerves, blood vessels, and the vas deferens. No mention of the clitoris except in passing, I think; what a shame. You would have thought that tracing the innervation of the clitoris and where the neural pathways went in the brain would be interesting, same for the penis, but somehow that landed on the cutting room floor.

The gulf between who we were and who we would be was probably best demonstrated by the class behind us at the traditional “Second Year Show.” In the scene depicting anatomy class, David Sachs, now a renowned transplant researcher at Mass General, regarded closely Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy – the picture book – at arm’s length in front of him facing the audience, and proclaimed as determinedly and loudly as he could, “Look at that picture of the cunt!” Not a natural actor, David wasn’t adept at shading or nuance, but he sure got it out there. We looked sideways at the faculty wives; while they didn’t look back at us, they seemed to take it in stride. “What boys,” they probably thought. I was pretty embarrassed at how crass it was, as I aspired to a more discreet and seasoned persona. But truth to tell, that was probably pretty much where we were, how we struggled, and also how med school presented it, the same way as we looked at the wives, out of the corner of the eye. There was still such a gulf between the schoolyard and the school, the schoolyard in the case of med school being the hospital wards, where there be nurses.

There was one med school exception, I guess. In our first year our class requested an optional Saturday morning class on medical emergencies. We made the case that as med students our peers and others expected us to know something about medicine, and with the curriculum as it was it would be years until we did. The faculty was tickled that we asked for extra work, so they arranged for it, and attendance was near 100%. It was a great class, one of the best classes we ever had, and you have to figure that the faculty loved being asked and volunteering, rather than their being required and our being compelled. You can imagine what they were thinking. Some were very serious, others perhaps less so.

One faculty member presented this case: a guy comes to the ER on Sunday morning and can’t pee. An Xray is taken of the penis. The image of the Xray was flashed on the screen before us, we who had never looked at Xrays before. It was a mystery. The professor said, “Can you see what’s written there, right in the middle of the urethra? Look at it. It says, ‘Boston Hilton Hotel.’” Tittering.

“What do you think it is?” he asked. No answer from the seats, so he answered his own question.

“It’s a swizzle stick!”

Laughter. But no further discussion. I imagined it was something erotic, but homoerotic? Sounded gruesome. No one was going to say anything about that. Imagine, in medical school. In the sixties, before everything changed. At least they could have mentioned how they got it out, if they’re not going to discuss how it got in.

So, to revert to what I’m getting at, it seems that all these terms for having sex, only a couple of which I’ve mentioned, all had, every one had, overtones, innuendos, and connotations. And as I said, that’s a linguistic tunnel into the culture. You couldn’t talk about it without some sort of judgement.

And then came the sexual revolution. I’m not really sure what that revolution was. I know that before the revolution, like when I was about 14 or 15, I asked my friend Lucy if she would like to “do something,” and she told me her mother had told her that once you start you can’t stop, and that was kind of it. I figure that the revolution was that women started saying “yes” instead of “no,” and sometimes it was actually they who were looking for “yes” from their male counterparts. But I don’t know; maybe it’s just that actual practice and formal expectations got closer together and people stopped sneaking so much. Like when our kids were in their 20’s and we went on vacation with them they’d bring a girlfriend or boyfriend along and they’d share a room. I’d have to pinch myself that this is what we do now. Who’d a thunk it, for God’s sake? I wonder if the younger, ahistorical generation appreciates the change. Probably not.

With the revolution came new language. It may seem modest, but it might be profound that a new phrase was introduced, “having sex.” What a gift! The phrase of choice – one which parents and kids can use with each other. A phrase acceptable in polite society, where it is now “polite” to talk about sex. “Having sex” is just clinical enough to be seen as common and natural, but not so clinical as to belong in the hospital. Adaptable to all situations, and it can be left open to elaboration and nuances. It is basically nonjudgmental. Not that “fucking” or “getting laid” or “getting it on” will disappear; they have their legitimate uses. But if you want to talk seriously and realistically, there is now a pretty good basic phrase for it, and you can adumbrate as you will. Just in itself, it’s possible that this neologism conveys a developing maturity to American sexual attitudes. As they said in Sweden, we just take it as a part of life. Or in France, “C’est normal.”

So far, so good. But when we see Harvey and Matt and DSK et al., we know the revolution is incomplete. There is so much more about sexual behavior to describe, and such a paucity of terms to use. “Power-sex” might be one new word. What lies behind it? It’s old as the hills. We know that the original king of Saudi Arabia, Ibn bin Saud, had at least 40 sons. He probably wasn’t fucking just for love, although who knows, maybe he had an extra big heart. We know about harems. I myself saw sex in Russia in 1994, when I was on an exchange program to St. Petersburg Children’s Hospital #1, and we went on a weekend retreat. The chief of the hospital, Dr. Kagan, brought along his favorite nurse. That’s just what they do in Russia, no fuss, they figure he deserved it, and she seemed happy enough. When Bill Clinton was condemned for Monica in the US, the Russian people said, “That’s the kind of leader we need!” Cultures vary in how they view power-sex, but who knows, maybe Dr. Kagan loved her; she was very sweet.

We probably need a lot more terms to go along with the watershed changes that continue to cascade over us. I remember sitting in class as a senior in high school with a fresh-faced young male teacher with a nice white shirt and crewcut black hair was expostulating in front of the class, and my classmate Arlene whispered breathlessly, “I want to have him.”

I was a little amazed, being the naif I was, and whispered back, “How?”

Arlene said, “In every way.”

I figure Arlene was 17, perhaps on the mature side of 17, or maybe just 17. In any case, what about “student seeks teacher sex (SSTX)?” Wouldn’t that help define a variation? Later on, SSTX in college leads to lasting relationships and marriages, along with broken hearts, but so does every kind of relationship. Multiple student relationships with one teacher might indicate “teacher seeks student sex (TSSX),” maybe, although maybe he’s just super-attractive. Leeann Tweeden-Al Franken situations could be “politically motivated accusation sex (PMAS)” perhaps. There are a lot of syndrome-naming opportunities available.

But there is one naming niche looking for a verbal inhabitant that I wish I could get a good naming handle on, and that’s what we commonly call “sexual desire.” “Sexual desire” is close, but it seems too removed a term to me. Not that I’m looking for something guttural, but I don’t want it romanticized and detached, either. “Having sex” needs a parallel term for the feeling that pushes us forward and lights up our eyes and fills our perineum. “Desire” doesn’t do it for me. “Lust” gets one thinking of a green brute lurching through doorways. “Libido” comes a little closer to what we want, it describes something we can identify, but it’s mysterious, foreign, and even psychiatric; too formal. There are lots of “L” words, stemming from the Roman belief that the tongue was key to sensuality: lascivious, lubricious, lecherous, etc. But pretty much all of them have a leering connotation.

Then there is “horny.” Colloquial, conveys an itch and a need, but the image comes from someone with horns, which would be a satyr, often green or red, spare, with a pitchfork maybe in my own imagination, prowling for any maiden he can find. Even if it’s girls that are horny, there is something pretty crass about it, even if it doesn’t have the masculine predation overtone.

What about “feeling those hormones?” This is a more indulgent view, used by those “more mature” who are supposedly “past that” and therefore “understanding.” An affliction that will pass, but can be understood. Still doesn’t make it.

The term has to have some sense of insistence to it, and “desire” doesn’t do that. There needs to be a term that would have better informed a mother of a teenage patient of mine who came in with a worry. She had found a sex magazine under her son’s mattress. Her concern: she didn’t want him to become a “sex maniac.” I could see from her face that she knew the term didn’t quite fit, but it was the best she could come up with. I reassured her. “Carolyn,” I said, “How often do you think teenage boys think about sex?”

She thought a minute, and said, “Two or three times a day?’

I said, “Try every five minutes!”

I could have told her that a standard part of my questioning for a teenage male physical exam is, “On a scale of 0-10, how much do you like girls?”

The most common answer is, “11.”

To which I respond, “Right. That’s about the normal intensity. Isn’t it tough?”

So, in my view, we need a term here. I can’t come up with a word in our current sexual vocabulary that does justice to the feeling and accepts it as normal. The best I can do is this: “sexual hunger.” It’s not perfect, it still edges onto “voracious,” but is “hunger” judgmental? When you are hungry you need to eat, and you deserve to eat. Is sex so different? If you don’t eat you waste away. I’d ask, what about sexual hunger, what if it is not satisfied? Psychiatry teaches us that it gets sublimated, sometimes to achievement, sometimes to anger and violence. You can even go further and talk about good nutrition and fast food, but I think I’ll leave it there. What happens when sexual hunger turns into power-sex? What makes these guys do it when others who could, don’t? It’s not enough to say they do it because they can; there’s some pathology that comes from somewhere, don’t you think? Somewhere, sexual hunger not being satisfied could play a part. I don’t know; there’s so much I don’t know.

Anyway, sexual hunger is the best I can do right now. We need something. If we are going to change our concepts, which we need to do, we’ll need a new vocabulary. “Having sex” was a good start. Now we need more. On the plus side, it will mark progress if we see people groping for better terms and then using them. Actually, we do have a new term that edges into the realm of “sexual hunger,” although it is a solution rather than a definition. That term is “friends with benefits.” Two people both with hunger, wanting to satisfy it, understanding that it needn’t go further than that. As a somewhat romantic person who once experimented with the concept but who seems to need affection to go along with the satisfaction of hunger, I’m wondering if this is just individual variation; some people like salsa and other don’t. Or maybe if society changes, most people will like this salsa. Who knows?

Social progress is so difficult, isn’t it? People like me, we’re still caught in the past as we try to edge forward and have our kids stand on our shoulders and reach for the future. Inventing one term after another might be helpful. Certainly, we should be able to do better than the 50 words for snow.

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