When people use the terms “sexual knowledge” today, they mean things like knowledge of technique, anatomy, and positions. These are indubitably important and can certainly help improve our sex lives. However, they are far from exhaustive of the field of sexual knowledge.
When I think of sexual knowledge, I think of things like: understanding what sex is, what role sex has in a human life, whether we can identify what sex acts are moral or immoral, etc. At an even more fundamental level, the very words we use to think about sex can influence our thoughts about it. These more fundamental senses of sexual knowledge are necessary to really understand sex: after all, you wouldn’t go out and try to play baseball without first learning the nature of the game and its rules, would you? It’s not that we don’t need to know sexual technique, we do, but if we cannot understand sex at the more fundamental levels, then all sex can ever be for us is just a source of physical pleasure, when it has the potential to be so much more as well as more pleasurable.
To begin our journey into sexual knowledge and the understanding necessary to make sex into one of the most valuable aspects of our lives, we need to understand the words we use to talk about sex and their meanings: we need to understand sexual etymology.
Interestingly, the idea of “knowing” and sex has long had a connection, which is particularly prominent in the Western tradition. The bible uses the euphemistic “to know” for “to have sex with.” In this way, one knew a person “in the biblical sense” if they had had sex. Plainly, knowledge and sex go together; however, this need not be this literal. Our knowledge affects not only how we think of sex, but it can also affect what we do sexually.
Let’s take a fairly straightforward example: masturbation. We all know what masturbation is, right? Colloquially, it’s “playing with yourself,” “jacking off,” “rubbing one off,” “polishing the pearl,” and all of the other fancy names we use to describe the act of auto-eroticism, or sexual self-pleasuring. The problem is, though, that what word or term we use to think about this act can influence how we think about this act. To think of it as “playing with yourself” is light and playful, it recognizes the pleasure of the act and the joy that it can bring, as well as the knowledge of our own bodies we gain. However, what would we think of the same act if we thought of it as “self-defilement”? This is, after all, the etymological root of masturbation (which we shall explore in the second installment of this column). It’s not the same mental picture at all and perhaps we would likely not even want to engage in such behaviors.
Although the word masturbation has lost much of its etymological origins in “self-defilement,” it is obvious that some of this negativity survives. Think, for example, of those poor adolescents who are led to believe that pleasuring themselves will lead to blindness, hairy palms, infertility, and perhaps even dead kittens. These are obviously all false, but they are insidious nonetheless because they seek to establish that self-pleasuring is bad, by trying to connect it to something else bad. However, this is not to say that one might not have a legitimate reason to abstain from masturbation, but that we must be careful how we define the words we use.
As a society, the major ideas that we hold shape our language. As an individual, our language can shape our thoughts. However, as society is simply an aggregate of individuals, each of us affects the culturally prevalent ideas, the zeitgeist, that leads to changes in our language. Thus, in the situation of language and ideas, there is a complete causal circle with each part affecting the others.
As individuals, we should take the responsibility to make sure that our understanding of words is clear and corresponds to our actual beliefs. Just because there are multiple words that point to the same thing (e.g. self-pleasuring, auto-eroticism, self-defilement), this does not mean that each of these is mentally equivalent. We need to be careful that the definition and connotation correspond to what we believe. If we believe that masturbation is dirty, then we will naturally tend to use words that make it sound dirty. The danger, though, is that if we believe that masturbation is good and pleasurable, but we still use words that signal that it’s dirty, then we run the risk of slowly convincing ourselves that it is actually dirty. After all, words are what we think with and if we constantly use words that signal that masturbation is dirty, we will likely come to believe it.
On the other hand, sometimes words that are currently negative need to be reclaimed for practical reasons: to disarm your opponents, to clear up negative connotations where they shouldn’t be, and to make positive what was once negative. We can see an example of this in the LGBT movement and the reclamation of the historically negative word “gay” and the fight for the word “fag.” These are instances where the words are not changing their actual meaning (denotation), but the associated ideas that go along with them (connotation). These words still mean “homosexual,” but throughreclamation, they need no longer imply that this is bad.
By now, I hope you are starting to see that the words we use can make quite a difference in our lives. Knowledge of sex at its more fundamental levels will be the purpose of my column and its impetus: to show how the underlying issues of sexuality affect all aspects of our sexuality. Initially, I will do this by working through issues of sexual etymology. Once we have a good handle on the words we use about sex, then we shall move into more complicated issues like what role sex should have in a human life and whether sex is subject to a special set of ethics.
Jason Stotts blogs at Erosophia and is working on his first book, tentatively titled Sexual Perfection: Foundations of a New Sexual Ethic, on the nature of sexual ethics and the deeper meanings of sex. The book is currently being represented by James Fitzgerald of the James Fitzgerald Agency New York.