Commentary Magazine


Sex and Euphemism

In the beginning was the Word. There followed, at an undetermined but (one assumes) decent interval, private, harsh, and dirty words. Invention here being the mother of necessity, the need for euphemism arose. Nowhere could this need have been greater, or more evident, than in the realm of sex. Euphemism, so well worth decrying in almost every other sphere of life, is in the sexual sphere heartily, happily, one is ready to go so far as to say healthily, welcome. There are after all times and places where it will not do to call a spade a spade, let alone other things other things.

Remove euphemism from the realm of discourse about sex and one is left with two possibilities, neither of them very pretty. One is to speak about it clinically: genitalia, pudenda, vas deferens, reproductive organs, and all that. The other is to speak not so much plainly as profanely: to let, so to say, the most freely used Australian adjective and other nouns and verbs fly. There is also the loathsome prospect of speaking in code, as is sometimes done by coy lovers who christen their private parts with given or surnames, and thus utter, as I seem to recall of a character in a wretched novel I read years ago whose title and author I have successfully blocked, lines such as: “Will Mrs. Featherbody be at home and pleased to receive my man Andrew this evening?”

Many people have felt that the subject of sex is best dealt with by silence, the ultimate euphemism. Still, at all times in literature—from Petronius to Rabelais to the Earl of Rochester to the Victorian pornographers to Henry Miller to the work today of nearly every contemporary novelist—silence on the subject of sex has been broken, and is unlikely to be restored. Sex throughout history has perhaps been on most people’s minds, but in this century it has increasingly been on almost everyone’s tongue as well. Philip Larkin might write:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatter-
    ley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

But Freud long before made it difficult to keep the silence on sex; and Freudianism, if not Freud himself, put paid to sexual reticence for all but good. As a blue eminence, Gay Talese, author of a participatory journalistic study of the sexual revolution entitled Thy Neighbor’s Wife, has remarked: “Sex is so very important; it is probably the most important thing. What is more important? I know of nothing.” Talese’s wisdom may be in doubt; his sincerity, never.

How does one talk about this “most important thing”? The range of possibilities is very great. Sex may be spoken of tenderly or toughly, lyrically or lasciviously, beautifully or brutally, and in all these various ways by the same person on the same day. Because sex can evoke many moods, it requires many distinct vocabularies. This wasn’t always so. For the greater part of the vast history of humankind talk of sex, of bodily love, was distinctly out of bounds. Certainly it was not permitted in polite society: that one did not speak of it there was one of the things that made polite society, well, polite. Talk of sex tended to be confined to intimate diaries or to blushing utterances in a physician’s office. I recall some years ago coming upon a medical encyclopedia, published in the United States around the turn of this century, in which the article on masturbation appeared under the rubric, “The Secret Vice.” All sex, though, then seemed, if not a vice, clearly a bit of a secret—D.H. Lawrence’s “dirty little secret.”

Sex is a secret no longer. The unspeakable is nowadays speakable—and spoken. Not to speak of it with a fair frequency is felt to be a mark of being, in a phrase of the day, “uptight” (itself a vague sexual euphemism referring to the condition of one’s sphincter). In his article on euphemism H.W. Fowler could complain about the Victorians being “mealy-mouthed” in using such phrases as “nether garments” and “unmentionables” and “inexpressibles.” But what would he have thought of the female character in a novel I recently read who, noting that she was in her menstrual period, called it “vampire time”?

The euphemisms of former days have in so many instances been traded in for dysphemisms (their opposite) in our own. My guess is that most people of my generation—I am forty-seven—grew up as I did, with silence on the subject of sex reigning at home and dysphemisms and slang of colorful companions reigning in the schoolyard. I am not quite in the case of the hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer who, when asked by his aunt if he had been intimate with his cousin on a long train ride, answered, “Not very”; or in that of the bumpkin in an old joke who, when asked if he had slept with a fast woman (there’s a euphemism) he had gone out with the night before, answered, “Slept with her, hell. I didn’t get any rest at all. We were up all night screwing.” But I have come to many sexual euphemisms late in life. Only a few years ago did I hear for the first time the euphemism “an interesting condition” to describe a pregnant woman. More recently than that I came upon the phrase a “Boston marriage” to describe a lesbian relationship in which two woman love and live with one another but do not engage in sexual relations. Here is a case of a euphemism doing dirty work of its own, and of a snide sort. I, for one, don’t hold with the notion of a “Boston marriage,” or at any rate with calling two women who live together, no matter how great their love for each other, lesbians, if in fact they do not have sexual congress (another euphemism, I suppose).

Nor, in the sexual realm, is it always clear when a euphemism is a euphemism. The word “servicing” is an example. “Nothing wrong with her that a good servicing wouldn’t cure” is the way it is most frequently used. “I serviced her only two days ago” is another common usage. Obviously “servicing” is a blunting of the most frequently used Australian participial noun, and hence in a rough sense it qualifies as a euphemism. Yet isn’t “servicing,” as a metaphorical term that imputes a mechanistic nature to female physiology, even more brutal than the word it is meant to soften?

The equivalent term for “servicing” for a male, at least in the United States, is having one’s “ashes hauled.” “He needs his ashes hauled” is the standard sentence for a man thought to have gone too long without sexual intercourse. This phrase speaks to a supposed deep masculine inner heat that can only be burned out in the furnace of sex—hence those ashes, burned out coals at the end of a sexual turn, being hauled off. Yet such a phrase demonstrates not only the difficulty of separating euphemism from dysphemism in the realm of sex, but the ease with which both can slide off into slang. Having one’s “ashes hauled” is clearly a slang phrase, but is it a euphemism or dysphemism? Difficult to say. What can be said, though, is that it does somehow seem an improvement upon, “He acquired sexual relief through fornication.”

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“He acquired sexual relief through fornication.” That dreary sentence gives the clue as to why we need euphemisms, slang, even dysphemisms, and anything else we can call to our aid in order to discuss sex. For that sad sentence, straightly and dryly phrased as it is, is a highly efficient reminder of that part of human life which is at bottom animal—and of which most of us, thank you all the same, would just as soon not be reminded. From the fact of our animality, of which sex for a good part of our lives can be a nagging reminder, euphemism, dysphemism, and slang can afford relief; they permit us to talk about sex less directly. The editors of the Dictionary of American Slang are surely correct when they note: “Slang words for sexual attraction and for a variety of sexual acts, positions, and relationships are more common than standard words. Standard non-taboo words referring to sex are so scarce or remote and scientific that slang is often used in referring to the most romantic, the most obscene, and the most humorous sexual situations.”

Although the editors of the Dictionary of American Slang refer to “the most humorous sexual situations,” I should say that almost all sexual situations are humorous—excluding only those that one is involved in oneself. Sex is of course often played as comedy—in certain plays, where the physical stuff takes place off stage, in the novels of writers like Henry Miller and Philip Roth, in every dirty joke ever devised—and it is perhaps healthiest when so played. Both animals and human beings feel the need to fornicate; one of the decisive differences between them is that human beings can, sometimes, laugh about it.

Certainly they tend to be more admirable when laughing about sex than when talking about it seriously. When we talk about sex seriously we tend to reveal ourselves as the pathetic, or lying, or hypocritical creatures we are. Consider the term “open marriage,” a euphemism that came into being roughly a decade or so ago through the agency of a popular American manual of sexual advice entitled Open Marriage. Stripped of its psychological sham, an open marriage is one in which the partners to a conventional marriage have agreed to give way to the need to copulate with anyone else who will agree to copulate with them. Much better for self-respect to call such an arrangement an open marriage.

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Thanks to the sexual revolution—itself a bit of a euphemism to denote the freedom from the fear of pregnancy that the newer methods of contraception allowed as well as the loss of the power of religion to inhibit promiscuity—and to the women’s-liberation movement, a number of older sexual euphemisms have been marched off the stage and a number of new sexual euphemisms have been marched on. Perhaps no man has ever called his mistress that—mistress—to her face, but nowadays the term has an antique quaintness. (Nor has there ever been an equivalent euphemism for men.) “Roommate,” which once clearly meant someone of the same sex with whom one was sharing quarters, now no longer so clearly means that. “Shacking up,” once the slightly dysphemistic term for people of the opposite sex who lived together, is now gone. “Living together” is now the standard term, although the U.S. Bureau of the Census—and bureaucrats can generally be counted upon to coin good heavy-handed euphemisms—now calls the unmarried person with whom one lives one’s “spouse equivalent.” The most vivid euphemism—or is it a dysphemism?—that has come my way courtesy of the sexual revolution is the “hat trick”: a term that, in ice hockey, means a player has scored three goals, and that under the dispensation of the sexual revolution refers to a man—or as easily to a woman—who has slept with three different women (men) in the same day. “Progress,” said William James, “is a terrible thing.”

Historians of the Victorian era are fond of recalling a time when even the legs of pianos were covered. But today, to take a line from the lovely poem of Henry Reed, “today we have naming of parts.” In a brief essay entitled “The Lexicon of Prohibition,” Edmund Wilson came up with 105 different words and phrases for drunkenness. With a bit of patience one could no doubt come up with a list as lengthy for the names of the male and female genitals and one quite as long again for female breasts. Dick, dong, prick, prong, quim, quiff, boobs, bazooms—private parts nowadays have numerous public names. Boff, bang, plank, hump: the most freely used Australian noun has no shortage of synonyms. The war against censorship is long over, though it is not altogether clear what the victory has brought.

Can it be that the losers in this war have not been the Grundys and the Comstocks but those front-line troops, serious writers, novelists chief among them? Asterisks used to do for what was deemed unseemly language in books, but today an asterisk in a book is as rare as a virgin in life. Malcolm Muggeridge is the last writer I know of to describe himself as “a man of the asterisk generation.” Of course there were writers before Muggeridge’s generation who had forgone asterisks and chosen instead to mention, to spell out, the unmentionable. James Joyce, for one, whose Ulysses provided a landmark legal case in the anti-censorship war. D.H. Lawrence, who could be quite belligerent about such matters, was the General Patton in this war. Henry Miller was perhaps its Ernie Pyle. Since the late 1940′s, though, the enemy has been clearly on the run. Such American novelists as James Jones, Norman Mailer, and William Burroughs have handled that part of the operation known in military history as the mopping up. Today it is apparently difficult to write a novel that is free of two or three hot and heavy sex bouts. Especially does one find, I won’t say vivid but certainly elaborate, sexual description in the work of academic novelists. The stakes here go up all the time, and the trend is to more and more detailed description. A wag—I, actually—once wrote that the novels of the future are likely to be peopled with genitals sitting around discussing fashionable ideas.

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The argument in favor of abandoning euphemism, of treating sex in an open and explicit manner, is well enough known. Sex is a part of life, perhaps a centrally important part, and as such it calls for candor. To evade candor is to invite dishonesty and, worse, to court repression. Sex is a very human activity, and nothing human ought to be alien—that is, hidden, unspoken, pocketed away. To talk candidly, to write openly, about sex is a necessary freedom. And here we come to the knocking over of barriers. Something there is about the modern temperament that cannot tolerate a barrier; it must be pushed against, bulldozed, razed. How easily the barrier against candor in sex fell, how it seems in retrospect to have been constructed out of marzipan. A few solid shoves and it toppled. Today one can say in print anything one likes of a sexual kind. Only the discretion of editors and publishers stands in the way—in other words, one can say in print anything one likes of a sexual kind.

To speak autobiographically, I would add here that growing up under the ancient sexual regime, before the revolution, brought certain benefits. A little smut then went a long way. More precisely, you had to go a long way to get a little smut. To Paris or Mexico City, in fact, whence one could bring back those plain-type green-covered paperback editions of Henry Miller’s novels published by the renegade firm of Olympia Press. Now one has to go almost quite as far to avoid it. Titillation, in those days, was still possible, whereas today disgust seems endemic. Our age, which treats war, genocide, and tyranny euphemistically, has in sex gone quite the other way.

Sometimes it seems a badge of modernity to speak uneuphemistically about sex. In the United States in recent years we have had the phenomenon of the publication of the journals of Edmund Wilson. I say phenomenon, for what is phenomenal about them is how uneuphemistically sexual these journals from America’s most distinguished man of letters are. The closer to our own time Wilson’s journals get—thus far, publication is up to the 1940′s—the less euphemistic they become. In the 1920′s Wilson notes, “I addressed myself to her bloomers”; by the 1940′s he refers to “my large pink prong.” Wilson goes beyond candor, beyond indiscretion, to describe sex with his own wife:

Would always run her tongue into my mouth when I kissed her before I had a chance to do it to her—and would do it so much and so fast that I hardly had a chance to get my own in. Would clasp her legs together very hard when I had my hand or my penis in her—seemed to have tremendous control of the muscles inside her vagina. Her frank and uninhibited animal appetite contrasted with her formal and gracious aristocratic manners.

This is a fairly mild example of the sort of thing that turns up in Edmund Wilson’s journals. It is sex written without euphemism—and it is quite devoid of tenderness, is in fact chilling, even loathsome. What is of interest is that Edmund Wilson himself wished to see such material published. What, one wonders, did he think publication of his sex bouts, written so icily, would demonstrate? His prowess, his humanity, his modernity? After one has read a number of such Wilsonian passages, one is gripped by a single thought—the wish that one hadn’t.

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Whence derives this need for explicitness? Does it come from the fact that, the freedom to abandon euphemism now being available, it seems a shame not to avail oneself of it? Does it come from the notion that euphemism no longer, somehow, does the job? Allow me to put a sexually euphemistic passage in evidence. It is drawn from Homecoming, the autobiography of Floyd Dell, in which Dell describes his first love affair (another euphemism). Dell writes:

There was a girl; and we kissed. And then, suddenly, I was in a realm more real to me than the world I had thought of as real—which had now become a shadow, a dream, something remote and dim. I was happy and free; not a literary editor; not a husband; only myself. All the values in my universe were suddenly transvalued. I felt like a wanderer, long absent in alien lands, who sets eyes again upon his native place. Why should I have ever imagined myself that stranger, worn that uniform? This, the realm of liberty, was one in which I could be at ease. There need be no effort here to be what one was not, only infinite sincerity of oneself to another, in love and talk and laughter. We made love happily and solemnly.

Does such a passage seem hopelessly old-fashioned—it was written in 1933—corny, prudish? At the risk of sounding an old-fashioned, corny prude, I must confess it doesn’t seem any of those things to me. What I rather like about it is the room it leaves to the imagination. It is very earnest, of course, but then so does love tend to be. It could not, I am confident, be improved by additional detail recounting every chronicle of the crotch or saga of the sack.

In the positive, the glorious sense, the sexiest book I know is Anna Karenina, and it is all but shorn of sexual detail. A shoulder is described, eyes, posture, a uniform, tears. “Anna felt as though she were sinking down. But it was not terrible, but delightful.” These sentences do not refer to a scene of sexual surrender, as they might if they appeared in a contemporary novel, but to Anna Karenina’s thoughts about Vronsky as she rides the train back to Saint Petersburg on her return to her son and husband. There is a great deal, there is everything, at stake in the sexuality in Anna Karenina, but sex itself is oh so lightly, so artfully touched upon, hinted at in the novel’s pages. It is so sexy almost precisely because it refuses to speak directly—uneuphemistically—about sex. It is sexy because Tolstoy, that instinctual and consummate artist, knew that the best pornographer is the mind of the reader, which in this matter required only the slightest assistance from him.

Did Henry James, whose whole art can be said to be that of euphemism, think much about physical love? The best researchers into James’s private life conclude that he himself never made bodily love. Yet it is difficult to imagine that a man “so assailed by the perceptions,” as one of his acquaintances once described James, did not perceive this, too. More to the point, did he imagine his characters, to adopt another euphemism, “in the act”? Are Chad Newsome and Mme. de Vionnet in The Ambassadors lovers? Are the Princess and Paul Muniment in The Princess Casamassima? From James we have nary a direct word, though sufficient reason nonetheless to believe that they are. Sufficient reason is all James provides—and it is enough. (In The Golden Bowl no doubt about such relationships remains, though James still feels no need to show slides.) What happens to Isabel Archer after her return to Italy and her betraying husband, Gilbert Osmond, now forever denied his conjugal rights (to speak once again euphemistically)? How easily she is imagined, long after the novel has been closed, alone and in her bed in her villa, night after night, and what a sad and necessary waste it seems. Henry James, the sexless novelist, is in many respects the sexiest novelist of all—and further proof that, in speaking and writing about sex, less can be more.

More, conversely, can be less. The American novelist James Gould Cozzens was a writer who treated sex neither euphemistically nor dysphemistically but straight on. Yet to treat sex straight on, as Cozzens must have known, was to treat it dysphemistically—to make it seem worse than it is. A writer of dark vision, Cozzens looked upon sex as a solid piece of evidence arguing against humankind’s hope for leading reasonable lives. The least reasonable man, in Cozzens’s view, was the man who set out to be reasonable. In this hopeless endeavor sex was a sharp reminder of the human link with the animal, with the irrational. Here, in his somewhat twisted syntax, from his novel By Love Possessed, is how Cozzens makes his case:

His as much as hers, the supple and undulous back hollowing at the pull of his hands to a compliant curve: his as much as hers, her occupied participative hips, her obediently divided embracing knees, her parts in moist manipulative reception. Then, hers as much as his, the breath got hastily in common; the thumping, one on another, of the hurried two hearts, the mutual heat of pumped bloods, the start of their uniting sweats. Grown, growing, gaining scope, hers then no less than his, the thoroughgoing, deepening, widening work of their connection; and his then no less than hers, the tempo slowed in concert to engineer a tremulous joint containment and continuance. Then, then, caution gone, compulsion in control, his—and hers, as well!—the pace unreined, raised, redoubled, all measurable measure lost. And, the incontinent instant brought to pass, no sooner his the very article, his uttermost, the stand-and-deliver of the undone flesh, the tottered senses’ outgiving of astoundment, than—put besides themselves, hit at their secret quick, provoked by that sudden touch beyond any bearing—the deep muscle groups, come to their vertex, were in a flash convulsed; in spasms unstayably succeeding spasms, contracting on contraction on contraction—hers! Hers, too; hers, hers, hers!

Less light, less light, to reverse Goethe’s dying request. Such a passage, without a single profane word in it, is extremely repulsive—enough to put a virile man off his sexual feed for quite a spell, enough to drive a refined woman into a nunnery. But James Gould Cozzens had his purposes, and, in writing about sex as he did, appears to have accomplished them.

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It is not always clear what the purposes of other novelists are in placing elaborately described bouts of sex in their novels. It might be kindest to say that they are, in manifold senses, just screwing around. But I think these writers rather desperately need sex in order to stay in business as writers. It isn’t that sex is all they know; it is merely that sex seems to be what they know best. To restrict myself to American novelists alone, I can think of three prominent figures who, but for the opportunity that the contemporary novel allows them to write about sex, would probably have to go into the dry-cleaning business: John Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer.

These three gents, to be sure, make quite different uses of sex in their novels. For John Updike sexual descriptions often provide an opportunity for a metaphor-soaked, lyrical workout; exceptions are the frequent sexual paces Updike puts his character Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom through, when it becomes lower-middle-class sex, plain-spoken and snarly and nasty. Philip Roth plays the sex in his novels chiefly for laughs, but play it he does, over and over and over. But whereas Up-dike can be by turns pretentious and repellent, and Roth depressing while trying for humor, Norman Mailer, in his handling of the sexual subject, is unconsciously comic (not, I hasten to add, that reading him is likely to cheer anyone up). Sex almost always provides the big moments in Norman Mailer’s novels; in these novels, sex, somehow, is always a challenge, a chance for triumph, an over the hill, boys, walk on the moon bullfight, though when it is over what one mostly remembers is the bull. Quotations on request.

Suffice it to say that in contemporary writing about sex, we are not talking, and haven’t been for some years, about your simple Sunday afternoon fornication. Not only must sex in the contemporary novel grow more regular but it must become more rococo. Thus Updike presents us with an activity known euphemistically as California sunshine; Roth in his most recent novel has a woman whose purse contains a “nippleless bra, crotchless panties, Polaroid camera, vibrating dildo, K.Y jelly, Gucci blindfold, a length of braided velvet rope”; Mailer, relying on fundamentals, concentrates on heterosexual sodomy. Ah, the literary life.

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I have recently been pleased to discover my own ideas on this subject better formulated than I myself have been able to formulate them by Donald Davie. In These the Companions, a book of memoirs, Davie, at sixty, writes that, although he feels he understands a good deal about the power of love, he also feels he has come to understand the hopelessness of writing about it, except through indirection of the most tactful kind:

But I am less confused about this than I used to be. For I have come to see clearly that there is no way to reconcile the essential and precious privacy of the amorous life, with the unavoidable publicity of print. Or rather there is indeed one way, and of course it is the time-honored way; by euphemism, which is to say circumlocution, which is to say figurative language. This is what makes Yeats, not Joyce nor Austin Clarke, the most erotic of Irish writers. The handful of poems that he wrote for his wife under the figure of King Solomon addressing the Queen of Sheba are more audacious, under the thinly transparent but necessary veil more “outspoken,” even (if it comes to that) more titillating, than the most notorious passages of Ulysses or the most outlandish late poems by Clarke. When Yeats read Lady Chatterley’s Lover he said that each of the famous four-letter words was like a hole burned in the page; and in saying so he voiced no prissy constraint, but was rather making a technical point, surprised to see so practiced a writer as Lawrence falling into a novice’s trap, trying to take an impossible short cut.

Are novelists in America and England, as is sometimes said of politicians, out too far in front of their constituents (or readers), or are they fairly representing them and their conduct in their novels? It is not easy to know. It is a tricky question of the kind of which came first, the sick chicken or the bad egg? This much, though, can be said: ours shall not be known as one of the great ages of reticence, especially about personal life. It has been said that many people in our day would sooner tell you about their sexual life than about their financial life. So many people now appear to carry their own psychoanalytic couch on their backs.

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We have come a long way from the time when the word “virgin” was not permitted in metropolitan newspapers, when syphilis and gonorrhea (as H. L. Mencken notes in The American Language) were referred to as “vice diseases,” when words like whore, homosexual, rape, and sexuality were not used at all. Today, under the new dispensation, we have books with titles such as The Love Muscle, The Sensuous Woman, The Playboy Adviser, and States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. Obviously, we have come a long way; the only question is, in what direction?

Nowadays people tend to speak plainly or profanely about sex, its parts and their mechanics, and euphemistically about the benefits said to derive from the exercise thereof. As for those benefits, they are frequently described as “fulfilling,” “growthful,” and “humanizing”: one tends, in these circles, less and less to have sex but to “experience” it. The people I am talking about here refer to one another as “feeling,” “caring,” and “loving” people. One of the marks that distinguishes them is that they tend to go in for words—some of them euphemistic—whose meaning is harder to capture than a squid in a pool of molasses. Yet these same people have been known to speak right up about their clitoris or prostate, and talk in unhushed tones about orgasm. This odd combination of soft words and hard words appears to be at the heart of the sexual-liberation movements of our day. These movements tend to be confessional, anti-repression, and, it nearly goes without saying, anti-euphemism, except about ends and goals.

Oddly, a good deal of the language used in connection with homosexuality is euphemistic, or at least bordering on the euphemistic. Owning up to one’s homosexuality has for a great many years now been referred to as “coming out of the closet”; it is also sometimes said of such a freshly emergent boy or man that he has “come out,” a phrase which is reminiscent of the American debutante balls of another day. Euphemism becomes slangy, though, when Edmud White, author of States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, writes of the city of Cincinnati that “It’s a very sedate, closety city.” “Cruising,” a word that refers to searching around in bars and on the streets for homosexual mates, rides the line between slang and euphemism, leaning over in the direction of euphemism, in my view, because such a “cruise” can have many a bump in it, including beatings and humiliations certainly not implied in that gentle floating word. I take it to be indisputably a euphemism, though, when it is said of a homosexual man who takes part in sado-masochistic activity that he is “into leather.” In this realm the largest argument of all is about whether the self-selected word “gay” is itself a euphemism. People who oppose it claim it is a misnomer. Misnomer or not, it appears to have stuck, so that the word gay referring to homosexual is quite securely lodged in the language and nearly all the other uses of gay must now depart. Still, the invention of the word gay to stand for homosexual was surely intended to be euphemistic: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive word for one with unpleasant or offensive associations.

The women most ardently engaged in the women’s-liberation movement like to speak less euphemistically about sex. Women, they feel, have been [most freely used Australian verb, simple past] over, and euphemism, they reason, may have provided the screen behind which this was done. Therefore they speak plainly about earthy things: about sex as part of the bill of human rights, about orgasm as an amendment to that bill, about measures of sexual reform to come. One can sometimes watch and listen to liberated women go on in this manner on television talk shows, where they do so, publicly, with very little diffidence. So little diffidence as is often involved in a wife speaking before an audience of millions about her most private activities can, the first two or three hundred times one witnesses it, provide a bit of a shock. Perhaps, though, it ought not to. We live, after all, in a sex-ridden time in which we have yet to establish a proper vocabulary to talk about our deeds and desires.

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It is not, I think, that people are more sex-driven in one age than another: it is instead that in some ages sex seems to be more on the mind than during others. If our euphemisms do not tell much about the quality of contemporary sex, our slang, I believe, does. Getting, sheer getting, seems to loom large in current sexual slang: getting it up, getting it on, getting it off, getting any? getting much? Meanwhile, in universities, for the first time in history, we have women’s studies, which means that we have agreed to study literature, history, and society from the standpoint of gender—which is to say, sex. Again, no contemporary biography is considered complete until the subject’s sex life is duly accounted for; and here sexual secrets are sought, and, sought arduously enough, often found. More and more the assumption in contemporary life is that sex looms larger and larger.

It is a truism that practice precedes theory, and language often precedes practice. In the language currently used to describe sexual conduct, a language whose most notable feature has been the defeat of the euphemism, both sexual practice and theory reveal themselves. Sexual practice has become easier, less guilty, and from the standpoint of pregnancy less hazardous; sexual theory now deems sex necessary, almost to the point of becoming a rudimentary biological function. As this has come into being, however, an older theory of sexual love has been withering and dying out: the idea—and the ideal—of love as a Grand Passion, which derives from Christianity and from romanticism and which held sway through the 19th century. Under the ideal of the Grand Passion, love was thought sacred. Men and women could not talk about sex as openly and as uneuphemistically as they now do and still hold it sacred.

In a suggestive essay entitled “Fashions in Love,” which he published in a collection in 1929, Aldous Huxley remarked that the Christian and romantic conception of sexual love seemed to have almost entirely lost ground to a more scientific and psychological conception of sexual love. In his essay Huxley spoke of what was wrong with both conceptions. “The older conception was bad,” he noted, “in so far as it inflicted unnecessary and undeserved suffering on the many human beings whose congenital and acquired modes of love-making did not conform to the fashionable Christian-romantic pattern which was regarded as being uniquely entitled to call itself Love.”

The new conception, itself the product of the campaign against old taboos and repressions, was also not without its defects. Huxley wrote: “The new conception is bad, it seems to me, in so far as it takes love too easily and too lightly.” Talking freely about sex might go a long way toward shearing it of its “guilty excitement and thrilling shame,” yet Huxley thought the then current “fashion in love-making is likely to be short, because love that is psychologically too easy is not interesting.”

Aldous Huxley believed that, with the older Christian-romantic conception of sexual love all but dead, and with the new scientific-psychological conception terribly inadequate, it would only be a matter of time before a “new or revived mythology” would arise “to create those internal restraints without which sexual impulse cannot be transformed into love.” Here Huxley thought—recall it was the 1920′s—that D. H. Lawrence’s “new mythology of nature” was a doctrine “fruitful in possibilities,” which, as we now well know, it hasn’t proved in the least. Nearly half a century later, this new mythology, proving quite as tardy as Godot, has yet to arrive. While awaiting it, most people appear to have passed the time sitting around talking all too frankly about—what else?—sex.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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