Linguistic patterns hold over time with repeated and widespread use, contributing to our culture in ways that often fly under the radar.
In February, I wrote a piece on having been raised by a sex-positive mother. It was a topic that had been stirring in the back of my mind for a while, as my mom’s parenting style largely cemented my belief that open communication about sex, relationships, and reproductive health is crucial among families and in schools.
One of the many reasons I’m glad I was brought up with a sex-positive outlook is that I developed a clear sense of sexual agency and bodily autonomy. Or, as Emily Heist Moss worded it, I grew up with the understanding that “expressing sexuality is not the same as being sexualized.” As the male gaze continues to pervade everything from music to advertising, we must reframe the choices that girls and women make as their own and not “for” their male counterparts.
Much of this, in my view, has to do with the language we use to reference women’s sexuality. Linguistic patterns hold over time with repeated and widespread use, contributing to our culture in ways that often fly under the radar. For example, our common use of the “male default” when referring to creatures of unknown gender (animals, deities) or groups of both men and women (“mankind,” “policemen,” and the insidious “you guys”) enforces a standard with myriad far-reaching effects. Women are not only categorized as “less” or “other”—they are defined relationally.
Here are a few linguistic patterns specific to women’s roles in sex and relationships that, as part of our modern vernacular, rob women of their agency.
After meeting sexually active classmates in my early high school years, I couldn’t help but regard sex as an earth-shattering experience that would change me; much like Sam in Sixteen Candles, I expected sex to be “so major that I’d wake up with an improved mental state that would show on my face.” Wanting my first time to be special and also wanting to feel “adult,” I told my partner that summer that I’d prefer to wait the few days until I turned 18.
It took a few talks with mom for me to soothe the initial guilt over my looming “loss of innocence,” but I got there. This is a burden historically unique to women: In the Middle Ages, “proof” of their virginity was required via an intact hymen or blood shed on their wedding night. Even in late 20th century Britain, the chatter surrounding Diana’s virgin status before her marriage to Prince Charles was deafening. “Diana, I can assure you, has never had a lover,” her uncle reported to The Daily Star, noting that “purity seems to be at a premium when it comes to discussing a possible bride for Prince Charles.”
At the heart of phrasing virginity as a “loss” for women is the supposed loss of purity. Enter Purity Balls, the evangelical Christian tradition where young girls promise themselves to God and Daddy after a night of dinner and dancing. In this dynamic, fathers are the arbiters of their daughters’ chastity, which becomes a commodity to be protected and saved. “When we teach girls that their virginity makes them special and valuable,” Jessica Valenti wrote for The Guardian, “we’re sending the simultaneous message that without their virginity they are tainted and damaged.” If virginity is something that we “lose” like a pair of keys, we are reduced without it, and further reduced if our number of sexual partners increases over time.
The “Giving”/”Taking” Dichotomy
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” is standard operating procedure at many weddings, when the bride is essentially transferred from her father to her new husband. Even alternative phrasing like “Who presents this woman?” implies that the action is out of the woman’s hands, as someone else is doing the “presenting.”
The concepts of giving and taking are deeply ingrained in matrimonial customs. The bride, after being “given away” by her father, traditionally loses his last name (which signifies to whom she “belongs”) and adopts the last name of her partner. At the ceremony’s close, the officiant often announces the newly married couple as “Mr. and Mrs. [Husband’s Full Name], as though with the uttering of a few magic words, the bride’s identity has been absorbed into that of her groom.
Historically, the sexual activity of women has been commodified into something “given away,” “given up,” and “taken” by men. Sexually active women are often chastised for “giving it up,” or “giving it up too easily,” phrasing that suggests women must withhold their sexual interest or involvement so as not to appear eager. Expressions like “she’s the town bicycle; she gives everyone a ride” and “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” reinforce the idea that sex is a “service” women “sell” to men, and that the more widely distributed these services are, the less they are “worth.”
Dichotomizing sex into giving vs. taking roles perpetuate a view of sex as transactional. If sex is currency, women are compelled to exchange it for security and resources: Keeping the boyfriend happy who otherwise might bolt, attempting to reduce or smooth out spousal abuse, retaining the job with a boss who threatens to fire her otherwise. “Giving” sex to a partner who “takes” establishes an immediate power imbalance, which is why so many of us perform a balancing act of wanting to please, but avoiding coming across as too earnest in relationships.
Objectification reaches new heights when we replace female pronouns like “she/her/hers” with the pronouns used to reference inanimate objects. In lieu of “He had sex with her,” phrasing like “He hit it” or “He tapped that” reduces women from human beings to items for use, and as solely defined by their sexual parts.
This depersonalization of women is achieved in many ways through the structures surrounding “it” and “that.” These pronouns are often paired with forceful verbs like “hit,” “smash,” or “smack,” as in “He don’t smack that ass…like that” from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” There’s also the issue of women adopting phrasing like “I let him hit it,” as Nicki Minaj professes in “Anaconda,” which establishes sex as something that women let men do to them rather than as a jointly purposeful, willingly participatory act.
“It” and “that” pronouns, because they are inherently inhuman, create distance and dissolve relatability between men and women. When our language categorizes women as objects, it becomes much easier to justify giving women orders, harassing them on the street, and committing acts of sexual violence. “It” and “that” also reinforce women as interchangeable items that either agree or refuse to perform certain services, as in these lyrics from rapper Huey in 2006:
So stop acting and get it clapping
‘Cause I’m knowing you feeling me
Yeah you cute
But don’t let that shit go to your head
‘Cause what this cutie won’t do
Pimping another one will
I am not, in writing this piece, advocating for an Orwellian overhaul of our language. But I am asking that men and women think critically about the language that we use, why we use it, and what kinds of beneficial shifts for both sexes could happen if we make a concerted effort to change.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.