Jan 172013

And back in the world of non-fiction, I’ve been trying to develop a genuinely useful analogy for what I mean when I use a phrase like “normal” sex, compared to what most people mean when they say it – after all, look at the name of the blog.

I don’t know if this is the one I’ll end up using in the book, but I like it a lot:

Maybe think about it this way: most of the time when people talk about “normal sex,” it’s like they’re talking about a person’s sexual accent.

The language you use – accent and vocabulary – is, to you, normal, and others sound strange; some may vary so much from your own that they scarcely sound like English at all. And how did you learn your accent? Mostly from the language you hear around you, both among the people and in the media.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a Delawarean accent. I clearly remember my mother chiding me for saying “banee-ana” instead of “banana.” By the time I got to junior high, I had been exposed to a more “standard” American (and a great deal of “Received Pronunciation” British, via PBS’s imports from the BBC) and my accent had smoothed out to something approaching the middle-of-the-road accent I have now. Then I moved to Indiana, where in some areas people sound like they’re from Chicago and in others people sound like they’re from Tennessee. When I returned to Delaware for holidays, people laughed at my pronunciation of “yeah.” And then I moved to Massachusetts, and “wicked” entered my vocabulary as something other than “evil,” and the “r’s” at the end of words softened. My accent now is a thin soup of midwestern, mid-Atlantic, New England, and RP, in the clear broth of standard American.

Similarly, our ideas about “normal” sex are learned from the voices we hear around us, from images and messages in the media, and all of these change as we travel from place to place, both in space and in cyberspace. There is a standardization that has happened as media has nationalized, watering down regional variation. (This dilution also results in some “dialects” reacting to the perceived threat by holding fast to their local variations and even trying to spread it.) And when someone brings a totally different “normal” with them from somewhere else, it sounds strange to you.

In my house, “standard American” was the prized ideal. My father would speak in his childhood southern accent only when he was angry. My mother perpetually battled her New Jersey accent. To fit in, I was taught to conform to a specific accent, even though it was not accent of my region.

And similarly, “standard American” sexual norms are taught – though often in a more implicit and therefore even more powerful way – so that we come to perceive certain things are normal and other things as “abnormal,” outsider. I am in, you are out.

Opinions about the idea of “normal sex” as being like an accent?

Emily Nagoski

  13 Responses to “what “normal sex” is like”

Comments (13)
  1. As a former student of linguistics, I like it :) I also think it has potential in other ways e.g.: sex as conversation, and when partners have different ‘accents’ conversation can take more work; what is the polite way to say something in one dialect is not polite in another, etc.

    • Hi!
      Great metaphor, I like it a lot – it reflects the uniqueness of each person, the influence of context and also the knee jerk reaction to what’s different. :)
      However, your explanation is a tad long. The metaphor is great because it is very intuitive. The reader doesn’t need a detailed explanation plus examples (that kind of robs the image of its strength). For me, metaphor great, explanation shorter. :)
      PS: I love your blog!!! Best wishes from Portugal

  2. I agree with the above student! As a language student, this metaphor really works for me, and in all the ways that have been mentioned above – I might even say to take it a step further, expanding the final paragraph, by providing examples of regional (or personal) sexual trends or preferences. I’m not sure how possible that is, but it seems to me that that would strengthen the link between the two while also giving legs (pun intended) to the sexual side of things, just because it’s reading a little Freudian for me right now. In general I love the metaphor you make, and what’s there already!

  3. another linguist here! I think this metaphor is totally amazeballs and really captures the way that sexual norms vary according to your past experiences and what the people around you are doing. also, if you do extend the metaphor*: most linguists will tell you that there’s no “wrong” kind of dialect. there’s certain dialects that are perceived to be better / worse, but that’s just classism. every dialect is equally valid linguistically, just as all kinds of sex are all right as long as people are consenting, happy, pick your own set of adjectives to describe sex filled with loving-kindness.

    I also really like the sex-as-conversation idea from @QoB.

    @GVS: I disagree with the Freudian-ness; typical Freudianism just involves saying things that are not about sex ARE about sex. sexual conventions are totally a learned thing that actually exists in real life.

    *not to regional sexual preferences; I doubt you’d find much evidence for that exactly. (“come to the north! here be 69in’!”) more likely just small sexual communities which share certain norms.

    • Offtopic: I feel that a linguist using the word “amazeballs” means that I am officially allowed to use it too.

    • @memetikchik – You make a good point! Thank you for pointing out my lack of articulation and possible mislabeling. What I meant is that the article currently implies to me that we learn our sexual habits from our childhood, and more specifically from our parents (very Freudian). I agree with you that sexual conventions are a learned thing, I just like the idea of clarifying the source (media, friends, the “cool kids” i.e. whoever that means in your situation, etc.) so that it doesn’t sound like it’s your parents.

  4. when comes to sex and what is normal or otherwise, there is no hard and fast rule to it, some say have sex twice a week is normal while others may feel that it is not so normal and quite little, which is the tough part of it and affects many couples!

  5. Another linguist who digs this idea, although I think you’re understating the point about how one accent is emphasized and taught as “correct.” That’s a phenomenon which feeds shame and oppression both in language and sex, and that can be hugely eye-opening to someone who hasn’t thought about it before.

  6. Yeah, this makes complete sense to me. Reminds me of Susie Bright’s story “The Best I Ever Had” when she said she moved to the mid-west and had a string of bad lovers and thought maybe only people in California are good lovers – something to that effect. Either way, it definitely hits home how we filter our idea of sex based on our own experiences, limited an idea that may be.

  7. I like the term “vanilla” applied to sex; it allows for other flavors without the other flavors–or vanilla itself–being a bad thing.

    • Sometimes I hear from students that they feel like “vanilla” gets a bad rap these days, like it’s somehow derogatory to describe someone that way. I think it might be part of the 50 Shades bandwagon thing.

      • Christian Grey does say something like “Nothing plain or old about vanilla — it’s a very intriguing flavor,” though that doesn’t necessarily counteract his other attitudes. (That book kind of specializes in plausible deniability.)

  8. There’s too many of us language folks here liking this metaphor, I’m wondering if that’s a bad sign. ;) And yes, of course it makes absolutely perfect sense to me. I was blessed with a multilingual extended family (we’re upwards of 5 languages atm and counting). Navigating family gatherings means at the same time choosing wisely who you’re sitting next to on the table, trying not to exclude everyone who doesn’t speak your language, toning down regional dialects, learning the art of hand signs and facial expression jokes, and also picking which battles to fight when the inevitable comments from the majority language comes about who should be learning/speaking which language when and why.

    I think all of this translates to sex in so many intuitive ways. We choose our partners preferably amongst those who share our sexual lingo, if we’re open minded (or if we simply are forced to coexist in relative harmony) we try to hear out the people whose sexual preferences aren’t ours, we learn what things are universal enough to be easily used as bridges of communication (and humor is a very effective bridge), and we pick carefully the battles with the majority’s notion of normality. And by majority I only refer to the majority of the people sitting in the table with you, because that’s the only majority that matters. Which means the statistical majority is totally unimportant, both when it comes to language/dialect and in sex: it’s only important for you to communicate with the people you need to communicate at a specific given time. If you choose to make it easy on yourself, you can surround yourself only with people who speak your own language (or only people who dig one very particular fetish for example).

    As someone already mentioned though, this is the sort of metaphor you need to throw in there and then not take too far for it to be effective. But it will be intuitively an aha moment for some people, so I like it.

    And here’s something from the left side of the topic language/sex, maybe you’ve heard it before but maybe you’ll find it interesting: I’m a person who had her first sexual encounters in a language (and I mean actual language) different than my native one. And then I had my most meaningful sexual experiences in a third language (english), including my first encounters with kink and a long term relationship (two separate events). I now live in my country of origin again, with a long term partner who speaks english, and when I fantasize I do so in english. Only. Here’s the thing though. I have a hard time having any sex related conversations in my native tongue. I don’t feel fluent enough in my native tongue to discuss sex politics effectively. I can’t even find the words to flirt (flirting in my native tongue seems to take me back to my sexually ignorant teenage years). The active vocabulary is there, but since it hasn’t been effectively used in successful interactions enough, there’s a gap between the language and the emotions/intentions behind it, if that makes any sense to you. I feel like I’m not communicating my thoughts clearly and fear being misunderstood, in the way someone debating a serious matter in a non native tongue feels. I find it insanely fascinating, how linguistic fluency in a specific topic is so interwoven with our life stories, and I thought you might think it’s an interesting tidbit, so there goes.

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