The Case for New Erotic Language

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In acknowledging that our erotic language could be more expansive and continuing with this practice of language creation, we need new words.

summer of sex

By Dalychia Saah

There were so many words used to describe what I could expect for my first penetrative experience with a penis. 

“It’s going to feel like your lungs are collapsing and you can’t breathe.” 

“There’s going to be blood.”

“Things won’t be the same afterward. You’re always connected to your first.”

“It’ll hurt so drink a little bit before.”

These words of “wisdom” and “encouragement” from friends, cousins, and my then boyfriend’s mother contributed to what I didn’t yet know was my severe anxiety. Looking back, I’ve been anxious most of my life. When I was younger, my parents had to surprise me about doctor visits that included injections because if I knew about it ahead of time, I’d legitimately make myself sick from worrying about the appointment. Nevermind the fact that after every appointment I would realize that my fear of getting the shot was worse than the actual shot. 

With my anxiety unrecognized and untreated, my worrying continued and I developed deep-seated fears about losing my virginity. My fears, worries, and anxieties meant that there were several occasions that were perfectly situated for me to lose my virginity, but I didn’t. There was prom night, the time when all the movies tell us it is supposed to happen, and we planned for it to happen, but I was “too tired” to do it. There was the time when he tried to go in me and I was so tense, afraid, and it hurt too much that I had a knee jerk reaction and kicked him off me. There was the time when I drank 1 ½ Four Lokos (prior to recall) because I was determined to get through it, and I blacked out and thankfully nothing happened. Then there was the time when it felt like the right moment, but we didn’t have a condom, so conflict avoided. Yes, conflict because my virginity was starting to feel like a geopolitical war that needed to happen so that we could bring forth things like democracy, civilization, and peace. 

Honestly, I don’t remember how many attempts there were, but I do remember that no one told me that sex could and should feel pleasurable for me. No one said that it would hurt only if I wasn’t fully aroused. I’m not sure I even knew what fully aroused felt like for me. My sexual experiences prior involved little to no masturbation, making out with (insert whatever boyfriend at the time), me giving him either a handjob or blowjob, him orgasming, and that was it. They rarely ate my pussy because it was gross to them. And that made sense because people joked that “pussy smells fishy” since I was a child. I had been to fish markets with my grandmother, and I knew my pussy didn’t smell like raw fish, but it didn’t smell like peaches or roses either. But there were times when their dicks smelled like old hotdog water and I still delivered quality head while holding back the urge to vomit, because to tell him that his dick was gross would be too damaging to his ego.

I often wonder how different my early sexual experiences would’ve been if the words, advice, and conversations about sex sounded more like: 

“Masturbation is a great way to bring yourself pleasure and learn your body.”

“If penetration hurts, do something else that makes you feel good.”

“It’s okay to use lube!”

“Communicate and negotiate with others about the things you want to experience and your boundaries.” 

“Your pussy deserves to be licked.”

As Kid Fury and Crissle often say, “words mean things” and currently the words we use to describe the kind of sexual experiences we have are insufficient and quite frankly outdated. Countless people have written about how virginity is a social construct. And while I’m relieved I don’t have to undergo a hymen test to prove my worth, there is still a social stigma around being a virgin “too late” in life and not being a virgin “too early” in life. For most people, losing your virginity doesn’t mean the first time you masturbate or have solo sex, the first time you perform or receive oral sex, nor the first time you’re penetrated with fingers, a condom covered cucumber or a sex toy — no, for the majority of us, losing your virginity signifies the first penis in vagina (PIV) sexual experience. As specific as this definition is, it still leaves room for confusion and exclusion of many queer people who never have PIV sex, disabled people whose sexual experiences expand beyond genital interaction, and people whose early sexual experiences were non-consensual and traumatic to figure out what losing their virginity means for them. And “losing”, which literally means suffering, relating to defeat in a game, definitely describes many of our virginity stories. For so long, I thought I was the only one with this *ahem* challenging virginity story, until talking to others and repeatedly hearing stories filled with pressure, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, and pain.  

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I also absolutely hate the word “foreplay.” To be fair, I like that it brings the concept of play to sex, and how that adds to the sexual experiences we often see on screen. From rom-coms to porn, sex is often portrayed as this intense, deeply passionate, and very serious activity. Whereas playing creates space for fun, laughter, exploration, negotiation, and clumsiness like falling off the bed, getting leg cramps, and awkward but tantalizing roleplay scenarios. But I hate that foreplay demotes almost anything outside of penetrative sex as less than. Foreplay is the prequel we learn about after the fourth film in the series is already out, it’s the coconut, granola, or berries on top of your FroYo that you could really do without, the chips and guac appetizer to hold you over until the main course. And for some of us, maybe we don’t want the main course every meal. Maybe we are quite satisfied and satiated from having an array of various and delicious appetizers. Referring to non-penetrative sexual activities as foreplay acts such as flirting, kissing, sucking, biting, licking, squeezing, holding, teasing, grinding, spanking, frames them as nothing more than bonus aspects of sexual interaction that are only tolerated so that we can get to the penetrating. It is so patriarchal and penis-centric to value penetration over pleasure. It puts in place a hierarchy where my painful penetrative experience—where I faked an orgasm through my grimacing face to help him come faster so it could all be over—is considered more legitimate sex than the sexual tension released during make out, dry humping, and hair grabbing session that leaves my panties soaked, heart racing, and mind fantasizing for days afterwards. 

And if we begin to complicate and question the use of words like virginity and foreplay, we are urged to do the same for the word sex. Similar to how those colonially considered white are simply American, while all others have to add African, Asian, Latinx before American to explain our existence or connection to this country. The word sex is so synonymous with partnered PIV that we have to add modifiers like oral, anal, solo in front of sex to denote the existence of experiences outside of PIV sex. Our definition also leaves room for people to say things like “non-consensual sex”, instead of affirming that if it wasn’t consensual, it wasn’t sex. 

Language is constructed, meaning it is susceptible to all the internalized classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all other -isms of its constructor. To combat this reality, people with marginalized identities have been engaging in the production of language to name our experiences. For example, it wasn’t until the early 1970s where Catharine MacKinnon, Mary Rowe, Carmita Wood, and other women coined and started using the term sexual harassment. Prior to that, legally and colloquially there wasn’t a word to describe this inappropriate, traumatic, yet common experience. In past decades alone, we’ve added more words to name the ways we experience oppression like intersectionality, gaslighting, mansplain, toxic masculinity, rape culture, and misogynoir to our lexicon. We’ve also created words to describe the ways we experience our fullness as humans. From genderfull words like genderfuck, genderfluid, and studsman, to words coming out of the polyamorous, kink, and asexual communiites like compersion, aftercare, and squish respectively. 

In acknowledging that our erotic language could be more expansive and continuing with this practice of language creation, we need new words. Words that don’t center penetrative, penis inclusive sex as the pinnacle and defining moment of an erotic experience. Words that don’t prioritize the end result of one person’s orgasm over the process of creating and experiencing a mutual pleasure. Words that don’t value our sexual relationships with others over our sexual relationship with ourselves. Words that express and embody all the clit-inclusive, queer, kinky, erogenous, pleasurable, lustful, romantic, and time-filling sexual experiences we have and desire to have. And words that recognize that not all sexual experiences are for procreation nor for pleasure; that people have sex for various reasons including but not limited to money, survival, status, and their partner’s satisfaction. 

As I think back to what the anxious 15-year-old me needed to hear and know as I trudged through the sexual fog created by abstinent focused sex ed, non-feminist porn, and religious sexual shame. It would have been transformational if instead of the foundation of my sexual journey being marked by the act of penetration, it was commemorated by the feeling of an orgasm. Not because orgasms are the goal of every erotic experience, but because orgasms are one way to measure erotic pleasure. These days, as I reframe my virginity, I claim my first orgasm, what I’ve named my “origasm”, as one of the most pivotal moments that launched my sexual course. Ori as in original, an origin story, and one’s spiritual intuition in Yoruba tradition, which feels befitting as my orgasms have definitely served as a compass pointing me towards the things I desire and away from things I despise in life. But in addition to knowing the feeling of orgasms, I needed to know that throughout life I would experience many erotic awakenings that would deepen my relationship to myself and others. From every time I discover a new kink of mine, to my ability as a dreamer to have amazing dreamsex and dreamlovers, to falling deep in lust and not wanting or needing it to become love, to my wild and story-worthy sexventures, to my drug-induced, autosexual multiorgasmic experiences. What I truly needed was for the conversations around my sexual journey to provide me with a view of sexuality that was as limitless, creative, and expansive as the act of constructing new words. 

Dalychia Saah (she/her), is a professor, writer, public speaker, and the co-founder of Afrosexology. Through her words and work, Dalychia facilitates space for people to connect deeper with their desires for their body, relationships, life, and our world. Follow her on social media @dalychia and/or @afrosexology. 

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