Thursday, March 12, 2009

Aggressively Passive

"Falling in love"

"Getting kissed"

"Losing your virginity"

We all know I love to talk about words and their "hidden meanings". But I've never really talked about them as a group before. This post is all about words and phrases related to sexual and romantic comings-of-age, and the fact that they use such passive language. Here's a few things that this sort of language implies to me:
  • Inevitablility. I don't know where or when, but it's pretty much certain that I will lose my favorite lip gloss. Apparently, your virginity is just as easy to misplace.
  • On that note, effortlessness. None of the above concepts imply any work on our part. But if getting kissed is what you're after, sitting around with closed eyes and pursed lips won't do much for you.

  • Lack of power. When love comes at you, you may be powerless to stop it. But when the same ideas apply to sex...we have a problem.

Maybe this all seems a little far-fetched. But welcome to my world of words. I've definitely seen these concepts of passivity operating in my own life. When I was younger, I wanted to have a boyfriend. Maybe I could have if I tried, but I never did. I expended no effort on that front whatsoever, sure that it only required being in the right place at the right time. Maybe my lack of attraction to people was a factor. But the idea that romantic relationships were something that you had to pursue never even occured to me. (Even as I knew full well that I needed to pursue friendships.) Until I identified as asexual and started thinking critically about this stuff, I had no empowerment when it came to sex and relationships. Like their language implies, I thought they were things that just happened, far from my control. I'm not saying that you have to question your sexuality in order to be empowered. But if asexuality had never forced me to think differently, I'd probably have the same ideas of sex and romance that I did as a teen.

I'd like to know how these words came to be the way they are. I know that "falling in love", for one, is a "largely Western concept". Are we so wound-up from our Protestant work ethic that we feel the need to hang back and not work so hard on our love lives? Or maybe if we used less euphemistic language, people would think we actually wanted sex-- and our culture still doesn't seem to be quite sure if this is a good idea for young people or not. Maybe these are holdouts from the Victorian era, like fuzzy toilet seat covers. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which I adore, the phrase "falling in love" originates from 1423. However, whether or not the meaning has been the same (the meaning of "making love" has changed, for example) is not mentioned. Maybe the idea of "falling in love" makes it harder to achieve-- and therefore more likely for us to buy products that will make us more desireable. As usual, there are many options, but no answers, at least on my side.

Another interesting thing about these phrases is that they're gender-neutral. I would expect in our double-standard-happy culture for women, delicate flowers that we are, to lose our virginity, while men ruggedly get to have sex for the first time. Apparently, we are all delicate flowers when it comes to this stuff. But in my opinion, we shouldn't have to be.


The Asexualist said...

Hmm, I've never thought of a non-virgin guy as being "deflowered", but that makes the concept more entertaining to me.

You've been... deflowered! Scandalous!

Fellmama said...

Through more or less accidentally getting an MA in ancient Christianity, I think I may actually know something relevant! I'd suspect that the language of "losing" with respect to virginity comes from early Christian thought. Theologians like Tertullian were adamant that virginity was a prize to be cherished, and sex wasn't a positive thing. This applied equally to men and women--Tertullian wrote that "the virgin's is the principle sanctity, because it is free from fornication."

ACH said...

When reading this, I wanted to comment and point out that, technically, only "getting kissed" is passive voice. But then I read this on language log and discovered that the term passive voice is changing meaning.

Anonymous said...

Even "having sex" is a fairly passive phrase. You're not doing anything, just "having" it. The only aggressive words for sexual intercourse are fairly violent, at least in their connotations: "doing" someone, "fucking" someone...I can't think of any others.

Ily said...

Crazy old English language...I can't speak to the grammar or linguistics of things (besides what the Online Etymology Dictionary tells me), so I just have to go on the "spirit" of words, or what they sound like to a layperson. It's interesting, I think "having" is sort of a euphemism for other action. Like when you go to a restaurant, they ask "What are you going to have?" not "What are you going to eat?" I'd never thought of that 'til now...I guess "to have" someone also means to have sex with them, in a Shakespearean sense.
Tertullian huh...

Anonymous said...

Yes! I've thought about this as well. It's always creeped me out that kissing and having sex are talked about as if they're things that just happen to you or, worse, things that are done to you, rather than things you choose to do.

Anonymous said...

Spanish is less passive in these expressions. W.r.t. kissing, the passive form is only used when you get a sudden kiss without response; in other case, you use the active form. For falling in love we have the synthetic verb enamorarse, which is reflex-passive, and is used exactly in the same way that resfriarse="to catch a cold." Losing one's virginity is the same, probably kept form the Ancient times, but the analogous of having sex is very formal in Spanish. I don't know if it has this formal nuance. In casual speech, the analogous of get laid is plainly laying.

Mary Maxfield said...

Yeah, personally, I think of "having" as more possessive than passive, although it's definitely passive in comparison to some of the "doing" phrases -- and possessive, in terms of sex/ relationships, has problems of its own. (Also, if "having sex" implies possession of it, does that explain why those of us who don't have sex are considered lacking in some way?) ...I also tend to disagree with the idea of these terms as gender neutral. Maybe I'm rarer in this than I realize, but I'm pretty sure I've never heard "getting kissed" used by or in reference to a guy. It's pretty solely for girls (in a heterosexual context, or a heterosexual context projected onto a homosexual relationship) in my experience. And while guys and girls both talk about losing their virginity, I think that's a lot more likely to be considered negative (by the larger culture) when women are experiencing the "loss." It is interesting to me, though, that it's termed a loss at all... points to the ambivalence our culture still has about sex, I guess.

Tomatl said...

Things Asexuals Love: Words!!!

etymology, pedantry, contextualization, language, spelling...words in all their depth and delightfulness.