Research on language and sexuality
Approaching the subject of sexuality
means, first of all,
being able to speak about it.
- Walter Müller (1997)
The first step in research is to name or describe what is being investigated. The way we discuss sexuality is affected by the values and morals of our society. And that discussion is generally shaped by social taboos.
Different words are considered appropriate for different cultural contexts and situations. There are often taboos around even discussing which words are appropriate for different situations, and that makes it difficult to develop a usable sexual vocabulary. As a result, people are often uncertain or speechless when it comes to their own language use and sexuality.
In part because of these taboos, it’s safe to assume that the sexual fantasies and practices of individuals are far more varied than those that society puts into words.
This means that there are aspects of sexuality that are inaccessible to researchers studying everyday language, or that are subject to highly specific requirements regarding their circulation in society.
In general, sexual language is defined as explicit speech about sexuality, sex organs, and their function. Researchers have divided sexual language into four categories: children’s language, vulgar language, standard language, and expert language.
Standard language is the language used in public situations and civic life in order to talk about sexuality. It is characterized by euphemisms or delicate paraphrases that allow the speaker to talk about sexuality in an inoffensive way (Norbert Kluge, 1997). The verb “to sleep together”, for example, describes the exact opposite of what actually takes place during sex. According to Kluge (1997), this has the consequence of strengthening the social taboo.
Human sexuality is a research topic for many different disciplines with many different goals. There are research questions about the medical, psychological, sociological, legal, linguistic, and anthropological aspects of sexuality.
These research questions are specific to each discipline, tackling problems that are rarely discussed in an interdisciplinary way. This is partly because there is no interdisciplinary language, so no way of discovering research on the topic at hand outside of one’s own discipline.
Researchers are aware of this issue. That’s why interdisciplinary projects around sexuality are growing in importance, with research into the history of sexuality (Working Group on Sexualities in History, FU Berlin) and the use of objects in sexual culture (Things and Sexuality, German Museum of Hygiene).
The Categories to Come project is part of this research landscape, helping to build a resource for those researching sexuality in various disciplines. The project is based on two assumptions, namely, 1) the existing sexual vocabulary has only been partly described, and 2) because of sexuality’s visual nature, lack of language, and location within the realm of experience, there are many fantasies and sex acts that nobody has yet attempted to put into words.
The project uses artistic research methods to stimulate the imagination and encourage the creation of new words. This stands in contrast to the established methods of the social sciences. Artistic research uses its freedom to capture complementary knowledge and experience in such a way that others can reflect upon it.
The project will generate a data collection that can be used to enhance studies by researchers working in linguistics, social sciences, sexology, gender studies, and literature. Moreover, the results will serve as a resource to open up new areas of research into sexuality.
Categories to Come participants will be helping to bring more diversity to artistic and academic research into sexual language and sexual desire. Moreover, the project will highlight how research can have an artistic component and how this artistic component can produce another form of knowledge.
The results will be made publicly available, so that members of the public can use the database to find new ways and words for talking about sexuality.
Müller, Walter: Skeptische Sexualpädagogik: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen schulischer Sexualerziehung. Weinheim: Deutscher Studienverlag 1994.
Kluge, Norbert: Sexualsprache der Deutschen: Eine Erkundungsstudie über den aktuellen sexuellen Sprachgebrauch in West- und Ostdeutschland. 1. Aufl. Landau: Verlag Petra Knecht 1997