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The word of the day is sex

I’m fascinated by words. Words are more than just a dictionary definition; they carry minute connections and nuances coded into the lexicon. This is sometimes helpful, carrying complex cultural information, but sometimes it hinders us. Language is influenced by usage, and things we don’t talk about get the shaft lexically.

Which brings me to sex. The word sex is very loaded in our society. It is a very simple word, in many ways, but hugely complex in others. The main interest, for me, is the range of connections this word makes. Just take a look at the varied definitions of “sex”*:

1) One of the two categories male or female (both Wordnik and the OED define it in binary terms almost exclusively in all the variations on this definition, though the OED does admit the usage of the term “third sex” dating back to 1820).

2) The act of sexual intercourse.

3) The genitals.

*Just the noun. There is a verbal form that means “to assign someone to either the male or female category”, that I think sort of folds into definition one.

Does this weird anyone else out, just a little? Not even getting into the fuzzy line between the first definition listed here and the definition of “gender” (which has way too many convolutions for me to address right here), the connections being drawn here are very clear. It should be no surprise that our society links maleness and femaleness with genitals, we deal with that all over the place (even though we don’t actually use genitals to determine what sex/gender we think people around us are [hopefully, otherwise it would be creepy]). The thing that trips me up is the connection with sex as an activity.

This is how our society views the function of our sexed bodies. Men and women equal body parts equal baby making. So we use the same word for both things. But we also build up complex social constructs surrounding masculinity and femininity. What do those gendered stereotypes, often associated with (and occasionally pseudo-scientifically justified by) physical or biological sex, have to do with the act of procreation. Or sex in general, for pleasure or emotional connection or any of the myriad reasons people have sex. Are any of these things connected with sex as an activity?

What about our bodies even? The interaction between sexuality (who one is attracted to and sexual feelings about one’s own body and identity) and sexed bodies is not necessarily straightforward. I’m just free-associating here, and I’ve wandered into strange territory already.

The use of sex to mean male/female predates the intercourse definition by quite a bit of time (OED citations give it ~1400 for the former and ~1900 for the latter). So, are we to assume that the one use developed from the other? We had some other word to describe the sexual act (or maybe we just danced around the subject, talking about “knowing” or something), and then began using a word we otherwise used to describe our bodies (and social constructs created around those bodies).

This is murky to me. Are we automatically sexualizing ourselves just by referring to ourselves as men and women (or male-bodied and female-bodied)? Or are we obfuscating an act by confusing it with the equipment we use (sometimes) to perform it? Both? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either of these explanations.

And what about the idea of the third sex? This label has been forcibly applied to homosexuals, mainly, back before even the first attestation of “sex” being used to describe the activity. So this linking between our bodies and what we do with them goes back a ways. Different sexual activities necessitates a different designation from male or female (and while “third sex” is not applied to LGB people so much anymore in Western society, there is the common idea that gay people are not “real” men or women or that they are trying to be the “opposite” sex).

Using the same word to describe two (very different) things speaks of a powerful cultural connection between them. Do we really need to link these ideas to each other so strongly? Can we disentangle our descriptions of our bodies from our sexual activities? Does it matter? What happens if we disconnect the two? I don’t feel that my body is inherently sexual, though it can be when I want.

I’m in unfamiliar waters with this post. My experience with my body has mainly been to disconnect it from the societal projections placed on it, so my instinct is to disconnect it from the lexical projections as well. I feel like the many, many ways there are to experience one’s body and one’s sexed and sexual self are stifled by this connection. But maybe the usage of the word, in the activity sense at least, is flexible enough to accommodate all of these experiences. Not the male/female definition, that’s about as rigid as it gets, “third sex” stuff not really helping and mainly being a tool for othering.

I think I tried to take on too much with this. There is so much cultural baggage placed on our bodies and our sexual activities that it’s impossible to parse them all. I think I’ve partially unearthed some of my own baggage just trying to organize this, and not very successfully either, judging from how rambly I’ve been this whole time.

I’d love to hear other people’s take on this; I find stuff like this pretty fascinating (obviously).

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