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From Bad Language to Crooked Thinking

Chapter 1 from
Childhood and Sexuality,
A Radical Christian Approach,
by John. L Randall,
Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., Pittsburg, Pa., 
ISBN 0-8059-3284-4,

What's in a name? that which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Contradicting Shakespeare is always a risky business, especially when you live in the heart of the Shakespeare country as I do. Nevertheless, I feel bound to say that on this occasion Shakespeare was badly mistaken. Names are extremely important because the name we give to a thing is often crucial in determining our attitude towards the thing itself. 

A few years ago some of my sixth-form psychology students devised an experiment which involved swopping the labels on bottles of perfume, and then presenting them to members of the public to obtain their reactions. They found that in nearly every case the recipient responded to what the label told him, not to what was really in the bottle. 

The principle of "give a dog a bad (or good) name" is, of course, well known in the advertising industry. I have no doubt whatever that Shakespeare's rose would have smelt rather different if the smeller had been blindfolded and told that he was approaching a skunk! 

In the field of human sexuality the words we use reveal very plainly the deep-seated attitudes of our culture.  We live in a society which is strongly negative toward sex. This may seem a surprising comment to some readers, especially since the 1960s and 1970s were supposed to have ushered in a more enlightened age. Yet despite the very real changes which occurred during that period, our underlying attitudes remain basically negative. 

In 1976 the National Counsel for Civil Liberties presented its evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, opening with the following remarks:

One of the most empty opinions frequently given about our society is that it is a 'permissive society'. The term is rarely defined. It is true that certain barriers to sexual activity have been lowered, but the high threshold of guilt that affects many people often distorts relationships and behaviour and makes quite legitimate sexual freedoms beyond the reach of many people. The law still operates harshly to discourage certain sexual activities, even where no harm to others is identifiable. It would be equally true to say, as Anthony Grey of the Sexual Law Reform Society recently did, that ours is a repressive society. 
(162, p. 3) 
[National Counsel for Civil Liberties: Evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, NCCL Report No. 13, February 1976]

Our deep-rooted negativity towards sex comes out very clearly in the words we use.  A joke about sexual matters is described as a dirty joke, and an older man who is interested in sex is described as a dirty old man. Masturbation is still referred to as self-abuse, and the release of seminal fluid is seen as pollution. A man who has intercourse with a virgin is said to have
brought about her defloration, a term which suggests the destruction or degrading of a plant by the removal of all its flowers. The girl herself is said to have lost her virginity, as though something valuable about her has been destroyed. 

If we had a positive attitude towards sex, we would surely talk in terms of her having gained a new and enriching experience. Nearly always, where sex is concerned the language used is the language of loss, dirtiness, pollution, or destruction.

Further evidence of this negativity comes from the use of sexual words as terms of abuse. The schoolboy, losing his temper, may tell his friend to fuck off or may call him a cunt. Such expressions would not be regarded as insults if we did not regard sex itself as something nasty or dirty. 

We do not insult a person by calling him a nose, or by telling him to eat off.  Sexual words are often  used as terms of aggression, and Paul Fussell has drawn attention to the curious overlap that exists between the language of war and the terminology used to describe lovemaking ; terms such as assault, impact, thrust, and penetration are common to both. 

(76, p. 270)
[Fusell, Paul, The Great War and Modern History, Oxford University Press, 1977]

D. H. Lawrence made a valiant attempt to restore the old Anglo-Saxon words for sexual activity to their proper place in our vocabulary and to remove the overtones of dirtiness and aggression.

There is, after all, no logical reason why the word fuck should be any less acceptable than its Latin equivalent, copulation. In Lady Chatterley's Lover Lawrence used the forbidden word in its original sense, to denote the act by which we were all brought into the world. The only immediate result was that the book was banned outright by the Home Secretary. It remained banned for the next thirty years. 

As Aldous Huxley put it, 

"The giant Grundy popped her huge crinoline over him (Lawrence) and extinguished him by force." 
(113, p.116) 
[Huxley, Aldous, Music at Night, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1950]

The trouble with the Anglo-Saxon words, says Huxley, is that they are too explicit; they bring vividly before the mind the very thing which, because of our sex-negative conditioning, we are trying to avoid:

Early training has so conditioned the reflexes of the normal bourgeois and his wife that they shudder whenever one of these words is pronounced. For these words bring the mind into direct contact with the physical reality which it is so desperately anxious to ignore. The circumlocutions and the scientific polysyllables do not bring the mind into this direct contact. They are merely algebraical symbols, almost empty of living, physical significance. ... (p. 118)

Lawrence himself could never quite understand why his book had been banned. 

"I am mystified at this horror over a mere word, a plain simple word that stands for a plain simple thing," he wrote in 1929. 

Interestingly enough, Lawrence considered himself to be a "deeply religious man," despite the opposition which his work received from Christians. To Lawrence the human body - all of it, not just the bits above the waist - was a manifestation of the Creator's activity:

Whoever the God was that made us, He made us complete. He didn't stop at the navel and leave the rest to the devil. It is too childish. ... you can't suddenly say that all the words which, belong below the navel are obscene. 
(135, p. 9)
[Lawrence, D. H., A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Other Essays, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1961]

Logically, Lawrence's argument is unanswerable; but then our responses to sexual words come not from logic, but from gut reactions. 

Huxley, who was a far better psychologist than Lawrence, perceived the true origin of these feelings: we- have all been conditioned in early childhood, just as Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate at the ringing of a bell: 

At every ringing of their familiar "pornographic" bell, the right-thinkingly conditioned smut-hounds foam at the mouth. And unfortunately they are in a position to do more than foam; they are in a position to open our letters, confiscate our books and burn our pictures. What's to be done about it? Perhaps Professor Pavlov might be able to tell us. 
(113, p.119)
[Huxley, Aldous, Music at Night, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1950]

Since Huxley wrote those words, the "scientific polysyllables" which are used to describe sexual behaviour have proliferated at an astonishing rate, indicating, perhaps, our need to talk about sex without actually encountering it.

 It will come as a surprise to most readers to learn that words such as homosexual, lesbian, paedophile, sadist, masochist, and fetishist were unknown a century ago. Indeed, most of them were unknown, except in medical circles, as recently as the 1930s. 

It is instructive to try looking up these words in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1933 edition; you will find hardly any of them. By the time the 1989 edition came to be published, however, all of these words had become part of everyday speech. This fact alone surely tells us something about the way our attitudes towards sexuality have changed over the past fifty years.

The proliferation of scientific jargon to describe human sexuality is  part of a general trend towards classifying and labeling people. 

William James divided people into "tough-minded" and "tender-minded" types.

Kretschmer into "cycloids" and "schizoids," 

the endocrinologists into "thyroid," "pituitary," and "adrenal" personalities, and 

Jung into "introverts" and "extraverts." 

While the mainline psychologists were busily labeling people in this way, the early sexologists were equally busy devising systems of classification for human sexual behaviour. 

The word lesbian first appeared in Billing's Medical Dictionary in 1890, and the word masochist in Dunglison's Medical Dictionary in 1893. Fetishism and Paedophilia seem to have originated with Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) and to have been introduced to the English-speaking world through the works of Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). The term homosexual
was introduced in 1869 by a Hungarian physician called Karoly Maria Benkert, who wrote under the pseudonym of K. M. Kertbeny. It was, perhaps, a singularly unfortunate invention.

Recent decades have shown no slowing down of the labeling process; the advance of the scientific polysyllable  continues apace. John Money, Professor of Medical Psychology and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has a vast number of sexual jargon-words in his book Love and Love Sickness, published in 1980. He introduces the word sexosophy to mean, presumably, the "philosophy of sex," and he lists no less than twenty-eight "paraphilias," the word he uses to denote any deviation of the sexual impulse from what is considered to be its normal target.

Money's paraphilias include such gems as

acrotophilia (preferring a partner with an amputated leg),

narratophilia (enjoying erotic talk), and

pictophilia (enjoying "dirty" pictures).

No doubt many people who have previously considered themselves to be thoroughly normal will be surprised to find that they fall into one or other of the latter two categories.

More recently, Dewaraja and Money have coined the term formicophilia to denote the deviation of a Sri Lankan boy who gave himself , erections by allowing ants to crawl over his penis. (52) [*] I doubt whether very many more cases of that particular paraphilia will be discovered!

[* Dewaraja, R. & Money, J., "Transcultural Sexology; Formicophilia, a Newly Named Paraphilia in a Young Buddhist Male,"J. of Sex & Marital Therapy, 1986, 12, pp. 139-45]

On the one hand, then, we have the good old Anglo-Saxon words which are regarded as obscene  and are not permitted in polite society. On the other hand we have the scientific polysyllables which are now proliferating like rabbits in a field of cabbages.

There seem to be very few words relating to human sexuality which do not fall into one or other of these categories. I believe that this situation is a very unhealthy one. In particular, I believe that the introduction of so much scientific jargon to describe various types of people has had a pernicious effect upon twentieth-century attitudes towards sex.

Let us take the word homosexual as a distinct human type seems to have been virtually unknown until Krafft-Ebbing popularized at the end if the nineteenth century. Anyone who has read Suetonius will know that the Roman emperors commonly took their sexual pleasures with boys and girls, more or less indiscriminately. Obviously, there were some people who preferred one sex rather than the other, but there was no clear concept of a distinct homosexual type. Throughout the Middle Ages homosexual practices took place, particularly in monasteries where females were not available, but again, there was no notion that the men who did these things were in some way different from the rest of mankind.

The death penalty existed for certain acts such as sodomy (anal intercourse), but this was applied irrespective of whether the act took place between two men or between a man and his wife. (87, p. 275) [*] It was the act that was considered offensive, not the sexual orientation of the participants. 

[* Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago press, 1988]

Right up until the First World War it was possible for men to write love letters to one another and to express their feelings by hugging one another in public without being thought queer or branded as perverts. Sadly, this happy state of affairs no longer exists; Krafft-Ebing and his followers have seen to that. 

Once the notion of the homosexual type became firmly entrenched in the public mind, men became afraid to express their feelings for one another because they might be labeled as "one of them." Anyone  who has ever counseled schoolboys will know that one of their greatest fears is the fear that they might be homosexual: 

"I had this funny dream the other night, sir ... do you think I might be gay?"

Desperately anxious to prove to themselves and their peers that they do not fall into the dreaded category, boys embark on all sort of macho activities, often getting into trouble with the police and the school authorities as a result. 

Yet if we exclude certain rare and hormonally pathological types, there is probably no such thing as a homosexual. Every human being is capable of love, and every human being is capable of responding erotically to a loving approach, whether it comes from their own or the opposite sex. The idea of homosexuality as an ingrained, permanent characteristic of one's personality is a myth created entirely by twentieth-century psychology. 

The tragedy is that thousands of young people, upon finding that they are experiencing erotic sensations towards members of their own sex, come to accept the label which society imposes on them. Boys as young as thirteen may found haunting the gay areas of London and other large cities. Having convinced themselves that they are permanently homosexual, they proceed to join gay clubs and associate mainly with others of the same belief. 

There is a deep need in all of us to feel that we belong to a group. The schoolboy's belief that he is gay can all too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you believe that you have 
certain mental characteristics you are likely to develop behavioural patterns which tend to confirm that belief. By labeling himself as a "gay" the boy rules out any possibility of being attracted by girls, and soon acquires the language and mannerism of the homosexual subculture. Once in, he is very unlikely ever to go out again.

The sheer absurdity of this situation was brought home to me some years ago when I read a letter in the agony column of a sex-advice magazine. A young man in his mid-twenties wrote in to say that he had always considered himself to be homosexual, and had been active in the Gaysoc at his university. Now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, he had fallen in love with a girl! His whole self-image had begun to crumble, and he didn't know how to deal with the situation. 

What this story reveals, of course, is the nonsensicality of the label which he stuck on himself  in thee first place. I believe that teachers who are involved in sex education should warn children that they may find themselves attracted to members of either sex at various periods of their lives but that this does not mean that they are permanently homosexual or heterosexual. They should be encouraged to keep their options open, and not allow themselves to be trapped within the categories defined by scientific polysyllables or their everyday equivalents. 

We should aim to create a society where gay clubs will no longer nee to exist, because men and women will no longer be classified in terms of their sexual responses. It will be a society where people are treated as individuals, not as types.

In medicine the term virus is used to denote an entity which enters the cells of the body and re-programs the genetic machinery so that the cells produce more and more viruses. In this way viruses can replicate themselves and can pass from individual to individual for thousands of years. 

More recently, the term computer virus has been introduced to denote something similar in the world of technology. A computer virus is a program which can spread from one computer to another, making copies of itself and interfering with the normal functioning of the machines. 

I think perhaps the time is ripe to extend the notion of the virus into the realm of psychology. I would therefore like to define the concept of a psychovirus as 

an idea or complex  of ideas which, once firmly established in someone's mind, is extremely difficult to dislodge and which can spread from one person to another, particularly through the process of conditioning, child-rearing, and education. 

 Anti-semitism would be one example of just such a psychovirus; sadly, it is not extinct even today. Sexual negativity is another example; it infected the world of western civilization many   centuries ago, and it continues to wreak havoc in the lives of thousands to this very day. 

In later chapters of this book we shall be examining the history of the spread of this virus, particularly as it has affected the treatment of children. 

Will it ever be possible to rid our civilization of the sex negativity virus? Possibly, but the task will not be easy. Biological viruses such as smallpox, have only been conquered after many years of the application of rational thought and empirical investigation. So long as men continued to cling to ancient myths about the origins of diseases, those diseases continued to flourish.

In the field of human sexuality the process of rational investigation has hardly begun. The great pioneers of sexology can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and those that have achieved important insights (Freud, Hirschfeld, Kinsey, Masters and Johnson) have been greatly vilified for their efforts.

Rigorous and impartial investigation is the only way to obtain accurate information about the world in which we live, and this includes human sexual behaviour. In a frequently quoted passage, Thomas Henry Huxley exhorted us to: 

"Sit down before the facts as a little child; be prepared to give up every preconceived notion; follow humbly wherever nature leads, or you will learn nothing." 

This is the true spirit of science, and it is this spirit which has enabled us to understand the structure of the atom, the functioning of the solar system, and the chemistry of the living cell; but only rarely has it been applied in matters to do with sex. What we have had instead has been a vast outpouring of books, pamphlets, and magazine articles, some purporting to be more scientific than others, but mostly expressing nothing more substantial than the prejudices of their authors. This is particularly true where manifestations of childhood sexuality are concerned. In this areas, even the experts seem to find it difficult to think clearly. They, like the rest of us, have their mental process clouded by the sex negativity virus. 

In a famous book which should be required reading for every sixth-former, Robert H. Thouless discussed the various subtle ways in which we deceive ourselves and others through the use of "crooked thinking."

(221) [Thouless, R. H., Straight and Crooked Thinking, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1930]

One of the most important ways in which we do this is  through the employment of emotionally toned language. Words such as "mongrel" and "nigger" carry emotional overtones implying disapproval; they therefore convey far more than their merely factual content. As Thouless points out, the same characteristic in a man may be described as firmness by those who approve of him, and stubbornness or pigheadedness by those who disapprove. Emotionally flavoured language is particularly rife in almost all the literature concerned with childhood sexuality. 

Two examples of emotionally toned language which occur regularly in the literature of sexuality are the words perversion and abuse. Neither of these words has any factual or scientific meaning; they merely express the disapproval of the writer. What one man regards as a perverted sexual act may seem quite natural to another. Masturbation was considered to be a perversion in Victorian times; today most people would regard it as a perfectly normal activity, at least in pubescent children. 

Kinsey found that working-class Americans often regarded kissing, petting, and extensive foreplay as perversions, whereas the more educated segments of the population saw them as normal. 

The paintings on Greek vases show that anal intercourse was regarded as a normal activity in ancient Greece, whereas in twentieth-century Britain and America many people would probably consider it to be a perversion. 

Clearly, therefore, the word perversion has no fixed meaning; it means whatever the speaker, or the culture to which he belongs, chooses it to mean. It is an Alice-in-Wonderland word, and should have no place in serious works on sexuality.

.In recent years the market has been flooded with books and articles on the topic of "child sexual abuse." Indeed, this seems to becoming the great obsession of the last years of the twentieth century. My dictionary defines abuse as follows: 

"misuse; ill-treatment; corrupt practice; scurrilous or contumelious language; contumely; violation; perversion of meaning," 

In short, abuse seems to have much the same meaning as perversion. Once again we find that what is considered to be abuse in one culture is regarded as a perfectly normal activity in another.

Ford and Beach tell us that the Hopi Indians of North America and the Siriono of South America masturbate their own children regularly, and so do the Kazaks who live to the north of the Caspian Sea. (71, p. 201) [*] Mothers on the East Indian island of Alor "fondle the genitals of their infant while nursing it," and Alorese boys are allowed to masturbate freely and openly from early childhood.

[* Ford, C. S.. & Beach, F. A., Patterns of Sexual behavior,  Menthuen & Co., London, 1965]

If any such activities were to come to light in present-day Britain or America there would be a massive outcry, with police and social services intervening to separate the child from its "abusing" parents. Yet there is no evidence that Alorese, Kazak, Hopi, or Siriono children are in any way harmed by their early initiation into the pleasures of sexuality. 

It is only to be expected that popular newspapers should use emotionally toned language; they depend upon the stirring up of emotions in their readers enhance their sales. It is more alarming when such language b ins to intrude into the technical literature, because it suggests that certain attitudes or beliefs have now become so ingrained that the author can take them for granted in his readers. Most of the textbooks on "child sexual abuse" assume without question that all sexual contacts between children and adults are harmful, and therefor abusive, and the books bristle with emotionaliy laden terms such as "victim", "molester," "pervert", and so on. 

The better writers do, however try to define what they mean by sexual abuse. LaFontaine, for example, defines child sexual abuse as 

"adult or sexual activities involving the bodily contact with a child or adolescent  for the gratification of the adult." 
(129, p. 41) 
[LaFontaine, jean, Child Sexual Abuse, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990]

Presumably, therefore, a mother who becomes sexually aroused through hgging her child at the breast (as many do) thereby becomes a child abuser, since she is certainly gaining gratification from physical contact with her child.

Nash and West are fully aware of the tendentious nature of the term "child sexual abuse"; nevertheless, they apparently feel bound to use it in order to conform to the spirit of the age:

This study include all forms of sexual contact between a child and an adult regrdless of whether or not the incident was regarded as unpleasant by the child. For convenience we have used the term "child sexual abuse" as others have done, to embrace all such incidents, but without meaning to imply that they are invariably harmful or never solicited by the child. 
(237, p. 3) 
[West, Donald J., Sexual Victimisation: Two Recent Researches into Sex problems and Their Social Effects, Gower Publishing Company, Aldershot, 1985]

This would seem to be a case of wanting to have one's cake and eat it. To use the term abuse to describe incidents which are not harmful is surely a misuse  of language, and one which can only inhibit clarity of thought. 

In this book I shall try to avoid the use of emotionally toned expressions when referring to sexual acts. It is never possible to do so entirely; even Dr. Thouless slips emotionally toned language at times. I shall, however, try to distinguish clearly between acts which are certainly abusive and exploitative by anyone's standards, such as rape, and acts which are seen as abusive because our society chooses to define them as such.

The blurring of the distinctions between these two categories has, in my opinion,  created an immense amount of confusion in the whole field of childhood sexuality. I shall also try to avoid  labeling people according to their sexual activities. Words such as "homosexual", "lesbian," "paedophile," and so on, may be quite useful as adjectives to describe a particular activity. When applied as descriptive nouns to individual human beings they become, to use an emotionally toned expression, thoroughly pernicious.

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