LINGUIST List 14.2768

Tue Oct 14 2003

Review: Socioling/Anthro Ling: Cameron & Kulick (2003)

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  1. Monika Bednarek, Language and Sexuality

Message 1: Language and Sexuality

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 11:11:13 +0000
From: Monika Bednarek <>
Subject: Language and Sexuality

Cameron, Deborah and Don Kulick (2003) Language and Sexuality,
Cambridge University Press.

Announced at

Monika A. Bednarek, University of Augsburg, Germany


Language and Sexuality (Cameron & Kulick 2003) is an accessible
textbook devoted to one of the most fundamental aspects of our lives:
the relationship between language and sexuality (the latter is
understood in a broad sense encompassing more than just sexual
identity). Contextualizing their research within current findings in
linguistic, anthropological, literary and psychological theory,
Cameron and Kulick provide the first book-length introduction to this
topic, addressing students and researchers in sociolinguistics,
linguistic anthropology and gender studies alike.

Chapter 1 (Making connections) introduces the complex and intricate
relationship between language and sexuality by providing the reader
with an overview of the topic at hand and definitions of the most
important terms, i.e. 'sex' (biologically defined), 'gender' (social
identity)and 'sexuality' (having culturally-mediated erotic desires).
It stresses the need to dispel confusion around these terms and argues
that it is necessary for the study of language and sexuality to move
beyond the study of sexual identity as such. The authors also
introduce three basic theoretical considerations exemplifying their
social- constructionist view of the field of study: (1) All human
beings have sexuality, (2) sexuality includes more than just sexual
identity (a main theme of the book), and (3) sexualities/sexual
identities are historically and culturally variable.

Chapter 2 (Talking sex and thinking sex: the linguistic and discursive
construction of sexuality) describes the many ways in which discourse
(in both the Foucaultian and the 'linguistic' sense of the term) is
related to sexuality. Sexuality, it is argued, is ''discursively
constructed'' (18). An important role in this construction is
fulfilled by linguistic categorisation: while labels such as
'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' establish a two-fold categorisation of
people as sexual beings, labels such as 'slut', 'slapper', 'tart' and
'slag' (which have no masculine equivalents) point out the different
cultural assumptions involving men's and women's sexual
activity/agency. The chapter also comments on the study of grammatical
patterns involving the language of sexuality (e.g. reciprocal versus
non-reciprocal usages of verbs denoting intimate acts such as 'kiss',
'shag', 'make love', where it is usually the man who occupies the
subject position in non-reciprocal usages), discursive practices
(e.g. the complex meaning of 'no' in sexual encounters) and the rise
and disappearance of labels such as 'sex addict', 'frottist',
'homosexual', 'gay', 'queer', and 'lesbian', showing how such
expressions simultaneously produce and label sexual categories and how
a change in categorisation may mirror ideological shifts in society.

Chapter 3 (What has gender got to do with sex? Language,
heterosexuality and heteronormativity) begins with an introduction to
queer theory, radical feminist studies and gender studies and goes on
to explore the implications of these approaches for the LINGUISTIC
study of language and sexuality. The main point being made is that the
common-sense assumption that heterosexual identity is equivalent to
gender-appropriate behaviour while homosexual identity is equivalent
to gender-inappropriate behaviour (i.e. ''gay men will tend to talk
like women, and lesbians will tend to talk like men'', 51) is too
simple. Commenting on studies of 'fantasy makers' (employees of
telephone sex lines), Japanese hostess clubs, talk among fraternity
brothers and (pre-)adolescents, the authors show that while there is a
close relationship between gendered speech and heterosexual identity,
this relationship is extremely complex. While heterosexuality may be
seen as the unmarked, normative case, it is nevertheless actively
constructed in discourse (in some cases even by using the linguistic
style associated with the opposite gender), and the mapping between
sexuality and gender is by no means unidirectional.

Chapter 4 (Sexuality as identity: gay and lesbian language) focuses on
research on language and homosexuality, providing a brief survey of
the four phases identified by the authors in this field of study. The
overview shows that there has been an important change of emphasis,
involving a move away from both the homophobic assumption that gay
language is ''a perverse reflection of a perverse identity'' (102),
and the homophile assumption that gay language authentically MIRRORS
an affirmative identity, to the view that language is used to
CONSTRUCT rather than mirror identity. The chapter also points out the
need to take into account sociolinguistic variables in analysing
'Gayspeak' (a concept which is, in itself, shown by Cameron and Kulick
to be problematic) and argues for an analysis of the way that
linguistic resources are available to ALL speakers and may be used for
a variety of purposes.

Chapter 5 (Looking beyond identity: language and desire) aims to move
beyond the traditional focus of analysis (language and sexual
identity)by trying to show how linguists might take up the study of
language and DESIRE (involving such dimensions as fantasy, repression,
pleasure, fear, and the unconscious). Arguing that the study of
language and sexuality is very much incomplete without an analysis of
sexual desire, the authors begin with an introduction to
psychoanalytic (Freud, Lacan) and philosophical (Deleuze and Guattari,
Foucault) theories of desire and use this introduction to establish
their own theoretical framework of desire. Desire, in this eclectic
approach, is not wholly conscious/rational but partly constituted by
the unconscious. While it is social, linguistic, transitive (it
requires an object), and relational (it has to do with the recognition
of an Other), it need not always be sexual. Most importantly, desire
crucially involves power structures.The remainder of the chapter is
devoted to an examination of studies bearing on the transitivity of
desire and of work on repression and prohibition (drawing on analyses
of Valentine's Day personal messages, the infamous 'Tampax' telephone
conversation between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles,
personal ads, and pornographic texts). The authors also comment on the
study of fear (as the DESIRE to avoid the unpleasant), in general, in
order to provide a framework with which they then re-visit earlier
examples involving SEXUAL desire. The central argument of the authors
appears to be that a theory of language which is centred on speaker
intention is unsuited to the analysis of language and sexuality, where
the iterability of signs seems to be of primary importance.

Chapter 6 (Language and sexuality: theory, research and politics) is
concerned with the future of research on language and sexuality. It is
argued that this field of inquiry could and should be broadened in
several ways. (1) it should include a (critical) analysis of the way
HETEROsexual identity is constructed, rather than focusing exclusively
on the construction of non-heterosexual identity; (2) the comparative
perspective should be developed further; (3) more attention should be
paid to sociolinguistic variation rather than analysing speakers who,
for instance, ''seem to participate in a sort of generalized
gay/lesbian lifestyle located everywhere and nowhere'' (135); (4) the
focus should now also be on practice (real language usage) rather than
solely on ideology (the (often stereotypical) representations of
social types); (5) more importance should be attributed to the
unconscious; (6) more emphasis should be put on the relations between
sexuality and power; and (7) the interrelation between sexuality and
social differences (gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, culture etc)
must not be neglected.

According to the authors, the most promising theoretical approach
outside linguistics that may help linguists to answer some of these
questions is performativity theory, a variety of queer theory as
developed by Butler (e.g. 1990). The remainder of the chapter is
devoted to exploring the political implications of a linguistics
committed to analysing the relationship between language and
sexuality, with Cameron & Kulick taking a tentatively positive stance
concerning the power of linguistic research to help political
activists fighting for the rights of non-''heteronormative'' (153) men
and women.


This book is a valuable introduction to issues so far primarily dealt
with in feminist theory, queer theory and gender studies,
demonstrating how sexuality can be an object of linguistic inquiry
without being mystified. It tries to synthesize an interdisciplinary
body of research into a coherent field of study and helps to establish
it as a mature field of inquiry (in which many questions remain yet to
be addressed and many linguistic genres to be analysed). Cameron &
Kulick show how issues involving language and sexuality are ultimately
bound up with the power structures prevalent in our societies and how
research on language and sexuality can thus prove fruitful to
scholarly research in a variety of areas. Ultimately, it is to be
hoped that this kind of research will lose some of its alleged
disrespectability and be taken into account by linguistic research at


Butler, Judith 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of
Identity. New York/London: Routledge.


Monika A. Bednarek is a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the
University of Augsburg and currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the
University of Birmingham. Her research interests include cognitive
linguistics and text analysis (with a focus on evaluation in the
press), but she also has a keen interest in issues involving language
and gender.
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