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Review of  Language and Sexuality

Reviewer: Monika Bednarek
Book Title: Language and Sexuality
Book Author: Deborah Cameron Don Kulick
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.2768

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Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 11:00:37 +0100
From: Monika Bednarek
Subject: Language and Sexuality

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

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 large.


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

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521009693
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 192
Prices: U.K. £ 15.95
U.S. $ 21