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Review of  Language and Sexuality (through and) beyond Gender

Reviewer: Irene Theodoropoulou
Book Title: Language and Sexuality (through and) beyond Gender
Book Author: Costas Canakis Venetia Kantsa Kostas Yiannakopoulos
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Ling & Literature
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.3294

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EDITORS: Canakis, Costas; Kantsa, Venetia & Kostas Yiannakopoulos
TITLE: Language and Sexuality (through and) beyond Gender
SERIES: Studies in World Language Problems 1
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2010

Irene Theodoropoulou, Department of English Literature & Linguistics, Qatar
University, Qatar

This edited volume comprises linguistic and anthropological papers on the
relationship between language and sexuality with reference to and moving beyond
gender, with a heavy focus on evidence from Greek (8 out of 10 chapters use
Modern Greek data). In this sense, it is, to my knowledge, the first
comprehensive collection of English-written essays reporting relevant research
in the context of contemporary Greece. This collection stems primarily from a
one-day workshop titled 'Women and Genders: Anthropological and Historical
Approaches', organized by the editors at the Department of Social Anthropology
and History of the University of the Aegean in Lesvos, Greece. The thematic
palette includes topics as diverse as the gendered and sexed materialities of
heterosexual, homosexual and queer identities, on the one hand, and associations
between sexuality and topics including nationalism, the unconscious, voice, and
silence, on the other.

In his Introduction, Costas Canakis contextualizes the issues addressed in the
volume by delving into significant debates pertaining to language and sexuality
research, such as the competing theoretical and methodological orthodoxies
between (socio)linguistics and anthropology as well as the desire vs. identity
debate. Regarding the former, it is claimed that while (socio)linguistics tends
to have a rather tenuous grasp of the dynamic social processes which construct
identities, such as gender and social class, anthropology tends to treat
language as a social phenomenon, and thus it erases the linguistic aspects of
the social, a state of affairs which leads into the lack of providing
anthropological evidence in support of the cognitive processes involved in
linguistic categorizations. With respect to the desire-identity debate, it is
argued that, while both terms can serve as useful analytical tools for
descriptive accounts of language and sexuality, they fail in being applied for
the purposes of a thorough theorization of this relationship. The reason is not
only the apparent discrepancy between scholars' self-identification with
homosexual or gay identities and the sexual identity politics pioneered by the
gay movement; rather, the theoretical, methodological and rhetorical gap that
separates linguistics and social sciences in general from psychoanalysis can be
seen as a conundrum in the (socio)linguistic theorization of the notion of
'desire', whose psychoanalytical dimension is a sine qua non for its
understanding. Another key piece of context is the explicit assumption that the
cognitive dimensions of social practices, such as the (socio)linguistic
performance/performativity of sexuality, and the social aspect of cognition
should be seen as two sides of the same coin rather than two aspects of language
in tension. It is exactly this assumption, which makes the field into an
experimental one, namely into a field which is trying to develop its own
analytical tools, which in turn will not only pave the way for a vigorous
theoretical investigation of issues relevant to language and sexuality research
but also create the circumstances for a critical self-appraisal of the field.

The chapters are organized into four parts: the first, 'The Language of
Recognition and Categorization', consists of two chapters dealing with language
and sexuality terminology and its diffusion of self-identifying and derogatory
meanings. The second part, 'Predicates of Desire and Heterosexual Identities',
comprises three chapters, which share a social linguistically-minded approach
towards the performance of heterosexuality. The third part, titled 'Liminally
Positioned Desires: Between Words and Non-Words', contains three chapters whose
common thread is a focus on specific practices, whereby sexuality gets
constructed, while the use of language is auxiliary, contrary to the second part
of the volume, where the role of language is dominant. Finally, the fourth part,
'Desires Firmly beyond the Word', consists of two chapters dealing with voice
and silence as imbued with a rich range of complex meanings, which are not
articulated via words, as is the case with the contributions found in the first
three parts.

In the following section, I offer a brief description of the chapters following
the structure of the book.

First part: 'The Language of Recognition and Categorization'
In the first chapter, Venetia Kantsa provides us with a historical
anthropological account of the meaning diffusion pertaining to the word 'lesvia'
in the Greek context. Combining ethnography and research on written archives,
including magazines, literary texts and academic volumes dealing with
homosexuality, to name just a few sources, she presents compelling evidence,
which lends support to the idea that even though the originally Greek (i.e.
women from the island of Lesvos in the Aegean sea) noun 'lesvia' and the
adjective 'lesviaki' are used to refer to female homosexual groups, same-sex
desiring women are hesitant about their use, because these two terms are not
associated with a lesbian (political) culture in Greece. This state of affairs
differs significantly in other contexts, and most prominently in the U.S., where
lesbian culture is not limited to its same-sex orientation but it also has a
strong political background. In light of this, it is argued that the
transnational word 'lesvia' achieves its often pejorative local meaning(s)
through its association with imported discourses on same-sex desiring women's
practices and cultures associated with the western tradition.

Along the same lines of a commitment to ethnography, the second chapter by Anna
Apostolidou delves into the gendered and national anxieties of insulting
language with reference to linguistic depictions of Greek male homosexuality.
She focuses on insult and verbal violence as means of subjectivity construction
and community building among self-identified gay men. With an interest in the
origins, expressions and effects of linguistic abuse, she argues that male
(homo)sexual activity, already talked about in Plato's Symposium, is a powerful
metaphor in Greece indexing power relations and touching upon larger-scale
pursuits, including nationalist aspirations. In this context, Apostolidou claims
that there are basically three categories of humiliation and disgrace terms: a)
insults with a predominant link to femininity, often achieved via the demeaning
use of feminine endings (e.g., 'lugra' [= very mean homosexual man]), b) insults
with an accentuated focus on the ridiculed somatic subjectivity, entrance from
the rear being a favorite topic (e.g., 'pisoγlendis' [= a man who has fun from
the rear]), and c) insults pointing to the (spoilt) moral character of the
agents (e.g., 'bines' [= passive-active homosexual man/frigger]). In addition,
regarding the most commonly used derogatory terms 'aδerfi' (= gay; lit. sister)
and 'pustis' (slang word for gay; lit. fucker) in Modern Greek, the former draws
its abusive power from its indexed female component, which in turn reflects the
stigmatized feminization of men in the Greek context; the latter, on the other
hand, with an etymological connection to the Persian word 'pusht' (= ass) and
coupled with synonyms of Turkish origin (e.g., 'bines' homosexual], and 'kolombaras' is used to index homosexuality as nationally shameful, given these terms'
association with the Ottoman empire and with the latter's thorny role in the
discourse on the formation of the Modern Greek nation. Overall, this chapter
shows that the linguistic appropriation of insult is both subversive and
politically salient in the discourse of gay men.

Second part: 'Predicates of Desire and Heterosexual Identities'
The third chapter, by Argiris Archakis and Sofia Lampropoulou, focuses on the
sociolinguistic ways the body is narrativized as a stimulus of desire and on how
this narrativization contributed to the construction of sexual identities.
Through the narrative analysis of two different episodes -- one by a male and
one by a female adolescent, both native speakers of Modern Greek -- it is argued
that both informants display their heterosexual identities through different
ways at two levels: a) at the level of how they narrativize the body, and b) at
the level of how they position themselves through this process. The male’s
narrative indexes emotional restraint and also makes references to body as a
stimulus of desire. In terms of positioning, he constructs himself as a sexually
experienced hegemonic male, who can control his girlfriend. On the other hand,
through her narrative the female participant constructs herself as desiring and
being sexually attracted to her boyfriend in terms of emotional involvement. In
this way, she self-discloses and thus constructs a feminine identity, enhanced
by her interactants via evaluative/emotional and supportive comments. Finally,
the aforementioned aspects of the sexual identities of the two informants
resonate with (and reflect) heterosexual gender stereotypes circulating in the
Greek society, which translate into male manhood, macho-ness, and toughness, and
female vulnerability and reservation, respectively.

Along the same lines of heterosexuality, chapter four by Konstantia Kosentzi
fleshes out the ways power and ethnicity are constructed in the Greek TV series
Schedon Pote ('Almost Never') -- for many the Greek equivalent of the American
series Sex and the City - and in their recontextualizations by female viewers.
By adopting a Faircloughian Critical Discourse Analysis framework, she argues
that there seems to be a discrepancy in the construals of women's sexuality
between the series and her focus groups: on the one hand, the series seems to be
framed by a 'permissive' discourse, meaning that sexual activity outside
monogamous marriage is socially acceptable, and hence the heroines enjoy their
sexuality and objectify men sexually, assertively seeking their own sexual
satisfaction. Such an agentive character of the permissive discourse renders the
latter empowering. On the other hand, the focus groups tend to be more
conservative in terms of their moral judgments vis-à-vis women's sexual
activity, inasmuch as they link permissive sexual activity to promiscuity
(extremely derogatory relevant terms in Greek, including the words 'ksekola' (=
jerk-assed sluts) and 'ksekoliara' (= butt-fucked woman), both of which target
women's morals. Similarly, instead of aligning with the aforementioned
permissive discourse, the focus groups opt for a theme of 'restraint', in the
sense that they should not have sex early or have a lot of partners. Such
beliefs are argued to echo dominant stereotypes and sexist ideologies, and thus
result in women's powerlessness, as women are victimized and deprived of sexual
pleasure or agency. Last but not least, permissiveness found in the TV series is
dismissed by the focus groups on grounds of its incompatibility with the
'expected' Greek women’s behavior; the latter translates into not being easy or
sexually liberated, contrary to other non-Greek ethnicities, where demanding a
serious relationship after engaging in sexual activity is not compulsory.

Chapter five, by Alexandra Polyzou, analyzes masculinity constructs in three
Greek men's lifestyle magazines. With a focus on Status, Playboy and Nitro, she
examines cognitive models and beliefs on gender and sexuality as elements of
social cognition, as well as how and why relevant ideologies figure in texts
providing advice as assertions, advice/commands, presuppositions and presupposed
assumptions. Her findings suggest a prevailing presupposed hegemonic assumption
of heterosexuality underlying the analyzed texts, which however is dealt with
differently in the three magazines in relation to non-hegemonic constructs of
masculinity. More specifically, the laddish and 'rough' Playboy presupposes a
stereotypical crude and rampant masculine sexuality, while the more 'cultured'
and less chatty Status is trying to keep a balance between promoting a
consumerist lifestyle, usually associated with the New Man construct, which has
been criticized for not being masculine enough, and retaining the readers'
masculinity by providing assertions of heterosexuality. Finally, the more
reflexive and ironic Nitro breaks the general taboo of homosexuality in men's
magazines, but only to exorcize it through humor and exaggeration. Overall,
notwithstanding these differences in the magazines, the chapter concludes by
suggesting that heterosexuality is linked to attraction, desire and sex, while
homosexuality is desexualized and constructed as a set of lifestyle choices,
therefore it is associated with consumerism and reflexivity, traits
stereotypically associated with femininity.

Third part: 'Liminally Positioned Desires: Between Words and Non-Words'
Chapter six, by Costas Canakis, delves into the ways male homo-subjectivities
are eroticized in online personal ads (so-called 'profiles'). Focusing on data
from the website, Canakis shows how along with sexual desires, user
profiles express aspects of their 'subjectivity', a term used in this chapter
rather than 'identity', because it is seen as a more encompassing and more
dynamic sign. Through a linguistic analysis of the indexical relationship among
gender and sexuality, it is shown that the men who pursue same sex relations and
whose data are analyzed tend to index who they are through talking about their
desires. In addition, rather than eroticizing body types and sexual acts alone,
in their confessions about what they look for in others, they eroticize
subjectivities, namely characters that hinge on bodily or practice-related
materialities. In light of this, this chapter argues for the (challenging)
analytical need for dissociating the study of sexuality from sexual identity and
the relevant identity politics.

Chapter seven, by Kostas Yannakopoulos, raises two theoretical issues: the use
of appropriate (psychoanalytical) terminology and that of a suitable method used
to conduct ethnographic research on the conceptualizations of the unconscious of
power relations involved in the formation of erotic desires and subjectivities.
Taking a psychoanalytical anthropological and a poststructuralist queer/feminist
stance vis-à-vis the formation of homoerotic desires, he shows how fieldwork in
which the ethnographer participates directly can sometimes prevent researchers
from understanding those male sexual desires which are not consciously
identified by the actors as homoerotic. This 'sexuality without a name'
(Valentine 2008) is analyzed by means of the Greek example of 'poniroi', a group
of men with manly appearance who 'understand', i.e. intuit, but 'do not know',
i.e. lack conscious knowledge of, the erotic character of a communication in a
meeting between two men. It is argued that contrary to psychoanalytic
conceptualizations of desires as 'latent', the latent situation and the cultural
devices of the unconscious of the 'poniroi' essentially postulate the existence
of the particular desire both culturally and historically, constituting, at the
same time, both a strategy of power and one of resistance.

Chapter eight, by Liopi Abatzi, examines the language of heterosexual desire in
hostess bars. With a focus on the monetary-sexual practice of 'consomation',
namely the practice of male clients seeking erotic satisfaction through buying
women employees (hostesses) drinks, it is argued that hostess bars can serve as
arenas for the 'situational instability' (Butler 1991) of the heteronormative
model usually expected; what this means is that some hostesses can develop an
aggressive-like, masculine sexuality, threatening to men, while some men can
exhibit docile or passive behavior vis-à-vis women. Such instability is
reflected in words like 'trochanas' (= porridge) or 'keftes me podia' (=
meatball with legs), used to refer to man-sucker, the man-victim, subjugated to
his nature. Similarly, the use of heavy swearing expressions on behalf of women,
including 'stin archodomunara' tis (= its Excellency their cunt) in the context
of the so-called 'kavlanda' (= speech act related to horniness), an essential
part of small talk in the bar, points towards this instability.

Fourth part: 'Desires Firmly beyond the Word'
Chapter nine, by Panayotis Panopoulos, focuses on the gender of voice, namely
how voice can be theorized as a trope of presence and as a gendered and sexual
symbol, metaphor and performance. Drawing on anthropological and musicological
studies of voice, the chapter argues for viewing voice as an object of desire,
as a field for the redefinition of gender and sexuality and, in a nutshell, as a
dynamic framework for the creation, performance, and negotiation of
sociocultural boundaries. More specifically, the understanding of the gendered
structural polarity between voice and language is achievable through the sound
perspectives of the 'sapphonic' voice, ritual lament, 'arabesk' performances,
the hymns of Hildegard von Bingen and the vocal performances of the songs of
Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas. The polyphony of the aforementioned sources
pledges for not only the meaningful and politically dynamic role of voice as
gendered performance but also for the variety of sexualities attached to voice
-- either emerging or latent.

Finally, chapter ten, by Athena Athanasiou, investigates how the disquieting
silence of women's mourning stretches the boundaries of the linguistic by
actually making political and sexual performative statements. Using as her focus
group the Serbian branch of the transnational feminist and antimilitarist
movement Women in Black (Žene u Crnom), the author argues that silence is in
fact an event in language, rather that the lack thereof or a state that entails
quietness, stillness or peace. More specifically, the speech event she analyzes
is the silent mourning of the aforementioned Serbian activist group, for which
she concludes that paves the way for the possibility to bear witness to
unwitnessable life and to mourn unmournable death by means of contesting the
ethnocentric and phallogocentric violence that the mother tongue carries in
itself. In light of these, mournful silence essentially challenges conventional
binaries, including the ones between the affective and the political, the
political and the performative, speech and silence, and the one between body and

Many of the chapters prove particularly revealing in terms of their analyses and
certainly lending solid support to the claim made in the introduction that
research on language and sexuality has managed to claim visibility for a field
that goes against both social and academic 'respectability' (p. 7). This is the
case not only because they report on original research in underground contexts
(such as those on 'poniroi' and on 'hostess bars'), but also because they
scrutinize the detailed and not always apparent indexical meanings of several
taboo words and expressions (like chapters one, two, five and six), whose
analysis might be considered provocative -- if not shocking -- by conservative
readers. It is exactly such analyses, which shed light on the volume’s
'sexuality beyond gender' aspect. In addition, of particular merit are the last
two chapters, which suggest the incorporation of interdisciplinary perspectives
(including, among others, musicological, psychoanalytic, and sociological ones)
in understanding the relationship among language, gender, and sexuality; such an
expansion can definitely result in the formation of fresh, interesting and
multidimensional research questions in language and sexuality research. Finally,
the chapters which analyze heterosexuality succeed analytically in reflecting
what has been observed about it in the real world: namely, that heterosexuality
occupies the center stage in real life (p. 8).

On the other hand, the absence of cross-referencing over the different chapters
in the book (the introduction is a notable exception) makes it at times
difficult for the reader to make connections between the chapters that have been
clustered together as parts of the book. This becomes evident especially in part
three. In addition, resonating with the binary presence-absence which underlies
the whole volume, one topic that I would expect to see delved into in a volume
on the relationship between language and sexuality is a-sexuality and the ways
language is (not) employed in its construction, both as a voiced realization and
as an unvoiced, i.e. silent, meaning indexed in communication. As I have noticed
in one of the editors' academic web-pages, such a topic is not a fruitful focus
in the theorization of the relationship between language and sexuality; in that
case, the reasons for this could have been included either as a separate chapter
or as part of the volume’s context. In this way, that is to say by juxtaposing
issues of sexuality and a-sexuality and how they relate to language, the
'experimental' character (pp. 8-9) of the field would be enhanced, in the sense
that the theoretical tools that need to be either refined or developed from
scratch would be tested on both 'control' groups or contexts (the ones
associated with sexuality, given that sexuality is considered to be the norm)
and 'experimental' groups or contexts (the ones associated with a-sexuality), a
state of affairs which would secure 'validity' of the theoretical tools in

Nonetheless, with its diverse and deep analysis of interesting aspects of the
relationship between language and sexuality, the volume can be hailed as a
landmark in the field’s development. It will definitely appeal to scholars
working not only in (socio)linguistics and (social) anthropology of gender and
sexuality but also to people interested in other fields, such as political
science and/or Modern Greek studies.

Butler, Judith (1991). Imitation and gender insubordination. In D. Fuss (ed.),
Inside/Out. Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York/London: Routledge, 13-31.

Valentine David (2008). Sexuality without a name: Mapping unnameable desire into
studies of language and sexuality. Paper presented at the conference 'Language
and Sexuality (Through and Beyond Gender). Mytilene, 7 June, Department of
Social Anthropology and History, University of Aegean.

Irene Theodoropoulou is an Assistant Professor of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis at Qatar University. Her research interests include Modern Greek and Gulf Arabic sociolinguistics and discourse analysis with a focus on speech styles, registers, genres, social identity construction (primarily social class and gender) and globalization.

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ISBN: 1443821462
ISBN-13: 9781443821469
Pages: 260
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