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Review of  On Language And Sexual Politics

Reviewer: Charlotte Brammer
Book Title: On Language And Sexual Politics
Book Author: Deborah Cameron
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 17.2245

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AUTHOR: Deborah Cameron
TITLE: On Language and Sexual Politics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2006
ISBN: 0-415-37344-1

Charlotte Brammer, Department of Communication Studies, Samford University,
Birmingham, Alabama, USA

In this text, Deborah Cameron identifies major themes and positions that
connect eleven previously published articles and formal speeches. Readers
who are familiar with Cameron's forthright style will appreciate her
directness in introducing the four parts of the text as well as the brief
contexts she provides for each article and recorded speech. As
representative of much of Cameron's work, the articles contained in this
text are written for sociolinguists, applied linguists, feminists, and
anyone else who is interested in women's studies, cultural studies, and
political language and culture. Her candor makes even complex arguments


In the introduction to ON LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL POLITICS, Cameron asserts
that her work ''treats the relationship between language and gender
primarily as a political issue'' and through it, she ''attempts to understand
the role of language in the conflicts and power struggles that shape
relations between men and women'' (p. 1). While acknowledging some
theoretical kinship to dominance approaches and social constructionism,
Cameron emphasizes her critiques of various aspects of these paradigms and
focuses the discussion on gender relations, particularly critiquing the
''prevailing social arrangements between men and women'' (p. 2). Power is an
important factor in these socially constructed arrangements. Language is
both ''the medium in which many conflicts about the nature and proper
relationship of men and women are played out'' and ''a focus for conflict in
its own right'' (p. 3). Cameron contextualizes her work both historically
and socially, noting that feminism is in a ''waning rather than a waxing
phase'' and explaining how this shift is evident in her writing in much the
same way that ''much of the meaning of any individual's work lies in the
historical conditions that produced it'' (pp. 8-9).

The first section of the text, The Sexual Politics of Representation,
contains two previously published articles and ''an edited version of a
presentation'' for the 2004 Conference of the International Gender and
Language Association. In the introduction to the first article, ''Sexism and
semantics'' (originally published in RADICAL PHILOSOPHY in 1984), Cameron
explains her disagreement with Dale Spender's (1980) ''Man Made Language'' in
which, according to Cameron, he argues ''that the meanings encoded in
language reflected the experience and world-view of men rather than women''
but confesses to a somewhat softer view of coded sexism in language, a
change resulting primarily from developments in pragmatic approaches to
linguistics ''which do not reduce interpretation to decoding'' (p. 13). She
is also quite direct in reasserting her belief that ''Without a satisfactory
theory of how meanings are constructed and reproduced, practical proposals
to deal with sexist language will themselves be unsatisfactory'' (p. 13). In
introducing ''Non-sexist language: lost in translation,'' Cameron
acknowledges criticism for the article's somewhat harsh and aggressive tone
but is rather unapologetic, explaining her tone as appropriate because, as
she says, ''I was writing for a publication that did not require me to mince
[words], but it was also because I did not want to be seen as a hypocrite''
(p. 20). Her tone is no less direct in her criticism of advertising
standards, ''Language, sexism and advertising standards.'' She expresses her
displeasure in the lack of progress feminists have made in media criticism,
concluding finally that current advertising standards continue to be ''more
in line with a conservative social and sexual agenda whose values are
heteronormative, patriarchal and phallocentric'' (p. 42).

Part II: Power and difference also consists of three earlier publications.
The first article, ''The form and function of tag questions,'' was written
with Fiona McAlinden and Kathy O'Leary in 1988. This article is one of the
primary critiques of Robin Lakoff's LANGUAGE AND WOMAN'S PLACE (1975). In
re-publishing it here, Cameron reaffirms her position that ''there is seldom
if ever a one-to-one mapping between linguistic form and communicative
function'' (p.46). In her introduction to ''Performing gender identity: Young
men's talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity'' (1997),
Cameron points out the deficiency in linguistic studies of middle-aged
males. In this discussion of gender performance, as first introduced my
Judith Butler (1990), Cameron emphasizes the importance of context: ''People
do perform gender differently in different contexts, and do sometimes
behave in ways we would normally associate with the 'other' gender'' (p.
64). ''Is there any ketchup, Vera?: Gender, power and pragmatics'' (1998)
critiques Deborah Tannen's use of difference theory in YOU JUST DON'T
UNDERSTAND (1990) and, importantly, also criticizes dominance theory,
positing instead that the ''key ingredient is conflict, not just in the
abstract sense that two groups objectively have conflicting interests, but
in the more concrete sense that subjective awareness of these conflicting
interests has caused individuals within a society to diverge in their
actual beliefs about gender relations'' (p. 85).

Ideologies of language and gender, Part III of the text, addresses
pervasive beliefs about language and gender that permeate popular culture.
The first article, ''Verbal hygiene for women: Linguistics misapplied?''
(1994) questions the ''misapplication'' of linguistics, primarily as a way of
countering the widespread belief that women must talk more ''assertively'' if
they are to be successful. In contrast, ''Styling the worker: Gender and the
commodification of language in the global service economy'' (2000), Cameron
expresses concern over the privileging of speech characteristics often
associated with women (expressiveness, questioning, etc.), suggesting that
the ''degendering'' of ''women's language'' may simply mean a continued
devaluation of service work and service workers. ''Men are from Earth, women
are from Earth'' (2003) was a speech delivered at Leeds University's Centre
for International Gender Studies and addresses John Gray's popular press
MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS (1992). In this written speech,
Cameron clearly articulates the underlying premise for much of her work,
namely, ''any difference in men's and women's ways of communicating is not
natural and inevitable, but cultural and political'' (p, 145).

Part IV: Language, gender, and sexuality has two articles. ''Naming of
Parts: Gender, culture and terms for the penis among American college
students'' (1992) is, in Cameron's terms, ''a modest contribution to the
long-standing debate about the relationship between reality and its
linguistic representation'' (p. 150) and concludes that while men use terms
that imply ''masculinity as dominance, femininity as passivity, and sex as
conquest,'' women ''may reject certain metaphors which the men endorse, but
[they] offer no real alternatives'' (p. 162). For Cameron, creating new
metaphors are needed to reframe the political aspects of language and
gender. This theme is revisited, albeit for a different topic, in the final
paper, a speech she delivered at the University of Washington in Seattle,
2003. Appropriately titled ''Straight talking: The sociolinguistics of
heterosexuality.'' Cameron posits that ''it is important for research
informed by a radical sexual politics to focus critically on mainstream or
majority norms and practices… [in order to challenge] the cultural tendency
to exclude, devalue and demonize'' (p. 166).


This text provides a strong argument for both the depth and breadth of
Cameron's scholarship. Her rich descriptions situate the articles and
speeches well and will be invaluable to researchers who are interested in
gendered language. The text's organization works to tie her early
scholarship to her more recent publications and to connect the personal
language of individuals(from Part I) to the current and meta-discourse
discussions of the politics of gendered/ sexual language. On a practical
side, publications prior to 1992 are not readily available via the web, and
this text will make several articles and certainly the speeches accessible
to researchers. This is important because Cameron's work is important for
anyone seeking to understand traditional and current theories and trends
(and criticisms) in the study of gendered language and politics.



Lakoff, Robin (1975). LANGUAGE AND WOMAN'S PLACE. New York: Harper and Row.

Spender, Dale (1980). MAN MADE LANGUAGE. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

CONVERSATION. New York: Morrow.

Dr. Charlotte Brammer is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies,
Howard College of Arts and Sciences, and Director of Writing Across the
Curriculum, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. She received her
Ph.D. in English/Applied Linguistics from the University of Alabama. Her
research interests include writing pedagogy, professional communication,
and sociolinguistics.

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