Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Is Iced Tea Tea?

There is a lot to dislike about this post critiquing those who would detach "oral sex" from "sex". It's not even the conclusion that grates, so much as the argumentative process that gets us there. Given that the whole thing is a product of the loose way in which we use the word "sex", I feel like we're dealing with a tempest in a teacup -- but the fury that the author seems to feel that this might even be an issue is bothersome to me.

So, does oral sex qualify as sex?
I had to chuckle when I first read the question because, for me, if it has sex as part of it's name, then yes, oral sex is sex. It's like asking "is the hot tea, tea?"

Well, no. That's not the way language works. If I invite you in for a "cup of tea", you'll be rather surprised if I pour a small dollop of Lipton's iced. "Tea" means different things in different contexts, and while we would admit iced tea to be a "type of tea", it would not be what we would consider to be "tea" given the very particular confines of the question. (Wittgenstein uses a better example: "teach the children a game" being taken to include blackjack. It's gaming! Right in the name!)

And so it is with sex. I would simultaneously say the oral sex is a form of sex, and not feel strange saying "I have only had sex with [X] number of people", where X includes only those I've had intercourse with (but not just oral sex). That's because, like with tea, certain types of questions imply a sort of shorthand that is understand by all. We can participate in that shorthand without actually excluding the other elements of the object. And insofar as we understand intercourse as a fundamentally different type of sexual expression compared to oral sex, this sort of understood distinction makes sense.

The author also claims that sex-as-intercourse is "heterocentric and phallocentric". The former is a stronger claim. To the latter: intercourse does not have to operate within rhetorical confines that cast men as active and women as passive. We can use words like "penetrate" or "pierce", sure, but we can also talk of "consume", "devour", or "envelope". Or (horrors upon horrors) we can use both. I think it's a dangerous game when we ossify heterosexual sex as inherently male-dominated, rather than seeing that domination as a product of particular patriarchal assumptions that can be contested.

As to the heteronormativity, I think this goes back to my point about meaning and context. If I ask a gay or lesbian friend (presumably after a few drinks) "how many people have you had sex with", we both understand that here the context is not restricted to PIV intercourse.

Humans are flexible creatures. We can handle this sort of ambiguity.


kat said...

I completely agree with you, and I would selfishly (and altruistically? Hey dialogue is good for the masses!:-)) if you wrote about sex more often. I like the way you think, even if I don't always agree with you - although so far I usually do, and you unawkwardly applied your usual "argumentative process" as you put it to get there. I am always looking for interesting, well thought out, frank arguments about any of the many nuances of sex and sexuality etc.

"Humans are flexible creatures. We can handle this sort of ambiguity."


kat said...

"I think it's a dangerous game when we ossify heterosexual sex as inherently male-dominated, rather than a product of particular patriarchal assumptions that can be contested."

Also, YES!

Jack said...

Is cheer sex, sex?


Cycle Cyril said...

It would be interesting if you feel the same way if you ever have daughter(s).

David Schraub said...

Indeed, it will be. But I'm hopeful.

PG said...


What do you think would change in David's views about whether oral sex constitutes sex if he has daughters? So far as I could see, in this post he didn't say whether sex of any kind was good or bad, just said that terms have situation-based meanings. Or do you think having daughters would convince David that in fact "heterosexual sex as inherently male-dominated"?

Cycle Cyril said...

For most women sex has a much different impact than for men as much as the woman's movement may hate to admit it. Most women have a much greater emotional investment earlier in a relationship, when sex is involved, than most men.

You may consider this a paleolithic view and you may wish to change it and how others view it but the underlying reality truly cannot be changed. (Just look how most little boys and girls play and how differently they play no matter how their parents try to shape their play and you will understand.)

Oral sex is clearly different from intercourse and many women do it to avoid intercourse and even avoid thinking of it as sex ala Clinton. And the emotional "investment" very well is less than with intercourse but it is still present and can very well exact a price.

I am not saying that heterosexual sex is male dominated. I'm saying that the sexes approach sex differently and that oral sex may not be that much different from just plain sex.

PG said...

So you think having a daughter may cause David to be capable of thinking of sex from a different (e.g. female) perspective, where he heretofore has shown himself to be attached solely to his own heterosexual male perspective? I don't think that's true. If anything, parenthood seems to lock people MORE into their own perspective of How The World Works (e.g. your claims of "Women categorically are like X, and men categorically are like Y, and let's assume everyone's heterosexual").