Word Nerd Wednesday: Western Postmodernism’s Sexual Vocabulary

If my title sounds bizarrely intriguing, that wasn’t intentional. I just couldn’t think of a more interesting or appropriate title for this week’s word study.

Recently, via Sanne at Adventures in Keeping House, I had the occasion to read a 2012 article from The Atlantic which outlined the marital and family dynamics of two African tribes where homosexuality and masturbation do not exist. They -literally- have no words for the two concepts, don’t practice them at all, and had to be explained what possible purpose such activity could serve. Their approach to sexuality is contained totally within the framework of marriage and procreation.

It got me to thinking about the fact that the west has an entire–and relatively new- vocabulary dedicated to all things sexual and every possible variation and school of sexual thought.  We’ll take a look at a few of the words in our lexicon in a moment.

 I’m sure you know that I have thoughts and opinions about our sexual vocabulary compared to these tribes’ lack of the same, but this isn’t a morality discussion. This is about how this discovery made me think, as most postmodern discussion does, about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

It occurs to me that this is why the Aka and Ngandu people of Central Africa have no concept of sexuality outside of its natural use of reproduction in marriage. They’re about the business of family survival and carrying on their lineages, and we’ve abandoned those things as primary directives.

Our way of processing the world is relatively new; untested for longevity or fruitfulness. This new and untried system demands that we develop a vocabulary through which discussions can take place, so that’s what we’ve done. We’ve talked a lot here about linguistic evolution, but this is probably the area where the evolution has progressed most swiftly. So, let’s look at our novel vocabulary.

  • Cisgendered: of relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. It’s a combination of the Latin “cis” meaning on the same side, combined with the word gender. In other words, you identify with what biology clearly reveals as true. It can be traced back to 2011, according to etymology online.
  • Heteronormative: of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality. Based on the understanding that being attracted to the opposite sex is the normal course for most people, yet infers that it shouldn’t be.
  • Nonbinary: There is, of course, a definition of nonbinary that is related to mathematics and numerical theory. However, there is a more prevalent, mainstream definition which is relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female.
  • Queer: This used to mean odd or eccentric, and still does according to Merriam-Webster’s first entry. I suspect that few people will refer to themselves or anyone else as queer anymore unless they are referring to the newly minted and commonly understood definition which is in Webster’s third entry: of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.

I am intrigued by the difference between our understanding of this basic facet of life and the understanding of an isolated group of people whose understanding is more akin to my grandparent’s generation than ours. Make of what you will. I won’t offer an opinion here because to do so would be like trying to explaining wetness to a fish.

6 thoughts on “Word Nerd Wednesday: Western Postmodernism’s Sexual Vocabulary

  1. Bike Bubba says:

    I have to wonder whether it’s the prospect of extinction that helps here, or the social structures that these tribes have developed that emphasize the goodness of married life. And it might be moot point, given that many traditional societies often don’t have very many people who live long enough to reach it, but I have to wonder how menopause figures into the equation.


  2. Elspeth says:

    My knowledge is limited Bike, but my (again, limited) reading about traditional societies indicates that the people who make it to old age are highly valued for their wisdom and generational knowledge.

    My husband is a rarity in this regard I know, but he (as well as our oldest daughter) loves listening to elderly relatives share stores of family members that we never knew. In primitive cultures, oral traditions are a huge deal.

    As for the sex thing at menopause, not sure how that works. I suspect that like most humanity, levels of affection color how that plays out between couples. I never got the impression that affection was absent, but that it was subjugated to the greater mission.

    Might be worth checking out to see if anyone has done the research on that.


  3. Elspeth says:

    another thought I had Bike:

    It never really occurred to me to wonder at how these particular tribes deal with the natural feminine shift from fertility to infertility. I suspect you might have a point about the number of women who don’t make it that far.

    However, this again shines a light on our Western perspective. As a late 40s, married woman who enjoys her husband’s attentions and affections, it should have perhaps occurred to me to wonder what happens then, but I was approaching this topic from more of a fixed point. Namely, the stark difference in the way these people do sexuality.

    They may be at an extreme end of the spectrum, assuming that they discount sex as a bonding experience, but we certainly erred too far in the other direction as most westerners view sex almost EXCLUSIVELY as a bonding (or even recreational!) experience.


  4. Bike Bubba says:

    Let’s just say Mrs. Bubba is a bit further along the path, and I grew up reading National Geographic and noticed that I didn’t see a whole lot of gray hair among the natives profiled in developing countries. :^)

    (agreed 100% that most such groups revere their elders, just that there didn’t appear to be that many of them)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Crystal Keller says:

    I would love to know more about those two African tribes. Clearly they believe Black lives matter-and are about the business of making more of them.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  6. TimFinnegan (previously halt94) says:

    They may be at an extreme end of the spectrum, assuming that they discount sex as a bonding experience, but we certainly erred too far in the other direction as most westerners view sex almost EXCLUSIVELY as a bonding (or even recreational!) experience.

    I would be incredibly surprised if they discounted sex as a bonding experience. The thing that differentiates these kinds of societies from our own is the level to which they have noticed the natural effects of sex. That is primarily procreation, but I would be incredibly surprised if a group that finds that natural effect so obvious would fail to notice the other very obvious effect of sex. That could just be a failure of imagination on my part though, and to the extent that these tribes might practice polygamy the question about menopause might be even less pertinent.

    The recreational sexual movement in our society is a product of missing that secondary aspect of sex. Sexual libertinism is only reasonable to the extent that people ignore or downplay both the procreative and the unitive aspect of sex.

    Liked by 1 person

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