Talking sex and thinking sex: the linguistic and
discursive construction of sexuality
In the film When Harry Met Sally there is a famous scene in which the female protagonist Sally apparently has an orgasm as she sits fully clothed at a table in the middle of a busy diner. In fact, both the man she is with, Harry, and the audience watching the action on screen know that she is faking it, to demonstrate that you can't tell the difference between a competent performance of an orgasm and the real thing. Part of the joke is the surprise, amusement and embarrassment her performance causes other customers in the diner, who cannot be sure whether the orgasm is real or faked. Also part of the joke is the chagrin of the man for whose benefit the performance is being put on; for if this is not a real orgasm, perhaps the female orgasms he has been party to in more intimate circumstances were not real either.
This scene provides an illustration of what is meant by 'the discursive construction of sexuality'. The man who believes that you can always tell whetherawoman's orgasm is genuine isholding on to oneofour most cherished beliefs about sex: that the body does not lie. According to this view, the outward expression of orgasm comes directly from the inner physical processes and sensations of orgasm, and in the absence of the physical stimulus the outward expression cannot be convincing. The woman, however, sets out toshow that you can communicate an orgasm without actually having one, by producing the signs that conventionally mean 'orgasm' (these include both nonlinguistic signs like gasping and moaning, and linguistic signs like uttering (in English) 'oh' and 'yes'). Sexual experience, like other human experience, is communicated and made meaningful by codes and conventions of signification. Indeed, without those codes we would not be able to identify particular experiences as 'sexual' in the first place. Codes of signification are not only relevant to the doing of sex (e.g. communicating orgasm) but also to the understanding of what it is that we are doing, which in turn exerts an influence on what we do. What we know or believe about sex is part of the baggage we bring to sex; and our knowledge does not come