Sexual Slang and Gender

By Gordon, Michael | Women and Language, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Sexual Slang and Gender


Gordon, Michael, Women and Language


Women have traditionally been seen as linguistic conservatives, while men have been viewed as linguistic outlaws and innovators (Jespersen, 1922). Debate over this issue has been central to the feminist-inspired sociolinguistics of the last twnety years. For some, language has come to be defined as a resource, full access to which has been historically denied to women. More specifically, men have been granted license to violate the rules of conventional speech while women, as part of their subordination, have been required to tow the linguistic straight and narrow (see for example, Lakoff, 1975 and Edelsky, 1978). Others see the situation differently; for them, women's language has been either ignored or inadequately studied, with the result that their conservatism has been exaggerated and their nonconformity overlooked (see for example, Thorne and Henley, 1975 and Haas, 1979).

An interesting aspect of this literature looks at what we might call "dirty words," e.g., sexual slang, obscenity, lewd jokes, etc. Most studies that have compared men and women on their ability to generate sexual slang or obscenity have found that men generally outscore women. For example, Grosser and Walsh (1966) looked at gender differences in the recall of neutral and taboo words and found that men recalled more taboo words and women more neutral ones. Foote and Woodward (1973) found that men generated 50% more words than women when they were asked to list obscenities. Walsh and Leonard (1974), using an undergraduate sample, discovered that men offered more words and more words per respondent than women for sexual intercourse. Sanders and Robinson (1979) compared male and female college students' vocabularies for sexual intercourse and genitalia and found that males tended to use slang terms (e.g., "getting laid") and women tended to use more euphemistic ones (e.g., "doing it"). Moreover, they report "that women verbalize less about female genitalia than about male genitalia, and thus can be assumed to have more difficulty verbalizing about their own sexuality than about male sexuality and behavior" (p. 28). The childhood learning patterns that may underlie such differences are discussed in Gartrell and Mossbacher's research on gender differences in naming children's genitalia (1984). Johnson and Fine (1985) studied gender differences in the uses and perceptions of obscenity, reporting that their respondents saw this type of language as "an isogloss marking the speech communities of males and females" (p. 21).

Not all of the literature supports the image of greater male facility in the realm of "dirty words." Haas (1979) argues that "there is no evidence that any linguistic feature is used exclusively by one sex in our society; variations have only been found in the frequency of production" (p. 624). Moreover, she maintains that gender alone seldom molds speech but rather that it interacts with variables such as age, class, and region. Others see the differences as a matter of women using such terms not only with less frequency but also in different contexts (e.g., Simkins & Rinck, 1982, and Wells, 1989). For example, Rayna Green (1977) claims that a rich tradition of bawdy stories and dirty jokes exists among Southern women and that participation in this tradition bestows prestige on what Green refers to as the "good trashy storyteller" (p. 30). She points out that this tradition has been largely ignored by folklorists and others who have focused their attention almost exclusively on men. A similar argument has been made more recently by Marjorie Goodwin (1990) in her study of the ritualized arguing used by black girls in a Philadelphia neighborhood.

Clearly, aspects of the relationship between gender and "dirty words" remain uncharted. Johnson and Fine's (1985) claim that obscenity functions as a gender isogloss seems overstated in light of available evidence. They and others tend to treat "dirty words" as a unitary category.

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