September 5, 2010

Find A Common Language: Step 1 To Understanding Sex And Gender

Part 1 of a multi-blog series introduces the first step to understanding sex and gender: establishing a common language.

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While recently visiting my parents in Florida I learned that my mother had shared Kinsey Confidential with her friends and fellow bridge players.  In summary, they quickly deemed me the “visiting sexpert” and I found myself once again in a sex educator role amidst discussions of senior citizen sexuality.  On my flight home I was reflecting on the visit and the diversity of our Kinsey Confidential readers.

Our readers come from a variety of backgrounds and range from our own Indiana University student body to everyday citizens in communities across the world. Whether you are a high school student, college student, or great-grandparent playing bridge with my mother, you’ve arrived at Kinsey Confidential with your own personal experiences (or lack of)in regards to relationships, sex education, and sexual behaviors.  What I’m trying to say is that our readers are diverse.  Everyone has their own lived experiences and not everyone has had courses in sex education, human sexuality, and gender studies.

With that in mind, and at the request of my mother, her friends, and many other non sexperts in my everyday life this series of posts is an attempt to take a step back and level the playing field so to speak.  My goal is to provide an accessible introduction to sex and gender that allows people, regardless of educational background, to think more critically about their own sexual experiences.

We’ll Start With Language…

I suppose the best place to start the introduction is to tackle language. If we’re going to talk about sex we need a common language (or at least understand that language is very tricky).  Eric has already blogged about the recent Kinsey study illustrating how people define sex differently. In short, what constitutes sex for one person may not constitute sex for someone else.  In your own life how do you define sex? Is oral sex sex? Is masturbation sex?  For more information about this particular linguistic hurdle you can check out Eric’s blog “Doing It: Doing What”.

But the language challenge isn’t only in regards to defining sex. For example, we can also see it in regards to sexual orientation.  When we hear the words “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual,” most people know what we mean by that. In sex research, it’s a little more complicated.   Are we talking about a behavior (the actual engaging in a sexual act), are we talking about attraction (desire or preference for someone) or are we talking about the identity (regardless of whether or not I’ve engaged in sexual acts this is a label I am personally claiming that represents part of who I am).  As you can imagine, from a research standpoint it can get pretty complicated!

Language is tricky, and when it comes to language used to describe sexuality-what initially seemed so clear and concise can quickly get confusing once we get beneath the surface. Perhaps this is one of the reasons communicating about sex is challenging for a lot of people. I know it’s one of my challenges in blogging about sex. If we don’t share a common language in regards to sex and sexuality then how can I effectively share my ideas?!

A Glimpse Of What’s To Come

With that in mind I’m going to slow down and take these next few posts to lay a linguistic groundwork. By introducing the ideas piece by piece we continue further and dig deeper into the sexual world around us! Over the next few weeks I’ll try to introduce you to the various perspectives of sex research and tackle the confusion between sex and gender and how it came to be so confusing.

I’ve found that sex and gender are like an onion. Once you start peeling apart the top layers it can get a bit uncomfortable and certainly messy! Once you get through a few layers you start to realize that on the outside the Onion looks singular and whole but in reality it’s complex and made up of a lot of different pieces. It is my intent that as we continue onward in our series we will gradually peel apart the various layers of sexuality in an attempt to help you think more critically and understand the sexual and gendered world around you.

In the mean time, I encourage you to check out other recent Kinsey blog posts that tackle the challenge of language with Kristen’s post on defining a booty call, and the summary of Eric’s recent research project on rhetoric in regards to the same sex marriage debate.