Sex and Semiotics: A Reflection

Next week my office is having a staff retreat. Since we are an administrative office at a large Mid-Western University everyone on staff has an advanced degree and some sort of research focus. In the afternoon we have all been asked to prepare an activity (with handouts!) in which we explain the frameworks we’ve acquired from our research and how we believe they inform our work in student affairs.

Since my work is on the rather narrow field of virginity in the contemporary United States I have prepared a handout (full of pictures!) in which I explain to my office mates. . .

Semiotics.

Since I’ve begun working on the dissertation in earnest I find myself returning, more and more, to the notions that captivated me as an undergraduate: semiotics, the study of signs, and polysemy, the idea that all signs carry multiple meanings.

I am, after all, claiming that virginity is a regulatory discourse. That means a lot of things but one part of what it means is that I’m making an implicit comparison between sex and language. Sex is a form of communication. Humans, and other animals, use it to convey many emotions ranging from joy to anger. Sex, like language, is implicated in systems of power.

As feminist scholars have shown sex is not the same, in assumptions, meanings, or practices, all over the world or throughout time. Nor is the way we think of sex in our place and time derived from an essential essence of what it means to be sexual beings. Rather, our conceptions of sex as an intimate practice (or not) are very much shaped by and in reaction to the social and cultural forces which surround us.

That’s not to say it isn’t authentic or doesn’t feel natural. Our first language, and I’ll take English as an example here, may seem like the most natural thing in the world. However, language has it’s own evolution. Looking at the history of the English language it’s easy to see how very different it was a few hundred years ago. The English I’m writing in was never a foregone conclusion from the Middle English of Chaucer. Many things shaped the evolution of the language including daily cultural practices along with more macro-level social and political forces.

This defining power isn’t consigned to the past, either. Officially, the United States does not have a state language. However, most signs, forms, and public officials speak English. In fact, many people feel completely justified stating some version of “If you don’t speak English then go away” to people who speak other languages.

Similarly, the United States doesn’t have an official list of approved sexual practices. However, most of us could name those practices and predilections considered outside the norm. Given this country’s Calvinist, puritan, protestant history sexual practices which are not between a man and a woman, in private, for procreation are more likely to carry the weight of “the forbidden.” (Note: things not in the list of our national sexual archetype include consent and pleasure.)

All of this is to say that sex is a language made up of signs of which I find virginity to be a particularly fascinating one. Sex itself may be a sign. Like all signs, sex and virginity, are polysemic. Meaning different things too different people.

In fact, what I find most interesting about virginity is how constrained it’s potential meanings are, and have been. Virginity, across many cultures, has a fascinating same-ness. That is not to say that virginities are identical across cultures. Rather, there are similar threads in the knot across time and place. It is these threads, which constrain us all to varying degrees, which I am intent on pulling.

*BIG shout out to the excellent faculty at Eastern Washington University’s Comm program who introduced me to the notion of semiotics and nurtured my fascination with it through many courses and personal discussions.

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