Sex is a complicated thing.
The acts which make up the broader repertoire are truly anything but complicated, as one might expect from an activity completely necessary to ensure the continuation of a species (birds do it, bees do it, etc…). But our thoughts and feelings about sex suffer from lifelong influence from our parents, our local culture, our broader and shared culture, and from our own innate feelings and drives, of which we are taught we are to be in intellectual command at all times; the lifetime masquerade of “self control.”
One of the manifestations of this complexity comes in the form in the language we use to talk about sex. We don’t have good words, or any good, confident shared language to talk about sex or sex parts! This is why you see useless adjectives like “hot” or “fucking” or “sexy” do all the heavy lifting.
Those words don’t convey any specific meaning. If anything in the world can be labeled “hot,” then hot doesn’t mean anything at all. If you read any amount of Nifty or Handjobs stories, you’re bound to encounter an endless sausage factory of the same 5-6 phrases being squeezed out in quasi-new contexts.
This is also why words like “sensual” and “erotic” have become relatively useless as sexual descriptors and adjectives. They are so profoundly overused as to have worn down the precise corners and edges of the words themselves, rendering them useless, glossy, round marbles of nothingness, rather than strong, distinct tools to describe and communicate our feelings and experiences.
When did our bodies develop “privates?”
A particular problem with the etymological origins of lots our sex words (including euphemisms for our sex parts), at least in Modern English, is that they came to shared usage through the filter of the Victorian era (ME was largely solidified in the mid 1500s, and between us/now and and that firming of the language post-Great Vowel Shift, sits the outsized influence of the Victorian period from the 1830s up to the beginning of the last century, which frames much of our present understanding about who has sex and what kinds of sex are acceptable), and through hundreds of years of deeply gendered, misogynist, and racist educational and legal structures. That means we don’t really even have a better past to look toward to improve our sex talk, the way we might for other subjects when our current lexicon fails us. In this regard, the language itself falls down, and it’s not merely our personal uncreative or restricted vocabularies which are at fault.
An example of this limitation specifically is the term “privates” or “private parts” to describe our genitals and sex parts. I am hugely against these terms in every single context. I think there is no time or situation where “privates” is the best choice of word, and I think the power that it possesses to reinforce not only learned cultural shame about our genitals, but the somehow inherent threat or unacceptability of our sex parts, is transparently dangerous. It’s why I work as hard as I do on the Glossary for this website. I invent or co-opt terms, as well as incorporate jargon from bator culture, and I want to be sure I’m clearly illustrating exactly what I mean when I say penis or balls or genitals. They’re distinct ideas deserving of distinct meaning, and correct usage helps reduce notions of shame and secretiveness.
Surprisingly, “privates” has been a euphemism for genital areas for hundreds of years, even finding its way into Shakespeare’s works (where it was used as clever turns of phrase suggesting two things at once, rather than as a strict substitute for better words):
Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?
‘Faith, her privates we.– Hamlet
with Guildenstern using the word to mean sex parts as well as “civilians.”
You’re not a baby. That’s your penis.
I was home schooled for the first part of my educational career, and my parents worked hard my whole life to address my sister and I as though we were merely hight-challenged adults, rather than idiot children. This meant they took deliberate action to use real words to describe our bodies and to explain sex when the inevitable questions arose.
When I began more traditional school after third grade, school was often the first exposure to outside ideas and practices I would have. I remember once coming home from school and referring to my penis, generally, as my “privates,” having heard a teacher use the word earlier that week, and thinking I had learned a new body term. My mom looked at me suspiciously and said “your what?” I repeated it. Without rebuke or ridicule she plainly explained that wasn’t a word we used to talk about our bodies, because that was how babies talked. The idea of “baby talk” was how my parents wrapped up all the cutesy words and higher voice pitches that people use to address young children (my own grandmother never said the word “pee” in my presence her whole life, instead preferring to claim that one needed to “twinkle” when they went into the bathroom. As far as I can tell, she invented that one out of whole cloth because even “tinkle” sounded too obscene for her liking).
“You’re not a baby. That’s your penis.”
As a young boy, I didn’t love hearing my mom say “penis,” but she did so with such authority and swiftness that I assumed I must have been mistaken and that she was right.
Stranger Danger forced “privates” into our vocabularies as children
The term “privates” gained a particular cultural prominence in the 1980s and 90s due to a newly imagined obligation to warn children about predators and “stranger danger.” The moral panic and shared cultural delusion known now as the Day Care Sex Abuse hysteria (for those who don’t know, this was a decades-long mythology about how thousands of children were being ritually abused by satan-worshipping deviants and elites at day cares and other out-of-home situations – sound familiar? – that ruined hundreds of lives, sent innocent people to prison, and ended up being almost totally unfounded) created a pressing demand for children to be cautioned about anyone trying to do anything to them.
Parents, teachers, and other authorities assumed a newly urgent duty of warning children constantly (I can remember many such conversations both at home and in school) about how endless flanks of terrifying adults were apparently coming to my town to try to touch my “privates” and that it was my job to find and tell a better adult what had happened. No one ever explained how I would be able to tell the difference between a predator and a better adult, only that adults in positions of authority were preferred – teachers, parents, police officers. And as we now know, no teachers, parents, or police officers ever did anything bad to children ever. The plan was foolproof.
Don’t let anyone touch your private parts!
Because we don’t know how to, or don’t feel safe or comfortable talking about our genitals the way we would talk about our hands and fingers, these better adults endlessly warning us about this newsmedia-hyped “stranger danger” could only ever describe the threatened areas to us as our collective “privates.” There were one-on-one talks with us demanding we promise to tell an adult if it ever happened, there were plays staged in schools, and lots and lots of worksheets. There were even rules written in red on large poster board in my 4th grade classroom stating no one was ever to touch another person’s “privates.”
“Don’t let anyone touch your private parts!” screamed rule #4, immediately behind “don’t touch anyone else’s private parts.”
In some ways, perhaps it needed to be that simple for children. But referring to a whole quadrant of my body as “private parts,” which I would have to constantly prevent people from touching and seeing, gave that quadrant an undue air of mystery and unacceptability. A sense that this part of my body somehow invited threat, just by being.
Children may not be experienced enough to articulate these kinds of complicated ideas, but they naturally intuit the concepts and begin to build understandings of themselves and their relationship to the wider world through them. Repeatedly teaching a child that one part of their body is not only never to be shown or seen (remember, there was no expiration date on this rule about “never” and “anyone”), but that it also would be a source of threat from others trying to see and touch, manifests shame and stigma about those parts. We begin to assume there is a problem with them that we just don’t understand yet.
As we grow, that shame and stigma begins to apply not just to ourselves and how we see ourselves sexually, but also how we see and understand others. It becomes the lens through which we judge others for exposing their unacceptable parts – their “privates” – and how we moralize about the ways these promiscuous others might get what they deserve for not following the rules about privates. Look at any number of modern headlines and articles about the new plague of OnlyFans. We don’t organically unlearn these things as adults, they merely get folded into the bedrock of how we understand our bodies and our roles.
They also impact things as seemingly innocuous as the clothes we wear and the underwear we choose. If one is taught repeatedly that their “private parts” will be forever under threat (from strangers touching, to exposure and ridicule), does one then choose underwear and clothing that displays those parts in an honest manner? Or does one choose garments that disguise the shape and size of the “privates” in baggy forms and compressing fabrics?
It’s not just men and it’s not just penises
This is an intensely complicated intersectional issue that affects men and woman alike. It is perhaps arguably grander and more damaging for women and how we understand women’s bodies, but the impact on male bodies and psyches is still very significant, and is more the focus of this blog (and perhaps more relevantly, my personal lived experience as a cisgender male). This impact influences how we view our penises in private, and how we talk about them in public.
I made a joke on twitter last year about Jared Kushner being the sort of adult man who used “privates” in both spheres – even during sex with Ivanka. This wasn’t a joke about a lack of masculinity, or an implication about the size or shape of his genitals. Rather it was a joke about the acceptable shame we allow into our lives. Jared looks to me like a manifestation of acceptable body shame, and as though he would naturally be embarrassed of his penis no matter its grandeur or perceived lack thereof.
When you use words like “privates” or “private parts” to talk about your genitals – or as a general euphemism for parts of the human body that you find necessitating a euphemism – even with children, you are reinforcing the idea that these parts and areas are naturally unacceptable or harmful. Not just to you, but to everyone. That it is inherent in the “parts” themselves.
Every time you do it, you plaster another brick into the wall of unacceptable for everyone who hears or sees your words.
The argument that using real words for the groin, penis, testicles, vagina, vulva, and buttucks is somehow “inappropriate” in certain contexts equates even the words themselves with harm, damage, or necessary embarrassment. Imagine if every time someone wanted to talk to a child or to a group about their feet, they had to say something like “those bits, down there in your shoes.”
Why is it different for a penis? Why are there different rules about what words are ok, based on which part of the body we’re addressing?
Your body is not “unacceptable” or “inappropriate.” That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Nothing about our bodies is unacceptable. Nothing about our bodies is harmful. It doesn’t work like that. Defining penises and vaginas as unacceptable, dirty, or shameful is as ridiculous as saying you don’t “believe in” gravity or the Great Wall of China. That’s fine. Go off. But there it is.
It exists and it is.
Our bodies and our genitals exist. Whether we keep them “private” is nobody’s business but our own. How we think and speak about them, affects us all.
Author’s note: the mention of the Day Care Sex Abuse Hysteria and moral panic of the 1980s and 90s is not intended in any way to diminish the reality or abhorrence of child abuse in any form. This particular example of an artificial narrative is raised only to illustrate how patently false morality panics like these create long-lasting ripples that affect millions in ways they may not ever fully understand. Child abuse and exploitation has no justification or presence on this website.