That's What She Said: The Language of Sexual Negotiation* Rebecca Kukla I explore how we negotiate sexual encounters with one another in language and. I explore how we negotiate sexual encounters with one another in language and consider the pragmatic structure of such negotiations. Quill Kukla: A Nonideal Theory of Sexual Consent. views views. Jun 8, 7. Dislike. Share. Save. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics. ELECTRO PLAY Plastic: BB30 very to set. Step the and server can process receive of x informing. Storage your selection enabled.
I defend three theses: 1 Discussions of consent have dominated the philosophical and legal discourse around sexual negotiation, and this has distorted our understanding of sexual agency and ethics. In particular, I am deeply indebted to R. All rights reserved. We use language to check in with one another and to keep one another aroused during sexual intimacy. My pri- mary interest is in the pragmatics of the language of sexual negotiation— that is, in the normative function, illocutionary force, felicity conditions, and enabling conventions and rituals of the speech acts that make up this language.
It is philosophically interesting be- cause it is often especially complex and subtle discourse, both semanti- cally and pragmatically, as I hope to demonstrate. It is ethically important because sexual communication gone wrong can lead to immense trauma and harm, while effective sexual communication can lead to immense pleasure and enhanced agency. And yet ethicists and philosophers of language have had little to say about the language of sexual negotiation.
The only speech acts within sex- ual negotiations that have received any ongoing philosophical discussion as speech acts are consent and refusal. Furthermore, philosophical discussions of sexual ne- gotiation have nearly invariably concerned how it can go poorly—how people can be deceived, pressured into sex, held to promises they never should have made, and of course raped.
Positive bodily agency is as much a component of autonomy as is negative freedom from unwanted bodily intrusion. It is widely recognized 2. See, e. We rarely analyze or discuss how sexual communication can effectively en- hance pleasure and agency. Hence, good-quality sexual negotiation requires more than the skillful and appropriate negotiation of consent. It is well established in kink and polyamorous communities that careful and explicit negotiation, not just over whether to have sex but over how to have it and how to exit it, is absolutely indispensable to the possibility of safe, pleasurable, consensual sex and the exploration of desire.
For instance, Shanna Kattari writes, 5. One anonymous editor questioned why I need this clause. I want to allow for at least the conceptual possibility that someone can be somewhat pressured or manipulated into sex, in a way that diminishes the full autonomy of their choice, without this counting as an invalidation of their consent—or, to put it another way, someone can be pressured into sex without actually being raped.
Williams et al. I suggest that a rich discourse of sexual negotiation is generally good for everyone,11 and not just for kinksters or those forging unconventional relationships. BDSM is the established acronym for bondage, domination or sometimes disci- pline , sadism, and masochism. In her capacity as associate editor for this journal, Sally Haslanger editorial deci- sion letter points out that failure to clarify background assumptions can thwart good-quality sexual negotiation because, for instance, we need to share common ground before it can become determinate which questions we are asking one another.
Making background assumptions explicit can help establish common ground, which is a precondition of sharing an understanding of the content of questions and other speech acts. A complete analysis of the lan- guage of sexual negotiation would delve into such semantic issues, as well as their ties to so- cial norms and practices, in much more detail than I can here. This will be clear from my discussion in the rest of this article.
Along the way, I hope that this article will demon- strate the following theses: 1. Discussions of consent have dominated the philosophical and legal discourse, as well as much of the public discourse around sexual negotiation, and this has seriously distorted and limited our understanding.
Analyzing the language of sexual negotiation, using the tools of speech act theory in particular, is both ethically important and philosophically rewarding. Good-quality sexual negotiation that enhances agency is characteristically marked by distinctive kinds of speech acts.
Of central importance are sexual invitations and gift offers, as well as speech designed to set up safe frameworks and exit conditions that enable activities that would otherwise be unsafe or unethical. Rich and complex sexual negotiation is an essential tool of sex- ual autonomy.
Philoso- phers have focused on how language can lead to or fail to prevent sexual harm, particularly the harm of rape. But it is also impor- tant to understand how language can enhance sexual pleasure and freedom. Understanding consent is likely to require the full resources of speech act theory.
To understand consent, we need to understand its felicity condi- tions, the rituals that surround its performance, its authority conditions, and so forth. There are numerous analyses of the pragmatic subtleties of consent to medical treatment or to participation in research, and widespread acknowledgment of the fact that consent must be revocable, and the criteria for communicating its revocation must be clear, in order for it to be valid.
The norms and power relations that enable and undermine performances of consent and refusal will be shaped not just by gender but also by race, class, ability, and other social identities and positions. A central point of this article—perhaps the most important point, from my point of view—is that our near-exclusive focus on consent and refusal when we talk about sexual negotiation has had a deeply distorting and damaging impact on our understanding of sexual ethics and communication.
Good-quality sexual communication requires that we do much more with language than request, agree to, and refuse sex. Here is a nonexhaustive list of some pitfalls of our collective laser fo- cus on consent: 1. In paradigmatic consent exchanges, one person is actively seek- ing sex, and the other person is passively agreeing to allow it to happen.
Relatedly, the consent model represents all expressions of de- sires as requests, for which agreement or refusal is the appropri- ate possible uptake. When I initiate a conversation about a possible sexual encoun- ter, I may not be requesting sex.
Good sexual negotiation often involves active collaborative discussion about what would be fun to do. It also often includes conversations about limits, constraints, and exit conditions. We can fully au- tonomously agree to all sorts of harmful and unethical things, for terrible reasons. I will return to this point below. To the extent that philosophers of language have concerned them- selves with the pragmatics of the language of sexual negotiation, they have In this article I generally use language assuming that sex involves exactly two peo- ple.
Of course, there are many sexual encounters that involve more than two people, and my comments apply just as well to those. Langton and other speech act theorists have developed accounts of exactly what sort of silencing might be at stake here. Rae Langton has written more recent pieces on silencing and consent; see, e.
Brennan and R. Maitra and M. One way might be to stop the powerless from speaking at all. But there is another, less dramatic but equally effective, way. Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as an ac- tion. Some kinds of speech acts are unspeakable for women in some contexts; although the appropriate words can be uttered, those utterances fail to count as the actions they were intended to be.
We use it, typically, to disagree, to refuse, or to prohibit. In sexual contexts a woman sometimes uses it to refuse sex or to prohibit further sexual advances. However, in sexual contexts something odd happens. It is not at all obvious that our culture makes it easy for women to learn to communicate their sexual desires effectively. Sexual communication is marked by a tension: We need communication to be clear and successful, because miscommuni- cation in the sexual domain can lead to enormous harm.
Yet typically, erotic speech is indirect. This is part of what makes it sexy. We need techniques for bridging this discur- sive tension safely. Discussions of consent that simply promote direct, lit- eral speech are of no help here. Inside this frame, we assume that connotative and nonliteral speech is the norm. When we role-play during sex, this nonliterality is maximally explicit.
Sexual partners need to share communicative norms for moving in and out of such frames. Much of the eroticism and allure of BDSM hinges on blatantly playing with and often purposefully obscuring con- sent. Remember, though, that initia- tions of sex are not the only speech acts that make up good sexual nego- tiation—we also explore fantasies, talk about our desires, role-play and talk dirty, set limits, exit scenes, and so forth.
Discussions of consent tend to focus disproportionately on the initiation of sex. In this section I will stick with this focus on initiation, although we will move on in the next section. Contrary to the consent model, requesting sex, while it is certainly something that we sometimes do, is not really the typical way we enter into sex, at least not when things are going well.
Requests along the way once sex is initiated are more common. Indeed, she is surely right that sometimes women try to actually refuse within these frames, and their words are not taken as refusals. But I also want to emphasize how this kind of nonliteral speech and framing is a standard and often healthy part of the language of seduction and positive, agential sex play.
Imperatives may have a place within a nonliteral discursive frame of the sort that I discussed in the previous section. I will discuss each in turn. Invitations Invitations are fascinating and complex speech acts. It should never imply: You are obliged to come, you have to come, it is necessary. But the invitation must be pressing, not indifferent. But at the same time, an invitation has to be welcoming.
Turning down an invitation is not a transgression. If you turn me down, I get to be disappointed, but not aggrieved. Because speech acts are rarely if ever purely of one sort, the real story will often be more complicated. If the invitation was also a reasonable request, then I might legitimately be aggrieved by you turn- ing me down.
But the invitation qua invitation leaves the invitee free to turn it down, with regrets. An interesting pragmatic quirk of invitations is that if they are accepted, gratitude is called for from both the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you. Invitations, like all speech acts, are governed by felicity conditions and norms of propriety.
It is infelicitous for me to invite you to an event that I am not hosting, or not invited to myself. It is infelicitous for me to Surface grammar never determines illocutionary force. Sometimes what reads like an invitation on the surface is actually a request or an order, and everyone understands that turning it down would be a transgression—an invitation to a long-planned family reunion, perhaps.
And sometimes what reads like an invitation is actually a neutral offer, like an in- vitation to a sale event at a local store. And a felicitous invitation may still be inappropriate. The fact that an invitation leaves the recipient free to turn it down is not carte blanche to issue any invitation I want.
I submit that most paradigmatically, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests. Invitations open up the possibility of sex, and not just as a neutral possibility; the invitation makes clear that the one is- suing it hopes for acceptance from the invitee. They are welcoming with- out being demanding. Accepting them is not a favor to the one issuing the invitation, as granting a request would be. While a rejection may well be disappointing, the inviter has no license to feel aggrieved if the invita- tion is turned down although they can feel aggrieved if it is turned down rudely or insultingly.
Again, the invitation needs to be felicitous and appropriate: I can- not invite you to have sex with someone other than me which would be both infelicitous and unethical. Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake.
One peculiarity of sexual invitations is that, unlike standard invita- tions, I do not owe you regret if I turn down your invitation. Another more important peculiarity is that I can back out of my acceptance of a sexual invitation at any time, for any reason at all. Accepting an invita- tion does not create an inviolable commitment, but it usually institutes a norm of participation. Sexual invitations are different. I get to change my mind at any time whatsoever about accepting an invitation for sex, in- cluding moments before we begin.
The person who invited me may well be disappointed if I back out, but she has not been wronged. I doubt that sex is unique in this regard, and it would be interesting to work out which sorts of invitations have this special feature. I suspect that invitations to participate in intimate bodily activities follow this pat- tern. Invitations to participate in medical research might be another example.
As I mentioned, typ- ical invitations—as long as they are appropriate and felicitous—call for an expression perhaps just token or formal of gratitude, even when they are turned down. If you invite me to your birthday dinner, I am free not to go, but it is incumbent on me to express both my gratitude for the invita- tion and my regret for turning it down. However, it feels odd to say that I owe someone gratitude for inviting me to have sex. I propose centering invitations rather than requests in our model of the language of sexual initiation.
This opens up a whole set of new ethical and pragmatic questions. What are the felicity conditions for a sexual in- vitation, and who has authority to issue them to whom? Since invitations strike a complex balance between welcoming and leaving the recipient free, what maintains this balance and what throws it off-kilter?
Or it might be coercive by being too pressing. Or it might be both infelic- itous and unethical—for instance, if I invite you to have sex with my girl- friend. Gift Offers Sometimes sex is initiated not by a request or an invitation but instead by a gift offer. Unlike a box of chocolates or a bouquet of roses, in the case of sex, we need to separate the act of gifting from the discursive gift offer— you cannot just present someone with sex and hope they are happy about it.
I might offer to peg my partner,31 even though I am not especially in the mood, because I know he loves it and I want to celebrate his having received some important good news. I may offer my partner sex because she is leaving for a trip, as a way of saying goodbye. There is nothing inher- ently problematic about offering to have sex out of generosity rather than direct desire.
Not all sex or all parts of sex have to be enthusiastically de- sired by all parties in order to be ethical and worthwhile. Ever since the publication of Marcel This refers to having anal sex with someone while using a strap-on. See Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, eds. Despite cultural variations, the rules around gift giving always in- volve reciprocity, requirements for proper uptake and response, and norms concerning the refusal and acceptance of gifts.
These norms are subtle, complex, and heavily context dependent: as John Sherry explores in his classic article on the anthropology of gift giving, different sorts of gifts and different kinds of uptake and reciprocation are appropriate for busi- ness associates, a hospitalized friend, bachelor parties, lovers, weddings, and so forth.
It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex. When we are first trying to establish sexual intimacy with someone, sexual invitations are more common and typically healthier than sexual requests. Once we are in an established, long-term relationship with a partner, sex is sometimes initiated via a gift offer.
I might offer my partner sex as a way of saying goodbye before leaving for a trip. There is nothing inherently problematic about offering to engage in a sexual activity with someone we care about out of generosity rather than direct desire. Gifts are, of essence, freely given and generous; a gift that I am compelled to offer is not actually a gift.
Gifts, by nature, cannot be demanded or even requested. If you ask me to indulge some sexual desire of yours, then my doing so is not a gift but the granting of a favour. A gift must be designed to please the recipient; it might not actually succeed in pleasing, but an offering that is not expected to please is not actually a gift. It is also essential to gift-giving that the recipient need not accept the gift. Gifts that are accepted call for both gratitude and reciprocation from the receiver.
Social scientists have long been fascinated by gift-giving, both because of the complexity of its norms and because of its important role in sustaining and negotiating community. Every culture also has distinctive norms governing the refusal and acceptance of gifts. A striking feature of gift-giving is its essentially reciprocal character, which is part of every gift-giving system despite cultural variations.
Gifts need to be reciprocated, and this is part of how they sustain relationships. Part of what is complicated about the norms of gift reciprocity is that they are inherently open-ended. What counts as proper reciprocation is tricky. For instance, reciprocating a gift too quickly or too closely in kind is a norm violation: if you give me a book that you think I would love, it is inappropriate for me to immediately hand you a different book back, and even more inappropriate for me to give you the same book back at any time.
The size, timing and content of reciprocation must all be keyed subtly and not too directly to the original gift. Partly because gifts must be given generously and not compelled, this logic of reciprocity is tricky — while gifts call for reciprocation, if the reciprocation they call for is too specific, then they are no longer gifts but something more like barters.
An invitation need not presume that the recipient wants to accept it. But a gift offer is designed to be an act of generosity that pleases the recipient whether or not it succeeds in doing so , and it calls for reciprocation. Such gifts do create an obligation to reciprocate, though not immediately, or exactly in kind, or on any particular schedule. If you routinely indulge my sexual desires out of generosity, it is disrespectful and undermining of our relationship if I never reciprocate.
Notice that typically, if someone offers me an appropriate gift, I need a good reason to turn it down. Turning down a gift is a hurtful snub. This is not true for sexual gifts offers, which can be turned down for any reason at all; no one has the standing to feel aggrieved by their rejection. Sexual gifts, like invitations, can be appropriate or inappropriate, and felicitous or infelicitous.
Unsolicited dick pics are typically not appropriate gifts, for instance. Sexual gifts offered too early in a relationship are inappropriate. An authentic, appropriate and thoughtful sexual gift offer within a relationship calls for an expression of gratitude though not necessarily for acceptance , even if the recipient happens not to be in the mood for that particular gift at that time. But the language of sexual negotiation importantly includes more than just sexual initiation.
Ideally, we communicate about all sorts of things other than whether to have sex, including what sorts of things we like to do during sex, what we definitely want off the table, whether we are having fun, what we want to adjust as we go, when we want to stop, and much more. I will talk about safe words and their pragmatic structure. Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously for instance, by accepting an invitation , we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely.
Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity.
People negotiating sex sometimes establish a safe word in advance. Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing although they can also be used when there has been a transgression. It calls for no apology and requires no apology after its use.
It is significant that safe words are typically semantically irrelevant words that are not going to otherwise come up in a normal sexual encounter — they are designed to intrude minimally and unambiguously, without calling for interpretation, discussion or conversational response. Safe words have a complex pragmatic structure. The negotiation of safe words is a kind of metaspeech that lets participants decide together how to make clear the boundaries of a sexual encounter; they serve a powerful function in creating the scaffolding within which activities can happen, even if they are never used.
One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral. We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context. Having a safe-word system in place lets participants establish norms for exiting a nonliteral discursive frame that might include role-playing, metaphor and experimentation with boundaries. Safe words enhance sexual autonomy and safety, but should never replace the force of the rest of speech.
Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily.
Safe words thus expand the space of opportunities for sexual agency. This might include potentially painful or uncomfortable activities, as well as activities in which we are role-playing coercion or domination and submission, and any other activities involving nonliteral speech.
But it can also include anything that we would like to explore, even though it potentially pushes the boundaries of our comfort zone. And safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity — all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well. While unsurprisingly the original and paradigmatic home of safe words is the BDSM community, I think it would be fantastic if the use of safe words became standard practice even outside the sexual domain , and in particular if training in the use of safe words became a completely standard part of sex and health education for teens.
Safe words give people the ability to stop an activity clearly and without an argument or a formulated reason. Safe words also enable people to explore desires whose fulfilment would otherwise be dangerous or uncomfortable. Normalising their use would be a major step in empowering and protecting the safety and autonomy of everyone. Having the system in play creates a space for ongoing consent and active experimentation and sexual collaboration.
Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent. Sometimes people agree to do things that degrade or exploit them. And sometimes sexual communication violates ethical and pragmatic norms: an invitation might be unwelcoming or inappropriate, or too pressing; a gift offer might be insulting; people might agree to participate in an activity that puts someone in danger without clarifying how that person can exit the situation; and so forth.
When we talk about sexual autonomy, our conversations generally focus on one of two areas. One is access to contraception, abortion and sexual healthcare and education which have not been my topic here. Both of these are, indeed, deeply important topics, especially since both are under serious legal and cultural threat right now. But I have argued that sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication — including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.
Virtues and vices. We must keep the flame of pessimism burning: it is a virtue for our deeply troubled times, when crude optimism is a vice. Mara van der Lugt. Computing and artificial intelligence. Alan Turing was a pioneer of machine learning, whose work continues to shape the crucial question: can machines think? Thinkers and theories.
The history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable women philosophers.
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