A decade ago, Antioch College in Ohio introduced a campus-wide sexual consent policy. The key principle was "Find out specifically if it is OK": before every stage of a sexual encounter, students had to ask the other person if what they were about to do was acceptable, and get an explicit positive answer. Not surprisingly, the policy was widely ridiculed as "feminist-inspired idiocy" and another case of "the festering disease of political correctness". But one outcome, as Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick confirm in this excellent book, was that many women students reported feeling safer with men. A more surprising result was that many women students said that they had better sex: by talking with their partners explicitly about what they wanted, their experience in bed was enhanced.
They had developed new and effective ways of talking about their needs and wishes.
Whatever else this story shows, it demonstrates that language and sexuality are closely linked. We learn about sexuality through language, from conversations with peers and adolescent jokes to magazine articles and leaflets about contraception and venereal disease. Most sexual encounters involve people talking to each other. Much of the literature we read involves sex implicitly or explicitly.
The language of lonely hearts adverts offers a revealing insight into our attitudes: analysis shows consistently that heterosexual men emphasise their occupation and their professional status, while heterosexual women stress how attractive they are. The language used by lesbians and gay men is another area where important research has been done in recent years.
Cameron and Kulick argue that widespread views about what is "normal" are social constructs that can be questioned. Their book is the best kind of social science because they take everyday events and attitudes and analyse them objectively - revealing a huge raft of assumptions, conventions and limits, which are not given by nature but vary widely in different societies and at different times.
This is a pioneering volume that integrates previous disparate studies and sets out a new and distinctive research agenda. The book covers an extensive area, from the discourse used in rape trials to theories of desire, from gay slang to the language of pornography. The authors maintain consistently, and correctly, that sexuality is political, and their tone is thoughtful without being solemn. The result is a brave work, and its authors deserve high praise.
Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, University of Brighton.
Language and Sexuality. First edition
Author - Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 176
Price - £42.50 and £15.95
ISBN - 0521 80433 7 and 00969 3