Few concepts are so much subject to clichés and stereotypes as those belonging to the domain of sexuality and sexual activity. Not only do our own desires and drives encourage us to perceive and understand sex, love and partners in appetising fantasy forms which correspond to our own personal tastes and inclinations, but culture as a whole generates and propagates paradigms, models, ideals and norms which to a large extent colour and condition the way we perceive and understand our relationships, our partners, our obligations towards them and our ideas of what we can legitimately expect from them.
The demise of the Church as a cultural reference and reservoir of norms and ideals, and the massive growth of the media since the beginning of the twentieth century, have transformed the representation of “western love” as well as the significance of the sexual act and its function in relationships and in society as a whole. The media are constantly involved in generating, recycling and modifying the paradigms of sexuality in a complex and innovative manner. In her study of the Czech Budvar beer adverts (Srpová et. al. 2007, pp. 164–166), Světla Čmejrková demonstrates the way stereotypes tend to interpenetrate cultures. In the adverts she analysed (written by and for Czechs) we observe conversations between two English-speaking protagonists who hold forth on stereotyped ideas about the Czech nation and its people. The advert is of course primarily concerned with consolidating the idea that Czech beer is the best in the world (and that Budvar is the best Czech beer). But another of the stereotypes evoked and harnessed in the advert (and one that is propagated by Western media) is that all Czech girls are supermodels.
This is certainly flattering to the Czech self-image, and is of course successful as a marketing strategy for boasting of what the Czech nation has to offer the world (girls and beer). A rather less savory image of the cultural exportation of Czech resources confronts us when we drive through the small border towns next to Germany and Austria and count the number of farmhouses converted into brothels. But whether it is due to the legitimate success of Eastern European girls in Parisian fashion magazines and modeling agencies, or to the Western European client’s desire to profit from the attractive rates provided by Eastern Europeans for their sexual services, the image of the East European girl in the Western imagination from Germany to Britain has been transformed in the last two decades, leaving an impression not dissimilar to the one which has come to be anchored in the Czech stereotype which the Budvar adverts are playfully evoke.
It is partly in order to dispell the reductive clichés which the media propagate and consolidate in their representations of other cultures, that the present work aims to contribute to a more refined comprehension of the ways in which the sexual act is understood in different languages: more precisely, metaphoric patterns of representation will be examined in a discourse- based corpus of women’s magazines in French, Czech and English. By juxtaposing the representations of the sexual act in these three languages, this study hopes to elucidate to some small extent the way in which our vision of the world (our worldview) is to a large extent elaborated by speakers and writers using linguistic resources. Stereotypes and concepts are constructed linguistically: we think and express ourselves with language. This is not to say language limits thought. As we consider the metaphoric resourcesexplored by the speakers of each of the three languages, it should become clear that language itself is no prisonhouse which conditions thought but rather the creative adventure which allows us to define ourselves in relation to others and invent ourselves.
Since the point of entry into these representaions will be the study of metaphoric paterns, this small project has been influenced by the work of cognitive scholars, notably Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1987, 1999), Sweetser (1990) and most of all, the work of the Hungarian scholar, Zoltán Kövecses, who was the first cognitive linguist to make a lengthy and detailed contribution to the analysis of “love” in English back in 1986 (Kövecses, pp. 61–105).
However this article on the sexual act (which forms part of an ongoing series of works on love and desire) differs from the cognitive appraoch in two significant ways. Firstly, it generates its models from a corpus-based study of discourse. This tends to confont us with more complexity and creativity than the cognitive approaches usually come up with as cognitive linguists often choose to analyse linguistc structures and conceptual models which are held to be in general usage without drawing their examplesdirectly from discourse.
The comparative approach adopted here also moves in an opposite trajectory to the one adopted by much second generation cognitive research. While the latter often strives towards the establishing of universals, this study confronts different models and representations in order to allow similitudes and differences to emerge and assert themselves. Despite the high degree of similarity that does in fact emerge, this approach forces us to question whether the concepts which are linguistically elaborated within a given language system can be traced back to one simple, essential, linguistic, conceptual or phenomenological given. Put more simply; do words like “love” and “the sexual act” actually denote things? Or do they rather shape what are felt to be real experiences but which are only grasped as individual definable entities, concepts, as the mind makes its way along the paths that language opens up for it? Do we express things outside of ourselves? Or do we use language as the medium through which we understand the relationships and experiences in which we find ourselves? If so, metaphorical patterns do not uncover realities, they help shape them in order to allow us to make sense of the world, our experience of it and in order to give meaning to our actions within it.
This approach is not so much hostile to the quest for universals as sceptical about the possibility of distilling a list of single essences from the languages of the world. On the other hand, much of the recent cognitive scholarship reveals a latent and unavowed hostility to Humboldt’s worldview project by searching for universals through language, for which English is often used as the sole paradigm. And when foreign languages are taken into account they are often only considered superficially in terms of the similarities they share with English. By returning to texts and confronting them with those of different languages, the present study returns to a more traditional philological appoach. The present paper is far from the only contribution, however. multilingual studies and comparative approaches have been gaining ground in metaphor study in Germany (metaphorik. de website), Poland and the Czech Republic (Vaňková 2001).
For our own study of the sexual act within the framework of the worldview project, ninety articles were selected from women’s magazines in English, French and Czech. 30 articles were selected from between 6 and 7 different magazines in each language to widen the scope of the corpus. The articles were between one and six pages in length with an average length of two and a half pages. As the average number of words per page was around 700, this allows us to establish a corpus with the following data:
• Average no. of words per article: approx. 1,750
• Number of articles per language: 30
• Total number of words per language: approx. 52,500
• Total number of pages: approx. 225
• Total number of words studied: approx. 157,500 The following magazines formed the corpus of the study:
• OK – a woman’s magazine concerned with gossip about stars, fashion and lifestyle, written for a wide readership of moderately-educated and largely unprofessional women probably aged 30–50, (10 articles, May 2007);
• Glamour – a woman’s magazine concerned with fashion, love, sex and lifestyle written for a wide range of women probably aged 18–30, (7 articles, June 2007);
• Elle – a woman’s magazine similar to the one above, though Elle probably attracts more educated readers and addresses women’s questions likely to appeal to women of up to 35, (1 article, September 2002, 6 articles, November 2005);
• Cosmopolitan – a woman’s magazine with a readership similar to that of Elle, (3 articles, June 2007);
• Easy Living – a woman’s lifestyle magazine written for women aged probably 30–45, (3 articles, June 2007);
• France Dimanche, a woman’s magazine similar to OK, (25th–31st May 2007, 3 articles);
• Glamour – as in English, (4 articles, October 2005, 4 articles, November 2005, 4 articles, November 2006);
• Cosmopolitan – as in English (5 articles, September 2002, 4 articles, October 2005, 4 articles, May 2007);
• Marie-Claire – a women’s lifestyle magazine with a readership which overlaps that of Cosmopolitan and Easy Living in English, probably addressing women aged 25–45, (2 articles, May 2006);
• Katka – a specifically Czech-centred woman’s magazine concerne with love, sex, fashion and lifestyle written for a wide readership of women probably aged 18–45, (5 articles, 27/08–02/09 2003);
• Moje Psychologie – a woman’s magazine concerned with love, sex, relationships, culture and lifestyle which contains interviews with psychologists and psychoanalysts and which represents their theories for laymen or rather laywomen, (3 articles, May 2007);
• Cosmopolitan – as in French and English, (4 articles, May 2007);
• Elle – as in French and English, (1 article, May 2007);
• Skvělá – a woman’s magazine which is at times Czech-centred but which is similar to Elle and Cosmopolitan in terms of themes and readership: Skvělá is concerned with love, sex, fashion, relationships and lifestyle and addresses a wide readership of women probably aged 18–35, (5 articles, May 2007);
• Bazar – a woman’s magazine similar to Glamour in French and English, concerned with love, sex, fashion and lifestyle which addresses a readership of women probably aged 18–30, (7 articles, February 2007, 5 articles, May 2007);
These articles were selected because they spoke explicitly about love, desire, the sexual act and relationships. As the case study made use of the printed page and not the computer, no attempt was made to quantify the exact number of times a metaphor or symbolic form of representation appeared. Metaphor study does not loan itself to word-searches as lexical study does, and this too conditioned the nature of the study and the methodology followed. The objectives of the study were:
• to extend the field of study opened up by Kövecses by investigating a defined corpus of authentic English;
• to analyse, interpret and categorise original metaphors;
• to determine whether French and Czech shared the same conceptual metaphors which generate our mode of conceptualising the sexual act in English;
• to open up to the English-speaker’s mind the different dimensions of the sexual act explored by French & Czech in a given linguistic context;
• to determine to what extent our paradigms of the sexual act are transformed over time in the creative expression of individual speakers and authors.
The paradigms which emerged as speakers and writers described their experiences, opinions and desires often found a similar expression in all the languages of our tri-partite study. Often, however, where two languages offered the same metaphoric pattern, it was absent in the third. Unique, original and obscure metaphoric patterns will be treated in Part 4. The following representations of the sexual act were found in at least two of the three languages.
Heat and explosions
English offers a fairly rich and well-established network of sexual metaphoric patterns related to heat and explosions. One English article combined the heat metaphor with alliteration in its title Hot Mattress Moves (Cosmopolitan, 06/07) which was concerned with collecting the tips of “readers”_1 on how to perfect your performance of the sexual act. Sex-as-heat is linked to the conception of the orgasm as an “explosion”, a common enough representation which was found in the same article. Desire in English is also associated with heat (and this conception does of course correspond to an experience of warmth on an affectionate and physical level). When the degree of “heat” becomes intense during foreplay and the sexual act, we speak of “fires”, “fireworks” and “explosions”, though such metaphors are often evoked only to be negated in the present corpus: the fire dies down, cannot be rekindled, a sexual arrangement can be maintained until it “fizzles out”, (ibid.). A related metaphor translates “sexy” into “steamy”; in English we speak of “steamy sex” and of “steamy movies” (Cosmopolitan, 06/07).
In one French article (Glamour, 11/05), a woman reminisced about a savage-tender lover who handcuffed her in her sleep and who treated her to a “firework display” (feu d’artifice). Though this is a rather extreme example, the heat metaphor is common in French. To inspire desire is rendered by a heat metaphor; to light someone (allumer). Une Allumeuse is a woman who does this without wanting (or without being able) to satisfy a man’s desire (a term we would translate with varying degrees of vulgarity as “flirt” or “cock-tease”). To arouse someone more fully or more physically follows the same metaphoric pattern in French, using the verb “chauffer” (to heat).
The patterning of heat metaphors is somewhat more complex or contradictory in Czech language. The explosion metaphor is present in Sexbomba (which has equivalents in both the other languages and which is clearly borrowed from English). But heat metaphors are disturbed by the use of “teplý” (hot or warm) to denote not “sexually attractive to the opposite sex” (as it is used in both French and English) but “homosexual” in Czech. This might lead us to conclude that heat metaphors are not fundamental for the representation of heterosexual desire in Czech. But this would seem to be an overhasty conclusion, since heat metaphors open up a whole rich network of converse metaphors which employ coldness to designate frigidity (itself a temperature metaphor) and lack of sexual desire or inclination. Unless these metaphors are wholy imported from foreign languages (which seems unlikely), it seems reasonable to assume that heat metaphors must exist within the Czech linguistic system.
Though the sexual act was not represented as the fusion of the self with the other in our corpus, it was at times represented as a form of discovery. This representation was found most frequently in French. English did however offer examples: The English actor, Leo Gregory, explained his sexual education had been taken care of by “a black Pamela Anderson… [who] … opened a couple of doors a bit earlier than they might have been opened,” when he was sixteen (Elle, 11/05). Sexual activity is often conceived of in terms of exploration in English also.
In one French article (Cosmopolitan, 10/05), a man explained that his “performance” in bed depended upon the girl: “that’s part of discovering the other (la découverte de l’autre),” which could, he said, be very exciting. A woman in the same article explained her preference for making love in the dark because, she claimed, this left more space for “bodies to search for one another” (des corps qui se cherchent). This conceptual metaphor of discovery was not found in the Czech corpus.
The link between love and madness is an ancient one. In the Karma Sutra’s list of the degrees of love, the final one leads to loss of both appetite and sleep and ultimately to madness. Shakespeare displays the full folly of love in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, in which we are left to conclude with Theseus, the Duke of Athens, that “The lover, the lunatic and the poet, / Are of imagination all compact,” (V:i), a sentiment expressed earlier in the play by the Weaver-Actor, Bottom, who claims “to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days,” (III:ii). Love was conceived of in terms of madness in all three of the corpuses, but it is the sexual act itself which interests us in this study rather than love, desire or emotion.
In the English corpus, the sexual act was described as mad. In an article on the actor, Rob Lowe (Elle, 11/05), the actor’s sulphurous past was brought up, notably “A sex scandal, when he spent a crazy night with two girls at a Democratic Party conference in support of a presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis in 1988”. In another article (which listed techniques for reaching peak sexual heights) one man boasted, “I had crazy-good sex standing in the ocean,” (Cosmopolitan, 06/07).
In French, amour fou (mad love) is a common expression, and was consequently found in the French corpus (in France Dimanche, 25–31/05/07, for example). But though madness and passionate affairs are often linked in French, madness did not enter into the representation of the physical act of congress. In the same way, when one Czech young woman said of her boyfriend “I loved him to madness,” (Milovala jem ho k zbláznění), she was merely using a hackneyed metaphorical expression (Katka, 27/08–02/09/03). But no examples of mad sex were found in the Czech corpus.
Sex as a game is a common conceptual metaphor in English, and one which structured several of the articles of our corpus which gave advice on how to “play the game”. In one English magazine written for women aged 30–45, Easy-Living (06/07), a woman asked herself: “When you turn out the lights, and make love to your husband in silence, is it because you are flabby-tummied and a teensy bit anxious the children will hear, or is it because, with the room dark and quiet, you are better able to enjoy the phantasmagoric, polymorphous carnival of flesh […?].” Carnivals, games and the chase are all variations of a series of metaphors which characterise the sexual act as a playful experience which involves a light-hearted combination of enthusiasm, rules and improvisation.
The French texts were often structured around the idea of the gameplaying. However, game-playing was exploited in French more to describe seduction. One article devoted to the question of whether women mastered the art of lying in love more than men, quoted the common French expression,“les hommes sortent le grand jeu pour nous embobiner,”(men bring out the big game to take us in, Cosmopolitan, 09/02). The Czech corpus did not exploit game metaphors blatantly, but game-playing as a framework of reference was implied by the description of sexual techniques such as “triky” (tricks, Katka, 27/08–02/09/03).
No doubt because of the physical effort involved, the representation of the sexual act in terms of sport is common in English. With the increasing hype of sporting events in the media in recent decades, this metaphoric pattern seems guaranteed a place in the imagination of generations to come. An extended sexual bout can be considered a “marathon”. “Marathon runners” can be engaged in doing not only a one-off event; they can be pursuing promiscuity as a way of life.Emma Cook, in her interview with the French woman, Valérie Tasso, described the latter’s “tireless and extraordinary quest for sexual adventure” (a project which aimed at accumulating an impressive 10 000 men) as a “sexual marathon,” (Elle, 11/05). Girls who were ready to go out for a night to seduce men were transformed into young fillies, racehorses who were “hot to trot”, in one article in the English corpus.
In our French corpus, the author of a horoscope advised women belonging to the Aries star-sign to prepare for “a five month erotic marathon,” (un marathon érotique de cinq mois, Cosmopolitan, 09/02). In our Czech corpus, the only sporting metaphor used for the sexual act was reserved for the act of infidelity. In Bazar (02/07), in an article devoted to analysing the reasons for, and consequences of, infidelity, the author claimed that “lovers are on the whole a good medicine for fighting boredom” (milenec či milenka jsou na nudu vcelku dobrým lékem). For certain people (the author claimed) infidelity was more “sport” than a physical or emotional need. The only problem with this kind of medicine was, the author claimed, that like many drugs, infidelity, was addictive. “Anyone who has tried dangerous sports might find it difficult to give them up” (kdo jednou vyzkoušel nebezpečné sporty, jenom nerad se jich vzdává).
Curiously, the most traditional sport used to describe sexual activity, the blood sport, hunting, appeared in neither our English nor our Czech corpuses. In French, however, one article was devoted to drawing up a list of types of men which had yet to be displayed upon a woman’s “hunting trophy display” (tableau de chasse, Cosmopolitan, 09/02).
Though hunting was absent from two of our three corpuses, a related metaphoric patterning which conceives of the sexual act in terms of food and feeding was commonplace in all three languages. A woman who enjoys collecting men is referred to as a “man-eater” in English and this expression is rendered in French as “mangeuse d’hommes” or “croqueuse d’hommes” (which implies she takes a bite out of them and leaves the rest). Signing up for a singles club was said, in one French article (Cosmopolitan, 09/02), to be a “lickable” offer (offre alléchante). Desire as appetite works for both sexes in French and is celebrated. So one girl (Cosmopolitan, 05/07) spoke with satisfaction of a man who “looked at her greedily” (il me regarde avec gourmandise) when she rubbed her leg up against his. Techniques can be used to season the food of love. “Hotels have a slight taste of illegitimate and illicit love which makes love-making with a secret lover more spicy,” the author of one French article claimed (L’hôtel a ce petit goût d’illégitime et d’interdit qui pimente délicieusement les ébats avec un amant secret,” Cosmopolitan, 05/07). Sex can also be “spicy”, or “hot” in English and “pikantní” in Czech, and these terms were found in the the corpuses of these two languages.
Though the richness of gustatative metaphors for the sexual act in French might make us inclined to assume that the French tradition in cuisine was behind these metaphoric innovations, both of the other languages explored these metaphoric paradigms fully. Czech men would consider the benefits of a varied diet in their love-food, mixing dailly staple foods with refined or exotic dishes. And in English, the charms of Penelope Cruz were said to have been “sampled” by “beefcake A-listers such as Tom Cruise and Matt Damon” (OK, 29/05/07), an example which is interesting in that it transforms both parties of the “feast” into the food to be consumed. Such examples are echoed in more crude or explicit expressions in English and French especially in references to oral sex (“Eat me!”).
On the other hand, food in our corpus could also be used to express the absence of desire as lack of appetite. At times disgust was used to express lack of desire in all three corpuses. And Sagitarians who wished to get rid of a lover were advised in one French article (Cosmopolitan, 09/02), to “wear their lover down” (fatiguer) until he simply “drops off the branch like a ripe fruit by himself” (se détache de lui-même, et tombe comme un fruit mûr).
Sex is often conceived of as “action” in English, a metaphor which at times takes on military connotations, associating the sexual act with manoeuvres, tactics and attacks. What is remarkable about this is that it is women who are increasingly adopting this traditionally male conceptual framework. One young woman, who was described as a DCD (Don’t Care Dater) by the author of the article (Elle, 11/05), spoke of her sexual relations in the following manner: “If I fancy a bit of flirty male company, a nice dinner, and possibly a bit of action afterwards then we’ll meet up and get it on. I prefer that to having one night stands because sex is so much better if you’re seeing someone quasi-regularly.”
The word “action” did not actually appear in the French corpus but this was perhaps because the metaphoric paradigm of violence tended to predominate in French. In Czech, “action” is usually translated as “akce” which also denotes “the act”. Though this makes it difficult to establish a direct parallel, there is certainly a similarity to the English concept of action in the representation of being prepared for sexual action as one Czech woman described it when she celebrated the state of womanhood. “We can be granted multiple orgasms one after the other without needing to take a break before we are once more ready for action” (Mužeme si dopřát několiknásobný orgasmus a to bezprostředně za sebou, žádná nucená pauza, než jsme zase připraveny k akci, Bazar, 02/07).
Violence in the domain of sex has traditionally been celebrated in the symbol of the conqueror in English, French and Czech. Traditional stereotypes have often relegated women to a passive role, the objects of conquest; but women have regularly usurped the active role. Seventeenth century French literature often abounded with such rhetoric. Contemporary French women regularly spoke of their “conquests” in our corpus of articles. There was one curious difference however with historical precedents of women parading their sexual potency. Increasingly, it seems important for a woman to be able to advertise her conquests to her friends. Conquests would seem to be status symbols for the successful and attractive young woman, rather than a source of erotic or emotional fulfilment. While for a man the concept of conquering women’s hearts in order to gain access to their bodies seems to be a fairly straightforward question of the affirmation of his virility and the exercising of his sexual capacities, for women who adopt this conceptual framework the consequences seem somewhat more complex. One French woman lucidly analysed her relations with her “conquests”, coming to the conclusion that in selecting only attractive, socially successful men, she was hiding her own complex of insecurity and her desire for affirmation in her pursuit of multiple conquests (Cosmopolitan, 05/07).
On a more physical level, French woman in our corpus fantasised about rough sex. One woman dreamed Enrique Iglesias was “erotically manhandling” her (érotiquement malmène, Cosmopolitan, 09/02). There is an implicit violence in the image of the “hardeur” (a French innovation derived from the borrowed English term “hard” from “hard core” and which is used in French to designate the male protagonist of a porn film). The “hardeur” with his “triumphant erection” was said to inspire many fantasies among French women, (Marie-Claire, 09/06). In a curious example, one French woman described a certain form of sexual behaviour as belonging to a female “warrior”, using the English term to describe it (though she suggested this was not her own personal ideal).
Though borrowing “hard” from English implies that aggressive sexual behaviour is more representative of the Anglo-American culture, no such violent metaphors appeared in the English corpus. One disturbing example which did appear, however, was the concept of sex-as-punishment. Rather than the traditional image of bondage and sadomasochistic men enslaved to the mercy of masterful women, this metaphor was reserved in the English article in which it appeared (Easy Living, 06/07) for the maternal woman which the author dubbed “The Big Mamma”. The Big Mamma considers her husband or partner to be “just a big kid, and plies him with endless boys toys to give herself something to tut over […] Sex with the Baby Man has settled into an obscure ritual of punishment and cuddles.”
In the Czech corpus, apart from the representations of the “conqueror of women’s hearts” (dobyvatel ženských srdcí) and the sexually explosive “sexbomba”, sex was not conceived of in terms of sex (though sadism and masochism were regularly explored in order to present titillating articles to stimulate the curiosity of readers).
Sex can be experienced as an intoxicating experience, a drug we can become dependant upon. In all three languages, the idea of the addiction to love and the addiction to sex was discussed. At times this was regarded as a problem. At other times (and primarily in French and English) this addiction was treated with a blasé attitude. One English article described a woman’s conquests as her “quick-fix lovers”.
The distinction between man and beast is a curious one which changes from culture to culture and which is transformed over time. Though Descartes decreed that animals had no souls, etymologically speaking the word “animal” derives from “anima”, the Latin term for the soul. In verse 20 of the First Book of Genesis, when God commanded the waters to “bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life”, the term “life” itself in Hebrew (which is translated into the Latin word, “anima”) was “néfech ‘haïa” – that of living soul (Meschonnic, 247). And néfech (usually written, “nefesh” in English) means both, the “principle of live”, “living thing” and “the soul”. Consequently, “animal”, at the origins of our shared Western culture, would seem to mean; that which is endowed with life (with a soul) by God; animal means that which is “animated”. Later oppositions between man and animal are, therefore, as much cultural constructs as they are based upon clearly observable qualities and properties.
Since the sexual act is something which is common to many (though not all) animals, it seems reasonable to stress the “animal” in the human when speaking of our erotic inclinations and sexual behaviour. However, the situation appears to be somewhat more complicated. Traditionally speaking, poetry has often exalted the platonic and spiritual aspect of love while religions have often marginalised the place of the erotic in life and condemned free love. It is no doubt in reaction to these romantic and rigidly puritanical traditions that the contemporary celebration of “animal sex” should be understood. Because there is a belligerent contemporary celebration of sexual activity which takes great pride in reminding us of our “animal desires”, and this was clearly marked in the corpuses for all three languages.
In Czech, psychologists interpreted the infidelity of men as “ape-like love”, a fairly pragmatic approach which consisted of “getting it” somewhere else if you didn’t get it from your partner. Marie-Claire (09/06) explored the same concept of ape-like sex in an article devoted to confessions by women who had slept with sexual professionals which was entitled, “I have slept with a Sex Pro” (J’ai couché avec un pro du sexe). Far from condemning ape-like sex, Catherine (aged 39) praised it and expressed her gratitude to a young “sexologue” who she had gone to interview but who had shared with her a “séance of torrid caresses”. She expressed her admiration in the following terms: “He gives his love authentically. He’s a bit like a chimp who eases life’s tensions using sex.” Elsewhere, a virile and active male was described as a “sex animal” (bête de sexe).
In English, men obsessed with sex are often considered as animals; “pigs”, if they are largely unsuccessful and voyeuristic, “dogs” if they are active. A more traditional representation (which contributed to ancient representations of the Devil) was the goat. The term for arousal (horny), reminds us of this animal association. But these are not particularly flattering images of raw animal sexuality (the contemporary ideal) and perhaps it was for that reason that animal metaphors were not very common in our English corpus. The representation of sexually prepared women as being “hot to trot,” referred to above, does, on the other hand, offer one example of the legitimisation of animal sexuality in representations of female desire.
Naïve and uniformed conceptions of religion (which are increasingly common today) tend to oppose religion and sexuality though all of the major churches have attributed a place to the erotic union of man and woman in their philosophies and teachings. What characterises contemporary representations of the sexual act is their marked materialism and refusal of spirituality. Sex is about bodies: this is the message hammered out in all three of the corpuses. Emotions were often relegated to a minor role, and when they were spoken of they were at times perversely reduced to a means of achieving greater physical pleasure. Traditional conceptions of the heart as well as the mental activity characteristic of the human being, both seemed to have been excluded in therepresentations of the sexual act in the articles of our corpus.
Language, of course, bears the traces of earlier traditions. Sexual bliss and love are often conceived of as being in “seventh heaven” in English. A French woman will express her ecstasy as being “aux anges” (with the angels). Love can be “divine” in both languages. But only the French texts explored religious metaphoric patterns, and when they did so, they tended to reject traditional conceptions or use them to create ironic new-age conceptions. Catherine (quoted above) described her “sexologue” as “a kind of sexual Francis of Assisi […] He experiences his work like a “mission” because he has a true compassion for human kind. He could have been a Christ-like gigolo” (Marie-Claire, 09/06). Another woman in the same article complained of her husband who seems to have integrated the teachings of the Catholic Church in his respect for, and devotion to, his wife. His attitude appears to have been the cause of some frustration for his wife who claimed: “Eric used to make love to me as if I was the sacred sacrament (saint sacrement) […] He considered the sexual act as a divine sowing (ensemencement sacré), all forms of sexual fantasy were foreign to him.” Once pregnant, the woman in question was so frustrated with this behaviour that she even became jealous of women whose husbands were unfaithful to them during their pregnancies, and she complained that “Eric treated me as if I was carrying Jesus Christ himself (le Christ luimê- me, ibid.).
Perhaps the most striking transformation of the erotic act in our trilingual corpus was the way in which the encounter between two lovers was invariably reified, reduced to the status of an object. Making love, is no longer a verb; it is a noun, sex. Grammar is far from innocent. As we transform an activity (which implies agents, pronouns, the subject and object) into a noun, we exclude the persons involved from their most intimate encounter. Lovers make love, but sex is something you do, something you get, something you give, something you crave for.
For the German Jewish philosopher (and translator of the Bible), Martin Buber, all real living is meeting (Alle wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung, Buber 1995, p. 12). But living-as-meeting involves an encounter between I and You. This, for Buber was the World-of-You (Duwelt). In contrast to this, Buber saw the ever-encroaching growth of the World-of-It (Eswelt), the world in which it became ever more difficult for people to meet one another, to address each other as actively responding subjects of dialogue. Buber saw an increasing atomisation of the individual in modern society who surrounded himself with things and who used others as things because he was no longer capable of responding to them as living people. This, Buber believed, was not only immoral (as a Christian would consider it to be), it was tragic for the individual, the solitary I, who thereby deprived himself of all existence as a real person, vivified and revitalised by authentic encounters with others, his only access to real living and his sole source of meaningful self-affirmation. Paradoxically, the frustrated individual does search for encounters outside of himself and multiplies his attempts to gain experience of the world since he is haunted by a sense of inner emptiness, but this quest is the quest of an individual incapable of meeting others, and who considers others only as a means of acquiring an experience:
It is said that man experiences the world; What does that mean?
Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them. […] Inner things, outer things, what are they but things! […] O secrecy without secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It! (O Heimlichkeit ohne Geheimnis, o Häufung der Auskünfte! Es, es, es! Buber 1996, pp. 17–18; 1995, p. 5)
All three corpuses were engaged in the depiction of (and often the celebration of) sex as a thing, an object of desire, a thing to be won, extracted, a thing to get pleasure from, a thing to offer and also as a thing that another person has no right to (as in the case of infidelity). In all these representations, the overriding tendency was to minimise the actual role, responsibility and implication of the individuals involved in the sexual act. In Czech, one woman spoke of the orgasm as “his thing”. One Czech woman complained: “As soon as he gets his thing, he sleeps” (Jakmile dosáhne svého, spí, Bazar, 05/07). Men demand sex (vyžadovat sex, Bazar, 02/07). But this implies that it is also a thing that a woman can give or withhold. And this representation was fully exploited in Czech. Though making love was at times conceived of in terms of giving one’s self, it seems increasingly to be conceived of in terms of furninshing something. The techniques advised by authors tend to downplay the desires and spontinaeity of the partners and subject them to the enslavement to a process to be mastered (though readers are regularly advised to let themselves go and “be themselves”). The nominalisation implied by conceiving of making love as “sex” and the reification of the sexual act go hand in hand with the objectification of the body and, in particular, the private parts, which were referred to in the Czech corpus as “genital equipment” (genitální výbava, Cosmopolitan, 05/07).
Despite these examples, the World-of-It (Eswelt) seems to have encroached on the representation of sexuality in Czech far less than in French and English however. In the corpuses of these two languages, articles oscillated between the celebration of sex as a thing and the desperation of frustrated women who found nothing of meaning in their “collection of experiences” and who found it impossible to live fully and define themselves meaningfully in relation to their lovers. Understandably, given their honestly expressed selfish desires and requirements in the domain of love, they often found themselves dropped by their partners, betrayed or found themselves moving aimlessly from encounter to encounter.
Sadly, though they were full of cravings for love, “true love”, their cravings were invariably the expression of a desire to extract an experience from a relationship. Love was seen as a means of acquiring something, of living through or discovering an exotic world of sentiments to which the young women clearly felt they did not have access. Though psychiatrists were called in to give lucid advice and though the authors of the articles often described women’s stories and presented their confessions with an ironic detachment, the authors themselves clearly felt that there was something in love that women should search for. Situating themselves outside of love, they shared the desire to enter into relation, to enter the World-of-You. But since the women quoted generally appeared only capable of comprehending love in terms of the satisfaction of selfish desires, and were clearly indifferent to the feelings and desires of the men who were supposed to provide this satisfaction, they confined themselves to the role of “collectors of experiences” and remained imprisoned within the World-of-It.
Reification is nothing new in love. Prostitution depends upon the exchange of sexual services, which implies objectification, and men have always been accused of treating women as objects (though this criticism has invariably been levelled at men’s treatment of mistresses and prostitutes rather than wives). Men were (though only rarely) criticised for objectifying women in our corpus. In the French corpus the narcissism of male porn stars was spoken of with irony (or pity) when they became so obsessed with their own erection that their partner became nothing more than an “accessory” (accésoire, Marie-Claire, 09/06) for them.
Despite this irony, the women who expressed themselves in the French corpus often seemed to consider men as accessories in a similar fashion. At times, men seemed to play merely a cameo role in the scenarios which were designed to reaffirm a woman’s desire to feel beautiful and loved. Often women in the French and English articles seemed to have only a cursory interest in men and in love. The authors of the articles were clearly concerned with catering to the “selfish me”, encouraging it in its self-centred narcissism. In elevating the cravings for sexual excitement into an almost moral crusade (as was done with the clearly mentally and emotionally unstable nymphomaniac Valerie Tasso (Elle, 11/05), the authors of English magazines proved they would uphold the capitalist credo; the customer is always right. The legitimacy of your desires and your right to their satisfaction is above question; this was the authors’ attitude to the readers of their articles. And indeed the specialist advice of these magazines and the pedagogical style they adopt do indeed serve only to reassure the reader that she has the right to expect and demand satisfaction from her encounters with men, and is justified in feeling resentful and “short-changed” if her lovers do not supply the “thing” she is after.
This did not, however, stop the articles from rejoicing in the pleasure of eroticism with a very real enthusiasm and often with great humour. Women who go “window shopping” for men were portrayed as joyfully “trying them out” as they would try on shoes, (the word used was “essayer”, Cosmopolitan, 09/02). And even when these women’s consumer approach to love gets them involved with men who in turn objectify them, they are capable of seeing the funny side of things. One French woman (idem.) lamented amusingly on the disadvantage of certain types of lovers: firemen are eager to serve, but that means they are often inclined to serve others elsewhere. Plumbers are virile and useful and will often serenade a woman with an aria from Carmen while fixing her sink, but they tend to treat a woman’s body like “a blocked pipe” (une canalisation bouchée). Elsewhere, women expressed glee on gaining exactly the thing they desired. One French woman expressed herself in terms which would perhaps be more appropriate on the lips of a contestant of a game show when she remembered one lover “a real sexual animal. At times savage, at times real tender. I won it all!” (Une bête de sexe. Tantôt sauvage, tantôt très tendre. J’avais tout gagné, Glamour, 11/05).
Less creativity was employed in the English corpus to celebrate the objectification of the sexual act, but many conceptions relegated making love to a reified state. Sex was a great thing to have. Women spoke of their “high sex drive”, as if the quota of desire they “possessed” was unaltered by the men who inspired their desire. Men were cut out of the equation. Since sex was a thing to have, you had to have a certain amount of it to give. Indeed men were often reduced to the state of accessories, and the necessity of these accessories was at times far from certain. The “Don’t Care Dater” was said not to need a “boyfriend bolt-on”, an image which debases the traditional concept of lovers as our other halves, by reducing them to consumer durables, un-plug-able, detachable appliances.
There is nothing new in such objectification and debasement of the sexual act. The objectification of lovers would seem to be present at all periods of history (judging from histories of slang and vulgarity). But what is new is that this rhetoric of objectification has entered everyday female discourse and that it is no longer “vulgar”. The representations of men as objects worth trying out passes for an entirely legitimate approach to sexual relations and one that is actively encouraged by the authors of women’s magazines. Curiously, only men moralised about objectifying women. French women, for their part, at times expressed excitement when recounting exploits in which their lovers had treated them like sexual objects (Glamour, 11/05).
All three of the corpuses considered sex as a form of product or service. This is not surprising, considering the articles in which such representations were found were concerned with prostitution.
Our corpus supplied some curious examples of sex portrayed as a process in all languages. This metaphor structured the organisation and paragraphing of the articles which were often written like the Manuals for household appliances with instructions for use. With the increasing emphasis upon the necessity of satisfying women and our increasingly open attitude towards speaking about problems of potency, sex has been increasingly portrayed as a mechanical process which can be mastered if we get the hang of the basic techniques and methods. This obviously anchors the erotic act within the World-of-It once more by eclipsing the individual nature of he encounter of two people, reducing them to mechanics who overhaul the machinery or to the pieces of machinery in a process which hardly involves them anymore. Whether this disengaged, dehumanised and mechanical conception of congress goes some way to explaining what are called (in all three languages) sexual “breakdowns”remains to be seen.
Related to sex-as-a-process, were metaphoric representations of the sexual act as work. These were absent in Czech (in which love, however, was compared to work). But they were commonplace in both French and English. Two forms were particularly prominent.
The career woman tended to reinterpret the whole field of her amorous adventures through the prism of work. In French, women spoke of their “love CV” (CV amoureux). Both English and French women considered prospective lovers as “candidates” and their dates as “interviews”. As in real interviews, women feel they must “sell themselves”. The men themselves become mere entries in busy diaries, meetings to be slipped in when convenient.
The second form of metaphor may come as a disappointment to English women: English men seem to increasingly consider the sexual act in terms of work. In one article entitled “We want more sex! We want a night off!” three couples were selected for study because of their “mismatched libidos”. The women claimed to have a higher sex drive than their partners and found it “now totally acceptable for women to display a high sexual appetite”. The men complained about the regularity and the kinds of demands made upon them to serve the needs of their partners. One thirtyyear old man, Simon, explained that as an air steward he was used to doing long flights. He complained: “spending 12 hours tending to the demands of weary passengers, I can’t tend to her needs. It’s awful.” His girlfriend, Lucy, seemed to think so too but seemed resigned. The specialist agony-aunt, Tracey, had a more virulent reaction and reprimanded the young man for equating “the demands of passengers with sex with Lucy”. Tracey advised Simon to give sex priority, take vitamins, masturbate more regularly or invite Lucy to plan “special lovemaking experiences”. But though Tracey clearly felt indignant that Simon associated demands made on him by his girlfriend with those made by passengers to tend to their needs, from the way both women expressed themselves it was clear that Simon had fully understood that sex as a free expression of his desire and affection had been eclipsed by a demand for sexual-servicing requiring the abnegation usually associated with work.
A metaphoric paradigm which is related to both sex as a mechanical process and sex as work is the model of sex as performance. This is increasingly promoted by articles designed to initiate women in ways to inspire desire and maintain it in long-term relationships, and articles which offer tips on techniques which women can solicit from their lovers and experiences they can share with them.
The constant in these articles is the unswerving reconfiguration of real experience into pre-scripted scenarios. Sex imitates the sex we see on screens. The media have not only entered the intimate area of personal space by portraying private life and the desires and emotions of individuals, the media seem to have begun to refashion the imagination and the desires that they set out to portray. This is true of the ways individual women expressed their desires and their conceptions of the sexual act in all three corpuses. In the English articles, women spoke of fantasies “unspooling” in their heads with their own “throbbing soundtrack” when they spoke of their most intimate moments. Elsewhere, men found nothing so sexy as experiences which reminded them of pornographic films. One man mentioned the steam on the mirror against which he was taking his girlfriend and which steamed up like a “steamy movie”.
Love affairs in French are invariably considered in terms of “love stories” (histoires d’amour) or “adventures” (aventures) and a girl dreaming of a man will “make up a film for herself” (se faire un film). Lovers enter “sur scène” (on stage), a lover might be “waiting at the wings”. And while certain women claimed not to like “staged sex” (les mises en scène), others described foreplay as “a creative workshop” (atelier de creation, Glamour, 10/05). One French woman, bored with foreplay, wished to “fast forward” to the act of penetration, conceptualising her own erotic experience as a film she could watch. Often these metaphors were evoked either before or after relationships had got underway. At the beginning the woman hoped the relationship would conform to the film-inspired scenarios which shaped her imagination, and afterwards she sometimes expressed disappointment that the relationship had not lived up to expectations. Another possibility did present itself for reshaping life into film and fiction, however. At the conclusion of a relationship, some women would console themselves that at least they had lived through “a real love story” (une vraie histoire d’amour). The contradiction in terms – real-fiction – does not seem to have deterred them from dreaming.
4. Culturally specific Metaphoric Patterning
As we have seen, many of the metaphors which pattern the imagination and allow speakers of Czech, French and English to express their conception of the sexual act are based upon a series of shared underlying conceptual metaphors. But there is nothing deterministic about the way these conceptual metaphors grow into expression in the discourse of individual men and women. Indeed a great deal of diversity was found in the different paths which were opened up to speakers by each conceptual metaphor.
French maintains the sublime possibilities of religious metaphors of divine love and ecstasy which lifts someone up to “les anges” (the angels), but invariably, these metaphors were emptied of all meaning, becoming the ironic signifiers of post-modern playfulness such as the “Christ-like gigolo”. In the other two languages, such traditional metaphysical conceptions of the sexual act were largely left behind. Language grows and changes, outgrowing certain paradigms and adopting others.
English seems to have contributed to the reshaping certain foreing metaphoric patterns (“hard”, in French, “Sexbomba”, in Czech). For this reason, it becomes increasingly clear that a comparative approach must take into account a diachronic approach by considering the origins and the emergence of metaphoric patterns. And since the metaphoric patterns of one language penetrate another, an interactive comparative model for study must replace the traditional approach in which we are tempted to juxtapose languages and study their essential natures in isolation.
Such a study which contrasted the underlying forces which shape the creative expression of individuals as they express theirthoughts, desires and emotions in their discourse would indeed constitute a real contribution to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Weltansicht project to discover the way each language system shapes a people’s consciousness, their perception and affective reception of the world, and offers up to speakers the creative resources with which to make meaning of their world and the relationships they find themselves in. This short study is intended as a modest contribution to understanding intimacy, the way it is conceptually shaped, the way it changes, and the way each language’s differing creative resources are being expressed at the given time.
A full account of the curious, obscure and creative examples found in this corpus would take us beyond the scope of this article. But an effort must be made to offer some examples which will serve – by their strangeness – to alert us to unfamiliar paradigms.
The first thing that should strike us about the corpuses is the unequal scope given to each of the domains of sexuality and the varying degrees of creativity employed to explore each aspect of eroticism and love. All three languages invested a large degree of energy in exploring the concept of love and in constantly reinterpreting existing paradigms. But Czech clearly invested more effort in exploring love than sex. Compared to French and English, Czech explored sex less (or explored it with a greater degree of discretion). English tended at times to revel in vulgarity, juxtaposing that vulgarity with its opposite, platonic sublime versions of love. English metaphoric patterns explored more fully the expression of relationships and marriage than both French and Czech. French explored more fully desire and infidelity (and most of all its catastrophic consequences for the stability of the woman’s ego when she found she was a victim of it). Was this because the celebration of desire in French culture and the pressure upon women to work on their skills of seduction have tended to encourage French women to imagine themselves at the centre of a romantic love story? Did betrayal inspire such fear in the French woman because it displaced her from that centre? Answering that question would require a great deal of sociological, psychological as well as further linguistic investigation. All we can say for the moment is that different languages tend to highlight certain facets of experience to a greater or lesser extent.
One particularity of Czech was that traditional metaphors seemed to remain a little more firmly anchored in the imagination. Making love was regularly represented as giving oneself, and though this was true of both French and English, when this expression was evoked in Czech it tended to counteract the growing temptation to stress the selfish pursuit of individual desire and the indifference towards men in the Czech texts and which kept surfacing in the confessions of French and English women. When the sexual act was considered in terms of offering oneself up in French it was often the author or the specialist who took it upon him – or herself to remind a woman of this idea which (judging from the woman’s story and her behaviour) often seemed to have been forgotten.
Czech offered up curious metaphors. Since Czech does not tend to make use of the idea of all erotic relations as “adventures” as is done in French, one author was able to make use of the term “adventure” to condemn the frivolous and irresponsible attitude of men who would go on holiday to Asia in order to exploit the possibilities of under-aged prostitutes. Czech articles also explored the dangers of using sex as a “means” to achieve non-erotic ends. Czech readers were warned against using sex as a means of trying to resolve problems and for trying to maintain relationships. One Czech author also represented sex as a stone for injuring someone when it involved getting back at someone by being unfaithful to them. The sexual act, performed during the woman’s menstrual cycle was described as an experience similar to sliding across a wet floor. This curious metaphor was found in no other language, but curious metaphors abound in everyday discourse and the other languages had their share of them in the articles studied.
The gift of oneself is traditionally a metaphor reserved for women and is inextricable from the idea of the value attributed to the woman. This in itself is a less than innocent metaphorical paradigm. Clearly, all that is valued, all that is “dear” (another financial metaphor and one common to both French and Czech as well as English) is valued because it is a possession, one to be exchanged among men: such was woman’s fate for many centuries. If successful career women begin “to keep” toy-boys, we might see an inversion of this tendency to attribute giving to the feminine role.
French, however, has elaborated the initial metaphor of giving by stressing that a woman who gives herself should not “underestimate” her value. The sexual act was also considered in one French article as an act in which a woman could “sacrifice herself a little”. The French study also offered a fair number of metaphors which find no place in the logic of the conceptual models discussed above. Foreplay was conceived of as both a “check list” and contractual requirements, “specifications” (cahier des charges). Both conceptions were ridiculed. Undressing skin-divers was described as “pealing” them as though they were bananas. Inhibitions were characterised as “masks”. Loss of virginity was described as “a cold bath”. In a curious metonymy, the title of a French book was “Jouir, c’est aimer” (coming is loving). Sex without desire for children was said by one author to be “subversive.”
This was one of the few references to children. On the whole, in both English and French, procreation was almost without exception banished from the domain of sexuality. The idea that the sexual act could be linked to having children would seem to be a novel idea to the authors of the articles and the women interviewed. For our English and French authors, sex is an end in itself for itself. This curious state of affairs does, of course, have the disadvantage of excluding couples with children from the debate. Though women with children did appear in French and English articles, they were invariably discreet about their children and almost never mentioned desiring pregnancy. This was not the case in Czech. In several articles in Czech magazines problems related to conception, childcare and the difficulties which children can bring to the harmony of regular sexual relations between thepartners were discussed.
Is it possible that it is because the authors of the French and English articles have almost wholly eclipsed the possible consequence of the sexual act (maternity) and ruled out the sublime implications for posterity which have always been held to be central to the celebration of the sexual act, that those authors felt forced to invest the élan of their creativity into elevating the sexual act in itself to the modern ideal? Again, it would be overhasty to make affirmations of this kind before researching the question far more fully. What is clear, however, is that people often search for something in the sexual act that they do not find, and that they often feel frustrated by relationships in which sex is used as a substitute for communication.
The English corpus rejoiced in bathos, bringing the sublime down to the everyday level of kitchen-sink reality. Unwanted men were put on “the back boiler” like lukewarm soup. Men were “hunks” and “beef-cakes”. Most of all, sex was “dirty”. Sexual activity meant “mucking about”. This was a uniquely Anglo-saxon attitude. It goes without saying that these forms of dirtiness were celebrated with great gusto. But this requires some explanation.
The English ideals of Puritanism continue to exercise a certain sway over Anglo-Saxon societies pushing all that is erotic into the field of evil (which therefore becomes a field of Fun). Breaking into the erotic realm entails breaking out of Puritanism and an everyday prudery and self-consciousness. And this continues to be conceived of in terms of transgression. Sex is “naughty but nice,” as one advertisement (which mixed desire for sex and desires for cream cakes) once put it. Breaking into the erotic realm is – quite logically – accompanied by vulgarity (which by its linguistic violence signals the abandoning of accepted codes of normal behaviour).
It would probably be reductive to claim that this conception of love is responsible for the vast quantities of alcohol consumed by young Brits who wish to sleep with each other and which is supposed to help break down barriers between the sexes. It is, however, clear that women are increasingly adopting attitudes and linguistic tics usually ascribed to groups of men who go out drinking. The “Ladette” culture of sexually aggressive, bingedrinking young women mirrors what these young women take to be male conceptions of sexuality. The vulgarity of women in the English articles might be explained to some extent by this state of affairs.
Interestingly, men in the English corpus were on the whole portrayed as well-spoken, tender, sensitive, caring and considerate lovers. This situation is not restricted to English magazines. Srpová, in her study of Czech advertising, found that men who appeared in adverts were usually of “a kinder, more friendly type, more understanding, less macho than men portrayed in adverts directed at a male audience,” (Srpová el. al. 2007, p. 143). Perhaps the fact that two different medias in two different languages share the same strategy can be explained by the same desire simply to please women and comfort them in their fantasy world.
It should be clear that the present study is not intended to pinpoint conceptual universals, if by that we mean reducing all metaphoric expressions to a list of simple root metaphors. Discourse analysis confronts us with a level of complexity, and comparative philological study confronts us with such contrasts, that the hope to reduce the complex expression of experience to simple common denominators seems naïve. The metaphors we find in one language do, nevertheless, often echo in another language, and often all three of the languages studied offered parallels. These parallels should be considered as emerging forms of similitude though, patterns which emerge as part of the culture; and as culture changes, so those metaphoric paradigms change. Such change is probably not causal: language probably exerts an influence upon us and our culture. To borrow a phrase from Humboldt, man spins himself into language and language spins out of him as he creates himself as a speaking subject in his conversations with others. The metaphoric paradigms we have studied should not then be considered as rigid routes imposed upon speech by linguistic convention, but as the interweaving forest paths which individual travellers trace out for themselves by following trajectories opened up for them by others before them or by carving out new paths of their own.
We have traced metaphors back to shared conceptual paradigms, but whether these paradigms are roots is unclear. Paradigms are constantly being transplanted from one language to another; they evolve, they fall into disuse. As became clear in the French corpus in the case of religious metaphors, metaphors are often only invoked in order to be negated. In a similar way, both French and English make full use of the fairy tale myth of the Prince Charming who will come to liberate a girl from a life of boredom: this paradigm was very active in the articles studied, though it was invariably set up as the naïve stereotype to be debunked, as hard-headed pragmatic career-women set about ticking off their checklists during interviews with erotic candidates. Marketing, our consumer society and most of all the financial independence of young women (which does indeed liberate them from the obligation to marry and settle down) will no doubt continue to transform the surviving traditional conceptions of love and sexuality. To date, probably the most convincing evidence for claiming that our metaphoric paradigms are being transformed in all three languages is not the presence of any particular metaphoric pattern, but, on the concontrary, the absence of one of the great paradigms which has shaped the erotic imagination; that of coupling.
Ever since Aristophanes spoke to Socrates and their friends at Plato’s Symposium, sexual desire has been regularly conceived as the force which drives two parts of a broken whole to link up and couple together to make themselves one. Metaphors such as being “at one with” someone are frequently found in both French and English. Curiously this representation did not appear in the corpus in any of the three languages when it came to discussing the sexual act. It did survive when love was considered, but that makes it all the more curious that it should have been banished from descriptions of the physical act of congress itself. Why was this traditional metaphor displaced by other forms of representation?
Generally speaking, the concept of fusion with the other and union tended to be eclipsed in our corpus by symbolic models which highlighted the individual woman, her desires and cravings, as she sought her own personal pleasure. Coupling does indeed threaten this idea of the individual who seeks to “get something out of sex”, because fusion or coupling destroys the individual nature of the self and confounds it with the other. By virtue of the act of making love, the united couple is coupled with the cosmosand with all desire for union, and harmony as an on-going creative and procreative process. To put it bluntly, you can’t get something out of something if you yourself are at the centre of that “something”; the act which transforms you. This is the traditional paradigm, the ideal of both poetry and religious philosophy, an ideal in which the sexual act has tended to be represented as the loss of the ego in the transcendental act of union.
Metaphoric patterning tends to constantly renew its resources in discourse. Old metaphors are rediscovered and reactivated. Lost metaphors are transplanted into a new linguistic environment through translation. Whether other languages share our conception of making love is far from certain. How the Czechs, the French and English-speakers will understand the act of making love in the future is unclear. But one thing seems certain: we will continue making love. And despite many of the depressingly dehumanised, mechanical metaphors used to describe the sexual act as an objectified thing, product or service, no doubt the creative élan of language and our desire for communication will couple with the irrepressible desire for the sexual act to help us continue to open up new innovative and expressive adventures within language to allow us to chart our way through the territory of love.
It is always difficult to ascertain the degree of authenticity of what passes for the confessions of readers. Certainly many of their confessions and their opinions seem contrived, but whether readers’ words are written for them, adapted, or whether the magazine’s journalists ask questions contrived to elicit the “appropriate“ responses remains unclear.
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