Language and Sex: On the Word “No”

“No” should be a pretty simple word to define, right? The opposite of yes, the unwillingness to do a task, any negative answer. But what about when “no” isn’t that simple? As Don Kulick articulates in his Language and Communication article, sadomasochistic sex is one instance of the dual indexicality of the word ‘no’ as it attempts to produce a “melodrama, a genre that is characterized by the exteriorization of conflict and psychic structures in dramatic excess” (2003:148). One way of viewing indexicality, according to Laura Ahearn, is as the “socio-culturally embedded nature of language” (2012:29). In contrast, in Kulick’s discussion of the Homosexual Panic Defense and its comparison to female rape survivors, the dual indexicality of ‘no’ results in the production of “a sexualized, gendered field of power” (2003:146)*. On that note, I bring into play Kira Hall’s insight into the world of the phone-sex industry, arguing for a new discussion of the power imbalance between men and women (1995). In Hall’s research, the women of the phone-sex industry use their “submissive speech for reasons of power” (1995:185), quite like Kulick notes in the section of his “No” on sadomasochistic sex.

Kulick, and his colleague Deborah Cameron, note that studying language and sexuality in perspective with the additional factor of identity “regard[s] sexuality not as a set of dynamics or practices that are animated by fantasy, desire, repression and power, but, instead, as an identity that is either revealed or concealed by fully intentional subjects” (2003:148). Hall reminds readers that “the telephone, as a medium that excludes the visual, allows for the creation of fantasy in a way that face-to-face interaction cannot” (1995:188). The use of the telephone, especially in the phone-sex industry, allows linguistic anthropologists to analyze these seemingly private conservations specifically for the speaker’s parole, or their performance of speech (Aheran 2012:11).

*As Kulick notes, “the Homosexual Panic Defense is the name of a legal defense invoked on behalf of men who have murdered other men who they claim made sexual advances towards them. In effect, the Homosexual Panic Defense argues that a sexual advance is in itself an act of aggression, and that the defendant was justified in responding to it with violence” (2003:143).


Works Cited

Ahearn, L.M. (2012) The socially charged life of language. In Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 3-30.

Hall, K. (1995) Lip service on the fantasy lines. In Hall, K. and Bucholtz, M. (eds.), Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge, pp. 183-216.

Kulick, D. (2003) No. Language and Communication 23:139-151. Accessed May 6, 2017. http://www.humdev.uchicago.edu