The language of sex is a horse of a different colour. Language is ambiguous, and sex terms take this a step further.
My main thrust is neither the power-structure angle of Foucault or Beauvoir nor the penetration politics of, perhaps, Butler, Dworkin, or Paglia. Instead, I’ll start with ex-US-President Bill Clinton.
Of course, Clinton was a lawyer, and he understood the ambiguity inherent in language. The problem is that despite this recognition by the legal profession, they arrive at a point where language specificity is good enough. It’s not, but Upton Sinclar got it right when he pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” But that’s a topic for another day.
Clinton was attempting to employ the word sex, simultaneously distancing himself from the act. By his logic, he was defining sex as vaginal intercourse. It seems that many people share this definition—it’s convenient in the Christian sense—, so his comment was not unfounded.
To Christians, there is only one legitimate sex act: intercourse between a penis and a vagina—and only in missionary position. Anything else is basically sodomy. So, by this definition, Clinton did not have sex with Lewinski because all he got was a blowjob—and so he’s a sodomite.
To the uninitiated, a blowjob is oral sex. Note the modifier: this was not sex but oral sex. Of course, if you see sex as a class of activities, vaginal, oral, anal, or whatever, then you can conclude that his actions fell within this classification; but if you see sex as the more limited definition, then no sex occurred (in this particular blue-dress moment).
Sex workers have their own nomenclature for sex—and their own acronyms and abbreviations. They make a similar distinction. To them, sexual intercourse is full service, FS, for short. Anything less doesn’t qualify. In practice, lesser activities are discounted, and other activities come at a premium, as they are considered to be fetishes. Again, that’s a topic for a different day and, most likely, a different blog.
A larger question that I will avoid is what should qualify as sex? This question is not simply rhetorical because, say, in the case of rape, where is the delineation? Rape, it seems, is more about penetration than of sex, though, it further seems, that not all penetration is created equal. What qualifies as rape changes over time and place—again, an issue with language and objective truth.
It is not that language and words are meaningless, but it does mean that it is contextual. Heuristically, this is adequate for incidental communication, but technically, things don’t hold together. There is no there there.