Originally posted February 4, 2019
Communication is essential to ethical sex. Typically, our public discussions focus on only one narrow kind of communication: requests for sex followed by consent or refusal. But notice that we use language and communication in a wide variety of ways in negotiating sex. We flirt and rebuff, express curiosity and repulsion, and articulate fantasies. Ideally, we talk about what kind of sex we want to have, involving which activities, and what we like and don’t like. We settle whether or not we are going to have sex at all, and when we want to stop. We check in with one another and talk dirty to one another during sex.
In this essay I explore the language of sexual negotiation. My specific interest is in what philosophers call the ‘pragmatics’ of speech. That is, I am less interested in what words mean than I am in how speaking can be understood as a kind of action that has a pragmatic effect on the world. Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean. J L Austin developed this way of thinking about the different things that speech can do in his classic book, How To Do Things With Words (1962), and many philosophers of language have developed the idea since.
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