Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick

Language and Sexuality

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2003,
ISBN 0521009693 (pbk), pp. 176 + xvi

reviewed by Jyh Sew

  1. Does one’s sexuality influence the choice of lexicon and reflect a particular speech style in face-to-face or group communication? The relationship between language registers, socio-phonetics, speech qualities and a particular identity has received considerable amount of attention from sociolinguists and anthropologists. The answer to the question raised is affirmative but the authors inform that there is more beyond the identity-speech style complex. This book offers a refreshing perspective to the study of language and gender by augmenting sexuality as an important element in speech style.
  2. The many examples used in the book are interesting to sexuality and gender studies. Some of which include the homosocial talk among Japanese businessmen about their hostess during drinking sessions, telephone sex styling among operators in California bay area, banters of male bonding among American fraternity and college rules on clear interpersonal sexual consent, which turned out to be liberating for some young female college students.
  3. Two important notions are introduced to the study of language and sexuality. The first premise is that the study of language style and gender should not be limited to attributing language features as reflexes for categories of identity because identity is not a predetermined existence. The authors of the book tell us that basic heterosexual categories are not genetically absolute and the acquisition of male and/or female gender is a learning process that becomes successful if one is competent to meet social demands expected of a typical male or female role. The authors inform that sexual identities are a more interesting site of investigation. Sexualities are indexed by language style:

      the study of language and sexuality…not only questions about how people enact sexuality and perform sexual identity in their talk, but also questions about how sexuality and sexual identity are represented linguistically in a variety of discourse genres (p. 12).

  4. In other words, we can relate the speech style-sexuality complex to the point made in Deborah Cameron, that people’s use of language reflects social meanings that define a particular group.[1] This gives rise to the social construct of gender or what Mary Bucholtz calls social gender.[2]
  5. The second premise concerns the need to examine desire in the study of sexuality. The foundation of desire is based on Lacan’s psychoanalytic views. Desire is consequence of a person’s experiencing from the lack of wholeness ever since infancy (p. 109). From the beginning, plenitude which is the real object of the desire has two sides i.e. the object (a desired thing to fill the lack of wholeness) and the relationship to the object (maintenance of a relationship to the other to whom the demand is addressed). This line of thought foregrounds the relevance of identification. Identification becomes an important association between one’s desire and the way of speaking in one’s speech. This form of theorizing sexuality in relation to desire is cautioned by Penelope Eckert:

      The shift is likely to awaken the belief that there is something more ‘real’ or basic – something more sexy – about desire than about, for instance, identity categories…we need to recognize that sexuality is eminently social…we cannot study desire and be done with sexuality. Perhaps the study of desire is located within a more general study of affect.[3]

  6. Eckert provides a counter example, which shows the process of losing virginity in the narration of a white adolescent is not about desire but rather to accomplish the social work of proving her bravery and prowess to her Latina peers.[4]
  7. The authors are aware of the comments and respond by stating that desire is collectively recognizable suggests that desire can be analysed as a social phenomenon hence the mystification of desire can be alleviated (p. 131).
  8. The sites of investigation for language style-sexuality complex in this book are verbal transactions involving listeners and speakers that represent various social institutions such as middle class male and female performers (e.g. sex phone-line operators). One might want to consider desire as a form of ever-changing emotional negotiation. If this is feasible, desire within language-use might also involve on-line improvisation. Improvisation is invoked because verbal desire in interpersonal communication over the paid phone service, for example, is a creative and emergent process.[5]
  9. I suspect homosocial electronic exchanges among homosexuals have a higher degree of desirability compared to their actual production in conversation, especially so when the homosexual preconceived imagination becomes disillusions. In this respect, (sexual) desire has a lot to do with non-verbal indices such as height, weight, skin type, facial features, physical gait, fashion, hair style, branded goods etc. Phrases are a symbolic semiotic convention that indexes desire that can be further improvised with a variety of macrocosmic semiotics.
  10. Furthermore, desire can be constructed as an offence in the following examples. Consider these three versions of billboard advertisement on a type of women’s underwear, namely one with a hetero-couple that has a caption ‘moan, moan, moan’. The second advertisement has one woman with a caption ‘If he’s late, you can always start without him’ and in the third that has a lone woman carries a line: ‘bring him to his knees’.[6] For Deborah Cameron, the first advertisement was most offensive as it depicts the sexist stereotype of woman nagging their male partners. Cameron informs that the faulting of the two billboard advertisements by the authority on advertising in United Kingdom, but not the first, as a defence of the supremacy of phallus.[7]
  11. The ideas and examples cited in the book provide students of gender and sexuality studies with much contemplation. Related questions may be raised, for example, is desire a matter of degree?[8] How much cultural constraints are there in the development of desire? Are conventional verbal routines texted in settings like cyberspace and mobile screens denoting the same desire compared to their utterance in speech.[9] Whether one is in agreement with the authors or otherwise, the book offers an interesting argument to the study of language and sexuality with a pair of new lenses. This book should be part of the language and sexuality collection for all libraries.


    [1] Deborah Cameron, ‘Demythologizing Sociolinguistics,’ in Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, ed. N. Coupland & A. Jaworski, London: Macmillan, 1997, pp. 55-67, p. 60.

    [2] Mary Bucholtz, ‘Gender,’ in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9 (1-2) 1999:80-83, p. 80.

    [3] Penelope Eckert, ‘Demystifying Sexuality and Desire,’ in Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice, ed. K. Campbell-Kibler, et al., Stanford: CSLI Publications, 2002, pp. 99-110, pp. 103-04).

    [4] Eckert, ‘Demystifying Sexuality and Desire,’ p. 108.

    [5] For degrees of improvisation see R. Keith Sawyer, ‘Improvisation,’ in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 9 (1-2) 1999:121-23, p. 122)

    [6] Cameron, ‘Demythologizing Sociolinguistics,’ p. 36.

    [7] Cameron, ‘Demythologizing Sociolinguistics,’ p. 37.

    [8] For the different linguistic constructions of love and affection in Malay, see Jyh Wee Sew, ‘Antara Cinta dan Sayang’ [Love and Affection] in Dewan Bahasa 6 (2) 2006:22-27.)

    [9] For a collection of narratives by gay Singaporeans, which include a deaf gay whose mobile is part of the community of practice, see Yi-Sheng Ng, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, ed. Jason Wee, Singapore: Oogachaga Counselling and Support, 2006.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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