by Véronique Jouhaud
A lively atmosphere filled H-769 as Concordia alumni and students, divided in small groups around the long conference table, searched synonyms for heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, penis, vagina, intercourse, anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, prostitute, and client.
"Do you have a word for masturbation?" asked an alumna in her late 20s. "Playing with oneself," said an alumna in her 50s.
This exercise was conducted by Concordia Sociology and Anthropology Professor Frances Shaver as part of her "Sex in the 90s" seminar during Homecoming weekend. Shaver, who is also Vice Dean of Student Affairs in the Faculty of Arts and Science, is well known for her research on the lives of sex-trade workers.
A mostly middle-aged audience of about 20 alumni and students attended Shaver's Saturday-morning session, at which she demonstrated that sex and sexuality are social rather than biological. "Sex is not a natural act; it's something you learn," she said.
Finding synonyms is a way to discover standards about sex and sexuality. She was surprised to get a clean, short list from the audience. But she noted that while all the heterosexual synonyms were neutral, most synonyms for homosexual and lesbians were negative.
"That tells us something about how we're responding to this group. The words we use and the words we choose not to use carry moral and evaluative connotations about sexuality." Words reinforce our thinking about sex and sexuality. The word sex, for instance, usually implies penetration.
"When you live in a culture or in a context where you're talking about sex as penetrative, that's language that supports the script where men are active and women are passive."
According to Shaver, replacing penetrative with enveloping would allow women to adopt a more active role in a relationship. But people don't try to change their "scripts" because they believe sex is innate and instinctive.
Using a 1989 study conducted by sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein on 2,000 heterosexuals and 900 homosexual couples, Shaver demonstrated that sex is not a biologically predetermined function, since sexual behaviour seems to vary according to the type of intimate relationship.
In the study, 67 per cent of gay couples in a one-year-or-less relationship reported having sex at least three times a week, compared to 45 per cent of married couples and 33 per cent of lesbian couples.
"If men were programmed to plant their seeds," the type of relationship shouldn't affect their performance, Shaver said. She added that culture, history, learning and socialization, rather than biology, shape human sexuality.
Since sex is socially constructed, "we have the power to change our sexual life and the sexual hang-ups and social problems that go along with them," Shaver said. Of course, scripts can only be rewritten with the co-operation of the partner, since scripts are tied to role-pairs.