Saturday, 7 January 2012

Is using euphemism to render the simple obscure yet another sexual problem?

I was interviewed by Carolyn Quinn on the Radio 4 PM programme today about the implications of the verdict in the R v Peacock obscenity trial. The radio interview can be found here, 13 minutes and 24 seconds into the programme.

The background to the trial is that defendant Michael Peacock was unanimously acquitted of publishing obscene DVDs under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. These DVDs depicted male-on-male fisting, urination and consensual BDSM activities including sexual whipping, electrocution and saline injection into the scrotum.

As I identified in a comment piece for Guardian Law, urination and fisting (both anal and vaginal) are sexual acts that are legal to perform in real life. Yet when these acts were represented on film, the distribution or publication had been previously deemed to be obscene under the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidelines. Thus I was asked to appear on the PM programme to comment on this disjuncture.

However, before the pre-recorded interview was conducted, I was asked to discuss the language I was likely to deploy to describe these sexual acts. The producer explained that as the PM show is broadcast before the 9pm watershed it attracts a family audience of all ages and therefore it would be inappropriate to discuss fisting and urination without, you know, actually using the words fisting and urination. Whilst this led to a slightly uneasy and surreal conversation; we initially agreed that the blanket euphemism “extreme sexual acts” might be permissible.

It was only immediately before the recording commenced that I realised that the word “extreme” has a very specific legal context in relation to pornography; as section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 creates a specific offence of possession of supposedly “extreme pornography”. Secondly, the notion that describing a sexual act as extreme would seem to render it potentially illicit or other; and therefore prohibit it from entering mainstream discourse.

After the pre-recorded segment had concluded a number of friends enquired as to what euphemisms I had utilized instead of urination and fisting. Whilst the paraphilia of sexual urination can be described variously as urolagnia, urophilia or simply, in the more vulgar phrase, watersports; I simply did not know of another word for fisting apart from, you know, fisting.

More significantly, another friend sagely suggested that using euphemism to make “the simple obscure is one more sexual problem”. That in anonymising the names of the actual activities that the jury in R v Peacock deemed not to be obscene, it may have had the unintended consequence of rendering the entire interview absolutely opaque to the casual listener.

This also raises the issue that by not discussing legitimate sexual acts frankly, within the appropriate context, we perpetuate a lack of understanding. It could also be argued that not providing simple and easily comprehensible information on such practices does nothing to reduce potential health risks.


  1. I believe that other terms for fisting could be be brachioproctic eroticism or brachioproctism.

  2. You're stuck in the world where it's not the law, but the BBC 'Producer Guidelines' that dictate what can be said.

    In a sense, you didn't need to be any more specific than 'sexual acts'. Surely the biggest point is the contradiction between acts that are legal in the flesh, but where the police and law may challenge them if you record them. This is a bigger point than the specifics of the case, and outlines the broader principle quite nicely.

    (and though the obvious next question is 'what acts', you could be safe in knowing that the journalist wouldn't ask you that)

    You can still raise the question of how we can increase the safety of anything (from crossing the road, to undertaking sexual acts) if we're not permitted to produce material which can explain and inform about it

  3. I agree with your points but I think, as I said on twitter, that Foucault would be wary of *any* discourse around sex and sexuality. The 'Law of sex' does not just happen in the courtroom but also on the radio, in the papers and on the internet. Talking 'frankly' is different for different people and has different consequences.

    Frankly I have found the focus on the 'gay' sexual identity of the defendant and the participants in the porn very annoying and problematic as many men who have sex with men, including in pornography do not identify as 'gay'.

    Language is Power as Barthes, Foucault's friend, said.

    1. I think that this boils down to the ‘ assimilation of information’.

      I agree, there can be a lot of confusion when more technically creative terms are used to describe sexual practices in the course of a discussion.

      This would inevitably leave people thinking ‘what does that mean?’ or ‘does this that mean this?’ meanwhile, the content is being lost while the listener is trying to ‘decode’ those ‘secret words’.

      Therefore in order to convey understanding, simpler terms could be used (as they are in Sexual Health Clinics for example), so that there would be no ‘guessing’ at what a particular phrase might mean, thus making the message easier to digest.

      Elly’s comment was interesting; I think that in order for the case to be assimilated by the population the there was a ‘need’ to categorise the sexuality of the defendant. I think that if this weren’t done, there would be a block on the essentials of the case being absorbed, as the primary thought for many would be (not that it mattered) ‘what is his sexuality?’ Even when the case was finished that question would still be there, while the essentials would be pushed to the back.

      It seems to be the way in which many of us think, we (as a society) like the forcing of people into categories, such as an individual being Gay, Bisexual or Heterosexual for example.

      Anything outside of this and we seem to have a problem digesting it.

      A man who has sex with other men but who says he’s not gay or bisexual would cause a ‘system crash’ for some of us, as it’s outside the set ‘norm’ for how we interpret the world we live in. Unable to accept this new information, everything that was learned (about that topic) is simply ignored, as we choose to ‘stick with what we know’.

      The Language and words we use are powerful, they enable us to enlighten, educate and understand, though they also allow us to condemn, confine, and restrict, dependant on what is being said and by whom.

      Risky. But right now, it seems to be the best we have, no it’s all we have.

      We have to use these skills wisely.

  4. This is a serious BBC problem.

    The Today Programme keep doing it with 'offensive' tweets, whether 'racist' or 'sexually explicit'.

    They refuse to repeat what was allegedly tweeted then tell us how offensive it was. They did it (I think) in the Terry case.

    It is inimical to accurate reporting.