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Segregating sex: heterocentric discourse about intercourse in English dictionaries

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Segregating sex: heterocentric discourse about intercourse in English dictionaries

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Feminist and postcolonial scholars have long contended that dictionaries, far from being objective linguistic records, are ideologically loaded texts that overtly or covertly encode sexist and ethnocentric attitudes (e.g. Rose 1979; Benson 2001). Queer linguists have also begun to explore how dictionaries reproduce heteronormativity and cisnormativity (Nossem 2018; Turton 2020), though much of this scholarship has so far limited itself to the construction of identity. This paper instead contributes to the recent queer turn towards embodiment by exploring representations of sexual acts in online general English dictionaries. It encourages greater engagement between queer lexicography and other strands of dictionary criticism by placing Rubin’s (1984) concept of the ‘charmed circle’ of sex in dialogue with Benson’s (2001) postcolonial model of the centre/periphery in lexicography. The paper argues that heteronormativity, cisnormativity and phallocentrism continue to shape contemporary definitions of sex and sexual intercourse by sidelining or silencing queer erotic acts and bodies.

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I served as Special Consultant on General and Subatomic Physics to Steven Kleinedler, Supervising Editor of the Fifth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published by the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company in 2011.
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Research into definitions of "having sex" has tended to employ a dichotomous response design (following Sanders & Reinisch, 1999). However, conceptions of sexual activity may be far less clear-cut (c.f. Faulkner, 2003 ; Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2007). More refinement is also needed regarding the impact of sexual orientation on the construction of what counts as sex. This research employed a continuous response design, asking 124 emerging adults (40 male heterosexuals, 42 female heterosexuals, & 42 lesbians) to judge 13 sexual acts using a graded, six-point scale. Overall, there was substantial agreement that intercourse (vaginal and anal) was "definitely," and kissing "definitely not," sex. However, across the various acts, participants also consistently made use of options between these extremes, such that a clear hierarchy of sexual behaviors emerged. The lesbian group considered a range of forms of genital stimulation to be significantly more constitutive of sex than either heterosexual group, while judgments by male and female heterosexuals did not significantly differ for any listed act. The implications of graded definitions of sex, a hierarchy of sexual behaviors, and the role of sexual behaviors in hetero- and homosexual identity management are explored.
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The current public debate regarding whether oral sex constitutes having "had sex" or sexual relations has reflected a lack of empirical data on how Americans as a population define these terms. To determine which interactions individuals would consider as having "had sex." A question was included in a survey conducted in 1991 that explored sexual behaviors and attitudes among a random stratified sample of 599 students representative of the undergraduate population of a state university in the Midwest. The participants originated from 29 states, including all 4 US Census Bureau geographic regions. Approximately 79% classified themselves as politically moderate to conservative. Percentage of respondents who believed the interaction described constituted having "had sex." Individual attitudes varied regarding behaviors defined as having "had sex": 59% (95% confidence interval, 54%-63%) of respondents indicated that oral-genital contact did not constitute having "had sex" with a partner. Nineteen percent responded similarly regarding penile-anal intercourse. The findings support the view that Americans hold widely divergent opinions about what behaviors do and do not constitute having "had sex."
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