Manipulation of language as a form of mind control and consolidation of power is nothing new. Whoever needs to be held down, can be held down to some degree by the words those in power use. Opinions are formed or altered by the ways in which we are fed information, or how those in media use words. I remember when I was studying sociolinguistics and first starting to analyze speech and word use. It was amazing and eye-opening to see in plain sight so many hidden messages that do not hit most people’s conscience minds as they listen to speech patterns and word choices. A huge part of language is how we choose to phrase things. We can manipulate people’s sense of reality by the way we talk and write.
We do this in so many ways because language is so powerful. Who is a terrorist and who is a revolutionary? Who is a war hero and who is a war criminal? Who is a victim, a survivor, or a perpetrator? In my jurisdiction, the crime of Soliciting a Prostitute has been renamed Sexual Exploitation as part of a conscious push to recognize and prevent at least this form of human trafficking. Some defense attorneys claim that the very title of the law is prejudicial, because “it makes it sound bad”. Prosecutors then argue that naming the actual title of the crime cannot be considered prejudicial. So far, the johns do not get to make it sound better, in the hopes of being judged less harshly.
With the expansion of human trafficking, especially in the sex trade, only people living in complete denial – for purposes of their own – can claim ignorance of the exploitation involved. The porn industry and much of the mass media try to whitewash this and make it look clean, pretty, and exciting, without being problematic or disturbing, but those of us who work closely with sex workers hear a different story, a story that is told to us first hand. We meet with and become the voice of the exploited as they are interviewed or testify. We read the police reports, victim statements, and hospital records. We see the cigarette burns and forced tattoos, cuts and scars that will last a lifetime, even for those who are able to get out of the field. The trauma is real and enduring.
Historically, the vast majority of people who end up in the sex trade have already undergone childhood sexual abuse. I have personally met people who were rented out by their own parents in exchange for drugs or money. Who don’t remember any safe childhood before the abuse started. Who were photoed and filmed while being abused, and have no control of those images. I don’t imagine that getting paid to play out other people’s fantasies involving being hurt or abused would be a great lot of fun for the sex workers I have interpreted for. So let’s not pretend it is something it is not. Let’s not buy the ad campaign that would convince us that industrial porn is sex-positive, any more than we would believe that McDonald’s serves health food just because they rename a menu item for their ad campaign.
Furthermore, some very unsavory porn practices are being mainstreamed, and it is happening through word manipulation. One of these is choking, a practice in which a number of people die annually and many more get permanent throat and brain damage, formerly branded erotic asphyxiation. There is a current push to rebrand choking with the even more friendly and hygienic term of Breath Play, which sounds more like yoga than violence. A friend told me she was recently asked if she would engage in breath play during intercourse. The guy wanted to choke her throat, almost to the point that she would pass out, while atop her. She asked for more explanation as to his motivation, and the guy actually admitted that what aroused him was “having your life in my hands, knowing that I could literally kill you in a minute!” She ended the relationship.
Someone else shared that her latest date told her his favorite porn involves Reluctance Play. He explained that this is where a man keeps pushing, bullying, and struggling to have intercourse with an unwilling woman who is resisting, verbalizing her resistance, saying no over and over, who eventually gives in or at least gives up on her resistance. I asked her, wouldn’t you class that as rape? But she was hesitant to go that far. Maybe it isn’t directly physically forceful enough to be violent per se, she considered. She paused and frowned, then thoughtfully suggested, maybe it is more fair to call it coercive? So the new pornspeak has become the authoritative term, and we mere mortals feel uncomfortable using our old words for these old acts. And the mass consumers are perfectly comfortable with their menu item choices, because they are backed by the industry and the media.
Desires are slippery, I really do get it. Okay. But food lovers can ethically complain about the fast food industry without shaming the people who eat there. And we are justified in questioning why a billion dollar industry firmly based on sexual exploitation is now attempting to dictate our desires and direct our most intimate play through pirating our language. Coining sanitized and toothless words that aim to distort the realities. We are justified in asking why the mass media is bent on popularizing and mainstreaming several aspects of the porn trade. And to question who benefits from these intrusions. Who benefits and who suffers from eroticizing and normalizing these power plays.
For the record, the risks of choking include permanent brain damage and death. A sore throat, difficulty swallowing, bloodshot eyes, blurry vision, discolored tongue, ringing ears, bruising and neck pain are the least of the problems. Other symptoms include drooling, nausea or vomiting, and incontinence of both bladder and bowel. The choking victim may have difficulty breathing afterward, or become permanently hoarse. They can lose consciousness, go into seizures, and suffer from memory loss and brain damage. Or die. Within minutes. And choking, AKA erotic asphyxiation, AKA breath play, consensual or not, is considered an accurate predictor for future lethal domestic violence. Chokers are ten times more likely to eventually murder their partner, according to national data. So who consents to call this play? And why?
What confusion! What misspeaking! So let’s ask the questions, using the language we know. What feelings of impotence and barely masked rage fuel the chokers and rapists in their desire to play out these dreams of power and control with their “loved ones”? And how “loving” can these relationships be, considering that the men involved want to act out with their real-life partners these mass-produced violent fantasies? And how mentally healthy can the men be who deeply despise and disdain the very women they claim to desire, so much so that they can only be aroused by humiliating or endangering them? This is more than a war of words, my friends. Buying into pornspeak can literally kill us. And it will certainly make us sick more often than it will nourish us. And shouldn’t sex, like food, be nourishing to everyone partaking, body and soul?
What distress. What sadness. How can we talk about this? How are we to react to it? How are we to negotiate our own sex lives in this climate, and speak out about what we want to happen around and inside of our own bodies? Do we have a voice at all, if our potential partner’s hands are reaching for our throats? Like it or not, it is abundantly clear that these softened and sanitized pornspeak terms are meant to create submission on the part of the deeply reluctant partners whose voices are not only being silenced, but literally choked off in this new dialogue. We have to release our throats and reclaim our words and our true voice before we can have the full and free conversation that is so deeply needed here. And use words not to further harm, but to heal.