Mentions of sex-related words in English literature
Sex is, along with politics and religion, traditionally considered a taboo topic. Of course, this doesn’t mean people haven’t talked or written about sex in the past. Still, its forbidden nature does colour the contexts in which it’s discussed and the choices of words surrounding it. So how have people talked about sex throughout the past two centuries?
To learn more, we’ve selected a list of 15 words related to sex, such as “sexual”, “condom”, and “virginity”, located all of their appearances in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) catalogue*, and looked at the 10 words immediately before and after each instance. We then performed a significance analysis known as log-likelihood keyness, comparing how frequently certain words appear near a sex-related word to the frequency with which they appear in the collection in general for each year.
Using this method for each sex-related word, we found the top 10 words that were most likely to appear near a particular venereal term’s presence. We hope you'll agree this shows some interesting patterns in the use of sexual vocabulary in American English and how the usage of these words have changed over time.
*COHA is a chosen collection of over 100,000 fiction, nonfiction, and periodical documents that date back to 1810, containing almost 400 million words; it’s carefully curated to reflect the use of language in every time period.
At first glance, it appears that discussion about sex appears in the corpus dating all the way back to 1810 – but for most of this time, the word was used to refer to biological sex, i.e. male or female. Interestingly, women appears on this list but men does not, suggesting that writers feel the need to talk about their sex only when referring to the former.
Age appears in conjunction with sex as both terms are widely used together in demographics. Education has been associated with sex for the past 200 years, but only after the Kinsey Reports on human sexuality in 1948 and 1953 did people begin talking about sex education – before that, education in the context of sex was about the “education of the female sex,” which was often far poorer than that of males.
More modern terms start to creep in during the latter half of the 20th century, when phrases such as sex appeal, sex offenders, sex discrimination, oral sex, and sex and nudity (often in the context of film reviews) enter the vocabulary. The highly contemporary concept of sex partners, as opposed to spouses or boyfriends/girlfriends, enters the corpus in the 1980s – largely due to the advent of the AIDS epidemic.
- “Women talk as if the solid vote of their sex would be cast in favor of temperance.” – Helen Kendrick Johnson, Woman and the Republic, 1897
- “All the world that by reason of age or sex was exempt from the ordeal of battle, was shoving behind all the rest of the world that was not exempt…” – Coningsby Dawson, The Glory of the Trenches, 1918
- “Female education has given rise to some excesses of opinion and conduct; but the world is entirely safe, especially the self-styled lords of creation, and may wisely advocate a system of general education without regard to sex, and leave the effect to those laws of nature and revelation which are to all and in all, and can not permanently be avoided or disobeyed.” – George S. Boutwell, Thoughts on Educational Topics and Institutions, 1859
- “While the risk of infection with the AIDS virus is greater among people who have numerous sex partners, anyone with prior sexual experience, however limited, must be regarded as a potential asymptomatic carrier of the AIDS virus.” – William H. Masters, Virginia E. Johnson, Robert C. Kolodny, AIDS: Worse Than We Think?, 1988
The small addition of a suffix to change the word sex to its adjective, sexual, has a profound impact on its surrounding terms: The word is much more closely associated with taboo topics. Common use of the adjective started in the last quarter of the 19th century, as people talked about sexual hygiene – a phrase most often used in advocating abstinence to combat sexually transmitted diseases, which skyrocketed after the Civil War when condoms (see below) were still a rarity.
The term was also used by the advocates of eugenics to promote the forced sterilisation of people with traits considered undesirable. Sexual instinct was a phrase referring to what we would now call sex drive or libido. At the dawn of the scientific age, many wrestled with the conflict behind the longstanding idea that the sex drive was immoral, and the undeniable fact that it was ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, sexual immorality was also a catchphrase at the time.
Sexual intercourse is a common phrase that is still present today as a polite way of referring to this aspect of human behavior. An interesting and common phenomenon occurs in the late 1910s: A hyphenated word, bi-sexual (COHA considers hyphenated words to be two words), is introduced into the vocabulary to explain a concept that was previously unrecognised. At that time, however, bi-sexual did not refer to the genders of sex partners but to conditions of intersex development.
Sexual hospitality was a briefly popular term in the 1930s as anthropologists described the unfamiliar sexual practices of some of the last people in the Pacific and Amazon as they were contacted by Western civilisation for the first time. Sexual intercourse and sexual relations have always been popular as polite phrases, and the more modern terms sexual harassment and sexual compulsivity have emerged in the last few decades.
- “Some day Sexual Hygiene will have a place in the curriculum of every college. It is a subject that every college man does consider in one way or another, but often ignorantly, or under unwise guidance.” – Winfield Scott Hall, The Biology, Physiology and Sociology of Reproduction Also Sexual Hygiene with Special Reference, 1907
- “Others before Aetius had suggested the connection between hypertrophy of the clitoris and certain exaggerated manifestations of the sexual instinct, and the development of vicious sexual habits.” – James Joseph Walsh, Old-Time Makers of Medicine, 1911
- “In considering these transcendent words we are taken back to the mysteries of sex creation, and to the asexual and bi-sexual attributes of deity as seen in all cosmogonies.” – C. R. Enock, The Etymon, 1927
- “Even the very free sexual hospitality of the natives of Tahiti was, M. Lesson remarks, regarded in the light of a ceremony partaking of a religious character.” – V. F. Calverton, The Making of Man, 1931
Although the condom has been around for more than 200 years, the term only entered vocabulary after World War II, when condoms were advocated as a prophylactic against sexually transmitted diseases, and all the disproportionately associated words only emerged later during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Usually the log-likelihood method finds the most significant differences in frequency for relatively rare words, so for extremely common English words such as use, without, and either to be identified, they needed to be used a lot more often near condom than in general usage. Use, for example, appeared in more than a quarter of all mentions of the word condom in 2000. Most of these words pertain to reasons for using condoms, but many of the associated terms in the 1970s come from fiction, as there was a brief fad of books featuring condoms in the context of licentious parties.
- “In this same drawer he used to keep condoms.” – James Alexander Thom, Follow the River, 1981
- “George took them to the cocktail party, but either Potter never knew about the condoms or was smart enough not to give George the pleasure of his complaint.” – Lillian Hellman, Pentimento, 1973
The meaning of the word ejaculation has changed greatly over the last 200 years. With a literal meaning of something suddenly escaping its confinement, it was earlier used primarily to describe acts of speech. The cliché phrases at the time, mostly used in fiction, had characters who may have uttered a pious, little, half- ejaculation such as ah! that broke out unexpectedly at one time or another.
Perhaps it was the growing awareness of premature ejaculation in the 1940s that led to writers suddenly avoiding the use of this word in other contexts, for fear of unintended innuendo. (One of the significant words for the verb form, ejaculated, was Dick – the name, short for Richard, which was apparently common among characters who spoke suddenly in turn-of-the-century fiction.)
- “She scarce had time to utter an astonished little ejaculation as she yielded to his arms.” – Edwin L. Sabin, Desert Dust, 1922
Erotic began to be used in the late 19th century, and its associated words are more constant over time than that of some other terms. Psychologists have been concerned about the erotic self, moralists conflate it with pornography, some males have a collection of erotica that might consist of films or literary works (some of them cheap) or films, and the idealisation of erotica leads some to describe erotic objects as perfect.
- “I mean, what do you do when you first see your perfect erotic object and have been assured, by unimpeachable sources, that the perfection is mutual ?” – Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, 1984
Like ejaculation, gay is a word with meaning that has changed dramatically, but unlike ejaculation, it was such a common and nonsexual word that it didn’t gather any particular associations before it became associated with homosexuality. People described happiness as gay and even called an entire decade the Gay 90s – although 90s did not make the list due to being used so often in the 1990s without the word gay attached to it.
But like ejaculation, as soon as it became associated with a taboo topic, it quickly lost its use in any other context. Come the 1970s, the vocabulary shifted to gay men who were homosexual, and not necessarily happy, as well as gay and lesbian and bisexual rights and activists (transgender is too new and uncommon a word to make the top 10 list). This use of activists remained strong for decades, until seeing a sharp decline after 2000. The 70s also saw the rise of important civil rights and health issues of the past decades, such as AIDS and gay marriage.
Three of the last four words on the list are unusual: Rue is associated with gay because of references to “gay Paree,” and it remained in the vocabulary longer than other, non-sexual uses of the word, and Paris even has a rue Gay-Lussac. Jerome is a relatively rare first name that happened to appear alongside the word gay in several books, while brewer appears due to a successful professional golfer named Gay Brewer.
- “Where now the panther guards his den, Her desert forests swarm with men; Gay cities, tow’rs and columns rise, And dazzling temples meet the skies” – John Trumbull, The Poetical Works, 1820
- “The informal announcement that John W. Hanes and Jerome Frank are slated as the two new members ... he is the leader of the opposition to President Gay.” – Anonymous, The Shape of Things, 1937
- “I know many believe it began the next night, the “Black Friday” of May 10th, when the night battle on the rue Gay-Lussac so outraged the French with its police brutality.” – James Jones, Merry Month of May, 1971
The concept of homosexuality as an acceptable topic of conversation is another 20th century phenomenon. Among its common neighbors is its opposite, as writers compare homosexuality and heterosexuality, and its less formal (and male-specific) adjective form, gay. As a controversial topic, homosexuality is often mentioned alongside other social issues that are also opposed by social and/or religious conservatives: abortion and adultery, as well as divorce by those religious affiliations that particularly oppose it such as Catholicism. Those who mention incest in the same sentence as homosexuality, however, seem to primarily be lampooning those conservatives by exaggerating their claims. The word latent appears mostly early on when it was more common to hide one’s sexuality by leading an ostensibly heterosexual lifestyle; the 1960s and 1970s saw debate as to whether homosexuality was a mental illness. Finally, the author E. M. Forster appears in the list for his groundbreaking work, the novel Maurice.
When the word homosexuality is shortened to its noun/adjective form homosexual, many of the most closely associated words change as well. Heterosexuality becomes heterosexual, latent remains, and words are added such as experience, teacher (the sexuality of teachers has been a matter of concern to some), and soldiers (in relation to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy). Changing it to homosexuals as a plural noun adds the word drug (during the 1980s as another HIV vector), rights, and discrimination.
- “The leader of the country's biggest and most powerful diocese (including most of New York City) was an unapologetic moral conservative: he disapproved of abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women.” – David Gates, Devin Gordon & Peter Plagens, The Dear Departed, 2000.
- “For example, the paranoid reaction has been considered a result of latent homosexuality, connected in turn to the inverted Oedipus situation.” – Hans H. Reese, Mabel G. Masten, Nolan D. C. Lewis, Percival Bailey, The 1946 Yearbook of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neurosurgery, 1946.
- “I spent many an hour poring over the pictures of the naked women in Africa and the South Sea Islands in National Geographic, and many a Sunday morning at church service engrossed in the erotic poetry and stories of lust, adultery, homosexuality, murder and incest in the Old Testament.” – Name withheld, TIME magazine letters to the editor, 1981.
In the 19th century, intercourse was frequent-ly a tool of state diplomacy between nations and a foreign king. Although the usage is exceedingly rare now, a breakdown in diplomatic relations 100 years ago was often referred to as non-intercourse. Intercourse could also be commercial, sometimes illicit-ly so. In the above graph, you can see the sudden change from intercourse being a primarily social word to acquiring its sexual meaning quite rapidly in the late 1930s. The recent rise of the phrase anal intercourse, unknown in popular speech, comes from legal and medical writing.
- “Mr. West during the long term of forty years of free and confidential intercourse with the King, found the account of Barnard to be in every essential and particular point correct.” – John Galt, The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esq.,1816
- “Setting aside the embargo and returning to the earlier policy of non-intercourse, Congress adopted a measure which excluded all English and French vessels and imports.” – Allen Johnson, Jefferson and His Colleagues: A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty, 1921
- ““For example, he said many Mexican-American men of mixed Indian and European heritage who have anal intercourse with other men do not consider themselves homosexual unless they are the receptive partners.” – Jane E. Brody, Who's Having Sex? Data Are Obsolete, Experts Say, 1989
The word lesbian began appearing in American literature around the turn of the 20th century, describing women whose sexual orientation was similar to those of the poet Sappho of Lesbos. It remained quite a rare word until a surge of writings about homosexual women and the phrases gay and lesbian and gay, lesbian, and bisexual in the 1980s.
The appearance of the word nothing seems to be nothing more than a curious statistical fluke, which can occur in this kind of analysis. Several different phrases, such as it meant nothing to him, knew nothing of her, is nothing less than, there is nothing about it, it proves nothing, and nothing special happened to be written in proximity to the word. Three and lousy are similar flukes.
Life is also found in different phrases, but most of them are more relevant to the subject, such as the lesbian life, lesbian all her life, and so on. It accompanied curiosity about lesbians having children, and there was concern about young girls turning to lesbianism.
- “Had I an ocean I would pour them out! I loved the Lesbian more than Jove, than life; Weep mother earth! Weep thy most gifted child!” – Estelle Anna Blanche Robinson Lewis, Sappho, 1862
- “In the Judeo-Christian culture, she complains, all women are motherless because women do not like the female body or value other women. They are phobic about lesbianism.” – Elenore Lester, Women and Madness/Vaginal Politics, 1972
Orgasm is another term that writers only became comfortable using during the 20th century. The majority of its most frequent nearby terms are part of the typical vocabulary of sexuality, with the exception of the word fake, with a meaning in this context that’s well known.
- “He actually massaged my eyes ... Then he massaged my ... I got very excited ... I didn’t know if it was sex or what ... I had an orgasm and then another ... and then another …” – Anonymous, An Unmarried Woman, 1978
- “... the usual fluid containing sperm that is produced at the climax of the male orgasm is ejected back into the bladder and does not flow out through the penis” – Herbert M. Dean, John J. Massarelli, Look to Your Health, 1980
Interestingly, penis seems to have been a taboo word in American literature for even longer than vagina (see 14. below). Many of the most frequent nearby words are clinical and anatomical in nature, such as erect, duct, blood, testicles, and scrotum, and it also appears in sentences referring to sexual organs in general, alongside vagina and clitoris.
Thanks to Freud, penis envy is a common phrase, and mother issues sometimes arise when discussing male sexuality. (Additionally, there are books for children that explain what a father does with a mother to produce a baby.) Pants appears because, in fiction, that’s pretty much where penises always appear from.
- “In the case of Barbara the identification is said to be mainly feminine, although she is not sure of her femininity. But there is also a secret penis envy …” – Percival M. Symonds and Arthur R. Jensen, From Adolescent to Adult, 1961
- “They prescribed a lot of things to restore his manhood: ginseng roots, sea horses, angelica, gum dragon, deer antler, tiger bones, royal jelly, even a buck’s penis, but nothing worked.” – Ha Jin, A Man-To-Be, 1994
- “However, just as the lights were coming on again, the Phantom stepped away and tucked his penis back into his pants.” Zane, Caramel Flava: The Eroticanoir.com Anthology, 2006
In the 19th century, pornography was a rare term and meant strictly writing about prostitution, although prostitution only makes its first appearance in this list during the 1970s because the word pornography was not often used before that time. In the 20th century, the term’s more general meaning of any salacious written or graphic content led to its increase in popularity – especially in the media, where child pornography, obscenity, and censorship were of great concern.
The word much appears in many contexts, relating to the excesses of pornography’s producers and consumers. Internet pornography becomes a concern in the mid-1990s, and as ancient art is viewed through a modern lens, it begins to be described as 18th- or 19th-century pornography. Sadistic pornography is troubling to those who are anti-pornography, especially when it is hard-core (a word that was usually hyphenated when it first appeared and was later concatenated to a single word).
- “It was too much for one evening. Genius kept pornography in the safe; Beatrice had been to school at Miss Floggy's.” – Aldous Huxley, The Genius and the Goddess (Part II), 1955
Prostitution is one of the few sex-related words that was commonly used early in the 19th century: It has been associated with houses of prostitution and gambling, opposed by religious leaders and legalized in some places. Over the past few decades, it’s become linked to extortion and narcotics, and child prostitution has become a matter of concern.
- “The deviation from natural law which is implied in marriage must be expiated by temporary prostitution, thus winning anew the favor of the god.” – Ray E. Baber, Marriage and the Family, 1939
- Because many of its members were the sons of Nationalist officials who fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek, the gang operated with relative impunity, combining extortion, gambling and prostitution with some legitimate businesses such as a gossip magazine and a recording company, the former members report.” – Fox Butterfield, Imprisoned Taiwan Gang Leader is Linked to New York Drugs Deal, 1985
Vagina is a relatively rare word in literature, and it’s almost always used in a clinical sense. In popular culture, it’s more often referred to with slang, often offensively so. Thus, all the words in the corpus that most frequently appear in proximity are equally clinical words, ranging from mucus to muscles.
- “And a gynecologist or exercise therapist can recommend simple exercises to strengthen the muscles of the vagina. What does not have to change, regardless of age or sexual inclination, is the wonderful vastness of sex and sexuality.” – Hattie Gossett, Sex at a Certain Age, 1993
Virginity is one of the rare sex-related words that the 19th century was not afraid to speak about, although it only gained correlated words in the 20th century as it began to be used in a less general sense. The religious nature of much literature led to Mary being held up as an example of purity; four of the 10 words, however, are lost, lose, loss, and loses – perhaps from people describing the manner in which they lost their virginity, or showing that reality fell short of that ideal for a bride before marriage. Joe is a statistical fluke, being a common name in the early 1950s when some authors, such as Nabokov, were dismissing 19th-century mores, as are even and mutual.
Like homosexual, changing the word slightly creates a totally different top 10 list of associated words. The form virgin, referring to a single person rather than the state of virginity, results in only religious terms: Mary, holy, islands, blessed, birth, coronation, soil, born, saints, and feast. Making it plural changes it to mostly real-life virgins: vestal (from Roman mythology), young, eleven (from the story of St. Ursula), girls, certain, paradise, specializes (in literature about teenage boys who prefer inexperienced sex partners), babies, ripe, and angels.
- “Her own experience, which had taught her much because she was willing to learn, and the new realization of Joe's virginity, gave her an advantage that Joe could not suspect or overcome.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, 1955
- “The gown you wore is costly, valued at more than some creatures of the streets might make in a year, though you, I guarantee, are of a different status entirely – so different I can’t even imagine why you peddled your virginity as you did, taking the chance that you might have been raped and lost it for nothing.” – Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, The Flame and the Flower, 1972
We’ve searched the COHA corpus for the 15 search terms indicated above for each year between 1810 and 2009, counted each occurrence, and divided them by the total number of words for that year to produce the word frequency graphs in red. We’ve also extracted the 10 neighboring words to the left or right of each occurrence and counted the number of appearances of those words, discarding words that only appeared in one document (such as most proper names or jargon).
We used the log-likelihood method to compare how often the neighboring words occur within 10 words of the search term to how often they occur in the entire corpus, to produce a measure of the significance (p-value) of each neighboring word appearing near the search term. We took the 10 words with the highest keyness and calculated how often they occur as a neighboring word to each appearance of the search term and charted that value over time (e.g., the blue graphs). The blue graphs were smoothed using the “rolling average” method with a five-year window to make overall trends easier to see.
During some years, particularly early in the corpus, a given search term appears but none of the top 10 most significant neighboring words do; this occurs when the most significant neighboring words in that year were not in the top 10 overall. This happens more frequently in earlier years of the corpus because, with some exceptions, words used in modern contexts tend to have been used less often in the past and so had a fewer number of unique neighboring words. Additionally, words tend to be used in an increasingly specific context over time (such as gay changing from a more general meaning of happy to a more specific meaning of homosexual) and thus become more associated with specific neighboring words.
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