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Jan 6, 2023

Learning the language of desire

Knowing what we want and saying what we want are intertwined; how do we find the language to articulate our desires? Petrina Darrah shares her experience.

Communicating what I like during sex sometimes feels like describing wine, which I am bad at. I know I enjoy what I’m experiencing, but I can’t find the right words to describe exactly why I like it, or what it is I like about it. I feel tongue-tied until someone tells me oh, that’s raspberries you’re tasting, or the honey nectar of sweet sunshine. 

In the same way wine enthusiasts have explained tasting notes to me, the words to describe my desires have been handed to me by others with better-developed vocabularies. The more sexually experienced, to be clear. Everyone talks about love languages, but for me a sex language has been just as powerful. 

After all, as we’re continually told, good communication is the key to good sex. It’s excellent advice. The more confident we feel in communicating our needs, the safer we feel in our bodies. Yet communication relies on words, on having a vocabulary rich and textured enough to describe the most abstract ideas – like the fluctuating and often indefinable nature of human sexuality. You need the right language.

On the wall of my high school French classroom was a poster that read: “To speak another language is to have a second soul.” Something about expanding your very being by adding more ways to express yourself stuck with me. Sitting in a stuffy classroom conjugating verbs, I fell in love with language. Human language is a miracle to me. String the right set of sounds together and voilà, you can communicate.

I loved the way learning French was a portal into a whole different country and culture. Speaking French was like unlocking a code, making the alien familiar, and finding meaning in what at first felt like an impossible muddle. Languages feel ordinary when you’ve grown up speaking them. But for a new learner, they can feel revelatory. I had similar feelings about the language of desire in terms of the transition from inarticulate thoughts to clearly spoken words. 

I’ve always talked about sex with friends, but never to the level of detail that I would with a lover. How, then, to describe the nebulous desires drifting around the edge of my consciousness? Trying to find the right words is like trying to think of the name of a place I visited once and loved. I can picture it, but the name itself keeps swimming away from me. 

In the end, I learned it as you do with all languages: from the fluent speakers. Stumbling onto Feeld for the first time was an unexpected lesson in language. There is beauty in seeing people wear their desires openly on their digital sleeves. This openness is a generosity to the newly initiated, the people who still have to Google most acronyms. Expressing desires in a straightforward way is both education and embrace. It’s a way of saying, your desires are welcome here. Here are the words I use to describe mine. In the same way learning new French words helped me go from frustratingly mute hand gestures to talking freely, learning the right words for desires helped me voice what was previously nameless. I learned words like heteroflexible, a word that keeps the door open to new experiences but still lets me recognize I’m primarily attracted to men. I was prompted to think about the subtleties between pansexuality, bisexuality, and bi-curiosity – each word giving individuals more space to try on different words and find the one that fits.

Discovering the variety to best express the unique combinations of sexual and romantic attraction we feel to other humans began when I first set up a profile. Having so many potential ways to describe my sexuality left me with my thumb hovering, wavering between boxes. What better way to welcome the questioning than to present the full gamut of options? 

I love the shared language of intimacy and desire among the sexually open-minded. It’s promising to me that a word like “aftercare”, which originated in the BDSM community, is now a part of so many sexual interactions. Understanding the meaning behind words like this – seemingly so simple – gives us the power to communicate clearly. Giving something a name makes it real and important. 

When you have a limited number of words – like dominance and submission – the shades within these experiences are harder to see. Being able to parse the subtleties that exist within these relationships can help untangle limiting ideas, as with the narrow but nevertheless widespread view of dominance as always involving physical force. The right words help me build a safety net and give me the exact outlines for my desires. Yes to this, no to that. 

I’m happy with my new words. But, even so, I know this glossary is just the beginning. We’re all continually learning. We’re starting to gain a more nuanced understanding of sexual preferences and orientations, and how these might relate to gender. Many of the words we have used for so long are stretched at the seams, no longer covering the full meaning that we need them to. When the words we have have started to fail us, we must create new ones. 

In casting around for the right words, we have pulled scientific terminology into the mainstream, adopted obscure slang, and made up our own words where before there was nothing. We’re pushing forward the language of sex, and forging a new vocabulary. In 2022, the Oxford English Dictionary added the words demisexual, multisexual, pangender, and enby. Dictionary.com added throuple, sologamy, and aromantic. 

It is astonishing to me that language can change and adapt so quickly. Language is an ever-growing and evolving beast, shedding skins and growing new ones as it grows larger to encompass the full breadth of humanity’s complexity. This growth is endless. There is still so much more space for our language of sexuality and desire to expand into.

Of course, then there is the fact that a language spoken by a few is not much use. I hope more people become fluent in the language of sexuality. The more we know, the more we understand each other. With the right lexicon, we can more easily communicate what we want and how we would like to be seen.

I think what Charlemagne meant when he spoke the lines that would end up on French classroom walls, was that to speak another language doesn’t mean having a twin soul but rather having a larger, more complete one. It’s an invitation to curiosity, and to discover more of yourself by exploring the variety of human experience in every way possible.


Petrina Darrah is a freelance writer from New Zealand based in the UK.

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