Two factors have made dirty talk one of the most distinguishing features of sex in the nineties, second only to the condom, a device with which dirty talk shares a number of similarities as a requisite prop of safe sex. Voices can also function as condoms, as aids to the masturbatory fantasies that various health officials have encouraged, often with proselytizing fervor, as a substitute for the exchange of bodily fluids. The fear of AIDS has led us to seek out new ways of having sex, of circumventing the necessity of actual contact without at the same time compromising our erotic experiences, a requirement that compels us to use our voices and imaginations to simulate physical acts that are often safer to talk about than to perform.
Almost as relevant as the AIDS epidemic to the recent interest in narrating and verbalizing our sexual desires are developments in computers and telecommunications technology—the proliferation of 900-numbers, voice mail, and computer bulletin boards. Such inventions have reduced the inefficient, complicated, and unreliable business of meeting other people to phone calls or even key strokes, elementary procedures on household gadgets that have ushered sex into the Information Age, radically simplifying the methods by which we trick, pickup, socialize, and cruise. Marketers are now busily catering to a wide variety of sexual interests, from “vanilla” sex to hardcore S&M, by providing services that are, as one company advertises, “niched,” “tailored to your needs,” “your type,” and thus allowing customers to fulfill one of the highest priorities of the contemporary sexual agenda, “to save time.”
AIDS and technology have collaborated to produce a kind of “virtual” sex, a form of intercourse by modem in which the telephone and the computer terminal serve almost as an electronic prophylactic and in which people copulate, not with their bodies, but with their voices. The pornographic film Man Talk presents an apocalyptic image of the artificiality of this “virtual” sex by arranging each of its scenes around a steamy phone call that eroticizes the telephone itself. Grinding the receiver into their crotches and then telling the person on the other end what they want to have done to them, the actors use the telephone as a vibrator or dildo, obsessively running it over their bodies like a scanner, as if it were actually capable of transmitting the sound, temperature, and feel of their skin.
In the baroque flights of fancy of the most extravagant wordsmiths, dirty talk becomes a kind of found poetry.
In an era in which people are increasingly having sex by engaging in illicit, long-distance liaisons through the miracle of fiber optics, they use verbal fantasies to supplement (or even, in the case of the most cautious adherents to safe sex, to supplant) acts with which they are no longer comfortable. Physical intimacy is therefore more at the mercy of the conventions of dirty talk than it has ever been before. And yet the lurid recitations with which people degrade, coerce, bully, and cajole their partners are full of fallacious assumptions about obscenity and desire, myths that profoundly affect our sexual routines. The expletives that provide the basic script of our verbal scenarios misrepresent sex so completely that they don’t so much enhance it as create a highly abstract and ultimately punitive standard of the nature and intensity of what we should, ideally, be feeling.
Although many porn stars provide a running commentary on the sex they are having, some are raunchier than others. One in particular, Jeff Stryker, the reigning idol of gay films, is so endlessly inventive that he has become the sex industry’s preeminent improvisationist, an unacknowledged poet laureate who delivers a lewd rap in a hokey Texas twang. Take the following passage from Powerful II, in which Stryker, who is as massively endowed as a figure out of an Aubrey Beardsley print, ravishes a man who is forced to speak through clenched teeth in a vain effort to keep up with his partner’s steady stream of orders and obscenities. Stryker tells his partner:
You like it up your tight little asshole. Oh yeah. Take all my fuckin’ cock. Come on, take it. Look at it makin’ your fuckin’ cock all hard. You like this big dick, don’t you? Yeah. Take it in that tight little asshole. Take it in that sweet little ass. Yeah, squeeze it like that. Tight little hole. I like feelin’ my balls slappin’ against your ass. Let me reach down and feel your cock. Oh fuck. Let me hold that big dick while mine is ramming in and out of your ass. Oh fuck. Yeah. Fuckin’ swallow that cock. Swallow it with your tight little asshole.
In the baroque flights of fancy of the most extravagant wordsmiths, dirty talk becomes a kind of found poetry, a highly stylized form of speech full of repetitions and rhetorical questions, of absurd adjectives and archaic diction, all of which conjure up images of convulsive climaxes and thrilling extremes of excitement. Far from being a way of communicating our desires and preferences when we are actually making love, the muddled language of sex, with its rising octaves of ever more impassioned exclamations, often has nothing to do with the situation at hand but serves as an irrelevant voice-over, the distracting narration of an observer rather than a participant. Solecisms abound as the linguistic momentum rises to a delirious and self-sustaining pitch that leads even a seasoned orator like Stryker to fumble over his words, telling his partner in one scene to “fuck my cock” or, more incongruously still, to “suck my cock with your legs.”
Perhaps the most revealing evidence of the problematic relation between speech and sex can be found in the dense clusters of commands that are the basic syntactical units of dirty talk. In the speech quoted above, Stryker issues so many instructions that his partner’s body loses definition in the blur of orders, becoming in the confusion a vague yet voluptuous landscape of shifting protuberances and interchangeable orifices. The following passage from Stryker’s film Busted consists almost entirely of a sequence of rapid-fire commands meant to suggest insatiable desire, as well as a selfish insistence on immediate gratification:
Lick your way up to my fuckin’ asshole. Kiss it. Fuckin’ kiss it. Oh, Gino, you little devil. Stick your tongue in my hole. Yeah, tongue fuck me! Yeah! Tongue fuck my hole. Suck my cock too. Bob up and down on my cock and suck my hole. Yeah. Put that cock in your mouth. Come on. Bob up and down on my fuckin’ cock. Slide under here and let me fuck you in the mouth. Oh yeah. Take my fuckin’ cock, take my fuckin’ cock. Yeah. Let me fuck you. Stick that big fuckin’ ass up here.
The extraordinary thing about this passage is that the passive partner is actually performing all of the acts specified before Stryker tells him to, so that the commands become a highly figurative way of intensifying or narrating these acts rather than requesting them. Stryker’s orders are obeyed before they are even issued and thus stand in a chronologically absurd relation to the action they are meant to elicit. They are not only repetitious, given the number of times they are spoken, but they are nonsensical, given that they are delivered after the fact, as a fictional enhancement of the scene rather than as a set of practical instructions. In our verbal fantasies, commands rarely serve the same function they serve in ordinary conversation, especially in pornography where the enthusiastic obedience of the passive partner utterly negates any need for orders.
Far from being liberating, guiltless, and uninhibited, dirty talk is tendentious and sermonizing, qualities one would expect to find in the language of a sanctimonious prude rather than of a foul-mouthed hedonist.
This paradoxical inversion of commands and actions expresses not only a linguistic problem but a problem inherent in our understanding of sex itself. On the one hand, we fantasize about a pornographic Utopia in which there are no impediments to the will, in which the acquiescence of our partners can be taken for granted, and in which our desires are fulfilled with such cheerful readiness, such blind and selfless subservience, that our needs are anticipated before we even need to ask for what we want. On the other hand, the very notion of such a Utopia contradicts an opposite belief that the most arousing sex involves an act of assault, of aggression. The tough-talking drill to which we subject our partners suggests rape and coercion, a world in which the will is constantly opposed by a reluctant partner whom we must goad into action by threatening to exercise brute force. In other words, dirty talk expresses two contradictory pornographic impulses. It creates a world of unconditional obedience but nonetheless constantly alludes to nonconsensual sex. The desire for unquestioning submission, for a libidinal paradise where our sexual whims are never opposed and where we are fawned over by a grovelling slave, exists side by side with the need to transform sex by means of rhetoric into an act of compulsion, of subduing an insubordinate partner. The results are these disembodied commands, which maintain a feeble pretense of coercion by superimposing a kind of mental sex on real, physical sex, a charade of intimidation ludicrously belied by the eager acts they accompany.
If the commands we issue during sex are curiously out of sync with our behavior, so are the questions, which are transformed by means of the grammatical amorphousness of dirty talk into derogatory statements, demeaning attempts to put words in the mouths of our speechless partners, whose answers are not only irrelevant but often unwelcome. A disingenuous rhetorical question like Stryker’s “you like this big dick, don’t you?” (a line that differs only minimally from “you like it up your tight little asshole”) is an accusation in disguise, a judgment rather than a genuine attempt to find out if the passive partner is enjoying himself. Its answer—yes!—is emphatically implicit in the tone of gloating self-satisfaction, disgust, and contempt with which it is asked, a tone full of the negative connotations that transform the rhetorical questions we pose during sex into indirect reprimands that berate the person for liking something he shouldn’t like, something that it is wrong and repulsive to like. These running interrogations, which are so basic to the plot of dirty talk and which usually follow the formula “you like that, don’t you?,” thus reveal that the recreational language of sex is highly moralistic, full of a feigned disapproval that eventually takes on the character of a disgusted parental scold of the passive partner’s enjoyment. Far from being liberating, guiltless, and uninhibited, dirty talk is tendentious and sermonizing, qualities one would expect to find in the language of a sanctimonious prude rather than of a foul-mouthed hedonist.
The moralistic nature of dirty talk becomes especially clear on the very few occasions when the dominant speaker insists that his lover actually answer his rhetorical questions, as is the case in an extravagant example of pornographic kitsch, the film Prince Charming. In the following passage, the evil brother of the King rapes Lester the Jester on the throne while bellowing out gothic obscenities like “fee, fi, fo, fum, suck my dick and make me cum”:
Evil Prince: Beg for my cock.
Lester the Jester: Please, my lord.
EP: Choke on it, choke on my fucking cock. Say “please.”
EP: Does it feel good? Tell me how it feels.
LJ: It feels so good.
EP: How bad do you want it?
LJ: I want it bad.
EP: How are you going to suck it?
LJ: I’m going to suck it good. I want it in my mouth.
EP: Are you sure?
EP: Choke on my fucking COCK! Does it feel good? Tell me how it feels.
Tell me you want my fucking cock.
LJ: I want it.
EP: Tell me you want my fucking cock.
LJ: I want your fucking cock.
EP: You know what this cock is going to do? Why do you want me to
fuck you, you little whore?
LJ: Because I’m a little whore.
EP: Are you listening to me? Get it nice and hard. How does it feel?
LJ: Feels good.
EP: Where do you want it?
LJ: In my mouth.
EP: Say “please.”
EP: Do you want it? Tell me what you want.
LJ: Fuck. Fuck me.
EP: Beg for it.
LJ: Because I’m a whore.
Dirty talk often infantilizes the passive partner in a crude burlesque of the parent-child relationship, a game in which the person who poses the questions assumes the role of an exasperated tutor instructing a wayward child, who stands before him penitently in tongued-tied silence, obediently repeating the lesson of “please” and “thank you.” The passage is typical of a recurrent verbal fantasy in which a debauched parental surrogate acts as an inquisitor grilling his lover about his innermost desires, prying out of him, through relentless cross-examination, shamefaced confessions of secret longings. As this scene suggests, the ultimate degradation of dirty talk is not, as one might expect, the indignity of being forced to remain silent while we are called names but the even more compromising punishment of actually being forced to talk back, to answer those nagging rhetorical questions, questions that the passive partner, who is usually allowed to play a shadow role in dirty talk as a compliant but invisible participant, generally acknowledges in contrite, albeit mortified, silence.
Although it is tempting to interpret these rhetorical questions as a genuine effort on the part of one lover to achieve access to the subjective state of the other, the interrogatory mode of dirty talk in fact expresses the dominant speaker’s utter indifference to what his companion is feeling, a callous disregard that manifests itself in the way he deliberately deprives his partner of the right to speak on his own behalf and to articulate reactions that may be separate from, and possibly contradictory to, his own. In the following passage from Inch by Inch, Tony Steffano, the Greta Garbo of gay porn (who appears to have prematurely abandoned his promising career as a dirty talker and retreated into tight-lipped seclusion after only one magnificently verbal performance) punishes the thief he catches lurking under his bed, a frightened young preppie who broke into Tony’s clothes hamper in order to steal his dirty underwear and then sell them to the menopausal panty-sniffer down the street:
Does that taste good? Like that big juicy dick in your mouth? Taste good?… Lick my asshole. Like the way that asshole tastes?… You like eatin’ that hole out for me, don’t you?… Bet you like to feelin’ my cock up there. Let me see you move that ass. You like to feel a real big cock up that fuckin’ hole, don’t you?… Yeah, you want that dick up that hole. Feel that cock slidin’ up there. That fucking hole being screwed…. You like that. Like gettin’ your hole fucked…. You really want it. I’m gonna let you have it real good. You’re gonna enjoy this one. Fuck that ass real good.
By means of dirty talk, Steffano subordinates the preppie’s erotic responses to his own, thus serving as the principal narrator of the scene, the man in charge, not only of the action, but of the commentary on the action as well. The passive partner’s sensual experiences are dictated by his interrogator’s questions rather than elicited by them, imposed on him from without through a form of ventriloquism in which Steffano acts as the mouthpiece of his lover’s desires, making prescriptive statements that categorically prohibit disagreement, either telling him what he is feeling or informing him what he should be feeling. In this way, the passive partner is paralyzed by his inability, or reluctance, to tell Steffano what he wants done to him, what he enjoys, the basic assumption being that, in the sexual Utopia of dirty talk, lovers experience complete unity of response, so that the one is fully capable of acting as the self-appointed spokesman of the other. By depriving the passive partner of the capacity for self-expression, the dominant speaker demeans and objectifies his speechless lover whose reactions are reported second-hand in a way that denies his sexual independence.
Dirty talk represents a frantic search for the obscene in a culture that has largely eliminated obscenity as a special linguistic province.
This strange sense of being both the principal actors of the dramas we create from sex and the principal narrators suggests that dirty talk is the invention of a culture accustomed to experiencing sex through its representations in art. The heavily scripted scenarios we act out in our bedrooms borrow freely from pornography and are thus the product of a culture that increasingly models its behavior on the behavior it sees on the screen, having relinquished control of its fantasies to the professionals employed by the sex industry. In order to simulate real sexual encounters in film or literature, the director or writer must find some way of communicating to his audience what the actor or character is feeling at any given moment, much as a radio sports announcer narrates a game, providing his listeners with a vicarious set of eyes. Dirty talk fills this need by supplying a harshly objective and visual form of art like pornography with an internal dimension, a dimension that would be lost to the viewer if the actor didn’t function as his own narrator, his own emcee. One of the ironies of modern sex is that verbal conventions that were developed expressly to overcome the artistic difficulty of representing the otherwise unrepresentable element of subjective physical pleasure have been gradually eroticized through repeated use until they have become arousing in and of themselves. Real sex has thus been tainted with vicarious sex, with conventions of narration that, while serving a function in art, are superfluous when we ourselves are the participants. Dirty talk is a symptom of a very modern form of detachment from sex, a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ caused by our heavy consumption of pornography. In a culture saturated with literary and cinematic images of people making love, it is impossible to respond to sex in an entirely physical way, free of the representations that spur us on to narrate our physical encounters even when there is no audience that needs our narration.
To laugh at the plain silliness of dirty talk, the staggering idiocy of its quaint costume dramas, is to miss what might be ironically referred to as its pathos or nostalgia, the desperation it reflects to rediscover the titillating sensation of shame, an emotion whose intensity has significantly diminished in the aftermath of the sexual revolution. Dirty talk represents a frantic search for the obscene in a culture that has largely eliminated obscenity as a special linguistic province, a culture in which our daily conversations are strewn with obscenities, and in which our most esoteric desires are freely discussed in forums as open as talk shows, classrooms, and workshops. The verbal fantasies we play out in the bedroom do not, as we might expect, derive from our guilty sense of the naughtiness of sex but from our growing and intensely disillusioned sense of its banality, its lawfulness as a wholesome game or, as it is so insipidly described by sexologists like Dr. Ruth, as a psychologically hygienic source of emotional nourishment. In the face of such permissiveness, nostalgia for the illicit leads us to take absurd measures to recover our fading belief in the ever-elusive quality of the obscene. Struggling harder than any culture has ever had to struggle to preserve our capacity for lewdness, we wield whips and don knee-high boots much as we drop our g’s and speak illiterately, indulging in the class-regressiveness and grammatical primitivism of expressions like “suck them balls” or “pinch them tits good.” In our frenzy to regain the inhibitions we have abandoned, we comb dialects for antique expressions (“schlong,” “plunger,” “knob,” “horn,” “poker”) and choose diction that is so deliberately exotic that dirty talk is constantly plagued by language that verges on the obsolete and the ridiculous, sinking into bathos as we attempt to rehabilitate our vanishing sense of the profane, of the forbidden. Because the obscene is no longer sealed off in its own protective vacuum outside of the realm of ordinary speech, it is now quickly absorbed into our daily vernacular and is thus always growing stale, losing its piquancy, its freshness, its outlawed quality as linguistic contraband. We fight to maintain the sensation of illicitness by making a continual series of updates and revisions, trying one word and then the next to avoid the obsolescence that is in some sense the fate of dirty talk. For this reason, there is an undercurrent of alarm in the outlandish rhetoric of Stryker’s accomplished monologues, an awareness of the futility of efforts to prevent our cultures cooptation of the obscene, to stave off the inevitable loss of this indispensable category of speech, and to police the linguistic boundaries of a land of recreational inhibitions, of the taboos we cling to as aphrodisiacs.