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Freedom to talk dirty

The Lewinsky mess has had a profound effect on conversation--not just what we speak about, but how

By Deborah Tannen

February 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:58 a.m. EST (1658 GMT)

TIME magazine

You might think that if I got into a taxi and the driver began making graphic references to sex acts, I'd jump out at the first stoplight. But when it happened to me earlier this year, I wasn't even alarmed. For one thing, the driver was a woman. For another, the sexual references were parts of jokes she was telling about current events. And lately, I had heard jokes like them in plenty of private conversations--even from my own mother.

The scandal that is now mercifully over has helped introduce a new explicitness into our conversations. But the Lewinsky matter is only the latest in a series of episodes that have made graphic sex talk more common. The onset of the AIDS epidemic brought the clinical-sounding phrase anal sex into our homes, and the Clarence Thomas hearings gave the imprimatur of the U.S. Senate to dirty talk that would make us wince in mixed conversations. The rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson accelerated the trend toward frank sex talk, and the rise of Viagra brought to mind graphic images--featuring Bob Dole. Granted, in the Clinton scandal, 13 months of saturation coverage and prurient detail have conspired to make this episode especially troubling. Yet its enduring legacy may simply be the adding of the term oral sex and its vernacular synonym to the list of once avoided phrases that are now used openly--the continuation of a trend that was well under way and probably inevitable.

Likewise another trend: our growing tendency to talk and think in the bulky, arcane dialect of the law. A doctor I know has noticed, for example, that when she asks a new patient, "Do you have any allergies?" she frequently gets the response, "Not to the best of my knowledge." I suspect this is a kind of folk formality: people think the legalistic phrasing drapes their talk in a cape of gravity. And in the past year references to "perjury," "suborning of perjury," "lying under oath" and "obstruction of justice" have entered our conversations as if we were all first-year law students.

The pervasiveness of legal concepts these days is coupled with the heaping of scorn on them. Take "legalistic hairsplitting," used to imply that we all know the precise meaning of common phrases like sexual relations. Thus the scandal has brought a touch of reality to our talk, making us realize how little we actually agree on the meanings of basic words. Not only do some people define "sex" narrowly as "sexual intercourse," but health professionals have long known that Humpty Dumpty spoke for us all when he claimed, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." A nurse practitioner I know told me of a physician who asked a woman during an office visit whether she was sexually active, and she said she was not. So he was surprised when her pregnancy test came back positive. She explained, "Well, we only do it once a week. That's not very active."

The philosopher John Dewey said, "Democracy begins in conversation." I think he meant that talking about current events creates the sense of involvement required to make individuals into citizens. But talk about this scandal has had the opposite effect. Reduced to two sides talking past each other, the scandal has polarized without involving. Those who believe the President should have been removed from office repeat the logic that he lied under oath and should not be above the law. Those who disagree repeat an alternative logic: lying about sex is different from lying about affairs of state.

The one point on which both sides seem to agree is that injecting explicit talk about sex into our conversations is evil. But we really don't know that it's a bad thing. As Washington Post columnist Judy Mann recently noted, the U.S. is unique among developed Western countries in its prudishness about acknowledging sex to children; yet we have the highest rate of teen pregnancy, and our children, on average, become sexually active at younger ages than European children. Mann suggests that our secrecy, by magnifying the allure of the forbidden, tempts our children to explore sex prematurely. If the scandal has forced parents to talk more openly with their children about sex, that may be more beneficial than disastrous.

What is disastrous is the chasm that has opened up between the average person and the three Ps: the politicians, the pundits and the press. This is what ties the scandal most deeply to our private lives; it results from what I call the argument culture--the increasing focus on conflict and glorification of aggression in public discourse.

Many people see the press's obsession with the scandal as attack-dog behavior, and resentment over it has helped turn the term the media into a slur. Using the legal system to try to destroy a political enemy has led to public contempt for the law. And pitched battles in Washington have convinced many voters that for politicians the fight's the thing. That's why many of those disgusted by the scandal blame both political parties. This is what was troubling in my conversation with the taxi driver. She was so disgusted by the warfare that she no longer tunes into the news at all--and doesn't know if she'll bother to vote. Similar sentiments are peppering daily conversations all over the country. That is the legacy we have to find ways to repair.

Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Argument Culture (Random House).


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Cover Date: February 22, 1999

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