The language of lust

George Lakoff is a prominant linguistics professor at Berkeley who is reasonably well known outside the field for his accessible analyses of political discourse. In his more academic work, he details the ways that cognitive structures are set up based on series of linguistic and metaphorical “schema”. The title of one of his early books, Metaphors We Live By, gives a fairly concise explanation of what he’s getting at in his theories.

In the 1987 book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (a title that does much less to explain the thesis within), he includes a series of case studies on such schema, one of which is the language with which we (in English) talk about lust and how that relates to rape. The examples he gives (pp 409-410):

  • Lust is hunger; the object of lust is food (“He is sex-starved“)
  • A lustful person is an animal (“He looks like he’s ready to pounce”, “He preys upon unsuspecting women”, “You bring out the beast in me”)
  • Lust is heat (“I’m burning with desire”, “She’s frigid“)
  • Lust is insanity (“I’m crazy about her”, “I’m madly in love with him”, “You’re driving me insane”)
  • A lustful person is a functioning machine (“You turn me on“)
  • Lust is a game (“I think I’m going to score tonight”, baseball metaphors including bases and “strike out”)
  • Lust is war (“He’s know for his conquests“, “She surrendered to him”)
  • Sexuality is a physical force; Lust is a reaction to that force (“She’s devastating/a knockout“, “I could feel the electricity between us”).

In some ways, it’s obvious how these concepts that pervade our cultural understanding can quickly become unacceptable–there is a regular undertone of the lustful person being a reagent and the agency being placed on the other, just by existing (as in you turn me on, you’re driving me insane, or, even without a direct object noun, she’s devastating). To my mind, there are also serious problems once you think about conceptualizing sex as war. A more original observation from the book, however, comes because immediately prior, Lakoff had outlined the conceptual metaphors of “anger”, and the first thing he notes about this list is that there is considerable overlap in the domains from which the metaphors for anger and those for lust are drawn–heat, fire, wild animals, insanity, reaction to an external force in particular. In Lakoff’s view, these are not “passive” concepts–he says that “at the very least, it is possible for them to enter into reasoning”. He then quotes at length a passage in which a man was interviewed on what he considers justification for rape and evaluates the language therein from the point of view of these metaphors.

Lakoff does not claim that this theory proves anything about what causes rape. He also recognizes that the description in question may be abhorrent on its face, as the man is explicitly justifying what is clearly rape, but he points out that “…it is frightening how easy [the justifications] are to make sense of” (414) because they use the same metaphorical language that we use ourselves in folk theories discussing the nature of sexuality. “If these metaphors and folks theories were not readily available to us for use in understanding…the passage would be simply incomprehensible to us” (415). While he doesn’t much go for a cause-and-effect analysis here, in his broad theories, he argues that we need metaphorical schema because that’s how our cognitive process work and the only way we can make sense of abstract concepts. My reading of this, and it’s a concept I would agree with, is that he’s not saying we need to remove this language from our vocabulary (or even that we could if we tried), but that being aware of how the metaphors work shows us that rape is not just an anomaly of poor mental functioning–rather it is an extension of our cultural understanding of both sex and anger, as is transferring agency to the victim (who, in the interview, was described in the active voice as “giving off vibes”). He concludes by saying these are not “mere words” and says that he finds it “sad…that we appear to have no metaphors for a healthy mutual lust” (415).

That’s a powerful way to end the chapter, to me. If the whole point of talking about “rape culture” is to try to dismantle these assumptions at their base and to prevent their extension into destructive behaviour, that seems to me to be where that base actually is. I don’t really know how to work that out in practice, since it’s a big mountain to climb to try not to think about sex in terms of irresistible forces of nature (magnetism, electricity, heat), or animalistic energy, and to work from scratch to define the concepts not as action-reaction, but as co-action.


  1. says

    This makes sense to me. I think it’s one of those things where subjectively, you’re either going to feel language does contribute, or it doesn’t. But looking at political spin via rhetoric, there’s a case to be made for the effect of language on thinking.

    I think language reflects and reinforces concepts people were already wanting to promote. The language you mention above is all about men having the right to take sex from women, and women having no agency in the process. That’s been a popular view throughout patriarchy for some time.

    Not only does it result in rape, it also seeks to disengage men from being deeply affected by women. If you see them as a notch on the bedpost, you can’t be hurt by them. If you’re not heartbroken, you can serve your nation better as a soldier, worker drone, or whatever.

    I’m just thinking this through as I type, so it may turn out to be stupid, but it’s suddenly striking me that the patriarchy’s big goal is not just to keep women “down” – it’s to segregate men and women to make them more easily controlled, so that top 5% of folks can continue to enjoy 95% of the good stuff in the world. It’s one of many tactics that serve this goal.

    Which brings us back to political rhetoric, and a point that reinforces your post: “war on drugs”, “battle in the polls”. And what about “Sore Loserman”, the pun intended to shut up people who were concerned that Gore/Leiberman won the 2000 US presidential election but the votes weren’t being counted properly. That slogan neatly turned the election into a football game – my team won, not yours – and negated the important consideration that the only potential losers were the American public, because if an election doesn’t work, then you’ve lost one of the fundamental functions of your democratic system. (I’m not trying to start an Election 2000 debate, just saying it’s an example of a situation where rhetoric deflected people off the real issue.)

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