Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Daddy or Chips

I have a bone to pick with the English Language. Yes, the language of William Shakespeare and Milton and Shanna Germain: it's deeply inadequate and it dicks me off.

Consider the following perfectly viable and meaningful statements:
  • I love chips
  • I love my Dad and Mum
  • I love my wife
  • I love my mistress
  • I love my child
  • I love my dog
  • I love Jesus
  • I love my friends
  • I love my country
  • I love my garden
  • I love skydiving
  • I am 80 years old and I love my partner of 40 years
  • I am 16 years old and I love my boyfriend of 3 months
  • OMG I love Gerard Butler soooo much!

Now, not all those statements are actually true in my case (I have no particular fondness for potato products, for example), but even if they were, only a small child (or, I suppose, someone with serious developmental issues) would ever think that the word "love" as used in those sentences describes the same emotion in every - or indeed any - case.

This is a "daddy or chips" situation. "Love" is used to describe a whole slew of emotions, related only by denoting a positive attitude to the object described. Yet what's the alternative? "Adore"? "Respect"? "Need"? "Enjoy eating"? . . . You run out of synonyms very quickly. We just don't have an adequate range of words to describe what we currently lump under "love."

We'd need dozens of new words, I suspect. And there would always be nuances within each one of those new words. Is the emotion you feel for a child who has just won the school prize the same as for the one who lies in bed all day playing on his Nintendo DS and swearing at you, or the same as for one who is dangerously ill in hospital?

But the thing is, we all muddle by just fine with "love" in conversation or writing because we look at the context. If someone says "I love kittens," we do not assume that that has a romantic or sexual content.
Well, usually. (Sometimes the context of "love" can surprise us.)

Now here's the thing. I think we have a similar "daddy or chips" problem with  "Fantasise," even in a purely sexual context. We assume we know what the word means when someone says "I have sexual fantasies about...".

How about:
  • I fantasise about fucking my boss in the office

If I said that, you would assume that I watch my boss, I make excuses to see him, I would like to fuck him, and that if I was given the chance then I would do it.

But what if I said:
  • I fantasise about fucking a minotaur.

Do you think that if, by some miracle, a minotaur turned up in my living room one day, my reaction would be "Let's get it on!" Seriously? Because it's not a secret that I do have minotaur fantasies, but believe me if they were real creatures, I'd scream and run and shit my pants just like anyone else.

From the Royal Opera production of The Minotaur

The minotaur fantasy is a fictional fantasy. It does not relate to the real world. It exists only in the interior world of my sexual imagination.

"Ah, but," you might say - "the one about the boss does relate to the real world. If you got the chance, you'd go for it."


There certainly are sexual fantasies that involve degrees of wishful thinking, planning, and intention. But just because I fantasise about something that might actually happen DOES NOT MEAN THAT I WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO DO IT IN REALITY. Just like the minotaur, that fantasy can also be completely fictional. It stays in a nice safe place, gets pulled out at the appropriate moment (when I'm heading toward orgasm with my rabbit and need something to trip me over the edge, for example) for joyous contemplation, then gets put away again and ignored.

 This, I swear, lies at the heart of all the breast-beating and hair-tearing  when it comes to the mainstream success of Fifty Shades of Grey and other BDSM or non-consensual fantasies. "How can millions of women," the well-meaning social observer weeps, "enjoy these sick sexual fantasies? Aren't they betraying their gender and themselves? Whatever happened to decades of feminism? Does it mean they really want to be beaten up, or raped?" And at worst some dickhead will nod sagely and say "There, I knew it - send them back to the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. That's what they really want."

Since when did What you get off on for the minute before orgasm equate to What you really want in life?

I blame the English language. We need separate words for fictional fantasies and intentional fantasies, because otherwise outside observers have no idea what context to take them in.

Worse, we may become confused about our own fantasies. Something pops into our head during sex and we find it hot, and then we may become frightened or guilty or disgusted at ourselves. "Is this the real me?" we ask. "Am I really this sick pervert?" And then it starts to affect our behaviour in non-sexual contexts. And that's bad.

And we start worrying about other people's imaginations. "Are you fantasising about her again, instead of me? Are you looking at porn again? Why aren't I enough for you?"

If we could only accept that there is a part of the sexual imagination that is a separate sphere - sacred space, if you like - that is entirely private, where anything goes, which causes no harm and has no influence over our moral, rational, grown-up lives ... well, then, we would save ourselves and each other a whole lot of grief.

Accept your sexual fantasies. Acknowledge them. They are your business and yours alone. They can be used for pleasure or catharsis, to face up to deep deep fears, to shock and confront, or to explore parts of one's soul. They are fiction. And if you give them sanctioned, separate space to play in, they will not rule you.

So, Mr Shakespeare ... why didn't you give us more words for Love?


Jo said...

Very good!

Jules said...

I loved reading this. ;)

The Ancient Greeks did slightly better than us...

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes, I was aware (via C.S. Lewis and Christian culture) that the Greeks had 3 words for different types of love. Although even as a kid I could see that they didn't exactly cover all the bases!

Jean Roberta said...

Very sensible!

Janine Ashbless said...

Me? Sensible?
Damn, I've been rumbled ... ;-)

Craig Sorensen said...


Fulani said...

One of the strengths and simultaneous weaknesses of English and probably many other languages is that meaning is contextual, and words are capable of being put to many uses. So, to add to your list of 'love' problems I'd add the 1960s ad that claimed 'Cars love Shell'.

The difficulty is also a strength because it gives us advertising and yet also humour, poetry, and much literature.

As to fantasies: Bachelard, one of the French phenomenological philosophers, pointed out 'Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need'. The idea of a 'what if' fantasy and the idea of that fantasy taking place in reality are widely differing things, and a lot of erotica explores that gap (as do some other genres as well). And the strength and valency of any particular fantasy can be very variable, as psychoanalysts know. Do we need a special word to denote the ones we'd react to positively in real life? If you wanted to go back to Shakespeare you have 'fancy' in one its original meanings, but I think the word's been used too widely for too long. So just make up a new word and see if you can popularise it!