valprehension

Valprehension Cross-stitch, y’all

I recently got back into cross-stitch! Not only that, for the first time I ever, I started making my own designs instead of just buying kits and producing pre-made patterns. I also challenged some queer rage into it; it was fun. And I am so super happy with some of the results:

My first free-hand cross-stitch. Burn shit down. queer shit up.

My first free-hand cross-stitch. Burn shit down. queer shit up.

Variations on a theme. I let myself get fancy this time!

Variations on a theme. I let myself get fancy this time!

Valprehenders represent!

Valprehenders represent!

And I made myself a Valprehension bookmark! :)

And I made myself a Valprehension bookmark! :)

Future plans include a sampler saying “Fuck allies we need accomplices”.

Also I am wondering if I set up a shop to sell these, if anyone would buy them? I could also do custom work in thus sort of style, so.

On cultural scripts, and reframing ‘vulnerability’ in sex

A big part of a lot of anti-oppression work, as I see it, is wrapped up in reframing or recreating the models of human interaction. In so very many ways, the interactions we, as people, have with other people, are influenced by the normative cultural scripts surrounding those interactions.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having cultural scripts for handling various interactions. These scripts can serve many purposes, including making interactions run smoothly, especially when dealing with awkward or hard-to-handle emotional situations. Ozy Frantz recently wrote about the value of having scripts around the mourning process that illustrates some of the value of having this kind of normative script.

But, as with any (formal or informal) cultural (or institutional) process, these scripts can easily be embedded with unspoken (or spoken) cultural biases and oppression. We can see how this can happen in the example of a man in Florida who ran afoul of institutional processes (for assuming the name of one’s spouse) when, in fact, it was a cultural script (that wives take their husbands last name, and not the other way around) that he had broken.

The script I’d like to examine today is based around the idea of vulnerability in sexual contexts. In the (usually) unspoken cultural script for hetero sexual intercourse it is the woman who is framed as the vulnerable party. We see this concept played out in a variety of ways.

For starters, there is a cultural expectation that parents (and especially fathers) must “protect” their daughters from sexual activity. As a corollary, teenage boys in this script are framed as predatory. But this also plays out in the general language we use to talk about sexual activities. I talked about this to some extent in my post on why I love the word ‘valprehension’. The woman in hetero sexual activities is framed as passive, while the man ‘hammers’, ‘screws’, ‘nails’ (are we sensing a pattern) ‘pounds’, ‘reams’, or otherwise commits physically forceful and painful-sounding acts on her body. Woman are conquests (and thus men are victors?) in sex. Women “give it away” while men “get some”. All sexuality is framed as being for men, and for the male gaze

And this script has all kinds of profound implications about the notions for the broader framing of women’s sexual agency and desire, but as those other smart people have covered that pretty well covered, it’s not quite what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about how limiting this framing can be to our actual expressions of sexual joy, to sexual exploration and to genuine, creative consensual sexual interactions.

Before I say that, though, I want to be very clear that I am not saying that women (or valprehending partners generally) are never, ever vulnerable. Of course being penetrated can be an intensely vulnerable experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s very important to point out and acknowledge the vulnerability that many people can and do experience when they are being penetrated.

One of the things that Dan Savage has started pointing out in some of his columns and podcasts in more recent years is the idea that part of the reason straight men seem to have more trouble getting laid when they’d like is the traditional hetero script, which includes the assumption of penetration. Dan intelligently points out that for many people, being horny or wanting sexual satisfaction does not automatically imply that a person’s body (or mind) can handle penetration, especially from a relative stranger.

And the thing is that, yes, penetrative sex is a thing that happens inside the body of the receptive partner. I’m going to say that again. It happens inside our bodies. It’s a very intimate (and often vulnerable) thing, this letting part of another human being inside your body business. If you’re talking about vaginal or anal penetration, the very core of person’s body is involved in the act. And I don’t think that this should be discounted.

What I’ve been working on reframing in my own head lately is the flip-side of this narrative. Because the implication of Dan’s advice here is that sexual activity is not experienced in as intimate or as vulnerable a way by the penetrating partner. And I do think this is true to some extent, (as reflected in our cultural scripts around sex.) In a penetrative sex act, the penetrating partner’s most involved body part is an appendage (whatever appendage you prefer, though usually in the mainstream hetero script, this will be a penis). The penetrating partner has the privilege(?) of having a certain physical distance (up to the full length of the appendage in question :P) from the act relative to the valprehending partner. And in reality, (fears of vagina dentata aside) there is generally less risk of injury to a penetrating partner. And all of this adds up to much less intimacy and vulnerability for penetrating partner.

But here’s the thing. If you really think about it, if someone is putting their appendage inside my body, that is a great show of trust that I will take care said appendage. Allowing part of oneself to be valprehended by another person can be an extremely vulnerable act of giving part of yourself to that person, in a far more literal way than such giving happens in the cultural script of women “giving it away”. Penetrating partners literally give their appendage to the body of their partner for a time. And valprehending partners can have a degree of control over that part while it is inside of them. And when the body part in question is the oh-so-highly-valued (and, let’s face it, physically vulnerable) phallus, this is a truly awe-inspiring act of trust and intimacy, don’t you think?

The thing is that both of these scripts are accurate and true. And neither of them are. It’s all in how you choose to put forth, talk about, experience, and interpret your own sexual interactions with others. I know that for me, suddenly seeing my own valprehensive experiences from this perspective was really enlightening and empowering! It can certainly be fun to play with what various sexual acts mean in the contexts of individual couples/groups of sexual partners and the way they experience their dynamics.

Why valprehension?

So, that big giant title up there? What’s that about, eh?

The short answer is that the story and significance of the word valprehension fill a very special place in my heart, because discussing this word involves all of the topics that I have the most to say about (language, privilege, sex, and gender). Allow me to demonstrate:

It’ll probably start becoming pretty apparent as this blog progresses (if the cat’s not already out of the bag) that language is an extremely important thing to me. And I actually honestly believe that exploring the limitations and boundaries of any given language can tell you an awful lot about the society/societies in which that language is prevalent.

Because the way language works is that it grows an changes through use, and to fulfill the functions that its users require of it. I think that language is one of those things that is often fallaciously conceptualized as this unchanging (or slow-changing) juggernaut of a thing that we have to try to filter our thoughts into if we want to communicate. But the rules of language (what is and is not a word, and also the rules of spelling and grammar) can be  double-edged sword. A certain amount of standardization is necessary to allow communication between and among different social groups, and to increase the universality (or the universal potential) of a language. But at the same time, these rules can sometimes hamper clear communication.

For instance, I’ve been told numerous times that “impactful” is not, in fact, a word. But here’s the thing; if I use the word impactful, I think it’s fair to say that most an English speaker knows exactly what that word means. And every time that I have chosen to use it in my academic career, it has been because I could not find another word that adequately expressed the precise connotations of impactful. I actually developed a list of potential alternatives at some point, but none of them mean quite the same thing, and it seems pointless to tell people they can’t use the word that means the thing they want to say simply because no one’s incorporated it into a dictionary yet.

Regarding grammar, well, this was recently covered at great length over at Painting the Grey Area, so I’ll just say this: a whole lot of grammar doesn’t serve any real communicative function (i.e. rules about ending sentences in prepositions, which, if followed, can actually make sentences more awkward and harder to parse), and in practice only manage to serve as a barrier to marginalized groups’ participation in discussions that affect their lives.

Aaaaanyway, so what does this have to do with valprehension? Well, it’s not in any dictionaries yet, for one thing. Not even, sadly enough, urban dictionary. But it fills a very serious gap in the English language, one that caused it to be greeted with much fanfare among sex writers when it was coined.

Becca over at Becca’s Sex Blog originally coined the verb “valprehend,” from which I take the noun valprehension. The definition is “to actively grab or seize with the vagina or rectum.” This word is important because most (penetrative) sex acts are discussed solely from a perspective in which the penetrator is the active participant, and the person “being penetrated” is just that, passively being penetrated. Their participation is reduced to simply being present for the penetrator to penetrate.

Which is very often an inaccurate way of describing the involvement of the non-penetrating partner in a penetrative sex act. To make an extreme example, imagine someone with a penis in completely immobilizing bondage. Their partner is on top of them; the immobilized person’s penis is in their partner’s vagina (or rectum), and the mobile partner is moving around in ways that are pleasing to both people.

In this scenario, the person whose member is inside the other person can’t really be said to be penetrating the other person. Their participation is limited to being along for the ride, having the experience and emoting about it. And the mobile partner in this scene is certainly not “being penetrated,” they’re valprehending their partner, possibly vigorously. And hopefully they’re both having all kinds of fun, (although I think that a positive side effect of removing penetration from its pride of place in descriptions of sex acts is that is also makes it easier to conceptualize cases of rape wherein someone is “forced to penetrate” someone else; “forcibly valprehended” is a more illustrative phrase, I think, and one that will fight back against the idea that such a thing can’t happen, since we didn’t previously even have the language to talk about it.)

Of course, I don’t mean that penetration and valprehension are somehow mutually exclusive – it’s perfectly common to have two active participants in a penetrative/valprehensive sex act, and mutual penetration/valprehension is great fun!

Ok awesome, but I guess that still doesn’t actually tell you why it’s the title of this blog. To be perfectly honest, the name popped into my head and I loved it instinctively, but there are a number of reasons that I think I had that reaction to it.

Firstly, I like the idea of raising awareness of the word. It certainly has not yet reached a mainstream audience. I was disappointed to find that it hasn’t even reached parlance in academic circles, even in sexuality studies (i.e. the word hasn’t appeared in the title of any academic papers that I could find in my university’s online catalog). The more it gets used, the better. So there’s that.

But also, “valprehension” as a concept is important to me in reframing the way I think about my sexuality. In 2012, I came out to my friends as genderqueer/gender-fluid, and that’s just one component of my quest to understand my sexuality and gender expression from outside as many of the standard frameworks as I can. It is freeing for me to stop trying to conform with my birth gender, and to not feel like a failure for doing so. It’s also freeing to remember that just because I like to bottom sexually doesn’t mean I’m a passive figure in my on sexuality, even when I go through phases where being the penetrative partner is completely unappealing. But this is a topic that might need its on post. Let’s just say that I find the existence of the word valprehend to be somehow inherently empowering to valprehenders everywhere.

Edited to add: All right, this is relevant to today’s Daily Prompt