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Sexual Vocabulary

Melissa Jones, Ph.D.

As part of Sexology Institute’s series on consensual non-monogamy, I’m delivering a presentation this Thursday on managing jealousy. One thing we’ll discuss is how being vague in our word-choice can lead to overblown conflicts. For example, I’ve heard couples speak of feeling “jealous” when what they really mean is “envy” or “fear of loss”. Such weak vocabulary can lead to a reactionary defense and escalated conflict.

Aristophanes, a playwright in ancient Athens, wrote, “High thoughts must have high language.” We’ve all experienced a stupor of thought when unable find words to express our feelings. Our internal monologue freezes when the words elude us. An expansive vocabulary not only allows us to communicate clearly, it also endows one’s own mind with previously inconceivable ideas. When we can’t explain what we mean, it can cause real harm. When passions run high, and we have what Charlie Glickman calls emotional flooding, thinking becomes impaired and language fails us. Misspoken words can have lasting consequences.


I encounter the vocabulary problem most often with those who embark into consensual non-monogamy. As couples explore, they encounter a variety of labels: swinger, poly, open, lifestyle, sharing, monogamish, CNMNHR (consensual non-monogamous non-heirarchical relationships), and various other new terms. In addition to their literal definitions, each is charged with connotations in both their various subcultures and in the mainstream. Before a couple dips a toe into non-monogamy, it’s useful for them to take time to understand what these mean in the community and what the terms mean for them. “Open” to one couple may mean something very different to another “open” couple; it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to each couple. (Don’t just assume that because a couple is in the “swinger lifestyle” that it’s acceptable to have intimate conversations without both partners involved.) Everyone is allowed and encouraged to define their own ideas of a relationship.

Just because labels are imperfect doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t accept them as being applicable to us. It can be comforting, rewarding and inclusive to take on a new label. While the term consensual non-monogamous non-heirarchical may be highly descriptive, it doesn’t lend itself to community building nor does it roll off the tongue; whereas, poly may be more community-binding. On the other hand, poly may be more loaded with imagery of bohemian group-love and communal orgies. (Please don’t assume that this is what "poly" means to those within the community.) Prior to taking on any label, analyze your desires, positions and relationships and let those guide you. Categorization should only occur after careful consideration.

So regardless of whether you label your relationship or not, be sure that you and your partner(s) take the time to understand the expectations of what those words and labels mean to each of you. Expand your sexual vocabulary by reading, researching and dialoging, and you don’t find a label that fits, make-up your own.

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