Who fucks who, and why should we care?

This is a guest post by Alon Lischinsky, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Discourse at Oxford Brookes University, who — after working many years on materials like management books and corporate annual reports — is now studying the language of porn using corpus linguistics. He tweets at @alischinsky.


The British police drama Broadchurch can be gritty, uncompromising and bleak, but rarely sweary. Despite the grim events that rock the small coastal town, whole episodes pass without any strong language other than the occasional expletive shit or bloody hell. By the time that Cath Atwood gets coarse in S03E05, it’s because her husband and best friend’s affair has truly fucked her up:

Screenshot from Broadchurch, with Cath confiding: "She shagged my husband. Or he shagged... They shagged each other."

This is solid, realistic screenwriting: especially when under a strong emotion, people actually talk like that, hesitating, backtracking and correcting themselves (the technical term is ‘conversational repair’). But the whole point of correcting ourselves is to recognise we’ve botched what we wanted to say: we’ve used the wrong word, or the wrong verb agreement, or some shit like that that makes our utterance mean something other than what we intended. From that point of view, Cath’s repair seems odd: don’t ‘she shagged him’, ‘he shagged her’ and ‘they shagged (each other)’ mean exactly the same thing?

Well, not really. It’s pretty much a universal fact of language that, when two or more alternative ways of expressing an idea are possible, we end up developing some distinction between them. It happens with words: terms like wanker and masturbator can’t really be used interchangeably. And it happens with syntax as well: ‘Trish and Jim fucked’ and ‘Jim fucked Trish’ may describe the same events, but there is a clear difference in emphasis. In one case, we’re talking of fucking as something that two people do together, a collaborative activity in which both parties are equally involved. In the other, we’re talking of fucking as something that someone does to someone else: an asymmetric activity in which one of the parties has the initiative, and the other one lies there and takes it. Each version conveys a pretty different sense of who’s responsible, and Cath backtracks until she finds a way to express that both her husband and her best friend are at fault for the fuckup.

The fascinating thing about these grammatical nuances is that they help us answer some of the big social questions about fucking. Psychologists, sociologists and other scholars of sex have advanced the idea that our cultural scripts about sexuality have men in the active role (doing the shagging, as it were), and women in a passive one (getting shagged). If that’s true, then it should be reflected in the way we talk about these events: all else being equal, we should be more likely to talk about Jim fucking Trish than the converse.

Unfortunately, looking at the usual suspects — such as Google ngrams or the British National Corpus — is not very helpful in a case like this: though there is quite a bit of fucking and shagging going on in them, for the most part it’s not literally talking about the sideways shuffle, it’s using the word as an expletive or a term of abuse. But one genre in which descriptions of fucking are guaranteed to be plentiful is porn. I wrote a script to download the top-ranked 300 stories from Literotica.com, a big and well-established online archive of all things raunchy (which involved some interesting conversations with the IT guys at my institution), and for each instance in which a verb of sexual intercourse was used I tabulated whether it was meant literally, whether it was collaborative or asymmetric, and if the latter, the gender of the fucker and the fuckee (which involved some interesting conversations with students who walked in for tutorials).

I’ve plotted the results in the chart below: each of the bars represents an individual story, and the colours show the proportion of collaborative versus asymmetric sex acts. As a whole, we talk of shagging as something that two[1] people do together far less frequently than we do as something that someone does to someone else. There seems to be something to the argument that our cultural scripts about sex are built on an asymmetric idea of sexuality: we tend to place responsibility and initiative on one of the partners. As a conceptualisation of sexual activity, that’s definitely bollocks: anyone who’s ever had a good shag knows it takes two to dance the horizontal tango. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of the stories prefer to make a clear distinction between the one doing and the one being done:

“I was going to say that I’m not wearing any pants so you can fuck me whenever you want while I’m here for the weekend.”

“Cathy’s velvety hot pussy felt so good around his cock. And he had to admit that fucking Cathy in front of Carl was an added thrill.”

“She was a woman who needed to be fucked. I was a man who needed to fuck her.”

“She was also doing well at keeping flat against his body in an attempt to minimize how obvious it would look to any witnesses that she was on top of Harry, fucking him raw.”

(Click images to enlarge.) And it’s not just that porn writers like to spice things up by switching back and forth between the actions of different characters, showing in turn what each of them contributes to the naughty action. If we consider the gender of the different characters, it’s typically Jim who shags Trish, not the other way round:

The cultural script underlying these stories doesn’t construe women as entirely passive, but certainly as less active than their male partners. And when they appear in an active role, it may be an indicator that we’re talking about sexual practices of a relatively niche appeal: most of the time, when the stories mention a woman fucking someone else it’s because she’s using a dildo or a strap-on on them.

“Now she fucked him with wild abandon, just as he had fucked her, ramming the silicone cock up his ass to the very hilt”

“I can’t wait to get the harness on so everything’s nice and secure like that woman in the video said, and then I want to do exactly what she did to that guy, only I’m going to be doing it to my husband, who’s going to moan and groan and wriggle his hips for me as I fuck him for the first time.”

“She kept that up, drilling me, owning me, breeding me. Fucking me as if my ass was a cunt and she was some stud.”

Of course, the way we talk about shagging in everyday conversation is probably not the way we do in porn (“wild abandon” probably doesn’t come up all that often) but the differences may not be so great either. Out of the 73 literal instances of ‘shag’ in the BNC, less than 10% are reciprocal, and the rest show pretty much the same gendered patterns as in porn: male doers appear three times more frequently than female ones.

“No, this is true, I’ve never met a girl I’d just shag and leave – I always fall in love!”

“She used to, she used to love swallowing it. Oh it was great. I tell you what, I never used to shag her hardly at all. She used to like giving head so much I used to fucking right drop them (pause) yup slurp (pause) that was it.”

“Obviously if (pause) you’re having a long-term relationship (pause) and you know she’s not shagging anybody else and she’s not on the (pause) and she is on the pill.”

“Men do the fucking. Women get fucked. That’s the way of life,” reflects Martin, a character in one of the stories I analysed. I don’t know about life (that’s the business of those psychologists and sociologists we mentioned earlier), but that’s clearly the way of sexual talk — pornographic or otherwise.

For more on this, see my paper “Doing the naughty or having it done to you? Agent roles in erotic writing”, in the journal Porn Studies.

[1]     Or more; this is porn we’re talking about, folks.

6 thoughts on “Who fucks who, and why should we care?

  1. rpressergmail August 23, 2017 / 12:29 pm

    Was there any variation between “fuck” and “shag”? How about other words like “screw” or “ball”?

    In The Rape of the A*P*E* I remember a line about “either partner can ball.”


    • Alon Lischinsky August 23, 2017 / 4:05 pm

      Shag was too uncommon (just three occurrences) in the Literotica corpus to affect the analysis. The data reported in the graphs corresponds to the three most frequent verbs of sexual intercourse: fuck (76.3% of all instances), have sex (10.58%) and make love (10.32%).

      There are some interesting differences in the behaviour of each verb: make love is much more likely to be used in a reciprocal form (49.43% of the time) than either of the others (have sex: 32%; fuck: 7.2%). If we consider the asymmetric forms only, have sex is the only one to take a female agent more frequently than a male one (51.63% of the time, compared to 32.5% for fuck and 28.38% for make love).


  2. John Cowan August 23, 2017 / 3:47 pm

    My sense is that ball does not assign gender to either the subject or the direct object role player, but that most of the other copulatory verbs do, though all of them can be used intransitively. In Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, she plays with the (imaginary) language a bit:

    The language Shevek spoke, the only one he knew, lacked any proprietary idioms for the sexual act. In Pravic it made no sense for a man to say that he had “had” a woman. The word which came closest in meaning to “’fuck,” and had a similar secondary usage as a curse, was specific: it meant rape. The usual verb, taking only a plural subject, can be translated only by a neutral word like copulate. It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had. This frame of words could not contain the totality of experience any more than any other, and Sbevek was aware of the area left out, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was. (chapter 2)

    Not that the narrator doesn’t play even with this “neutral word”:

    They [Shevek and his adolescent friends] had come up to the hilltop for masculine company. The presence of females was oppressive to them all. It seemed to them that lately the world was full of girls. Everywhere they looked, waking or asleep, they saw giris. They had all tried copulating with girls; some of them in despair had also tried not copulating with girls. It made no difference. The girls were there.


    • Alon Lischinsky August 23, 2017 / 4:14 pm

      I had forgotten that lovely passage by Le Guin, John; thanks for reminding me of it! A similar point about verbal complementation plays an important role in Stone Telling’s story in Always Coming Home, though it’s about relationship status rather than sexual activity in that case.

      That said, the gendering of fuck and similar verbs is probabilistic rather than categorical. As the ‘she was also doing…’ example above attests, transitive fuck with a female agent is perfectly idiomatic English, and there’s plenty more where that one came from:

      ‘I wasn’t going to fuck him but my pussy was sure hungry for something thicker inside of her’

      ‘I was gonna fuck his brains out. It felt wrong, actively planning to fuck my husband while fantasizing about another man, but that seemed better than adultery.’

      ‘Let go of those hang-ups. Pretend like you’re a porn star when you’re fucking him. Be his little slut in bed. He’ll start doing things that you never expected.’

      ‘And it’s not like you fucked Barry, you just showed him some tits and ass, maybe a little pussy.’


  3. Neil Crawford October 7, 2017 / 1:31 pm

    BALL As a verb, to have sexual intercourse; a common euphemism used by “hip: speakers. (I fed him then balled him,” she said with self-satisfaction)…
    Robert A. Wilson (ed), Playboy’s Book of Forbdden Words, Playboy Press, Chicago, 1972, 16


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