you can stand under my umbrella

  1. Julie and Mike are into sadomasochistic sexting. Which among these emojis is most likely their ‘safe emoji’? Why?


Pickle is most likely their ‘safe emoji’, as, compared to the rest, it is one that will stand out in context as relatively more incongruous and unambiguous.


As Cameron & Kulick (2003) explored in Language and Sexuality, the eroticising of power differences in consensual SM scenes mean that erotic practices make explicit what is usually left implicit, where participants give / receive pleasure from acts of involving receipt or infliction of pain and humiliation.

As an ‘online’ counterpart to irl sadomasochism, sadomasochistic sexting would have to rely on a more visual presentation, alongside the narrative as constructed by the verbal messages. Through understanding electronic discourse as a written oral language – paralinguistic adaptations, such as emoticons, can play the role of syntactic markers (Amaghlobeli, 2012).

As illustrated in “a beginner’s guide to sexting with emoji” and “the emoji sexting glossary“, emojis can express a range of – wait for it – emotions, as well as actions, substituting paralinguistic features such as facial expressions and body language, supporting Amaghlobeli’s claim. Faces, such as???????, as well as ❕and ? , can create ‘complex emoji sexting narratives, along with?? ⛓????, as the objects or channels through which certain SM narratives could be enacted. For example, ?⛓? ????❕? could be use to illustrate a humiliation scene in a public restroom.

Certainly, making meaning from visual artefacts like emojis (Bliss-Carroll, 2016) builds from various intersections of previous experiences, contextual relevance, and discursive rules of language.

While one could easily claim that the pickle would appear mildly phallic, it is simply one of many other phallic shaped emojis, ? ? ? ? ? ?, amongst which the eggplant has been popularly taken to represent the male reproductive organ.

An emoji’s perceived meaning can be paradoxically clear in one instance, and ambiguous in another when utilised, but in the context of (expectedly) well-practised sadomasochistic couples sexting, ‘pickle’ as a popular ‘safe-words’ would likely be incongruous and unambiguous.

Another interesting point worth noting is the relationship between gender and texting, where femininity predicated emoticon use, where men were also more likely than women to receive sexually explicit text messages. (Ogletree, Fancher & Gills, 2014)

Hence it goes to say that individual differences in texting may be related to variables associated with gendered self-perceptions and traditional gender roles, with the choice of a pickle as a ‘safe emoji’ being a conscious choice determined by both participants.


  1. What does it mean to be ‘sex-positive’? You can start by reading thisthis, and this. What are, in your opinion, its implications for contemporary identity politics?

An extension of ISSM’s definition of sex positive as “having positive attitudes about sex” and accepting others’ sexual practices, orientations and lifestyles without moral judgement, sex-positivity is a relational concept that shapes the experiences of mean and women and everything in between. Like masculinity and femininity, homosexuality and heteronormativity, sex-positivity is defined by contrasts with being ‘normal’, or not being open on the topic of sexuality.

There are plenty of implications for contemporary identity politics, with more in-depth studies of the relationship between language use and the construction and display of sexual identities being necessary. Other issues include problems with identity and identification, as well as the materialisation of desire and power.

Sex positivity is not normal. Or at least it does not appear to be, with many associating being ‘sex positive’ with being ‘liberal’, or even, being HIV-positive. There is often a misalignment with cultural and religious values for sex-positive people, with sex often being presented as something abnormal and immoral (huffpost). Often, when sex is openly talked about, it is presented as unhealthy and irresponsible, with women bearing the brunt of sex-negativity manifested as “slut-shaming”.

With reference to Judith Butler’s performativity theory and Michael Billig (1999) analysis of the categorisation scheme in Cameron & Kulick (2003)’s Language and Sexuality,

“a radical refusal to identify with a given position suggests that on some level identification has already taken place, an identification that is made and disavowed”


“every prohibition implies its opposite”

telling someone not to act like a slut (as is often done by authority figures both at home and in the public domain) provides the person with information both about how sluts act and how normal, respectable women act. Language constitutes reality by reproducing the categorisation scheme in relation to which she must position herself, and one way this can be observed is through the presentation of subordinated, sex-positive women through linguistic marking, with the ‘sex-positive woman’ but not the ‘sex-positive man’, alongside the unmarked dominant groups, where being white/male/straight/sex-positive is the default standard for being human.

Another implication of sex-positivity is the materialisation of desire and power, or in other words, how desire and power is communicated in sexual relationships. Desire is materialised and conveyed through semiotic resources, with Penelope Eckert (2002)’s explanation of there being a structured variation in people’s use of the social semiotic of desire, wherein people are socialised to desire different things, and to express desire in different ways. This is especially so in the mainstream understanding of femininity and masculinity, in particular heterosexual femininity.

Following Eckert’s understanding of the development of heterosexual femininity as a desire to be seen as age-appropriate so as to gain and keep the acceptance and respect of other girls within their peer groups, promiscuity is likely associated with maturity, in cultures exposed to sex-active messages. In extending Billig’s analysis of the categorisation scheme, the marked status of ‘sex-positive people’ and ‘the sex positive woman’ in particular results in greater socialisation of ‘sex-positivity’, with ‘promiscuity’, which may or may not be acceptable and appropriate in certain societies.

It remains hard to say whether sex-positivity perpetuates heteronormativity, as sex-positivity also includes acceptance toward other sexual orientations. It is important for the study of language and sexuality to continue developing its comparative and cross-cultural dimension.


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