The culture of language, and the ‘New Reticence’

Are we returning to a more Victorian sense of propriety?

There was an uproar earlier this month over the use of the word “vagina” on the legislative floor.

Well, actually there were two upoars – one on each side of the cultural divide.

First the Michigan House of Representatives barred members Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum from speaking on the House floor, after Brown used the word while discussing a bill that seeks to put new regulations on abortion providers and ban all abortions after 20 weeks.

Brown ended her time on the floor saying “And finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’”

In justifying the move to bar Brown from speaking again Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville said “What she said was offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

Then there was a public outcry on social media and in the press as people became enraged at the violation of the Representatives’ first amendment rights.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg, appearing on WHYY’s Fresh Air, said this was just one of several instances which point to what he calls “The New Reticence — a distaste for explicit discussions of sexual matters in public, even in the most antiseptic terms.”


The New Reticence has old roots. To the Victorians, a work could be held obscene or indecent simply because it dealt with a topic like sexual hygiene, prostitution or seduction, however decorously it described them. In 1914, Margaret Sanger was prosecuted for obscenity when she published a book advocating birth control. But the Victorian taboos were beginning to fray. By the 1920s, sex was an acceptable dinner party topic in sophisticated circles so long as it was described in an appropriately clinical way. That was when terms like “fellatio,” “homosexual” and “orgasm” entered the educated vocabulary, while the category of obscenity was narrowed to the vulgar terms for sex and the body — what people started to refer to as the “four-letter words.” It was the beginning of the long revolution in American mores that the historian Rochelle Gurstein described in a book called The Repeal of Reticence. From Freud and Sanger to Kinsey and Masters and Johnson to Dr. Ruth and Eve Ensler — with every generation, our public discussions of sex have grown freer and more open.

But not everybody has embraced that spirit of candor. There have always been a lot of Americans who are troubled by the clinical discussions of sex in public life. They suspect — and with some cause — that tricking sexuality out in a lab coat is a way of detaching it from the moral control of the family and the community. I don’t know whether those people are more numerous now than they used to be. But they’re clearly better organized and more audible. And they’re increasingly wielding the conversational gavel, sometimes literally.

You can read Nunberg’s complete editorial here.

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