On Sex and Grammar
Sep 27 ● BY Mary Spencer Neal
Soon after quarantine began, I started taking online creative writing courses. Over the summer, I took a class on personal essays. Day One started with a grammar lesson. My teacher took us through a review of simple sentence structures: subjects, objects, verbs, and passive and active voice. He shared his Zoom screen and put the corresponding sentences below on a digital whiteboard:
Women are killed by men.
Men kill women.
I’m a high school history teacher. I spend eight hours a day nine months out of the year teaching fourteen-year-olds how to express themselves clearly, so I anticipated breezing through the lecture. But what followed is a rare classroom experience. Encountering a basic disciplinary technicality helped me realize, or remember, a liberating truth about language.
Women are killed by men. This sentence exists in passive voice. Women are the subject of the sentence, so they appear to be the agents of the communicated idea. The important verb—the action of the sentence—is killed, but the first true verb that appears is are, a verb about existence rather than action. While women are the subject of the sentence, they are the receivers of the action, not the enactors themselves. Men are made the object of the sentence, and they appear at its end, detached from their violence. The structure of the sentence fails to assign true responsibility for misogyny to men, because it attaches the killed women more directly to the verbs.
Men kill women. This sentence is written in active voice. Men are the subject of the sentence, women are the object. Kill, the only verb, is attached directly to its subject, its enactor: men. The grammar realigns the focal point for misogyny’s genesis.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this lecture for the rest of the eight-week course. I got hung up doing painstaking analyses of the sentences I read in books, on social media, in the news. Where are the verbs? What action does the subject inflict upon the object? What power(s) does the subject hold? How do I conceive of the subjects and objects differently if I rearrange their placement? Who has agency in this sentence? Who deserves it?
I’ve been trying to harness and absorb the wisdom in those questions for a long time. So have most women. There were eight of us in my essay writing class this summer. Several of them wrote drafts on sex and relationships, and I saw a lot of my life reflected in their content. Validating acknowledgements populated the Zoom chat box for the first few classes, but my teacher didn’t want us to settle for validation. He pushed us to investigate our craft at the sentence level—the grammatical level. He told us the truth: many women writers, especially when they are first starting out, write with ambiguous pronouns, and slip unconsciously into passive voice, especially in their most vulnerable drafted moments. The pattern has nothing to do with talent or skill. It’s a phenomenon that derives from a widespread force that discourages women from naming their own desires and truths, even more so from pursuing or acting on them. So in writing, if not in speech, women either become the objects of their own sentences, or subjects passively receiving actions from more empowered objects.
The point about craft was that when people slip away from noticing grammar and its function in the social world, the ways they learn to narrate their own lives often reflect the world’s status quo power differentials. And so women in particular have to relearn how to narrate their lives actively. We have to relearn how to name the things we want without apology. We have to relearn a lot of things.
My first four years away from home gave me vocabulary, or scripts, for questioning power structures. When I was eighteen, charging up I-95 from a Bible Belt suburb to a Pennsylvania ivory tower, I felt I was being emancipated from some foolishly antiquated sexual mores. I made the mistake of thinking those attitudes, among others, were unique to hometowns like mine.
The truth is that I was not sexually liberated by the North. While I grew up in conservative institutions, I was raised by parents who took sex, and me, seriously. They gave me sage enough advice: “If you aren’t mature enough to talk about sex with your partner, you aren’t mature enough to have it.” For the most part, they trusted my adolescent self to make healthy decisions and, for the most part, I did. My first boyfriend and I met when I was in middle school. We dated for seven years. Life dealt me a good hand for slow, gradual sexual exploration. Interrupted foreplay was my MO for most of high school, and I still feel a deep pride in the unoriginality of my dorm room, twin XL virginity loss.
Seven-year-boyfriend and I broke up over Skype the summer between junior and senior year. I was teaching in New Orleans. It was too hot to grieve any more than I already had, but cool enough to run a 5k in the Uptown park next to my dorm on Tulane’s campus. I sprinted the last half mile, and by the end, I was excited about going back to college and the New World of hookup culture.
The transition from a long relationship to casual sex did not feel abrupt. In high school, I slowly encountered the foreignness of another person’s body and desire. At the end of it all, the frontier was known, and I didn’t consider the possibility of rolling back to home base. When I got back to campus in the fall of 2012, I didn’t go slow.
I had sex with everyone who came to my room, the first time they came. Full penetration, including oral sex if they initiated it. I didn’t hook up “all the way” because I greatly desired it every time, though sometimes I did. I hooked up because sex simply wasn’t new to me. Having been there and done that, I felt I should, by default, incorporate all the “there” and “that” into my escapades. It never crossed my mind that I could build the heat slowly, or that I might even want that.
Writing, at least in the rough drafts, is a medium through which we relocate and reconstruct ourselves in the muddy memory of what has happened to us. Was that true? What really happened? Did I truly want that?
Senior year, a male acquaintance raped one of my friends after a campus party. She told me about it the morning after. A few weeks later, I was partnered with him for a project in our mutual Religion class. We met in the library. When he said we should move to his room to keep working, I said no. When he nudged again, I lied and said I had a dinner date. As soon as I hit the library’s exit, I broke into a sprint that carried me all the way back to my room and I locked the door.
In Boston, I matched with an MIT researcher on Tinder and made out with him on a mattress on the floor. Our shirts came off before I realized he was sucking my bottom lip so hard it was swelling up to twice its normal size and bleeding on the inside. I didn’t want to have to explain the injury to a class of tenth graders the next morning. “I have to get up early. I’m a teacher,” I said abruptly. I knew he was confused. I smiled with teeth as he walked me downstairs, feeling my whole mouth realign around the wound. I never responded to any more of his texts.
A few weeks before the 2016 election, I met an engineer I wanted to date exclusively. He wanted to keep his options open, so we agreed to part ways. Sometime in February, after a long week of teaching, I got cheap-wine-tipsy and booty-called him. I was overwhelmed. My news apps were flooded with headlines about the Trump administration destroying access to reproductive health care. I was getting group texts from women friends abandoning the pill. They were sprinting to their doctors to get IUDs, and encouraging me to do the same. The GOP had put its morality masquerade on steroids, and I wanted to have as much meaningless sex as possible. Engineer man thought my booty call was flattering or convenient or both, so he said he was interested, but had a cold. That was as irrelevant to me as flyover country had been to Hillary. He headed my way, and while he transferred between buses, I kept drinking. Always the gentleman, he checked in with me when he got to my place. I said, “This here is a Fuck the GOP situation. Not more than that.” He laughed. I let him come in my mouth, then went to the bathroom and threw up three glasses of Chardonnay.
Maybe it’s a rite of passage for thirty-year-old women to look back at their previous decade and mine the crevices in the foundation of their former independence, looking for any mold or leaks. I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of my time hooking up was rather rote, rather mechanical. I’m a direct person, sometimes to the point of bluntness. Friends often name this trait of mine, so I think I assumed my bedrooms were always flooded with clarity and honesty. Looking back, the levy at the foot of the door was actually pretty tight.
I still think most of my sexual encounters were healthy ones. I’m one of the lucky few who has had the good fortune to escape any situation in which I might have lost all power. Maybe the unremarkable nature of my time in Newhookupland is why I rarely slowed down to think about what was being said versus what wasn’t being said. Mindlessly going through the mechanics gave me the false sense that I was the protagonist of my own narrative. Somehow, I’m not sure I ever truly learned how to be my own subject.
I learned how to talk about sex enough. I often spoke in sentence fragments. I usually didn’t ask questions, unless they did first. Sometimes I asked a question in order to answer all of their unasked ones. “Do you have any condoms?” That always came before anyone was fully naked, so there was nothing left to talk about. And I never said no, save for in those few potentially worrisome circumstances. Sex while woman is easier when you don’t say no. You never lose any battles.
There’s a difference between a healthy sexual decision, even a liberated sexual decision, and a powerful one. Ten years of “sexploration” has dropped me at the door of a new decade slightly confused. After you’ve lived your life in sentence fragments for years, it becomes more difficult to build a narrative. It becomes challenging to create, enact, and achieve your own desire, because the thing you desire seems opaque, or distant, or fantastical.
At the end of the essay writing class this summer, my teacher told us, “To figure out the stakes of a sentence, look at the verbs first. Each part of the sentence implicates the other parts.” I’ve tried to see in retrospect the stakes of my sexploration. Writing over the summer made me think that somewhere along the way, a lot of women wind up removed from power because they learn to exist detached from the focal points of language, even their own language. I grew up adjacent to my own liberation. I observed it sideways. I watched myself create the conditions in which I could exist independently, then moved into the muddy territory between object and subject.
Women are killed by men.
Men kill women.
Upon reading the first sentence, most people are quickly led to ask something like: “What are women doing that leads to their being killed? Did they do something to try and avoid that fate?” When we read the second sentence, we are more inclined to ask: “Why are men killing women?”
These days, teaching grammar is unfashionable among teachers. I’ve watched colleagues who do care about grammar get anti-intellectualized. A popular line in the faculty workroom is: “I don’t care that much about my students’ grammar. I care about their ideas.” I’ve said it a few times, too. No good teacher wants their classroom to be a dungeon of rote memorization and mindless technical “exercises.” I don’t want my students to spend time adapting The fence was jumped over by the lazy dog to its active-voice alternative. We have better, more important things to do, and even the mediocre among us know how much joy gets sucked out of learning when these kinds of drills colonize learning time. We want our students to love language, its beauty and majesty and power. None of us want to be the “Grammar Nazi” leading our students on the death march to the five-paragraph essay.
While I am rewriting and re-visioning my twenties, my students are asking their own questions about power. Last May, after eight weeks of remote learning, they wrote end-of-freshman-year letters to me. Most of them wrote about how Covid was impacting their lives and how normal adolescence had mostly come to a halt. One student wrote about what she was observing on social media news:
“My eyes have been widened to problems greater than in our small privileged community. The horrible video of George Floyd was absolutely disgusting and I am amazed by how much social media has taken off based on the action of one man. I have probably learned more about the modern world with this break from school rather than being in school [emphasis added].”
My students live in neighborhoods where police officers are almost entirely absent. I sat up straighter when I saw that a fourteen-year-old girl had written George Floyd’s name. My students are thinking about power and violence and justice even when the circumstances of their lives suggest such thinking is irrelevant or unnecessary.
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount my students need to learn to have a firm grasp on the hydra of systemic violence that plagues this country. Early in my teaching career, one of my mentors said, “You don’t have to teach the whole world in one lesson. You can’t.” I try to remind myself of that daily. And I try to show my students that I deeply care about their thoughts on the world around them, the world they are inheriting faster than the speed of light. I’m employed to teach them a fraction of what happened in the world between the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of medieval European feudal structures. Sometimes ancient history seems incomprehensibly foreign to them. So the last line of the letter feels like a sacred reminder, a divine question, an invigorating confrontation.
I told that student I was proud of her for thinking about George Floyd and police brutality. I wonder what would have happened if I had spent ten minutes talking to her about grammar.
George Floyd was killed.
White police officers killed George Floyd.
After my essay writing class this summer, I’m wondering when my colleagues and I allowed ourselves to be convinced that the power, beauty, and merit of ideas can be divorced from the grammar with which they are expressed. The way we read, write, and speak is the way we relate to, understand, and struggle with other people, and with systemic violence. My writing teacher summed up his lecture by saying, “Grammar is an expression of the way a language arranges power. It has real-world implications in power structures. Victim blaming happens when we reduce violence to passive expression.”
I wish I knew the answer to the “grammar in the classroom” wars. I’ve grown tired of telling young people, “Your ideas are more important than the grammar.” That is a foolish attempt to persuade our students, and ourselves, of the self-destroying notion that what we say is more important than how we say it. There are missed opportunities at best in this philosophy, danger and complicity with violence at worst. In between the best and the worst is the failure of mistaking privilege and independence for liberation and freedom.