Why is Sex “Dirty”?

Despite vehemently disliking the phrase, I’ve been called a “dirty girl” on multiple occasions by various guys since the beginning of adolescence. I’ve also frequently been told that I have a “dirty mind” because I enjoy thinking and talking about sexual topics. I wonder, why do we refer to sex as “dirty”?

What else do we call dirty? “Dirty” things are dangerous, offensive, alternative, or have already been used by someone else.

  • Dirty intravenous needles are contaminated with another person’s blood.
  • Dirty bath water is contaminated with everything that washed off the bather’s body.
  • Dirty drinking water is contaminated with environmental pollutants.
  • Dirty diapers have been soiled.
  • Dirty alcoholic drinks contain a change in color or murkiness from their default recipe.
  • In the case of Orbit gum commercials, people use their “dirty mouths” to swear, name-call, and express other angry, aggressive sentiments.

In contrast, “clean” things are safe, preferred, and the norm.

  • Clean blood and urine are free of dangerous contaminants.
  • Clean hair and hands have been bathed.
  • Clean carpets have been vacuumed and washed.
  • A clean drug-addict is sober.

Is sex considered “dirty” because of the excretion of bodily fluids? Is that how we treat all other bodily processes, too?

  • Using a toilet, yes.
  • Menstruating, yes.
  • Sweating, yes — though sweat can also be viewed as sexually attractive, depending on the sexual attractiveness of the sweater.
  • Crying, nope.
  • Having a runny nose, yes.
  • Eating, no, not even when food is shared with others.

So, eating is fine, but most other activities involving bodily fluids will be gross? What about kissing? Is French kissing “dirtier” because of the involvement of tongues, and therefore the greater exchange of saliva, or is kissing innocent enough to not trigger our repulsion alarm?

Childbirth — which frequently involves releasing a wide array of bodily substances, from amniotic fluid, to blood, to excrement, to sweat, to tears, and others — also seems to be an exception. Amusingly, the menstrual period that would have happened had there been no impregnation is “dirty”, and the sex that made the baby is “dirty”, but giving birth to the baby, and all the mess that entails, isn’t. I suspect that’s because of our cultural obsession with the “purity” of infancy and youth. We have glorified the ideas of “the beauty of creating life” and of “giving birth”, but not the beauty of actually living life, nor the beauty of giving other experiential bodily gifts like sex, or of other incredible bodily processes like menstruating.

Generally, is something considered “dirty” only when we have to clean up afterwards? Modern cleaning products for bodies claim to remove germs, bacteria, and other hazardous organisms that could cause illness or disease, yet cleaning products for objects claim to remove dirt, grease, contaminants, and other grossities.

When children have “dirty” hands in commercials, we don’t call them “dirty”; we call them “messy”. Again, we make exceptions for our culturally-idolized youth.

“Dirty” is reserved for taboo, unusual, risky, and/or pleasurable things. At the same time that we would not call a child “dirty” in a sexual sense, we do not tend to think of mothers as sexual, either. That’s why “MILF” is a term, because we wouldn’t otherwise be sexualizing mothers. But, what about the elderly? Old women are thought of as sweet, frail, and celibate, yet we toss around the phrase, “dirty old man,” as easily as, “wash your hands for dinner.”

You already know that our culture is obsessed with sex. Men who have sex are culturally-praised, unless that sex is kinky or involves children. We expect men to be “dirty”, to want sex constantly, without regard to their own physical health, mental health, or stress levels. Naturally, we aren’t phased when some men act accordingly.

Meanwhile, women who have sex are regularly termed “dirty”, impure, and unclean — unless that sex was with her presumably sex-crazed husband, and then it’s still more about fulfilling his needs than her own.

We continue to reinforce antiquated standards of prizing virgin women and ostracizing virgin men, and we expect men to always be receptive to sex and women to be extremely judicious with to whom, or from whom, they will give or receive sex. For women, it’s something to be lost; for men, it’s something to be gained.

…and then there’s the sexy name-calling. For many folks, being called “dirty”, “dirty boy”, or “dirty girl” by a sexual partner would be a good thing — or, at the least, would not be a bad thing. For example, the small sample of OkCupid men I surveyed unanimously enjoyed being called “dirty” by sexual partners because they saw it as a telltale sign of their partners’ approval and pleasure in the sexual activities they were sharing. However, I suspect that partners calling them “dirt” rather than “dirty” could yield much less favorable feedback (except for partners who enjoy receiving verbal degradation).

Our culture simultaneously praises and demonizes sex because we are afraid of sexuality. We need to stop unilaterally treating sexual interests and drives as inherently bad or dangerous, and instead focus on teaching safe ways to express and explore them.

I hypothesize that we continue to harbor an archaic fear of sexuality because we know so little about it, the same way that we fear “dirty” because most of us know only exaggerated claims about the harmfulness of germs. I additionally suspect that some people deliberately fan the fear flames to oppress how other adults choose to express their sexualities.

I would love to hear what you think! Do you think sex is “dirty”? Would you enjoy being called “dirty” in bed? What does “dirty” mean to you?

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5 comments

  1. Sex is not dirty. there are many factors cultural, propaganda, past trauma, family orienated beliefs that make people view it as such. In my opinion sex is another biological need like food and sleep so in it’s essense it’s neutral. But the same way a person with eating disorders may see food as dirty, enemy or disgusting, a sexually abused person may develop aversion to sex as a trauma response or result in prostitution.
    If you like do research on sexual trauma, betrayal bonds, spiritual abuse, narcissists. You will find some interesting things with those keywords

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    1. Thanks for your feedback! I, too, share your opinion that sex isn’t inherently dirty — or at least no dirtier than any other aspect of our health. That label has always rubbed me the wrong way (pun intended). I like how you view it as neutral ground, like any other biological need. I do, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s a large part of it and that the label can be removed as the rules change. For instance, women were considered dirty (and it’s almost always women when used in the derogatory sense) just for showing their arms in the US, which meant that they were sexually more liberated and more exposed to germs (always with the sexism). At some point, calling someone a dirty boy or girl will be taken more seriously or reserved to a certain group of people (for now I’d term them anti-sexuals) There will be some other term to replace that or not because there’s an inherent privacy in sex. Most people aren’t doing it out in the open along with everyone else and if that happens, that’s when being called dirty or whatever will change. This label can be removed or modified. For instance, people no longer use dirty in sex to refer to as awful but pleasurable or whatever instead. When applied to different groups, well those people who use that term to refer to their preferred group to hate are more often than not nowadays in many places as bigots.

    I don’t think all sexual intimacy is inherently dirty, and I hope I never implied that. We are biological creatures who as part of our evolutionary behaviors do what comes natural and that can’t be dirty to me. Sexual intimacy is as important and natural as any other kind of intimacy but some may argue that this differs from others in that sexual intimacy is the foundation for society therefore must be inherently different from others. And people need terms to highlight that difference. I don’t but I’m just a sample size of 1 which is useless data wise.

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  3. I kindly disagree. It’s not that we don’t know anything about it, or that being called dirty is purely because of germs and I agree that some people use it to suppress and oppress other people’s right to discussing and therefore more likely to be acting out their sexual preferences, fetishes, etc. My view is that it is a mix of everything in society and that it may be our current society’s way of maintaining social order. We’re also living in a fairly conservative country, the US, by many standards including culturally. People in new york city will be more likely to talk about sex than people in oklahoma city but then there are things like gender roles, hold overs from racism and simple generational/socioeconomic/location differences. People who live in big big cities may find it much easier to discuss their sexual natures because people around them provide cover where as living in a small town may find that discussing such personal matters (involving a tiny group of individuals or an individual) breaks down the final barrier between personal and social life. There’s also things like victorian culture that we still deal with, religious belief (sex is the ultimate act of self love and love for another, not the higher power necessarily), and germs (STDs are real and discussing sex may imply that the probability of me having an STD is higher). There are also environmental things and psychological things like if my parents were comfortable with their sexuality and I was comfortable with mine and theirs, well maybe I’d be more likely to be more comfortable with sex. In our current culture, which is changing, being called dirty this or that refers to someone who has sinned in some way and notice the way the term dirty is applied to groups of people. It’s like being called an stained criminal, a stain that can’t be removed, a form of A for adultery like in the Scarlet Letter.

    In any case, I don’t mind and sometimes even like being called a dirty boy because of how personal it is provided it’s in a teasing manner which is the point. When I’m called a dirty boy, it hints at something private, something unique to me, quite anti-social if you think about it and against the mores of our society. We like being different and even somewhat important because of it, being called dirty maybe a socially acceptable way doing so. It’s as you said a way of showing your partner’s approval that they are willing to be that intimate

    There’s quite a bit to break down here and parse. I would explicate more but there’s not enough time. In any case, please happily disagree.

    Best Regards,

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    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective and for elaborating! If I am understanding you as intended, I agree with you that our culture uses social stigma to maintain the status quo. I’m curious (1) if you believe that once we label something as dirty, that label can never be removed; and (2) if you believe that all sexual intimacy is therefore inherently dirty…? Cheers!

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