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?