What Is This Thing Called, Love?

September 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Talk about sex often is often oblique and ambiguous.  In the early days of computerized content analysis, I knew some researchers who were trying to code ethnographic folk tales for sexual content.  The trouble was that pre-literate storytellers as well often preferred the vague to the explicit, much to the frustration of the researchers.  How can you  write a program that can distinguish between the nonsexual and sexual meanings of words like “it” or “thing”* (“And then he took out his thing and did it to her”)?

I was reminded of this when I read Philip Cohen’s post and N-gram graph about “make love” and “have sex.”

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

“Sex” takes off starting around 1970, “love” rises more slowly and after 1990 declines, while “sex” continues to climb. 

I don’t think Philip meant to imply that there’s has been a trend towards less love and more sex.  My guess is that what we’re looking at is the decline of “love” as a euphemism for “sex.”  Prior to 1950 or so, “make love” was an innocent or slightly naughty term without much connotation of explicit sex.  The added sexual meaning that grew in later decades made the term ambiguous.  In 1960, with Hollywood self-censorship still strong, the film title “Let’s Make Love” with Marilyn Monroe raised no eyebrows. 

 By 1974, when Roberta Flack sang, “Feel Like Making Love to You,” things were less clear.
When you talk to me
When you're moanin’ sweet and low
When you're touchin’ me
And my feelings start to show
That's the time
I feel like makin’ love to you.
 The pre-1970 “make love” line of the graph is carrying both meanings,  the sexual and the romantic.  But with the sexual revolution in full swing, some of the purely sexual references shift from the “make love” curve to the “have sex” curve.

That doesn’t mean that “have sex” became the preferred term.  Even for sexual references, “make love” may still be more popular.  For some reason, that sexual meaning is clearer when the phrase is in the past tense.  “Let’s make love,” is ambiguous.  “We made love” is more explicit.  And when you compare “We made love” with “We had sex,” the winner is still love.

*The title of this post is an old Benny Hill line (based on Cole Porter of course).  It was probably luv rather than love, but in any case, the word thing here is another example of ambiguous language when we talk – or don’t talk –  about sex.

No comments: