Learning a Language for Pleasure
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When I participated in a workshop by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), in one session we had to choose from amongst several topics that we were interested in, and divided into small groups for the in-depth discussion.
Without a doubt or hesitation, I chose the topic "Pleasure". I guessed since the theme of the workshop covered sexuality and physicality, the discussion would also be quite hot!
I was right. We shared a lot of reflections on sexual pleasure, from language and framing, to personal questions about our own bodies, to breaking the myths about female orgasms and the ‘differences between the sexes’ with stories of our own sexual experiences, and more. We also kept reminding ourselves to break free of the old ways of conceptualizing pleasure—too often as defined by power systems outside us, to think about sexual pleasure on our own terms.
It’s been half a year since the workshop ended, but what I remember most from that particular session was that at the time, I could not remember the word for "pleasure" in my native Kyrgyz language, nor how to best translate it.
It’s not that I speak the Kyrgyz language poorly, although Russian is my day-to-day language. But as hard as I tried to think of the word ‘pleasure’ in Kyrgyz, I was out of luck. Then I checked the Google translator and there came out the word "yrahat" (ырахат). It is quite a literary and beautiful word in the Kyrgyz language, and it is so unlikely that one would use it in the context of sexuality. At least I have never heard of it.
So we have a word for "pleasure" in the Kyrgyz language, but at the same time, I personally do not think it can be used in the phrase of "sexual pleasure". It got me thinking about the differences amongst and between languages and what this says about cultural mores about sex and sexual pleasure.
In English, "sex" has two meanings: i.e. a 'sex status' based on physiological markers that is assigned one at birth, such as intersex, female or male; and the actions between people that involve a range of erotic stimulation and sometimes sexual intercourse.
In Kyrgyz, the word “sex” does not exist. I remember starting to think critically about this in 2014, when I was writing articles on sexual and reproductive rights. There is the phrase “sexual intercourse” in Kyrgyz, but not a Kyrgyz word for "sex". We simply add different endings to the word “sex”, which translates into Russian also as “sex” (секс), but there is no direct translation. For example, "sexualdyk, sexsualduu" (сексуалдуу, сексуалдык). I wonder, do Kyrgyz linguists think about this?
All words related to sexuality in Kyrgyz, as well as the words in Russian which are much more common, are borrowed from foreign languages. We have a lot of words on loan from Turkish, for example, and other foreign languages such as French and English. I think Kyrgyz people do not talk about sex openly or explicitly; when we do talk about ‘sex’, the word itself is often replaced with such interjections as "it", "what’s being done at night", "when lying down”, “sleeping with" and so on. And the list of replaceable words might be extended.
I also doubt whether there are exact names of genitals in the Kyrgyz language, because even if we speak in Kyrgyz, the words are considered as coarse language. For example, the translation of vagina would be “ayaldyn zhynystyk muchosu” (аялдын жыныстык мучосу), and the translation of penis would be “erkektin zhynystyk muchosu” (эркектин жыныстык мучосу). Literally, these phrases mean "female sexual organ" and "male sexual organ".
But let’s be real, who uses these phrases in everyday talk?! Too long, too obtuse; please, show me such a masochist! Really, it seems to me that topics of sexuality are so taboo in Kyrgyzstan, that our poor genitals do not even have exact names.
It’s true in a conversation with children, or with each other, we now have single words for penis, such as "chochok, tatak, bulbulcha", or vagina, such as “um”. Yet these words are slang, and some consider them obscene. It makes me wonder about the roots of how we talked about sex and sexual pleasure, historically and culturally. Why do we still have such a taboo? Do you ever think about it?
Speaking of examples from my personal experience, I’ve only had rare talks about sexuality or sexual pleasure, often in the kitchen amongst sisters and friends. But still, very few people can speak openly about it. Usually the stories are told in the third person. You know, stories or conversation started by, "I heard that ...", or “Someone did this and ...”, or “In my friend's experience...”, and so on. I think we need more room for these open conversations, to share stories and ask questions on our own terms.
I remember, I was 21 the first time I heard the idea that sexual pleasure is an important part of life, and that a husband or partner of mine should be supportive and bring me sexual pleasure. I was at the end of a divorce that same year, and I had been weighing the "pros" and "cons". I needed my mom's advice.
I’m very lucky that I have an open and trusting relationship with my mother. We talked together in the kitchen, and she said, "Tell me one thing, does he satisfy you in bed?"
I had to ask her, "What do you mean?"
Mom re-framed: “Does he do what you like in bed?”
I thought about it and answered that I did not even know what I liked and what I did not, and then my mom clarified some more: “Your consent, wishes, desires”.
Did he satisfy me in bed, and want to know and discuss my sexual pleasure, consent, desires and wishes as a core part of our loving relationship?
I answered: “Never”, and then my mom said something like this:
"This is one of the most important parts of a harmonious sexual life and a harmonious family life. If that is not there, it is very hard to live with."
So at age 21 I realized how important sexual pleasure—consent, communication, respect, self expression, passion and desire—were for my mom, who would like it to be important to me as well.
It is unlikely other moms talk in such ways with their children about sexuality and pleasure as my mom did; My mom even knows about the virtues of masturbation and gave me tips about what to do, where to buy toys and how to make them work.
So I am all the more grateful to my mother for the conversation.
These days I rarely talk with my mother, because we live in different cities. But when we do see each other, we still do talk about sexuality and about pleasure. These conversations are important and not taboo for us, because we know how much we need them.
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About the Author
The author is a writer who explores gender, sexuality and rights across Central Asia.