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why do we call it “adult”?

I’m both a sexuality educator and an adult educator. That is, I teach about sex and I teach classes for adults (both about sex and about other topics). So it seems really funny to me that we use the word “adult” when we mean “sexual.” As in: adult movie, adult store, adult content, adult themes. Most of the time, what we really are referring to is sex: sexual content, sexual themes.

I admit, I’m not the first one to notice this. It was even a subject of a Calvin and Hobbes strip, which I won’t paste here since I don’t want to violate copyright, but you can find it here. I love the fact that when Calvin asks, “What are adult situations?” Hobbes replies, “Probably things like going to work, paying bills and taxes, taking responsibilities…” Yes- that is what being an adult means. It’s not just about being sexual.

Also, given that there is plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence that children are sexual beings, whether they engage in sexual play, masturbate, or whatever, equating sex with adulthood only perpetuates the falsehood that children are asexual and that we somehow magically become sexual upon our 18th birthdays.

So if being an adult is about more than being sexual, and if being sexual doesn’t require being an adult, it seems to me that using “adult” as a euphemism for “sex” makes no sense at all. All of this brings me to the subject of euphemisms in general. Whenever we use a euphemism, part of what we’re doing is sending the message that there’s something wrong or bad or sinful that we can’t even bear to name. We might call a penis a “pee-pee” or a vulva might be called “down there.” On the other hand, what if we decided that our elbows were somehow dirty and had to be called “el-el’s”. Yes, it sounds ridiculous when I put it like that, but it’s no more ridiculous than “pee-pee.”

Euphemisms send the message that “the thing that can not be named” is bad (Holy Harry Potter, Batman!), whether we mean them in that way or not. So here are a few suggestions for more accurate language:

adult dancer –> erotic dancer
adult movie –> erotic movie
adult store –> sex toy/movie store
adult themes –> sexual themes
adult content –> sexual content

See how easy it is? It may not seem like much, but trust me- it makes a difference. And each time you use the words sex or sexual or erotic without getting embarrassed, it models sex-positivity and makes it just a little bit easier to be honest about sex. I invite you to give it a try and see what happens for yourself.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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