Why valprehension?

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January 13, 2013 by Kasey Weird

So, that big giant title up there? What’s that about, eh?

The short answer is that the story and significance of the word valprehension fill a very special place in my heart, because discussing this word involves all of the topics that I have the most to say about (language, privilege, sex, and gender). Allow me to demonstrate:

It’ll probably start becoming pretty apparent as this blog progresses (if the cat’s not already out of the bag) that language is an extremely important thing to me. And I actually honestly believe that exploring the limitations and boundaries of any given language can tell you an awful lot about the society/societies in which that language is prevalent.

Because the way language works is that it grows an changes through use, and to fulfill the functions that its users require of it. I think that language is one of those things that is often fallaciously conceptualized as this unchanging (or slow-changing) juggernaut of a thing that we have to try to filter our thoughts into if we want to communicate. But the rules of language (what is and is not a word, and also the rules of spelling and grammar) can beĀ  double-edged sword. A certain amount of standardization is necessary to allow communication between and among different social groups, and to increase the universality (or the universal potential) of a language. But at the same time, these rules can sometimes hamper clear communication.

For instance, I’ve been told numerous times that “impactful” is not, in fact, a word. But here’s the thing; if I use the word impactful, I think it’s fair to say that most an English speaker knows exactly what that word means. And every time that I have chosen to use it in my academic career, it has been because I could not find another word that adequately expressed the precise connotations of impactful. I actually developed a list of potential alternatives at some point, but none of them mean quite the same thing, and it seems pointless to tell people they can’t use the word that means the thing they want to say simply because no one’s incorporated it into a dictionary yet.

Regarding grammar, well, this was recently covered at great length over at Painting the Grey Area, so I’ll just say this: a whole lot of grammar doesn’t serve any real communicative function (i.e. rules about ending sentences in prepositions, which, if followed, can actually make sentences more awkward and harder to parse), and in practice only manage to serve as a barrier to marginalized groups’ participation in discussions that affect their lives.

Aaaaanyway, so what does this have to do with valprehension? Well, it’s not in any dictionaries yet, for one thing. Not even, sadly enough, urban dictionary. But it fills a very serious gap in the English language, one that caused it to be greeted with much fanfare among sex writers when it was coined.

Becca over at Becca’s Sex Blog originally coined the verb “valprehend,” from which I take the noun valprehension. The definition is “to actively grab or seize with the vagina or rectum.” This word is important because most (penetrative) sex acts are discussed solely from a perspective in which the penetrator is the active participant, and the person “being penetrated” is just that, passively being penetrated. Their participation is reduced to simply being present for the penetrator to penetrate.

Which is very often an inaccurate way of describing the involvement of the non-penetrating partner in a penetrative sex act. To make an extreme example, imagine someone with a penis in completely immobilizing bondage. Their partner is on top of them; the immobilized person’s penis is in their partner’s vagina (or rectum), and the mobile partner is moving around in ways that are pleasing to both people.

In this scenario, the person whose member is inside the other person can’t really be said to be penetrating the other person. Their participation is limited to being along for the ride, having the experience and emoting about it. And the mobile partner in this scene is certainly not “being penetrated,” they’re valprehending their partner, possibly vigorously. And hopefully they’re both having all kinds of fun, (although I think that a positive side effect of removing penetration from its pride of place in descriptions of sex acts is that is also makes it easier to conceptualize cases of rape wherein someone is “forced to penetrate” someone else; “forcibly valprehended” is a more illustrative phrase, I think, and one that will fight back against the idea that such a thing can’t happen, since we didn’t previously even have the language to talk about it.)

Of course, I don’t mean that penetration and valprehension are somehow mutually exclusive – it’s perfectly common to have two active participants in a penetrative/valprehensive sex act, and mutual penetration/valprehension is great fun!

Ok awesome, but I guess that still doesn’t actually tell you why it’s the title of this blog. To be perfectly honest, the name popped into my head and I loved it instinctively, but there are a number of reasons that I think I had that reaction to it.

Firstly, I like the idea of raising awareness of the word. It certainly has not yet reached a mainstream audience. I was disappointed to find that it hasn’t even reached parlance in academic circles, even in sexuality studies (i.e. the word hasn’t appeared in the title of any academic papers that I could find in my university’s online catalog). The more it gets used, the better. So there’s that.

But also, “valprehension” as a concept is important to me in reframing the way I think about my sexuality. In 2012, I came out to my friends as genderqueer/gender-fluid, and that’s just one component of my quest to understand my sexuality and gender expression from outside as many of the standard frameworks as I can. It is freeing for me to stop trying to conform with my birth gender, and to not feel like a failure for doing so. It’s also freeing to remember that just because I like to bottom sexually doesn’t mean I’m a passive figure in my on sexuality, even when I go through phases where being the penetrative partner is completely unappealing. But this is a topic that might need its on post. Let’s just say that I find the existence of the word valprehend to be somehow inherently empowering to valprehenders everywhere.

Edited to add: All right, this is relevant to today’s Daily Prompt

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