If there’s one thing that gets my knickers all hot and bothered, it’s baseball. Actually, that is a lie. Baseball is dusty and slow and possibly the least sexy sport (yes, curling is sexier). Which why I am at a loss for why baseball is the default metaphor for sex.
Forget the fact that you need a dude wearing a mask to tell you whether you’re being “safe"—the whole gambit falls way short. You know the drill: First base is making out, second base is groping, third base is south of the waist, and a home run is intercourse. Needless to say, the (four) sexual options of baseball are narrow and leave a lot unexplained.
More important, though, the metaphor is missing a key concept: consent. Even if you live under a pitcher's mound, you're likely aware of the national discourse regarding what's been called an epidemic of sexual assault among college students. The conversation has permeated our culture, demanding space in media, campus life, and public policy.
As reporter Chana Joffe-Walt pointed out in a recent episode of the radio show This American Life, baseball only moves in one direction. There’s no going backward. And when our sexual culture is built on assumptions derived from a game with no room for open communication about needs and desires, even the most well-meaning young people can misread a situation and end up making dangerous choices. So how should we talk about sex instead?
Where the baseball metaphor came from
The baseball model was not born in the dug out. “The earliest that we found a baseball metaphor for sex was in 1948 in the writings of Norman Mailer," Tom Dalzell, author of the 2007 book Sex Slang, told Fusion in an e-mail.
In his novel The Naked and the Dead, Mailer writes, "I got to third-base last night. I'll make her yet." (Considering Mailer was an outspoken misogynist who was vehemently anti-contraception, it probably makes a lot of sense that consent has no place in a metaphor he possibly coined.)
“To those for whom sexual activity is seen as a conquest to be measured, baseball is an apt metaphor," Dalzell added.
But of course, sex shouldn’t be a conquest. The baseball metaphor, however, pits lovers on opposing teams against each other, it’s heteronormative, it assumes that penis-in-vagina sex is the only goal of sex, and it assumes that once you start, you have to keep playing till the end. It's also a sport that only men play, Joffe-Walt notes.
Al Vernacchio, author, sexuality educator, and Ted Talk-er, has evangelized for years about why the model can be harmful. "Everyone’s supposed to know what to do and how to play the game," Vernacchio told Fusion. "That doesn’t lead us to have any kind of conversation that would even say that consent is necessary in the baseball model.”
Vernacchio said that because the model carries such a scripted chain of events (first to second to third to home), no one has the room to say if they don’t like that sequence or they want to stop. “And so, as a result, the expectation is: Once you start, you’re going to play the game to its conclusion.”
(Vernacchio himself has proposed a metaphor to replace baseball, one that he says more accurately reflects a healthy sexual conversation: pizza! He likens sex to ordering a pie. Together, the partners involved must talk about what they like and what they don’t like, negotiate, make concessions, and come to an agreement, all before they even get a chance to actually take part in the pizza.)
Young people need a more expansive sexual vocabulary
Part of why the baseball metaphor has endured is because most Americans aren't taught direct language to talk about sexual activity when we're young. And while we learn more as we grow older, many adults lack the right vocabulary to communicate about serious sexual issues, too. Without a nuanced understanding of what consent truly means—and corresponding language—conversations involving the subject become much more stunted, argues This American Life.
In light of high-profile sexual assault cases, college campuses across the county have begun to hold workshops focusing on consent. But sex educators like Vernacchio and others find this one-time approach doesn’t work.
Paula Madrigal, a Wellness and Prevention Coordinator at Buffalo State University in New York who was featured on This American Life, spoke to Fusion about the challenges of getting students to change the way they talk about sex—and along the way, their perspective on sex.
“If you’re in college, it wasn’t that long ago that you were learning the language of your body parts, because sex is a very taboo topic to talk about,” Madrigal said.
“And so now, all of a sudden, you’re already engaging in sexual activity and you come to college and we’re telling you you have to speak this new language that has either never been introduced or is kind of a new concept. So the students really struggle.”
Let's talk about sex—without shame
The baseball metaphor and our bajillion other euphemisms for sex speak to the fact that many people avoid at all costs talking directly about sex. “We use slang to hide embarrassment, to euphemize, and to dysphemize," Dalzell told Fusion. "Sex slang does all three."
Madrigal told me a story in which she asked students in the “I Love Consent” workshop she conducts at universities if their parents ever gave nicknames for their body parts. A student responded, “My mom used to call my ding-a-ling my 'chicken.'" There are "ding-a-lings," there are "chickens," there are "coochies," and there are "hoo-hahs." These terms may make sex easier to talk about in a casual way, but they also reinforce the idea that sex is embarrassing.
When kids in middle school learn about the biological aspects of puberty and sex, sure, they’re learning about the “plumbing," as Vernacchio put it—but sex is obviously much more than that. Vernacchio believes it’s important for young women to know what their own vulvas look like, for example, emphasizing that there is nothing dirty about being an expert on your own body.
Kids need to understand that these body parts are "valuable and they’re normal," he said, "and being an expert on them is not weird or gross or making you some kind of outsider."
Baseball does not teach young people how to understand and love their own bodies nor respect others' bodies—but parents and teachers can impart this language of sexual awareness and consent, according to the experts. Here's how:
1. Start early
Before parents get up in arms thinking we're telling kids to have sex early, let me be clear: The most important element to healthy, consensual sex is communication, and teaching open communication can never start too early.
“When you’re talking to little kids, kindergarteners, first graders, second graders, one of the concepts that little kids understand and latch onto is fairness," Vernacchio said.
If you have open conversations with children—not about sexual matters, but about what makes something fair, whether it’s everyone having a turn on the swing or sharing the last cookie—that simple lesson can set kids up for success. “You can then transfer that to sexual stuff later on in development,” he said.
Madrigal agrees that parents and teachers should learn to spot everyday opportunities to talk about what’s fair and what other people want. “Think in terms of kids hugging each other,” she said. “Whether it’s same sex or other sex, it’s really about teaching kids about, well ‘Does Johnny like to be hugged all the time?' or ‘Does Suzie really want you to give her a kiss on the cheek?' Things we think of as innocent are also an opportunity to teach about consent or permission.”
2. Make it a family affair
Headlines often paint the "sex talk" as a battle between parents and schools. While some parents refuse to have their child even hear the term “masturbation” in a school setting, others are more than happy to pawn the difficult conversation off on the education system. But according to Linda Charmaraman, a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, kids would rather learn about sex from their parents.
“In our studies we found parents have a desire to be the primary sex educators, but they often don’t know how to approach the topic," Charmaraman said. "They don’t know when is a good time, what is a good time, what do they start with, what are the right words, what are the right technical terms, what are values want to to impart, and it almost seems like parents need their own sex education.”
She added, “Parents have to understand that this is an ongoing talk. It’s not that one big talk that’s really scary and everyone’s sweating and that you have to cover everything. Kids can’t even grasp everything during the one question. They’ll have so many questions along the way.”
(Oh, and parents, for the love of all that is holy, don’t pull that thing where you say, “When you find the right person and the time is right, you’ll know what to do” and just leave it at that. Even the "right" partner won’t know what to do if you don’t tell them.)
3. Let sex be the awkward activity that it is
One of the most interesting points Joffe-Walt makes on This American Life is that many teens learn about sex through "correcting" previously held beliefs and myths and rumors they learned from peers—basically, through mistakes.
While mistakes may fundamental to the human condition, when it comes to sexual activity with another person, there's a big difference between little bump-like mistakes and larger, more harmful, transgression-like mistakes.
“The things teens are most terrified of is being awkward. Awkward is the most horrifying thing in the world,” Vernacchio said. “And the reality is that there is nothing more awkward than sex. It’s fumbly, and it’s funny, and people fart, and get cramps, and you’re really not in the right position and you thought you were.”
Watch any movie or TV show, however, and sex has never looked better—images in the media (including porn) portray sex as a flawless act. People just know what to do, without even talking to each other.
“We need kids to understand that the sense that sexual activity is going to magically unfold perfectly is a really harmful myth," Vernacchio said. "And that when we are sexual with somebody, the reason we need to be communicative and need to understand our bodies and we need to be thinking of mutuality is that that’s what helps us minimize the dangerous mistakes.”
Correction: Linda Charmaraman was originally referred to as a post-doc research fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women, when in fact she is a research scientist.