How should we talk about sex? Ditch the baseball

Whenever we talk about abstract or complex topics (and even when we talk about things that are neither abstract or complex) we can almost guarantee that metaphors will be at the center of the stage. This is especially true when it’s not appropriate to focus on certain aspects of a situation or when we want to lighten a mood: talking about how our neighbor croaked or kicked the bucket is less morbid than saying that he died. Depending on context, we’re more likely to hear that someone lost his lunch instead of what he really did, which was blow chunks. Considering that sex is something that is awkward or inappropriate to talk about in many circumstances (and it would be crazy to suggest that we just avoid the topic in the first place!), it comes as little surprise that sexual discourse is highly metaphorical.

In this Ted talk, Al Vernacchio challenges the predominant American metaphor for sex: baseball. There are lots of ways that baseball talk is used to talk about sex, but the most common might be using the bases to refer to different sexual acts. You have to do them in order, just like you have to run the bases in order in a ball game, and hitting a home run is supposed to be a cause for celebration in both contexts. The metaphor extends beyond the bases, though. You can be a pitcher, a catcher, or a benchwarmer. The game involves a bat, a nappy dugout, and a catcher’s mitt. You can be a switch-hitter or just flat-out play for the other team.

Baseball isn’t a terrible metaphor for sex. Even if you’ve never heard of some of those metaphors (I hadn’t), if you know what generally goes down during a baseball game and you know what generally goes down during sex, you can probably figure out many of the mappings. In fact, that’s part of what makes a metaphor good – there are common relations between the two domains. Their commonalities are highlighted and their differences are ignored. But metaphors, especially ones like this with many mappings between the two topics, aren’t just ways of talking. They’re ways of thinking. Vernacchio argues that if we want to foster better views of sex in our society, maybe we need to ditch the baseball metaphor. He proposes that we use a pizza metaphor instead. Here are the different inferences the two might encourage:

  • You play baseball when it’s baseball season and a game is scheduled. You eat pizza when you’re hungry for pizza. When should you have sex?
  • There is no baseball game if there aren’t opposing teams. When you’re getting a pizza, you (hopefully) ask the others who will enjoy it with you what toppings they want. You’re all on the same pizza-ordering team!
  • Once you start making your way around the bases, there’s only one acceptable way to do it. You can’t stop midway and decide you’re good where you are. There’s no wrong way to eat pizza. You can eat it with a knife and fork, you can fold it in half, and you don’t have to eat it all – I’d bet a third of America doesn’t even eat the crust.
  • When you’re playing baseball, the goal is to defeat the other team. When you’re eating pizza, the goal is to have something you enjoy and that will be satisfying.

I like the pizza metaphor that Vernacchio proposes because it encourages productive inferences that baseball doesn’t. But it’s not perfect. Most pizza is not very good for you – to be consumed only rarely and with a modicum of guilt. Then there’s the problem of Italy – Italians have all the claim to it, and they’re probably still way better at making it than people anywhere else. Plus, what role does the delivery guy play in sex?

These picky ways that pizza and sex aren’t alike aren’t the point. By definition, metaphors align two topics, and there will always be some mappings between them that don’t work. If everything about the two topics were alignable, comparing them would no longer be metaphorical – it would just be talking about two things that are literally the same.

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