Straight Talk About Junk: Why the Terms Lesbian and Gay Are Linguistically Insufficient

Sushi or hot dog?
Sushi or hot dog?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock

What do you call a woman who dates other cisgendered women and trans men who have decided against bottom surgery (the euphemism for phalloplasty, the surgical construction of a penis)? Is she a lesbian? A bisexual? A queer woman? A transphobic bigot? The first two are inaccurate, the third is overly vague, and the last assumes this woman is not fully accepting of the gender identity of trans people. This final option is certainly a possibility, given that transphobic beliefs are omnipresent, even within the queer community. But what if she just really likes vaginas?

As the language of gender identity has evolved, the language of sexual orientation has failed to keep pace with it. In our current parlance, a lesbian is a woman (cis or trans) who experiences sexual attraction to other cis or trans women. Likewise, a gay man is one who experiences such an attraction to other men, regardless of whether those men have penises. Bisexual denotes attraction to both men and women, and pansexual describes attraction to people of any gender. We have no language to describe the orientation of genderqueer people who are not bi or pansexual, or that of people who are primarily attracted to non-binary individuals. We also lack the ability to describe attraction that is strongly influenced by the genital configuration of one’s sexual partners.

Some in the LGBTQ community insist that people are attracted to other people, not to genitals. This may be so for some, but many of us feel a much stronger interest in certain sex acts than others, and while most everyone has fingers, a tongue, feet, or an anus, there are a couple of other body parts, ones that are particularly likely to be used during sex, that are a more sparsely distributed in the population. This doesn’t mean that people should be defined by their genitalia, far from it. Only those with an interest in going between a person’s legs should care one way or the other what they’ll find there.

In the third episode of Orange Is the New Black, Crystal, the wife of transgender inmate Sophia, pleads in a flashback: “I’m fine with the rest of it—the hair and the makeup, I’m fine with all of it. You’ll be a pro. Just, please, keep your penis. For me.” Perhaps instead of seeing Crystal as a straight woman making a last ditch effort to save her heterosexual marriage, we should think of her as a phallophile for whom the ability to have PIV sex in her intimate relationships is more central to her sexuality than the gender of her partner. I know that, for me personally, if you take the manliest man (say, Bruce Willis in Die Hard), and place an innie where his outie used to be, my amorous interest in him increases dramatically. I am a proud and unapologetic vaginophile.

Let’s face it: Even if most people are omnivores, some people flat-out prefer hot dogs, while others have an unreasonable, obsessive love of sushi. There’s no shame in it, as long as it doesn’t come from a place of ignorance or hate. Mature adults should be able to talk plainly about their sexuality, particularly with prospective partners, in a way that doesn’t objectify or shame anyone who happens to be packing the non-preferred equipment. In that spirit, I’ve come up with a list of potential terms to supplement our current categories. Those whose preferences run toward the long, the hard, and the ugly could self-identify as phallophiles, snake handlers, peter pipers, sword swallowers, or organists. While those who prefer mysterious caverns that may or may not also resemble flowers could refer to themselves as vaginophiles, pescatarians, cat fanciers, boxers, tunnelers, or bush whackers.

Ideally, if we allow people to talk more openly about their junk-based preferences, we could make more room for alternative or fluid gender presentations in our conception of sexuality. Still, there’s always a risk that too much attention to what’s between a person’s legs can become a means of exclusion or invalidation of trans identities. And a word of caution: Many trans folks consider questions about the status of their genitals to be rude and unnecessarily invasive, so such inquiries should be reserved for potential partners only. Tunnel responsibly, fellow sushi enthusiasts. Don’t be a dick about whether or not somebody has one.