To Slide or to Slice? Finding a Positive Sexual Metaphor
In high school, I was very lucky to have a yearlong sexuality course taught by a real live sex educator. My favorite class was a lesson about sexual models that the instructor, Al Vernacchio, created. I’d like to present it to all of you. As he did when teaching me, first I’ll examine the “baseball model” of sexuality based on Deborah Roffman’s work, and then I’ll describe Al’s alternative model (which rocks).
Whether we’re aware of it or not, in American society we often grow up with baseball as the metaphor to describe sex. It’s everywhere.
Baseball is the common language with which so many of us are taught to think about sex. People talk about getting to different bases, “hitting a home run” or “scoring.” An insertive partner is called a “pitcher,” and a receptive partner is the “catcher.” A gay or lesbian person “plays for the other team.” Bisexuals are “switch-hitters.” To “strike out” is to be rejected. The list goes on. And on.
The baseball model is so widespread, we rarely notice its influence. We're like fish who don't know we're in water.
Most people are introduced to the metaphor before they even know what the symbolic language refers to. What the heck is 3rd base? Well, usually it refers to manual or oral sex, but even if you don’t know that, an entire value system has been communicated: that 3rd base is “better” than 2nd, which is “better” than 1st, and that all of the bases are eclipsed by “scoring” or vaginal intercourse—the only activity that in this paradigm is considered “real sex.”
The value placed on “getting to a base,” reveals a deep flaw in our culture's view of sex. Sex isn’t a “thing” one can “get” from another person. It's something wonderful that everyone has within themselves, that can be enjoyed alone or with others. Healthy partnered sex is a mutually desired and created experience. Sex should be about doing what feels best for everyone involved. That necessitates flexibility, improvisation, playfulness, and a comfortable pace. In baseball you can’t deviate from standard game play, and this makes it a poor model for sexuality.
A Debasing View of Sexuality
In “The Power of Language: Baseball as a Sexual Metaphor in American Culture” (1991), Deborah Roffman describes the baseball metaphor as “insidiously powerful, singularly effective, and very efficient…as a vehicle for transmitting and transferring to successive generations of young people all that is wrong and unhealthy about American sexual attitudes.”
Let’s deconstruct the baseball model as Roffman and Vernacchio do and see how that’s true.
Most basically, baseball is a game involving two opposing teams. During an inning, one team tries to gain runs while the other team tries to prevent runs from being scored. Does anyone not think that is a totally eff’ed up sexual scenario? But it exactly conveys the sexual values of our culture.
Men are expected to pursue heterosexual sex (regardless of their actual desire) and are supported in doing anything to “get it.” Meanwhile, women are supposed to avoid sex, say “No,” yet be prepared for their “bases” to be “stolen.” “Scoring” is the ultimate goal. If we look at that in terms of sexuality, consent is actually a hindrance to the game. The baseball metaphor is all about one partner forcing their way through the resistance of the other. It has nothing to do with mutual desire.
Baseball is fundamentally oppositional. Both teams can’t win. One team wins and the other loses. As sex, that’s about one partner “gaining” something, and the other partner “losing” something. In our culture, women tend to lose status when they have sex, and there’s a lot of hubbub about women “losing” their “precious virginity.” Men, on the other hand, gain status and respect from sexual experience. This aspect of the model also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, which are rarely conducive to safe, empowered and satisfying sexual encounters.
Simply reaching each base and moving on to the next is what our culture values most. The baseball metaphor doesn't include desire or pleasure (not to mention lingering on a "base" you particularly enjoy). Instead, it's about social status, meeting cultural norms and moving through an artificial rite of passage. The baseball metaphor presents a fictitious hierarchy of sexual activities. In real life, there is no universal ranking of most enjoyable or desirable activities. Everyone is different. True enjoyment of the "game" comes when you do what you feel most moved to do in the moment.
Baseball is a game that is highly regimented. You can’t, for example, run from first base to third, or from home to second. There’s no opportunity for spontaneity; baseball is about following a specific pattern of play. In sex that means following a culturally constructed script of sexual behaviors, instead of continually fluctuating, individual desires.
In baseball, for the game to work, players must stick to their assigned positions; they can’t just wander around the field all willy-nilly. They have specific roles and tasks. If a second baseman gets tired, he can’t sit down on his base to rest for a while. The pitcher and the catcher can't switch positions just for fun. And there’s an umpire to make sure everyone follows the rules.
Our society has codes of conduct for how men and women ought to behave in sexual relationships and during sex (i.e. straight men can’t enjoy anal sex; if a woman does x, y or z, she’s a slut; bisexuals are untrustworthy because they “swing both ways;” and genderqueers don't belong on any team at all). In a society steeped in the baseball metaphor, genuinely unique and complex identities and interactions are discouraged.
Baseball is seasonal, and it’s a spectator sport. The game is played more for the benefit of the audience than the players. And the “real” baseball games—the games that “count”—are played during a specific season. In our culture, Valentine’s Day, prom, wedding night and honeymoons can certainly be considered “game days." People are expected to abstain from sex before “the season,” and then to perform, ready or not, at those times when everyone is watching. This kind of hype creates a lot of problems. All that pressure to make everything perfect on your "special night" often guarantees that it will be stressful and disappointing. Pressure in general inhibits awareness of our wants and needs. External pressure also often leads to riskier sex. Any calendar approach to sex means that it’s determined by outside forces, which can never accurately predict your own desire.
Another major problem with the baseball model is that a lot of people end up being left out. Baseball is exclusive. Traditionally it’s a game for the young, fit and able-bodied. Elders, disabled people, those of us who aren’t sexually-attractive by media standards—groups we’re taught to think of as nonsexual—are often dismissed from society’s sexual playing field.
Baseball requires special equipment, a specific skill set, and exceptional ability. This parallels two myths about sex. First, that sex is something only a select few are “good at.” Second, that there are esoteric techniques that will work for everyone. Our culture suggests that qualities like having “the biggest bat” or a specially “mowed field” make you desirable or skilled at sex. In reality, good sex is open to everyone and has a lot more to do with self-awareness, basic knowledge of sexual anatomy and good communication with a partner.
In the baseball metaphor, gay and lesbian people “play for the other team.” In our culture, queer people are seen as “other,” “different,” even the enemy. Given how widespread the baseball metaphor is, with its erroneous depiction of penis-reaches-vagina as the ultimate sex act, it’s no wonder so many people are baffled as to how queer people conduct their sex lives. The baseball metaphor obscures the existence of queer sex to such an extent that, for those unfamiliar with it, it becomes difficult even to conceptualize. If the dominant metaphor revealed that all sexual activities are “real sex,” queer sex wouldn’t be mysterious.
You also can't play baseball alone. In the baseball model, masturbation doesn't even exist. It ignores masturbation as sexual activity. (Well, maybe some people can practice swinging their bats, but that leaves a lot of folks waiting for the "game" to come to them.) To play baseball, you need an opponent to play against, otherwise you're not really playing the game. But in the real world, masturbation is the foundation of healthy sexuality. If sex were a game, masturbation is the place you learn about the equipment, it's the perfect field that's always open, the coach who gives you continuous feedback, and it's where you play with your most compatible, beloved and loyal teammate, yourself. Any effective model must place masturbation as central to sexuality, not as invisible, or at best, as "practice" for a "main event."
Since the baseball metaphor has so many problems with it, Vernacchio created another metaphor that is much more holistic, inclusive... and tasty.
He suggests that instead of baseball, we get a template of sexuality from pizza.
Almost everyone likes pizza.
It's got little in common with baseball, but a whole lot in common with sex.
You don’t have to be young or popular or skilled in any way to be good at eating pizza. It’s a sensual experience, like sex, that most people enjoy. Eating pizza involves the same senses as sex—it’s a full body experience.
People eat pizza because they want to. As with sex, we have a hunger for pizza (“Let’s have pizza!”) and we eat it when we have that hunger. It has to do with personal anticipation and excitement, not someone else’s ideas about how or when we should or shouldn't eat pizza.
Unlike pizza-eating, the game of baseball is a means to an end. The entire game is played for the purpose of arriving at the final score. But when we eat a pizza, the ultimate purpose is not to arrive at the goal of an empty box. The point of getting a pizza is how delicious it tastes. The activity itself is the goal. There isn't even a predetermined finishing point. The end comes when all participants feel personally satisfied. Pizza-eating has no main event equivalent to reaching home. The last bite isn’t necessarily better than the first.
People have varying appetites for pizza. Some people are happy with a single slice once or twice a year, and others eat a whole pizza for breakfast every day. And that’s okay! We understand that people have different appetites for pizza, that people shouldn’t eat pizza when they don’t want to, and that some people don't like pizza at all. That same understanding should be applied to sex.
You can eat pizza alone, or with another person, or with several people, and they’re all equally valid experiences. Eating pizza with a spouse isn’t inherently “better” or more satisfying than eating it alone, or with a group of friends. If we look at sex through the lens of pizza-eating, then masturbation, sex with a partner, and group sex are all “real" sex.
Eating pizza with a partner is also not a radically different experience from eating pizza alone. The pizza model deflates the myth that masturbation is a lesser sexual experience than partnered sex. Eating pizza alone encompasses the complete pizza-eating experience, just as masturbation is a complete sexual experience. When we do it it with someone else, the fullness of the experience doesn't change, we simply add communion with our partner(s) to the experience. What's different is the companionship, intimacy, variety, and possibly the fun of having someone feed you for a change.
Topping it All Off
People like all sorts of toppings on pizza. Personal preference varies widely. We can look at pizza preferences as akin to sexual preferences. There are endless varieties of toppings, different kinds of crusts, and it’s expected that our preferences may be different than those of our partner(s). It's okay to try something once and decide you don't like it, or to get creative and make your own gourmet toppings. When you're eating alone you can have whatever you want. The goal when sharing is to find the toppings you like in common.
Say you’re a plain cheese guy, and you meet someone at the pizza place whose favorite topping is pineapple, M&M’s and spam. You might think it’s a little peculiar, but that’s it. Imagine how cool it would be if that’s how everyone perceived our kinks or other sexual preferences? No one thinks someone who likes ketchup on their pizza is going to burn eternally in hell.
Now, imagine you’re going to share a pizza with someone. It would be pretty bizarre to order it without discussing the toppings first. Negotiation beforehand is obviously a good idea. If you don’t discuss which toppings you want, someone’s bound to have something they think is icky on their pizza; they might even have allergies. When you assume what someone else likes, you may also miss out on the pizza that you’d both enjoy most. So, instead, you tend to have a conversation like this: “Do you want pepperoni?” “No, I’m a vegetarian. How about artichokes?” “I love artichokes!” And you’re off and running towards a pizza that’s delicious for both of you.
Communication and negotiation about sex—boundaries, limits, likes & dislikes, safer sex—are essential for a healthy and enjoyable sexual experience. Sometimes people’s desires aren’t compatible. That’s natural, and no one’s fault. You could find someone who likes the exact same toppings, but you hate eating with them. People with widely disparate appetites can make a surprisingly complementary team: a person who only needs one bite, but who loves to watch others eat, could be the perfect match for someone who likes to enjoy a whole pizza by themselves.
Also, just because your partner feels like pizza, or you’re standing outside a pizza parlor, there may be many reasons it’s not the right time for you to eat it. Maybe you’re not hungry. Maybe the restaurant is non-smoking and you always smoke after your slice. Maybe you’re on a juice fast. Maybe you have plans to eat pizza with someone later in the day. For whatever reason, deciding not to eat it at a given time is perfectly fine. Just because you like pizza doesn’t mean you always want to eat it. We wouldn't put up with a friend who demanded we eat pizza when we don't want it, or who accused us of being frigid for not eating more pizza, or who implied we may be mentally ill based on our choice of toppings. We shouldn't put up with people who hold similar views about our sexual choices either.
Most people intuitively sense that when we feel full, it’s time to stop. We have the best pizza-eating and sexual experiences through following our internal sense of what feels best. No one outside of us can know what kind of pizza is right for us to eat, how much we should have and when it's right for us to stop. When we go past our own limits, we tend to feel sick.
What’s great about pizza as a metaphor for sexuality is that eating pizza is not a structured, goal-oriented activity. Whereas in baseball, the aim is to run around the bases to home as quickly as possible, in pizza-eating, the only goal is personal fulfillment—pleasure, intimacy, relaxation, and a host of other characteristics that just can’t be measured or described by a score.
(Al Vernacchio, M.S.Ed. originally published his pizza model in J.P. Elia, A.J. Angelo and I.Chen, Contemporary Sexuality: A Reader, 2nd edition, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. Published as a lesson plan in SIECUS Report, Volume 33, Number 4, Fall 2005)