Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Power of Pleasure: Contributions from Embodied Sociolinguistics

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posted on 2021-12-08, 17:39 authored by Couper, Shannon

In this thesis I argue that foregrounding young women’s intersectional voices through an embodied sociolinguistic approach can afford a contribution to empowering sexual scripts. In doing so I demonstrate the political value in harnessing the linguistic negotiation of pleasure. To enact this goal, my research questions are: 1. How do women make sense of experiences of sexual pleasure in talk? 2. How do women construct their identities when talking about sexual pleasure? 3. How do women describe their bodies when recounting sexual pleasure?  An embodied sociolinguistics offers insight into the discursive construction of sexual embodiment, and together with a critical feminist approach, centers the voices and experiences of women. Sexual experiential embodiment entails reflexively constructed understandings of sexual pleasure and desire through attention to discursive bodies, particularly for those that are historically misrepresented.  The analysis makes use of conversations in intimate female friendships that serve as identity construction sites and reflect both agency and interdependent self-authorship. This data offers insights into the challenges of navigating various discourses in the pursuit of self-definition and is comprised of 6 hour-long conversations between 6 pairs of young female friends, as well as 4 hours of recorded focus group discussion.   My findings demonstrate that ideologies of femininity play a large role in the initial construction of the intimate conversational site which creates space for dynamic negotiations of desire, subjectivity and the multifaceted nature of sexual experiences. The continuing interaction affords constructions of complex feminist identities within neoliberal constraints. I develop this into a critique of how uncritical discourses of sexual agency can transform sexual pleasure into a neoliberal project. Embodied sociolinguistics allows access into how sexual pleasure dynamically unfolds in the discursive formulation of the body. Ultimately this culminates into a mapping of historical pleasure landscapes that illustrate the significance of foregrounding language and conversation on sexual pleasure.   Sociolinguistic investigations that seek to transform harmful hegemonic discourses are essential in the ongoing combat against entrenched rape culture. My study advocates for a culture that values discussion of female sexual pleasure. This focus is potentially more destabilizing and contestive than focusing on sexual violation because it directly challenges hetero-patriarchal culture’s hostility toward women’s agency.   The framework employed in this thesis offers significant implications for the field of language, gender and sexuality, including the further advancement of the theory of embodied sociolinguistics and a methodology of intimate insider research. Employing intersectionality allows for the queering of normative sexual practices and disrupts normative gender discourses by centering agentive feminist voices. From a critical perspective, the research contributes to building a model of pleasure activism that prioritises joy. A body-focused linguistic approach demonstrates that true transformation of our sexuality culture must begin with destabilizing the neoliberal project and moving toward collective liberation. There is no inevitability to the sexual danger script when we channel the political power of pleasure. 


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Marra, Meredith