Can we reserve ‘sleep with’ for when we literally mean ‘sleep with’?

Open Letter to Users of the English Language,
CC: Users of Mandarin (every point in this letter applies to Mandarin, and I suspect it also applies to other Chinese languages)

Dear Users of the English Language,

I know that I can’t seriously ask over a billion people to change the way they use English just to please me, but I still wish to make a little request.

How about we say ‘sleep with’, ‘get in bed with’, etc. … when we LITERALLY mean it.

As it, let’s stop using it mainly as a pseudo-euphemism for sex.

I have never had sex with anybody. I have, however, slept with people. Those are two distinctly different actions.

I have to be careful about how I talk about sleeping with people so that people don’t assume that I mean that I did something sexual with them. By itself, that wouldn’t be a big deal, and if that was all that was going on, I wouldn’t bother writing this letter.

However, this idea that ‘sleep with’ almost always means ‘have sex with’ ties into sexual supremacy, and as an asexual, I am not on the priveleged end of this specific hierarchy. It erases and discounts non-sexual interation, such as sleeping next to somebody else.

In addition to being asexophobic, ‘sleep with’ as a pseudo-euphemism is also, ironically, sex-negative. It supports the idea that sex is so shameful that you can’t actually say ‘have sex with’. This cocktail of sexual supremacy AND sexual shame is precisely why ‘sleep with’ is assumed to mean ‘have sex with’ – if either the sexual supremacy OR the sexual shame were absent, most people would assume that ‘sleep with’ is meant literally unless otherwise indicated.

The fact that the default meaning of ‘sleep with’ is ‘have sex with’ also ties into rape culture. Part of rape culture is that, if men and women sleep together, there must be sex, and that by consenting to sleep with a man, a woman is automatically consenting to sex. As a woman who has slept with men, will probably sleep with men in the future for convenience, but has no intention of having sex with them, this particular wrinkle is very disturbing.

From now on, aside from potential poetic metaphors, I will only use ‘sleep with’, ‘get in bed with’ etc. in the literal sense. When I mean ‘have sex with’, I will say ‘have sex with’. I request that you do the same.

The Notes Which Do Not Fit


16 thoughts on “Can we reserve ‘sleep with’ for when we literally mean ‘sleep with’?

  1. “It supports the idea that sex is so shameful that you can’t actually say ‘have sex with’.” <—a very good point. I had never realized it before. Thanks for pointing that out. I'll try to be more sex-positive and proud in the future, rather than using a euphemism.

  2. Hi, for the physiological and cultural act of sleeping only, I would just say “we slept together (or: in one bed)” and not: “We slept with each other” / “I slept with her/him” // “she/he slept with me”.

    BTW – what do you mean by “asexophobic” ? Literally “not sexophobic” means “not being against/afraid of sex” – so “not sex-negative” (sexophobic = sex-negative). So you have “In addition to being asexophobic it is also sexophobic” (or “in addition to being not-sex-negative it is also sex-negative”). I don’t get you, I think you’ve gone one step too far in your neologisms and metaphors.

    • Then what word would you suggest for people who are prejudiced against asexuals and asexuality?

      By the way, *I* did not create that ‘neologism’ – asexophobia, asexophobe, and acephobia are words used in various parts of ace-spectrum communities.

      If someone told me ‘oh, Y and Z are sleeping together’, I would assume that meant they are having sex unless the context indicated otherwise, and most fluent English speakers would do the same, so that has the same issue as ‘sleep with’.

      • Well, i think it is *YOU* who give a sexual meaning to this last sentence, specifically though taking it out of ANY context. And by adding “Oh”, to make it a kind of allusion. You wanted it, you have it.
        In reality sentences do not fly in air like that, normally they are used within a certain context. The context is verbal but first of all is situational. If the context is that of sex – than sex was intended, but in 90% of cases this is just an innocent statement. If I say: ‘Last weekend we had plenty of guests at home. Mary and John were sleeping in separate rooms but Betty and Sue were sleeping together’ – only a person obsessed with sex can see a sexual context to this phrase. In fact even “Betty was sleeping with Sue” could do. And even if you have Peter instead of Sue, but you know that Peter is 6 and Betty is 5 years old, no sex is intended or understood by anyone. Sorry, my friend!
        And even if both of them were in their 20-ies, and all very attractive, if you know that they are close relatives (brother and sister), or friends, but just friends and it was just a question of crowdy situation in other rooms,… I will not continue with 1001 “ifs”.

        As to the second issue (probably far more important for you, that’s why you’ve taken it to the first place, but far less for me, so I restore it to the original place) – I can see that you have meant “asexo-phobic” I have understood it as “a-sexophobic”. My mistake, but it does not change my opinion that your analysis sucks, – the second part does not match with the first one (I will retun to the issue later on, first to “asexo-phobic”).
        In order to give a name to something that something has to exist first and to be known (experienced, at least heard of). I don’t need such a word at all – personally I have never met a person “prejudiced against asexuals and asexuality”, or heard about such people, let say one person, from a reliable source (you are the first one to tell me about such an approach); nor have I met with such an attitude in literature or film, as far as I know there is no *worthwhile* work of art dedicated to this problem, yet.
        I am 56, I have lived in more than 30 countries so far (and in 7 countries I have lived for longer than 1 year in each), and I have met many people of different sexual attitudes, among them those who were not interested in sex at all as well (for various reasons; I don’t know whether you’d call them all “asexual”, but I really don’t care). And I have never met anyone who could be called “prejudiced against them”, except some real sexual maniacs (of whichever orientation) who weren’t thinking and talking about anything else but f***ing. And of course those sexual maniacs called everybody else, especially those who criticised their noisiness, boring perseverance with one subject and general lack of culture, as [some-type-of]-sexo-phobic. Why? Because it is a well known fact that the best defence is to make a preventive attack “in case someone else…”. And attaching labels seems to be by far the easiest and at the same time the most efficient form of preventive psychological attack (misuse and abuse of the language is rarely punished). I have met people “prejudiced” against those who do not think with their heads and/or hearts but with their genitals (although I would not call this “a prejudice” but rather “a voice of reason”), but being prejudiced against calm and not aggressive asexuals would be simply stupid. Of course on a condition that the “asexuals” in question really simply *ARE* asexuals, i.e. they live an asexual life, and they are not those who in fact harass other people with their asexuality (endless stories *about* their asexuality, especially about how difficult it is to be asexual, you are not understood by anybody, you are despised by many and harassed/persecuted/whatever else by those who are prejudiced etc. etc., but I have managed to live with it and I want to promote my style of life – everybody down on your knees, I AM ASEXUAL!), which in fact means that they are more *sexual* than those who lead normal sexual life, because they are constantly concerned about sexuality/asexuality, deeply worried by their physiological (or only anatomical) sexuality and their psychological lack of interest in sex, and the lack of harmony between the two, and they are constantly perturbed by thoughts about sexuality, and they think everybody else is as well, only “in the other direction”.

        So As I told you I have never heard from a reliable source of informaion about persecution or even only a prejudice against asexuals. And I cannot take you for a reliable source of information, because I don’t know you well enough to be able to trust you, ’cause you simply might be biased. This last interpretation I take as confirmed by the simple fact that it’s *you* who insist on sexual interpretation of “to sleep with…” as the only possible, overwhelming and ever-binding interpretation, and I do not see this be so at all.

        And also, because it’s only you who from the fact that this sentence can ALSO have a sexual meaning (among other meanings) infer that it is “asexo-phobic”. You are simply wrong. This phrase is simply descriptive, not prejudiced. It is just describing the behaviour of Y and Z and nothing else. It is not giving any value to the described fact (it is purely neutral, and both when relating to a sexual act or not, you may use it with many different attitudes and emotions: with contempt or with appreciation, with envy or with disgust, with anger or with worry, and and the worry etc. does not necessarily refer to the fact of having sex and e.g. possible pregnancy or STD, it may relate to the width of the bed, length of the blanket, temperature and lack of fresh air in the small room, one of them snoring or the other farting, aspects of general hygiene – not necessarily HIV etc.). And especially this phrase cannot be taken as evaluating the attitudes of anybody ELSE [this would be the assumed “asexo-phobic” meaning], simply because it is not telling anything about *other* people or *other* types of behaviour. You could with equal result try to defend a thesis that it is “dialogo-phobic”, or “ludo-phobic”, or “consummatio -phobic” (sorry for my ad hoc neologisms), because it does not encourage people to other activities undertaken *together* (“with someone else”), like talking together, playing games together or eating together, but only talks about entering together into the realm of dreams (kingdom of Morpheus) – albeit probably into different corners thereof – being in bed together for a certain time, in a horizontal position (although not necessarily on your back – one-side positions and embryonic ones are pretty common), etc. most probably during a night time, most of the time with your eyes closed, most probably specially dressed for the time, your body having lowered its temperature, your heart and of your lungs having lowered the rhythm of their activities, your brain changing the brain waves in a specific way, with or without any added activity (made together or alone) before the “real” sleeping, like watching tv, eating and drinking, reading a book, praying, talking, laughing, singing etc., after certain more or less obvious preliminaries (having urinated before, maybe defecated, washed yourself, brushed your teeth, combed your hair – not all of them necessary) – and maybe preceding it with some kind of sexual activity together (together, because if you do it alone, even both of you at the same time, but separately, it doesn’t count as “sleeping with” in the sexual meaning). Maybe, I repeat, it means: if you and the other person are of certain age, gender, orientation, attitude, interests, morals, disposition, etc., and if the combinations of the two sets of these aspects match, it means if the circumstantial conditions are favourable for the activity itself (which fact may be in turn judged favourable or unfavourable by the people themselves, depending on their attitudes, beliefs, etc.), an act of sex may occur as a natural accompaniment to the “Morphean dream”. It is a simple fact of human anatomy and physiology, that most often the sexual activities are performed in a horizontal position (independently of what porn tries to persuade us to), because it is the most simple and most convenient way to do it (and people are just lazy), and that you need to be naked for that (maybe not entirely, but it certainly helps enjoy the activity), and that people by preference do it in couples (formal or informal, but without a wider audience), and that most often after this kind of activity you are simply tired (both of you), and your bodies and minds need a kind of rest – so you easily fall asleep, All that makes it more than natural, that this activities are most often done in bed, before a physiological sleep, or during a break in the latter. So “real” sleeping without or with having sex together.

        As usual with words, the “pars pro toto” rule also has an application here, so “sleeping with” apart from “:Sleeping connected with sex”, can equally well mean “real sleeping” without any sex, and sex without any “real sleeping”, same as “going to McDonald’s” may mean going there (alone) to eat hamburgers and fries, or going there to accompany your children who would eat them (obtaining McToys), while you will sit indifferent to them, or going just to see the architecture and design of the venue, or to meet someone, or jointly any subset of the purposes above. And why don’t you say that “going to McDonlad’s” is a “visitor-phobic” phrase, as most often it means going in order to eat, and quite rarely “just going for a visit” (to see the new colour of the walls), so we need a new word?

        The context decides, not any presupposed meaning/usage. The phrase “sleep with” does not even decide whether you go together – in order to sleep – to one and the same bed, or to two beds but in one room, or to two bedrooms but in one building (like one cottage in a resort or camping place). The phrase “sleeping with” or “sleeping together” in itself is not “anything-phobic”, only the way someone uses it may be “something-phobic”. It does not mean “when you go to bed together, first of all remember, you HAVE TO enjoy your sex, and let all those asexuals f*k away from this”,

        On the contrary, your label “asexo-phobic” is not descriptive, or informative, or neutral at all, it is only evaluative, derogatory, prejudiced (“sexo-phobic”), emotional, and biased. You want the word sleep to mean “when you go to one bed (or two beds in one room, etc.) first of all remember, you HAVE TO sleep only and not have any sex together”. One could ask, Why only specifically sex is excluded? why not reading together, or drinking wine together, or watching tv and singing together? The answer could only be: Because this is the request of the asexuals, and the people prejudiced against any other common activity (let it be N) have not yet organised themselves into any a-N-spectrum community, not even association or club).
        You seem to want (consciously or subconsciously) to appropriate the language and shape it according to your vision of reality. Or better even, you want to steal it from everybody who is using it otherwise than you do it. Thank God, language is a common property and cannot be so easily appropriated (although sad experience with the political correctness have shown us that certain X-spectrum lobbies can successfully ban certain forms of language from ceratain areas of social activities, replacing them with Orwellian new-speak

        Only people who are obsessed with sex, whether they call themselves sex-maniacs or asexuals, see sex in everything. I know, now you will call me “asexophobic”. let it be so, I don’t care. But in fact I am not asexo-phobic, I am maniac-phobic and stupidity-phobic. For me sex is just one of 256 ways of behaviour and occupations in my life, so I give to it 1/256th part of my attention (maybe I am exaggerating, maybe even one per cent of it – but not whole my attention nor even half of it, or 1/10th.

        In “Stairway to Heaven” you can find the words: “‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meaning” and if I were you I’d stick to it if I wanted to get to any ‘Heaven’ (whatever it be). Polysemia is a normal situation with any human language. If you want a language (probably) devoid of ambiguities, learn and use Lojban of Vulcan only.

        No offence intended, just showing lacunae in your reasoning.

        PS. I can understand easily what ‘asexual’ means – but I still do not understand what ‘agender’ means. Do you dress in whatever clothes come under your hand? E.g. wearing a bra on Mondays and Wednesdays, just because, and no bra on Tuesdays and Thursdays, also just because, independently of whether you have breasts or not, and on the other days depending on the toss of a die. At the same time wearing boys underpants on Mondays and Wednesdays, and girls ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for symmetry reasons. I think that an agender person with anatomical masculine genitals might have problems with wering certain types of nice feminine underpants – they would just be causing pain.
        And what about toilets (bathrooms) – do you enter just the first one that is on your way, whether it be M of F, because you are neither M nor F?
        I’m just curious

  3. I have forgotten to finish on why the two epithets still don’t go well together. Because now “asexo-phobic” and “sex-negative” mean exactly the same. If “being sex-negative” means “avoiding talking directly / openly about sex” then it is obvious that a person with such an attitude must be against those who want to talk about sex openly under any circumstances. That’s, as far as I understand you (which is not an easy task, I have to admit), – your postulate: “Divide the language into asexual and sexual, when talking about sex speak openly using the words ‘sex’ and the like, when talking about things not related to sex, use the other words, do never mix the two, don’t use metaphors, euphemisms for whatever related to sex”.

    Of course, this type of “asexo-phobia” is not directed against all asexuals, but only against aggressive asexuals, who are in my opinion simply pretending to be asexuals while constantly willing to talk about sex. Such sex-oriented asexuals (a.k.a. aggressive asexuals) resemble those 19th century puritans who never dared having sex themselves yet were eager at listening to the stories of sex-scandals and discussing them (with contempt, of course).

    This kind of “asexo-phobia” has nothing to do with any prejudice against “simple” asexuals, those who calmly live their way of life and do not need to make of it a slogan on their banners. Such asexuals do not experience any kind of prejudice, as such prejudice does not exist. They might e.g. suffer rape, or sexual harassment, but that’s a criminal act or offence against “sexuals” in a similar way.

    When you write “because it is something shameful” you are also missing the point. To have sex with someone is shameful when done outside of social norm, like eating a chocolate in a supermarket (= stealing it), or farting in public, is shameful, but when done in acceptable conditions (eating a chocolate after having paid for it, farting in a toilet) is an acceptable social norm. But you are mistaking “intimate” with “shameful”. ‘Shameful’ means being against a norm, something that civilised and cultural people don’t do – because it is causing a kind of harm to other people (like farting in a lift causes the air to be smelly).

    When you need to defecate, do you say to your friends “Wait for me till I defecate” or rather “I need to go number 2”? But what is literally “number 2”? People prefer to go to the “bathroom” in order to “wash their hands”, women do not say openly “my period pad seems to be leaking, I need to change it” but look for other “excuses” – euphemisms.

    Having sex with someone you are not supposed to have it – is shameful. E.g. having sex with your neighbour’s husband/wife, not only while being married yourself, is shameful, as it causes harm to your neighbour. Having sex with your own husband/wife is not shameful, only intimate. You simply don’t speak openly (publicly) about something that is intimate – that’s why you use euphemisms.

    I know that in the modern American society this last rule is constantly under challenge. Many talk-shows and sit-coms are based upon the idea of talking “openly” about everything and “breaking taboos”. I don’t like this approach

    • “That’s, as far as I understand you (which is not an easy task, I have to admit), – your postulate: “Divide the language into asexual and sexual, when talking about sex speak openly using the words ‘sex’ and the like, when talking about things not related to sex, use the other words, do never mix the two, don’t use metaphors, euphemisms for whatever related to sex”. ”

      I’m pretty sure the postulate is we have a lot of ways to say “having sex”, but our one way of describing sleeping together is so fraught with innuendo that it’s difficult to talk about, therefore we should stop using “sleeping together as a euphemism.

    • Your concept of ‘aggressive asexuals’ sounds very much like the homophobic phrase “I don’t care if you’re gay, as long as you don’t rub it in my face”. If you pay attention to everyday conversations, you’ll see that heterosexual people generally talk a great deal about their sexuality, and no one finds it remarkable or offensive when they do.

      • @Etina Do you really want me to re-enter this debate after 4 years? I am sorry, I am not going to. Except for one comment. I find it offensive when [hetero-or-homo-]sexual maniacs talk too much about their sexual activiity, same as when those who win (or even participate only) loud-and-smelly farting contest talk about their ‘achievements’, and those who have (real or presumed) problems with defecating discuss the details of their defecation with strangers or in public, instead of their doctor. For me their attitude is “general-culture-phobic”, like yours is simply “common-reason-phobic”. Of course, you may continue calling the phrase above “homophobic”, if you like – may all gods (and goddesses) have mercy on you!

      • And one more thing, your comarison shows to me clearly that you have completely missed my point when I was writing about “aggresive asexuals”. Point!

  4. And one last comment:
    you write
    > However, this idea that ‘sleep with’ almost always means ‘have sex with’ ties into sexual
    > supremacy,
    The idea of sexual supremacy taken so lightly is nothing but an ideological blah-blah. Newspeak. The word “supremacy” is especially heavily ideologically loaded.

    One can talk about sexual supremacy in pornography. Obviously, women playing there are victims of sexual supremacy of sexual maniacs mostly male) and other women in the society also pay big price of pornography supremacy. A weaker, yet not negligible form of sexual supremacy is related to exploitation of half-naked women in publicity / advertisements of practically everything. My list is certainly not exhaustive.
    Talking about sexual supremacy in language may refer to the vocabulary (like to the images above) exploiting sex as a face subject in order to persuade someone to do something else (sexual libido is a very strong impulse). Again, my examples do not exhaust the list.
    Yet talking so lightly about “sex supremacy” like you do is just a humbug ideology.
    Avoiding talking about sex and using euphemisms instead has nothing to do with sexual supremacy.

    >I have to be careful about how I talk about sleeping with people so that people don’t assume
    > that I mean that I did something sexual with them.

    By itself, that’s a very good approach while talking about everything or anything. Be careful how you use your words! This approach (without restraining to sex only or to sleeping only) is something that I support wholeheartedly.

    Maybe say “I was sleeping side to side with her/him” or “We were sleeping close /next to each other”.

    • “Of course, this type of “asexo-phobia” is not directed against all asexuals, but only against aggressive asexuals, who are in my opinion simply pretending to be asexuals while constantly willing to talk about sex. Such sex-oriented asexuals (a.k.a. aggressive asexuals) resemble those 19th century puritans who never dared having sex themselves yet were eager at listening to the stories of sex-scandals and discussing them (with contempt, of course).”

      While I don’t really appreciate the implication that being forward enough to tell people you’re asexual is “aggressive” or that asexual people don’t have sex, I’m pretty sure you’re a victim of being not as familiar with the jargon and basic assumptions in play here.

      Asexophobia is being used in a much more complex construct than you seem to be assuming.

      Our society’s habit of placing relationships in a hierarchy, where romantic sexual relationships are more important than any other relationship between equals makes life extremely hard for asexuals. (I can expand on this if you like.)

      Having “sleeping together” be a euphemism for “having sex” makes it hard to discuss platonic sleeping together and makes it seem like the most important part of sleeping together is having sex. Because this reinforces that relationship hierarchy, making it harder for people to have (or imagine) intimate platonic relationships, it’s being labelled asexophobic.

      To be honest, I don’t think that it’s a particularly good label, because it doesn’t express the root of the objection – that such things are harmful to everyone, not just people who don’t fit society’s relationship expectations – but I don’t know of any better words.

      This structure is also what is meant by “sexual supremacy” in this context; the practice of elevating sexual relationships above all others. What is the definition when it’s used wrt pornography?

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  7. You give a really thorough and succinct explanation of the problem. “Sleep with” is high on my list of words/phrases that have become overly sexualised and that need to be reclaimed for non-sexual purposes. (Other words/phrases that I think need to be desexualised are “love”, “make love”, “fall in love”, “desire”, “sensual”, “relationship”, and “dating”.)

    I like your use of the term “sexual supremacy”. I hadn’t heard the term before, though I suppose it’s similar to “erotonormativity” or “compulsory sexuality”. I’m also glad that you point out the underlying sex-negativity in our use of euphemisms.

    I already try to use “sleep with” only when I mean it literally, but I’m sure I slip up some of the time. I’m going to follow your lead and be more conscientious about it in the future!

    • I wrote this when terms such as “compulsory sexuality” were less common in the ace blogosphere – if I were writing this today, I would probably use “sexualnormativity” rather than “sexual supremacy”.

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