Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Semantics of Sex

What is the meaning of the construction ‘to have sex with X’? I ask because Scott Adams of Dilbert fame linked to this story on his friggin hilarious Dilbert blog: “Man who had sex with bike in court”. The article explains the following:

"A man has been placed on the sex offenders’ register after being caught trying to have sex with a bicycle…The accused was holding the bike and moving his hips back and forth as if to simulate sex." (emphasis mine)

There are so many delicious linguistic oddities here that it’s hard to know where to start. First, he was caught “trying” to have sex with the bike. Apparently,’(x) is an accomplishment predicate. What are the criteria for the successful completion of the task of having sex with a bike? Whatever they are, the accused failed to complete the task, at least according to his accusers (the bike has yet to issue a formal statement).

Second, it seems to me that ‘to have sex with X’ is ambiguous between

a) ‘to have sex together with X
b) ‘to achieve sexual gratification from X

These are two different events, but the ‘have sex with’ construction gets used to mean both. The obvious features of animacy and reciprocation are important criteria to distinguish the two semantic meanings. I’m willing to stipulate that one can ‘have sex with’ a sex toy or sex doll (and so are the producers of Lars and the Real Girl). But, the narrowly construed semantics of (a) require animacy and reciprocation of both participants.

Finally, ‘as if’ serves a curios discourse function in the above quote that I can’t quite express just yet because the second sentence is nearly synonymous without it. It seems to express a certain hesitation to admit the proposition. The proposition ‘X was simulating sex with a bike’ is so preposterous, that one does not really want to commit to its veracity. I think ‘as if’ is acting like an evidential of some sort. It’s kinda like ‘I’m just saying…’:

For example (imaginary quote): “Look dude, I’m not saying I know for sure what this guy was thinking. I’m just saying, when I walked in, the guy’s pants were off, his hips were gyrating, and the bike wasn’t complaining, as far as I could tell.. I mean, I’m just saying…”

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