"We were at St Mary's stadium last night, both teams were ready to rock and roll. The whistle got blown soon as well, before the lights even went down, and the floodlights come on and it was literally – sprinklers erupted!"
This confusing description is how "Love Island" contestant Jake Cornish talked about his bedtime exploits with fellow contestant Liberty Poole last week.
The reality show, now in its seventh season, takes a group of mainly 20-somethings (known as islanders) and throws them into a villa for eight weeks in the hope that drama and, most importantly, romance will ensue. They are expected to "couple up" from the very beginning, and references to sex form much of the programme's content.
Islanders are often very candid about their sexual histories, but their discussions of in-villa sexual activity rely heavily on metaphors and innuendo. In part, this might reflect contestants not wanting to broadcast explicit details of their sex lives to their families, friends and the wider British public. But, as a historian of sexuality in the 20th century, I can see how it also highlights broader trends in how non-penetrative sex has been understood and talked about over the last 70 years.
Islanders have been very creative when describing forms of non-penetrative sexual activity. In the fourth season, this was often referred to as "doing bits". The 2019 islanders often referred to "the danger zone" to describe their bedroom intimacies. This year's contestants have developed their own code based on the different levels of the British system of national vocational qualifications. "Entry level" is "just a snog," "NVQ1" is "a cheeky finger," "NVQ2" is "oral" and "NVQ3" is "the full shebang."
While these might be particularly modern turns of phrase, the use of such sexual euphemisms has long historical precedents and reflects the fact that while there is a rich vocabulary in the English language for describing and talking about penetrative intercourse ("making love," "going all the way," "doing it" – and that's just at the more polite end of the spectrum), the language associated with other forms of sexual behaviour is more limited.
Without any "good" language, people have often developed creative systems for discussing sex acts. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, teenagers often used a numerical ranking system. A typical five-stage code ranked sexual activity from kissing (1), breast touching, touching a partner's genitals, having one's genitals touched by a partner, to finally having penetrative intercourse (5).
History shows that these ranking systems are elastic and change over time. In contrast to modern youth, teenagers in the mid-20th century would rarely include oral sex in these rankings as this was often deemed more intimate than penetrative sex. Similarly, in Love Island the girls distinguished between "kissing in a challenge" and "snogging," highlighting how intimate acts that are physically similar can be ranked differently based on context.
Sex talk on "Love Island" is refreshing in the way it addresses forms of intimate behaviour beyond penetrative sex. It is also positive to observe a community of young people celebrating sexual pleasure and playfully constructing ways of thinking and talking about sex on their own terms.
The programme does highlight, however, some of the limitations of this type of sex talk. At the same time that the shared construction of sexual languages creates opportunities for dialogue and inclusion, it can also be exclusionary and obscure. After a number of viewers were confused by the boys' football metaphors, the "Love Island" producers chose to have one of the female contestants explain some of the code.
Chloe Burrows explained that "'One all' is basically doing bits. 'One all.' You did something, I did something, we both had a very happy ending!" Even here though, Burrows was vague about exactly what the couples were doing.
Perhaps more importantly, the metaphors that are used reflect and reinforce certain assumptions about sexual activity. For example, the 2021 islanders' qualification metaphors reinforce hierarchical understandings of sexual activity and the "right" order that couples should engage in sex acts – snogging to "the full shebang".
These cultures are deep rooted - the order outlined in "Love Island" 2021 is very similar to those used by teenagers in the 1950s. But these hierarchies are not fixed and people can have fulfilling sex lives without engaging in penetrative intercourse, just as they can have penetrative sex without having engaged in other forms of sexual activity.
How young people talk about sex can be as important as their actual sexual activity. "Love Island" shows it can be fun to develop new ways of talking about sex. But so far, the language doesn't necessarily reflect radically new ways of thinking about sex. Maybe next season the islanders will get even more creative.