Discussing Sex and Sexuality in Sign Language

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Whether you are a parent speaking with a teen or a patient discussing your health with a doctor, it is important to have the language skills to describe sexuality and sexual concepts. This can be especially challenging if you are deaf or are communicating with someone who is deaf. While you can often be generalized and euphemistic with describing sex verbally, doing so in sign language is problematic, as it leaves too much open to interpretation.

The consequences of this are considerable. According to research from the University of California, Davis, the lack of accessible, high-quality sexual health information in American sign language (ASL) has increased the risk for misinformation among members of the deaf community. At a time where safer sex and the avoidance of HIV are central to the cultural lexicon, the rate of multiple partners among deaf people is three times that of the general population (31 percent versus 10 percent).

Moreover, the rate of condom usage among deaf college students is significantly less than their hearing counterparts (50 percent versus 34 percent).

Hearing doesn't have to be a barrier to successful sexual communication. By learning how to communicate in ASL, you can ensure those you love or care for are able to approach sexual situations in a healthy, well-informed manner and avoid misconceptions that can cause harm.

Goals of Communications

Understanding sexual sign language can be extremely useful for anyone who works or interacts with deaf people, including parents, teachers of the deaf (TOD), interpreters, and medical practitioners.

The goals of communication go well beyond sexual health and contraception. Without the means to discuss sexuality in a precise and insightful manner, young deaf people may not have tools to either negotiate sex or communicate appropriately about it.

This is evidenced in part by a 2015 survey from Deafax and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in which over half of the young deaf respondents said that it was acceptable to say: "If you don’t have sex with me, it means you don’t love me."

The challenge with communicating sexuality in ASL is three-fold:

  • Many of the hand movements used to communicate sexual and non-sexual words are similar, requiring greater fluency than some people have.
  • We tend to speak of sex in euphemisms or with slang terms and often don't know the proper terms to describe an orgasm, ejaculation, oral sex, etc.
  • The discomfort many people have with sexuality is often intensified when communicating in ASL, particularly since many of the hand gestures use are very graphic.

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these challenges as well as resources you can rely on improve your communication skills.

How to Prepare

When trying to describe a sexual problem or preparing to have "the talk" with your teen, it always helps to prepare and practice. There are several ways to do this:

  • Start by writing down what you want to say, taking care to ensure that you use the proper terms like "vagina," "penis," and "semen."
  • If there are concepts you don't fully grasp, don't pass those misconceptions on to others. Either educate yourself using a reputable website, call your doctor, or call a community health hotline (such as your local Planned Parenthood office or the CDC HIV hotline).
  • Be aware that certain sexual words in ASL use hand gestures that mimic the act being described. Practice these so that you not only get them right but are able to do so without embarrassment. Other words like "herpes" and "HIV" are communicated with fingerspelling.
  • Have visual or printed materials on hand to help you, but don't rely on these too heavily. It is ultimately more important to engage your loved one in ASL so that he or she is able to do the same with others.
  • Ensure that the conversation is two-way, encouraging questions and feedback to ensure the message is being received correctly.

As uncomfortable as some of this may seem, it is important to recognize how valuable a direct approach is. While we can often skate around sexual concepts when using words, we are less able to do with ASL and, as result, are less likely to get the message wrong.

Moreover, people who communicate in ASL are accustomed to using gestures that insinuate physical movements or actions. Just because you may be embarrassed about signing "intercourse," for example, doesn't mean the person you're speaking to is.

ASL Resources

You don't have to go it alone when preparing for a sex talk in ASL. If you feel anything less than confident, organize a one-on-meeting meeting with a TOD or ASL instructor for tips, instruction, or practice time.

There are also numerous sign language books that can provide you a visual glossary of sexual terms. One tried-and-true choice is "Signs of Sexual Behavior" by James Woodward. It includes illustrations of more than 130 signs along with detailed explanations of their proper usage and origins.

Another wonderful book that is currently out of print is ​"Signs for Sexuality: A Resource Manual for Teachers, Counselors, Interpreters, Parents, and Hearing-Impaired Persons Concerns with Deafness and Human Sexuality" by Susan Doughten, Marlyn Minkin, and Laurie Rosen. Published in 1978 and again in 1991, the book can often be sourced using the WorldCat.org library book locator.

Among some of the more comprehensive websites offering sexual ASL instruction:

  • ASLPro.com is a free resource offering video instruction of common and uncommon words, including those related to anatomy and sex.
  • Handspeak.com is another free site that provides video and text instruction along with information about proper word usage.
  • ASL Browser is a great online resource created by Michigan State University that requires a QuickTime plug-in to view the instructional modules.

You can also turn to the Described and Captioned Media Program, a nonprofit library available to teachers and parents of deaf children. Among the cache of instructional DVDs and streaming videos are two titles that focus on human sexuality in sign language:

  • "Technical Signs: Human Sexuality" (Tape 22)
  • "Technical Signs: Human Sexuality" (Tape 28)

The producers of Technical Signs have also posted a series of general anatomy and physiology videos on YouTube that offers a solid primer when learning to converse about health and sexuality in ASL.

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