Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album came by me as a random selection on iTunes Friday morning. It immediately launches into things with the perky little song “Sit On My Face”, which clearly describes a sexual act (reciprocal oral sex), throws in a couple double entendres on blow (in be blown away), and once uses sixty nine itself (in a verbed version: “Life can be fine if we both sixty nine”).
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission found the song “actionably indecent”, and in 1992 took legal action against KGB-FM in San Diego for playing it and eventually fined the station $9,200. Somewhere along the line it became an incredibly popular — often-requested but for legal reasons never played on the open air — song on the Dr. Demento radio show of novelty songs, comedy, and other oddities.
I’ll take a look at the notion of indecency at issue here (it seems not to be primarily about the use of specific words) and muse some about the status of the expression sixty-nine.
First, the lyrics to the song:
Sit on my face and tell me that you love me
I’ll sit on your face and tell you that I love you too
I love to hear you oralize
When I’m between your thighs
You blow me away
Sit on my face and let my lips embrace you
I’ll sit on your face and then I’ll love you truly
Life can be fine if we both sixty nine
If we sat on our faces in all sorts of places
And play till we’re blown away
Ok, it was meant to be offensive. But actionably so? Would the song still be offensive, but not actionably so, without the expression sixty nine? Well, “actionable offense” is a legal matter, and legal stances on obscenity and related statuses are variable indeed, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time, and so on, but I suspect that KGB would have been in trouble with the FCC even without the expression. So long as the nature of the sex act is clear, the song is offensive (though the label seals the deal, so to speak).
The expression sixty-nine (or sixty nine) or 69 is, of course, not offensive in itself. It denotes a number, and there are plenty of innocent uses of numbers. For instance, ’69 names the year 1969, and references to 1969 will pop up in plenty of places. That was the year I moved from Illinois to Ohio State, and in other people’s lives the year was significant in ways they have made publicly significant: Bryan Adams got his first six-string guitar that year, an event he’s memorialized in his song “Summer of ’69″, and Ryu Murakami’s book Sixty-Nine, is set in late-sixties Japan (with its student uprisings, etc.).
Other references to the number are less innocent, though they don’t actually involve oral sex, for instance: the Sixty-Nine cocktail (cocktails often have suggestive names — Sex on the Beach and so on); Club 69, one of the names (Size Queen is another) adopted by remixer Peter Rauhofer, who plays lots of gay discos (his music, though dripping of “gay sensibility”, is mostly only suggestive); the Finnish rock band The 69 Eyes, whose fans often refer to the group’s music as “goth rock ‘n roll” (with a vampire twist, hinting at the eroticism, especially homoeroticism, of vampires); and the Magnetic Fields album “69 Love Songs” (The Magnetic Fields being singer-songwriter Stephin — yes, that’s the right spelling — Merritt’s band; the songs are heavily about romance and sometimes suggest sex, but they aren’t anywhere near “explicit”).
[Please don't add comments with still further examples of (possibly) suggestive uses of 69. There are vast numbers of them, and I'm giving only a small sampling here, not proposing to start a complete catalogue. If that's your thing, go for it, on a site of your own, and I'll be happy to link to it.]
So much, for the moment, on the expression 69. (From here on, I’ll use 69 to stand for the variants 69, sixty-nine, sixty nine, and soixante-neuf, in English or French, though the usage in this last case is considerably narrower in English than in French.) On to references to the sexual act in question, by whatever expressions.
Here I need to make a digression into (folk) categories, before returning to labels. The broadest relevant category is SEXUAL-ACT, in particular 2-PARTY-SEXUAL-ACT, and the subcategory of 2-PARTY-SEXUAL-ACT under scrutiny here is ORAL-SEX (O-S for short), itself with two subcategories on one dimension, ORAL-GENITAL-SEX (O-G-S) and ORAL-ANAL SEX (O-A-S) and two on a cross-cutting dimension, 1-SIDED-O-S and RECIPROCAL-O-S (R-O-S, involving reciprocality, or mutuality). That brings us to R-O-G-S (R-O-S + O-G-S).
And to a subcategorization of R-O-S, into SEQUENTIAL-R-O-S (SEQ-R-O-S: “I’ll do you and then you do me”, or vice versa) and SIMULTANEOUS-R-O-S (SIM-R-O-S: “we’ll do each other at the same time”). Your classic 69 is SIM-R-O-G-S. simultaneous reciprocal oral-genital sex. The participants can be of different sexes (the HET variant) or of the same sex (the HOM variant).
OED2 (1989), put together in more heteronormative times, glosses the expression as ‘simultaneous cunnilingus and fellatio’, but more recent dictionaries are even-handed:
NOAD2: ‘sexual activity between two people involving mutual oral stimulation of the genitals’ [echoing NSOED (1993)]
AHD4: ‘oral-genital sex between two people at the same time’
[Now a substantial digression, about my Juxtapositions collections of music (on iTunes and on CDs), which you well might want to skip.
Some of the collections have an entire disc devoted to a single tune or tune name. Many of these focus on shapenote songs or other folk or gospel songs: Amazing Grace, Angel Band, Beulah Land, I'll Fly Away, Wayfaring Stranger. Then there's one on Eleanor Rigby.
I don't attempt to collect all the versions of one thing -- there are typically way, way too many for that (you wouldn't believe how many covers of Eleanor Rigby there are) -- but only to choose some diverse, wonderful or out-of-the-way versions. That principle governs another set of collections, in which each disc has a several sections, each with a few contrasted (but somehow related, at least in my mind) tracks.
Juxtapositions III has six sections, entitled:
We'll Meet Again, The Long Black Veil, 69 , Can You Get It? ("You Can Get It If You Really Want It" -- Jimmy Cliff -- plus "You Can't Always Get What You Want (But Sometimes You Get What You Need) -- Rolling Stones), America (from West Side Story), Rivers of Babylon
The 69 section -- yes, I've finally come back to the topic of this posting -- takes in a lot more than songs about 69ing, including some that are in there because of the names of the groups recording them (see above for some of these), and several that are about sex acts closely related to 69ing:
Take a Ride (Club 69), Reciprocate (Pansy Division; HOM SEQ variant), Gimme Some Head (The 69 Eyes), I Got the Six (if you got the nine; ZZ Top; HET SIM), 69 Année érotique (Serge Gainsbourg; HET SIM; with a reference to 1969 as well)
(I'm sorry to say that I can't make any of the collections available on-line, at least not without subjecting myself to prosecution.)]
Dictionaries vary as to what usage label to assign to 69. AHD4 treats it as “vulgar slang” — perhaps vulgar sexual slang is beyond the pale for broadcast use in the U.S. (vulgar slang is one of the things that cable, the internet, and printed media are for) — while NOAD2 marks it as merely “informal”; NOAD2 has the “vulgar slang” label (and uses it for cunt, for instance), but in general it’s more sparing with the label than many other dictionaries.
At this point I give up concerning myself with what bodies like the U.S. FCC think and go on to ask the more interesting question: How do we refer to SIM-R-O-S, other than by the demotic 69?
For plenty of matters sexual, English has elevated, medical or academic, semi-technical vocabulary. For instance, for the sexual acts named in “Sodomy” by James Rado (from the musical Hair):
Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun
Join the holy orgy kama sutra everyone
But English has no corresponding elevated term for SIM-R-O-S that’s a fixed expression of sufficient currency (it has none for SEQ-R-O-S, for that matter). Nice though it would be to have such a term, we seem to be stuck with 69 or elaborate circumlocution.
And 69 is a natural, since in its numeric-character version we have a visual representation of the positions of the partners in the act; other expressions use alphanumeric characters in a related way (T-shirt, I-beam, figure 8). (Yin-yang might have been pressed into service for a similar reason.)
More puzzling (to me, anyway) is that the sexual use of 69 (in English and French) seems to be only a couple of hundred years old. French sexual soixante-neuf looks like it goes back to roughly the 1790s, and 1883 is OED2′s date of the first use of sexual sixty-nine.
Now, it’s not that people didn’t 69 each other until the late 18th century. There are (obscene, and consequently much suppressed) art works portraying the act from ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian times (a few photos here). But apparently people didn’t talk about it, at least in surviving texts; or they just treated the act as one of many minor variants of oral sex, not worth its own label; or a fashion for the act developed only in the past 200 years or so; or a fashion for the label did (so that people got along with colloquial circumlocutions like “Let’s do each other, at the same time”).
Hard to say.