Sex, food, power

“(I) would not say yummy or scrumptious in my workplace, but I am a boring lawyer”.
“Mr Rush is an actor. This is theatrical workplace where people use florid language…
“Obviously some people see tremendous significance to [it] but I must say that depending on the context, I’m grappling with it.”

These comments by Federal Court judge Michael Wigney were widely quoted in the Australian media last week, during the summing up of a defamation case taken by actor Geoffrey Rush against The Daily Telegraph. I cannot help thinking that Justice Wigney needs some advice from a sociolinguist.

So here it is. Food and sex are often linked in English. Many words can work in both contexts, e.g. adjectives such as “juicy”, or “tasty”, and nouns such as “tart” or “hunk”. Geoffrey Rush admits to calling Eryn Jean Norvill  “yummy” and possibly “scrumptious”, and sending her a text saying, “thinking of you (as i do more than socially appropriate)” with a winking-and-tongue-out emoji.

Sex and power are also often linked, from sexual harassment to rape (the most extreme is when rape is used as a weapon of war). In the Geoffrey Rush case there are also disputed allegations of him inappropriately touching Eryn Jean Norvill, which Justice Wigney has reportedly discussed only from the point of view of sexual gratification. Power can work through language, and referring to someone in terms of food when the power relationship is unequal is demeaning. It is equating them with an object to be consumed, and is particularly belittling when using a hypocoristic (diminutive) word such as “yummy”.

Justice Wigney is absolutely right – the context is the issue. In this case everyone agrees that a famous 67 year old made comments to a 34 year old colleague, in which he used language which compared her to food.

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A scrumptious lunch at the Green House, Canberra