People have had a lot of fun with FCC chairman Kevin Martin's claim that "the F-word "inherently has a sexual connotation" whenever it's used. Daniel Drezner asked, "If I say 'F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on,' am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality?" And as Chris Potts makes clear, if you measure a word's connotations by the items it co-occurs with, fucking doesn't seem to keep particularly salacious company. So it's simply wrong to claim that these emphatic, expletive, and figurative uses of the word (e.g., as in fuck up etc.) fall afoul of the FCC's rules, which define indecency as language that “depicts or describes… sexual or excretory activities or organs.”
But hang on. Emphatic fucking may not depict or refer to sex, and may not even bring it explicitly to mind. But the link is still there. Why would these uses of the word be considered "dirty" if they weren't polluted by its primary literal use? And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation (or at least, of its denotation relative to the attitudes that obscene words presuppose about sex and the body)? In fact if fuck and fucking weren't connected to sex in all their secondary uses, they would serve no purpose at all.
I mean "taint" and "pollution" in a literal way — dirty words are magic spells that conjure up their references. We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power. That's why we behave as if we could render them inefficacious by the simple expedient of using asterisks in place of some of their letters — magical spells have no power unless you say them just so . And it's why they bleed through quotation marks and the other devices we use to hold content at arm's length: if the New York Times can't allow itself to print "Adam Clymer is an asshole" then it can't print "Bush called Adam Clymer an asshole," either (strong racial epithets have these properties, as well). And most important here, it's why they retain their stigma even when they're detached from their literal references and applied to other things (meddling, bungling, cheating, and so on), or turned into simple emphatic noises.
Now it's very easy to conclude that the indignation that some people feel over the promiscuous use of epithetical fucking and the like is a reflection of their prudish inhibitions about sexuality, and that embracing the language helps to dispel those attitudes. As George Carlin put it, "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions." That was an article of faith among a the faction among the sixties radicals who made sexual liberation an inseparable part of their political programs. As Jerry Rubin put it:
There's one word which Amerika hasn't destroyed. One word which has maintained its emotional power and purity. Amerika cannot destroy it because she dare not use it. It's illegal! It's the last word left in the English language: FUCK!
The naked human body is immoral under Christianity and illegal under Amerikan law. Nudity is called "indecent exposure." Fuck is a dirty word because you have to be naked to do it.
I think most cultural liberals still uncritically adopt a version of this understanding of the words. When they uphold people's right to use this sort of language in public against the attempts to censor or limit it, they think of themselves not just as defending free speech, but as striking a blow against sexual repression and hypocrisy. That is, they see themselves as being in a line that stretches back to the Lady Chatterly decision — part of the long historical process that Rochelle Gurstein describes as "the repeal of reticence."
But if it ever were possible to purge fuck of its literal stigma by eliminating the inhibitions and hangups that the word seems to trail, the secondary uses of the word would lose their raison d'etre. Fucking can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning. If there's still an aggressive intensity to calling somebody a fucking asshole it's because we haven't abandoned our conviction that sex and the body are something to be ashamed of. Every time we use fucking as an emphatic, whether to commend or condemn something, we strike a little blow for old-fashioned sexual values.
That isn't to say that we shouldn't continue to oppose any legal and administrative penalties to using these words and defend people's right to use them in appropriate circumstances (I don't need to hear them on "Meet the Press"). But we should acknowledge that the words are suffused with an affect that's derived from their sexual meanings. (It doesn't really matter whether you want to call that a connotation, which is a word that can have a lot of meanings, most of them imprecise — though in an odd way, I think these are connotations in the sense of J. S. Mill, who invented the modern logical sense of the word).