Sex scenes might be the biggest target of scorn in romance: they’re what earns it the “porn for women” tag; their prose is mocked as purple and euphemistic; their tropes are criticized as unrealistic. I’ve made some of those criticisms myself. I’ve been thinking about these scenes a lot lately. That’s partly because erotica/erotic romance is a hot topic both in and out of romance-reading circles right now, but also related to the question of to what extent romance has “rules” that make it “stale.” I’ve also seen a couple of conversations lately in which romance readers themselves wondered if (some) romance is porn, a charge they usually defend it against. Even Evangeline’s question about point of view came into play. So, some thoughts on the oft-mocked language of sex scenes.
Let’s set aside purple prose. Romance writers are allowed to be far more graphic (both in what they describe and how they describe it) these days, and while purple isn’t dead, you don’t see love-lances, honey-caverns, and their ilk as much as you used to. But even when we’ve dumped the floweriest euphemisms, finding good words for sex isn’t easy.
Sex scenes expose the artificiality of the deep third person point of view favored in genre romance. I don’t mean “artificial” as a criticism. All narrative is artifice. I like to point out to my students that the omniscient narrator characteristic of nineteenth-century high realism, which (who?) helps to give the characters a realistic psychological depth, is a highly unrealistic technique. Who is this person who can peer into everyone’s heads and tell us their thoughts? In the same way, a truly realistic first-person narrative would be unbearable: imagine having to hear your own thoughts, or one side of a stranger’s cell-phone conversation, for 300 pages.
Adult language below the fold.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m having sex, I don’t have much of an internal narrative going on. I’m not thinking, “Wow, now he’s doing X and I’m feeling Y. Now I’m taking his X and . . .” well, you get the point. Ideally, I’m not really thinking anything, just feeling. I don’t talk much, either, though maybe other people do. Clearly, we need the artificiality of narrative to render sex readable. But paradoxically, for sex scenes narrated in deep third person, I want the language used to seem natural to the character(s) whose point of view we’re seeing from. I don’t care so much if the language is sexy to me (I’m not in the scene!), as long as I can believe it’s sexy to the characters.
And how do we know what language is natural for characters, particularly in a historical? Recently, I was listening to Elizabeth Hoyt’s Scandalous Desires, a romance set in 1730s London. Since this was audio, I can’t quote directly, but I didn’t find Hoyt’s prose particularly purple, and it certainly wasn’t euphemistic. What struck me was that, while in the heroine’s point of view during sex scenes, she used both “cock” and “penis.” (You really can’t escape these things in audio). And I thought, hmm. . . . What words would Temperance, a widowed brewer’s daughter running an orphanage in St. Giles, know? I found “cock” more believable, really. A woman might easily learn that in the streets of a slum. But where would she have learned “penis”? It struck me as too technical. If her mother explained sex to Temperance, wouldn’t she have used more euphemistic terms? Would Temperance’s husband have used it? I’m just not sure, so its use distracted me.
Research can tell a writer if a term was in use in a particular historical period, but it’s not easy to know whether a particular character would use it. Period sources describing sex seem likely to be erotic or scientific works, and their language wouldn’t necessarily be familiar to a well-bred young lady. For this reason, I don’t mind euphemisms like manhood or shaft or just pronouns (e.g. “she took him in her hand”) in a historical heroine’s point of view. A hero might use earthier terms, because a man would encounter them. Or he might use well-bred euphemisms too.
What about contemporaries, though? I think here a reader’s own personal experiences come into play in how she judges the language, and a writer can never please everyone. I don’t mind some vagueness and euphemisms, because I think real people use them sometimes: “Touch me . . . there.“ More concrete terms are natural, too, but tricky. If a reader finds cock or pussy or fuck crass and unromantic, she won’t like them in her romance novels, even if a casual perusal of, say, Savage Love would suggest that “everyone” these days uses them. But penis and vagina seem kind of clinical. Porn is no help. Those people don’t say much, and what they do doesn’t offer a model for romantic sex talk. Do you poll your friends to find out what words they use during sex? Awkward! It’s easy to make assumptions about what “normal” contemporary people do and say, but those assumptions may be based on a pretty small sample of partners, friends and media. It’s no surprise, then, that many writers use similar language: their sample might be other romance fiction.
Thinking about the tricksiness of narrating sex scenes has made me more forgiving of language I don’t care for or wouldn’t use myself. And it has certainly made me more aware of the skill of writers who make a sex scene feel natural, whose language conveys the characters’ emotions and physical sensations without calling undue attention to itself. It’s easy to mock the failures, but I’m guessing it’s really hard to pull off success.