Let’s Talk About Sex Words

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.

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18 Responses to Let’s Talk About Sex Words

  1. anna cowan says:

    great topic! I recently read my first Cara McKenna, “Curio”. I really loved it – I found the way the premise pulled the sex into the foreground and made it slow and intelligent wonderful. The language was stripped of all the purple prosiness – and made me realise how that kind of prose is attached to trying to make a sex scene also emotional. (Of course, it takes a skilled writer to strip the prose and not have it just seem clinical and uninteresting. The emotion still needs to be present if less forcefully written.)

    But I did at one point step back and see what I was reading. “His head” touches “her lips”, etc. It made me realise what a coded language it is – and how particular to now. I’ve been reading about homosexuality in the 19th century, and how there were certain words and phrases people could use to signify their sexuality. When you read it in a historical context it sounds a bit contrived, or forced, or over-the-top exclusive. But actually it wouldn’t have been so different to our shared language of erotica.

    And one last thing – I think penis has many more usable words than vagina! “Her sex” is my current favourite euphemism.

    • lizmc2 says:

      “Coding” is a good way to put it. In some scenes, experienced readers instantly understand that “him” means a penis, or which head/lips we’re referring to. I wonder if that coding is a way of finding language that’s somewhere between clinical, flowery, and graphic slang, so that a large number of readers will be comfortable with it. It also feels like a special language unique to sex, when so many other words are also curses.

      On the question of there being more/better terms for men, I agree, and I think that’s down to sexism, mostly. My vocabulary in this area isn’t that extensive, but all the slang terms I can think of for female genitalia are also insults. Except, you know, clit, because the kind of guy who thinks misogynist insults are cool probably doesn’t even know what that is or where or why to find it.

      I’ve only read one Cara McKenna story so far (“Dirty Thirty”) but I’d agree: both what the characters did and how they talked about it seemed totally natural and realistic (also hot, because she showed how it made them hot). They were definitely Dan Savage-reading types.

      • anna cowan says:

        LOL – I love the idea that the clit can’t be a misogynist term, because they’d have to find it first :-) As though it’s too big a monument to failure for it to have any power for them.

        I also read “Ruin Me” by Cara KcKenna and couldn’t get into the hotness because I couldn’t bear her heroine’s decisions. Am very curious what you meant by Dan Savage-reading types? I’ve heard him do a bunch of stuff on This American Life, but never read any of his work.

      • lizmc2 says:

        In his Savage Love columns he talks a lot about how people should be GGG (good, giving and game). Have basic skills, care about your partner’s pleasure, be open to trying stuff. “Dirty Thirty” is a threesome story, and it really is about the couple + third deciding to try this, talking about how to do it, negotiating boundaries. And then, you know, having really hot sex.

        A lot of erotica feels like you’re reading a story offered up as a fantasy for the reader; this was like reading about people exploring their own fantasies. They were also Pacific Northwest hipsters (from Portland, Savage writes for a Seattle paper, but still). They just seemed like people who actually would try a threesome, not like pornbots.

      • anna cowan says:

        YES! I think that’s exactly what I loved about Curio – it felt like real sex, no fantastical sex, and it was still completely hot.

      • willaful says:

        I wonder if I’m bad at coding, because it’s not uncommon for me to have to read a sex scene over a few times to figure out what’s going on. And sometimes in the older, more flowery historicals I find the mentions of sex quite oblique.

        I remember thinking that Loretta Chase is particularly good at writing without using specific nouns.

      • lizmc2 says:

        I wonder if it’s just that some authors are less skilled at coding. I’ve read books where I think, “Wait, did they just…?” Also those where I feel I am arranging figures in my mind to see if what I think is being described is anatomically possible (I swear some heroes have extra arms and are contortionists).

  2. AS a beginning writer, it’s taking me a while to get into the language of sex. But I know what pulls me personally out of a sex scene and that’s ‘vulgar’ terms that I feel uncomfortable using myself in ‘real’ life. I know my adult children use some of those words naturally but I wish they didn’t. The way they use them is usually demeaning about sex. I don’t mind flowery euphemisms if they flow with the story. But when we talk about whether the scenes are porn that’s a tricky one. I feel like they are porn when reading them makes me all hot and bothered. I’m comfortable with emotional reactions from my romances, not so much with physical reactions.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I feel like I use the f-word way too much in casual speech myself. Other “vulgar” words I’ve become more comfortable with than I used to be in certain private contexts. Your comment shows how our feelings about these words are individual; they depend on our age (I’d bet I’m somewhere between you and your kids, if they’re adults), upbringing, culture, taste, friends, lovers. I don’t think that, as readers or writers, we should feel bad about what words we’re comfortable with, or force ourselves to try something we dislike.

      I think the trick for a writer must be finding a language she can use comfortably (as a reader, I’ve read scenes I felt the writer didn’t believe were sexy herself; they were awkward and unconvincing) and that she thinks will work for the audience she’s aiming at. That’s where I think learning from other writers makes sense.

      The porn question is a whole other post! And it’s one I don’t have answers on. But I don’t think I’d say writing with the intent to arouse (which may or may not be the effect) makes it porn. That makes it erotic. Some readers seek that effect out, and others don’t like it. Romance has something for all of us, luckily.

  3. jmc says:

    TMI: I wrote a short piece of pwp fic and posted it in the appropriate fan community over the weekend, and one of the betas who read it in advance called me on exactly this. I seldom write anything more than domestic fluff or gen with a relationship that readers squint to see for just this reason: how to label body parts and describe mechanics. Everything sounds too clinical for use in the heat of the moment, or awkward/vulgar/pornish dirty talk which may or may not be appropriate, given the character and situation. It takes real talent for an author (which I most emphatically do not consider myself) to write a good love scene.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Yes, I think it would be really hard. There’s sure a lot of badly written sex in literary fiction and other genres. I don’t know why romance gets such a bad rap (well, I probably do, but it’s unjust).

  4. Jessica says:

    Great points about the need to narrativize an experience in a way that communicates its (supposedly) fully present/timeless/purely sensual feel.

    I’ve been noticing lately how certain words used in sex scenes repeat across the genre. One in particular that I have come to loathe because I can’t get away from it, not in the first person or third, not from the male or female POV, not in contemp, UF or historical, not in subtle romance nor in erotic. … is the phrase “come apart” to describe orgasm.

    • lizmc2 says:

      There definitely are phrases that get over-used. I wonder if we’re due for a resurgence of flowery purple scenes, which at least make it easier to find descriptive variety.

      Why “coming apart” I wonder? That’s an intriguing image, really. My favorite variation on that was “She literally shattered.” Literally?!? Must have been messy.

  5. I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary romance these days, and the language used to describe sex caught my interest. I wouldn’t say it’s less purple than in historicals, but it’s a bit more perfunctory, and many had lots of dialogue between the heroine and hero throughout the scene. Which, understandably, is authentic, since modern-day women generally know what to expect and know what they like in bed. Sex in historicals, however, is…odd (can’t figure out what word I want to use). It’s a mix of modern sensibilities and the lusher prose found in the genre, but rarely feels true to the characters or their time period. One of my favorite historicals is Betina Krahn’s Caught in the Act, which is set in Elizabethan England and is incredibly bawdy and lusty. Suzanne Robinson’s Elizabethan-set romances are also authentically bawdy, and Eloisa James attempted a bit of the crass humor over sexual matters into her Georgian-set books. For the most part, sex in historical romance can be so concerned with being sexy and erotic, and completely ignores the characters and the historicity of the act–which is why I usually skip them! (And on the note of TBTSNBN, I noticed that as Ana grew more experienced over the course of the books, her language about sex changed [from "down there" to "clitoris" and "him" to "penis", etc]…very clever!).

    • lizmc2 says:

      Interesting points about historicals. I get annoyed by the way so many ignorant, virginal heroines take to it like naturals. Learning could be depicted as sexy! That’s actually the part of TB I don’t find believable (that a contemporary young woman could be a virgin, sure, that she’s SO inexperienced, not so much, and then that the first time is … no. Romance does like its fantasies!). But I agree about Ana’s language; I saw reviews making fun of terms like “down there” but they seem just right for the internal monologue of someone like her. And the changes you describe are a clever, realistic way to reflect her growing experience. I’ve seen some historical writers do that, where the woman learns terms from her partner, though of course I can’t think who right now.

      • LOL, I don’t think we’d want to read a bunch of “Forever”-like deflowering scenes–though, Catherine Coulter could trade stock in her painful and squicky virgin sex scenes in her 90s historicals! As for realistic terminology vs euphemisms, I would be hard pressed to claim that women, in general, know or regularly use explicit terms in real life. Look at how ~scandalous~ many considered Sex and the City to be in its heyday because of its frankness (and how many consider the frankness the result of being created by a gay man…). So it’s interesting how we live in so-called enlightened times, but women+sex in any capacity, even in a female-dominated genre like romance, remains on somewhat uneasy ground.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I think there is a middle ground between those shudder-inducing Coulter scenes or painful/awful (which isn’t everyone’s experience, at all) and “I know nothing about sex and have never even thought of touching myself but am multi-orgasmic the first time” (I’m not picking on any one book, that’s a commonplace of historical romance). I realize I am something of an outlier in tiring of the fantasy nature of romance sex scenes, though.

        My view is, real life sex can be great. Why not more books showing *that*? I think the (often repetitive/formulaic) fantasy is one way I which romance is arguably akin to porn, actually. (I suspect one way That Book seemed fresh to people is that it did NOT always follow the fantasy–that couple had a sexual relationship unique to them and had to negotiate about it. Many romance couples just have sex exactly like other romance couples). No wonder so many readers I know say they skim.

  6. kaetrin says:

    For me it depends on the author. I think Cara McKenna can write explicit really well. Victoria Dahl also. Pamela Clare for example uses the anatomically correct words quite often but, to me, somehow she makes them sexy, whereas in the up hands of another author, not so much. Mary Balogh is very direct and spare but mostly euphemistic but in her books, it very much works for me. My own personal language is more on the circumspect side but I can enjoy very explicit when it’s written well even though I can’t imagine myself speaking that way. But then I enjoy a lot in romance that I’m not into in real life! :)

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