Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The language of romance

I've been meaning for some time to write about the language of sex in romance and erotica, but two posts I saw yesterday have given me just the push I needed to actually do it.

So, here's the thing. I read a lot of historical romance and paranormal romance, and am fascinated by all the different words authors use to refer to genitalia. Words and phrases like swollen sex, feminine bud, heavy sackspussymanhood, feminine folds, cock and heat. There are lots of others, but you get the point. You know what I don't see in the books I read? The proper terms: vagina, labia, scrotum, etc. Oh, every so often I will see a clitoris or penis, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

I can understand how a writer might not want to use the word vagina all the time. Why s/he might want to mix it up a bit and use slang or a euphemism to avoid overusing a word. But that doesn't explain the absence of the word vagina.

In the post "Should a sex scene be a lesson in anatomy?" Travis Luedke argues that "anatomical language" just isn't sexy. For him, words like vagina, labia, clitoris, vulva or areola, when in used in the context of a sex scene, "sound sterile, goofy, even vulgar and unreal."

Two observations about this. First, I find it interesting that his post focuses on words used to describe female anatomy rather than male anatomy. I wonder: does Leudke feel the same way about the words penis, erection, scrotum or testicles? Second, the reason that the words vagina and vulva might sound "sterile, goofy" or "vulgar" is because those words aren't often used in our society. It's part of the body-shaming that goes on in this culture. (Need proof? Look at all the fallout after Michigan state representative Lisa Brown said the word vagina in a speech to her House of Reps.)

To say that vagina and clitoris are vulgar and unsexy but that we are not ashamed of sex or the female body sends the same mixed message that "JD Roberto wishes he could avoid sending his five-year-old son" about the male body and sexuality. People who write about sex--which to me seems like an awesome, sex-positive thing to do--have an opportunity here to stop perpetuating the body-shaming, to embrace and reclaim the proper terms for our anatomy. To make vaginas sexy again.

I would also like to take this opportunity to point out how the use of terms like manhood and feminine bud perpetuate gender identity discrimination. By substituting the word manhood for penis and the phrase feminine bud for clitoris, we exclude people who are male-identified but don't have penises and people who are female-identified but don't have clitorises.

But if we use anatomical terms, suddenly the possibilities open up. Suddenly we can have a scene wherein "she unzipped her fly and released her penis from the confines of the fabric" or similar. Imagine that.


  1. Hi Jeanie - thank you for inviting me to comment on your post.

    I will tell you that I when I began writing romance (several years back) I never used the terms 'cock' and 'dick', I normally went for the standard 'manhood' and 'feminine core/bud' terms because I felt uncomfortable bringing the more vulgar language into my stories. I will tell you however that that has changed. Although selective with my use of crude words, I'm now much more comfortable using words such as 'cock', 'erection', and 'pussy'.

    As to your mention of gender identity discrimination I can't say that I have ever giving it much consideration, but with all the new stuff out there (gay erotica, GLBT romance) I imagine there's enough literature to fit anyone's lifestyle. Straight romance has a unique language and so should GLBT romance, IMPO.

    Thanks for posting :)

  2. in my erotic fiction, I try to use euphemisms for ALL body parts, and indeed all nouns in the text. "He pushed his face flaps against her face flaps roughly, pushing his skull worm against her wet and slippery skull worm. They stumbled backwards to the laying-down-place. The only sound in the room was that of slurpy liquids being exchanged, and that of the feathered wing-beasts screaming in the wooden tree-fingers as the hot floaty sky blazer sank slowly behind the upthrusting rock tallforms in the faraway."

  3. Is it OK that words like these make me want to laugh? I am laughing in private here in this room, but would U shun me if I peed my pants at the mention of "face flaps" and "skull worms in your feminine blogger rooms?"