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Bad words and the language of sex

April 20, 2010

An author in a chat room I recently participated in mentioned that she didn’t use “bad words” in her sex scenes.

I feel compelled to confess that I do use words my momma would consider bad.

I don’t think I use them gratuitously, but I also don’t think I have a choice if I want to graphically convey a romantic, erotic sex scene.

In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Big Brother had pared down the language to the point that people couldn’t commit treason because the words no longer existed to enable them to think about it. Our language about sex is like that. I had a college psychology professor who once said that sex is easier to do than it is to talk about. No wonder. It’s our language that prevents us from talking about it. There aren’t many romantic, tender words available to describe the sex act. There are some, such as “making love,” but those words are much more rare than the other options available and even making love is fuzzy around the edges and not very precise.

Our language reflects the culture that created it.

In English, we have crude words (fuck, blow job, cunt) humorous words, (pee pee, Mr. Happy), ribald words that are humorous and crude (hide the sausage, mustache riding), and clinical words (cunnilingus, fellatio, coitus).

Perhaps it’s a harkening to our Puritanical roots or maybe we’re just screwed up, but Americans are ambivalent about sex. We live in a country in which porn is a huge, thriving industry, yet acting in a porno flick is deemed shameful and immoral; where teenagers continue to get pregnant but the efficacy of sex education is still debated in public schools; where politicians campaign on family values while conducting not-so-secret extra-marital affairs; where violent sports such football, boxing and hockey are national pastimes but a “wardrobe malfunction” national TV drives the nation into a tizzy; where a Miss America who parades around in heels and bathing suit can be dethroned if she poses nude. Where we say sex should be a private act yet we attempt to legislate who can do what behind closed doors.

This ambivalence has created a language that makes it difficult to talk about sex. We’re left with an odd assortment of words and phrases, none of which is appropriate to describe sexual relations in a detailed but tender and romantic way. Crude words shock us out of the moment, humorous words diffuse eroticism with laughter, ribald words make us snicker like sex is a dirty joke, and clinical words douse libido like a cold shower.

So what’s a writer who doesn’t want to fade to black or resort to flowery euphemistic prose to do?

The best she can by marshalling all her craft, using the few “good words” that do exist, occasionally relying on euphemism, and by adopting and thereby disarming the crude ones.

When I’m writing a romantic sex scene or when I’ve gotten my fingers caught in the garage door, there are times when only “fuck” will satisfy.

Where do you weigh in? Have you found writing sex scenes challenging because of the English language?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 4:54 am

    Cara, right on and amen. The English language is totally pitiful when it comes to love, sex and true passion. It’s an effing challenge to write scenes because of this. I’ve given it the ole creative effort and sometimes others don’t get my usage of words, or the words I create. Well, whatever… at least, I’m being faithful to my heroines and heroes.
    In my opinion, as a society we are INFANTILE when it comes to sex, love and passion. So sad. I’m doing my best to change that as I know other author/writers are… but, it’s a mountainous uphill battle.

  2. April 21, 2010 10:25 am

    Interesting post. I personally don’t like fuck in a romantic or even explicit sex scene, but I’m comfortable with penis and or cock.
    Cathleen Ross

  3. April 21, 2010 2:22 pm

    I tend to pick my words based on the characters and the situation.

    Also, I tend to prefer “crude” words if the scene works that way – I want to make them seem less crude by using them more often, if that makes sense.

  4. April 21, 2010 5:54 pm

    Fantastic post. I think our culture is highly ambivalent about sex. I tolerate a wide range of crude words when they are appropriate to a character, both in my reading and writing, because I feel the thing that makes or breaks the quality of the scene is the emotion we get from the characters. We are lucky and talented enough as writers to be able to describe potent emotion with a wide variety of words that don’t have to do anything at with the sexual act even if they occuring at the same time. Ironically, I think our society is just as ambivalent about some forms of emotion as it is about sex.

    Wonderful food for thought as I am just beginning a sex scene in my current ms.

  5. April 22, 2010 2:28 pm

    Amen, Sister!
    Thanks for a great post. You’ve done a wonderful job of putting the issue into words. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled over the right word for that female area down there. Each word choice brings with it such a truckload of additional meaning.


  6. April 23, 2010 3:05 am

    On the contrary, I think we’re incredibly lucky to have the breadth and richness of the English language to work with. It’s not at all limiting! Using explicit language is one way–but not always the right way and certainly not the only way–to write erotic material. The language must derive from the characters first and your own style second.

    What’s not to love about English, such a wonderful mish mash of cultures and languages, always changing and growing.

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