The Semantics of Sex
How do you describe sex?
Fucking, screwing, banging, boning? Making love? Being had, being taken? Dicking? Ravaging? Slamming? Rutting? Shagging?
As someone who writes sex for a living, I spend a good chunk of most of my days thinking about the words we used to describe getting down. Not just the actual verbs, but the words surrounding them – cock, dick, pussy, cunt, slit, hole, erection, length. If you haven’t figured it out by now, maybe stop with the reading this article out to your elderly relatives. Or continue, maybe they’re into that. But to return to my main point: writing erotica and romance, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dichotomy of the words we use to talk about sex.
I mean, think about it. There isn’t really a neutral way to describe the act of intercourse. Yes, we have “to have sex”, we have “penis” and “vagina”, but those words (especially when used concurrently) tend to bring to mind a clinical removal, which in itself is not a neutral reaction. And besides, when was the last time you described intercourse in those terms? When it comes to other basic actions, we have words that depict them in a completely neutral way. He said, she walked. But when I write sex, and when we as people talk about it, the words we use tend to fall into one of two columns.
As Gloria Steinem points out in an essay in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, “Sexual phrases are the most common synonyms for conquering and humiliation (being had, being screwed, getting fucked)[…]”, and she’s right. If anything, the development of that kind of language has just to more phrases that seem to depict the fuckee (usually female) as, at best, the victim of a sexual encounter (I’m certain I’m not the only woman to have received an offer to “smash my back doors in”, for example). Indeed, the dirtiest term for a vagina is considered by many, many people the most offensive word in the English language. Just look at the backlash a show got only this week for using it. This language isn’t inherently wrong, but it depicts sex as something people do to other people-particularly, something men do to women- instead of something people share.
And on the other side of that coin, you’ve got the softer terms for sex. The phrase “making love” turns a lot of people’s stomachs and brings to mind cheesecloth romantic sex as opposed to porn-fucking. If we’re lucky, you might end up with something as explicit as “pussy”, which has always, always read to me like a creepily cutesy phrase for describing a a vagina. There’s a sliding scale of dirtiness, going from describing a vagina as “her sex” right down to EL James writing in flushed tones about the “apex of [her] thighs”. But the kind of sex that these kinds of words depict is often seen as being inherently worth more, because it is romantic, it is loving, and it often focuses on the emotional elements of sex over the physical ones. It is also, culturally, viewed as the sex that women enjoy more (or should), as well as containing the kind of language that many people (wrongly) associate with the romance genre in general. And, in it’s own way, it’s just as objectifying to women as the former, as it suggests that that a woman is more virtuous the less she acknowledges and talks about the physical pleasure she receives from having sex.
I think this a problem that both exists in romance and erotica writing and in the conversations we have about sex in general. Sex is complex and can mean many different things at many different times between many different people, and one of the reasons I love my job so much is because I like exploring the space between the two dichotomies. But when it comes to the common language we use about sex, it seems like there’s no winning for the be-vagina’d among us. Either you’re having stuff done to you or at you, or you can only enjoy sex for the romantic elements of your “nature” that it indulges. Neither comes without baggage – and, as somebody who writes primarily about sex about and for women, that’s a real downer.
On a brighter note, here are some of the great erotica and romance stories that break out of the sex-talk binary that have stuck with me over the years: The Boss series, by Jenny Trout, the Succubus Blues series, by Richelle Mead, and The Star Thief, by Jamie Grey. What books have changed the way you think about sex and sexuality? What would you add to this list?