Words Matter

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I remember being seventeen and listening to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leader of the early feminist movement, talk about the vocabulary we use and the differences it makes. I don't remember the whole lecture, but what stuck with me was her observation that the word "history" was a meshing of two words, "his" and "story."  “What about ‘her’ story,” Pogrebin asked. Being the self-absorbed teenager I was I hadn't given that a lot (or any) thought, but she brought me up short, and began my contemplation of words and how we use them. Words are powerful. Words matter. What you say and how you say it are the stock in trade of all writers, of course, and a profound love of words, phrases, analogies and thoughts expressed as lines on a page is one of the reasons I write—and read. But words can be misinterpreted—either the meaning or the intent.

I was reminded of this truth when a friend recently sent me a HuffPost article on "The Most Ridiculous Sexual Phrases from Romance Novels."  The article had lists of "hilarious" euphemisms for the penis, vagina and sex. I think the author missed the point entirely. Words matter. Particularly when reading sex scenes in my favorite paranormal fantasy books.

Sticks and stone may break my bones... But words can always get me hot. And bothered. I've written before about what women want, and what they want is erotica that isn't crude, rude and in-your-face pornographic. While I have nothing against dirty talk—there is definitely a time and place where such language and suggestions are titillating rather than offensive and off-putting—I usually don't want to read about it in my romance novels. I love the euphemistic language that describes love in paranormal fantasy and romance books. I love the soft focus lens that such vocabulary imparts on the images described in these novels. If you really think about it, sex is an awkward, messy business that is wonderful when you're doing it, but can seem tawdry and a little sad when it's a spectator sport. To me, the rounded edges that the more suggestive language offers is more evocative than more explicit descriptions would be.

There must be something to this, because the romance genre is booming. Historical, contemporary and paranormal romances are all the rage. It's also been suggested that the advent of the electronic reader has given a boost to the chick lit market and made the classic "bodice-ripper" more acceptable fare than before we could hide the exact nature of our reading choices from curious eyes on the bus, train, plane or park bench. I've told the story before about my straight-laced boss sitting on a plane next to me, grabbing the latest Meredith Gentry novel out of my hands to read the back cover. Awkward!! These days, no one knows what I'm reading unless I tell them-- although, of course, I'm done with being embarrassed about my reading choices and have used this blog to announce my love of smut to the world.

Except it isn't smut, is it?  Sex in romance books, including the paranormal variety, is so far from smutty that it's like calling a unicorn a horse. It's not. It's an entirely different animal. These characters aren't rutting mindlessly. They are making mad, passionate love after a well-written build-up of will they/won't they. They are soul mates, bonded couples, lovers for life—and if it's a paranormal book, that life could be hundreds, if not thousands of years long. Talk about commitment! But the sex these fictional folks are having is idealized for women--written by women, for women and, usually, from the female perspective. Let’s just say here that nice guys finish last, and they are all nice guys in these books--our heroines wouldn’t have it any other way.

So how these wonderful authors communicate all of this powerful emotion and intense physical and spiritual connection counts. I can't imagine it's easy to write an effective sex scene in romance literature. So my hat is off to those authors who do it well. Not too long ago, I was privileged to be asked to be a beta reader for one of the indie authors I follow. The book was very good, but I did have a number of suggestions (many of which were incorporated into the final version, I'm delighted to say). One question the author asked was whether we, the beta readers, liked the sex scenes and specifically whether we agreed with the vocabulary she used. Perspicacious question.  In the event, I didn't like the specific terms she'd used. I felt they were too clinical. On the other hand, I also dislike Penthouse Forum-type language that tends to focus attention on only the physical aspects of the event and highlight the more salacious perspectives, which always makes me feel like a slightly pervy voyeur. 

Instead, I love the well-written sex scenes that allow me to feel like I'm in the scene itself. I want to imagine myself as the woman within the pages, experiencing the transcendence of the moment. Because, in fact, that transcendent element is exactly what separates the good sex scenes from the cringe-worthy ones, and the pornographic from the erotic and romantic. l love the scenes where the two partners are taken out of themselves and are so into each other that the rest of the world melts away.   And, yes, there are the Laurell Hamilton sex scenes that involve more than two partners, but Laurell is in a class by herself and she can make scenes that can only be described as hard-core pornography work from an erotic/romantic/loving perspective—but she is the only one I've read who can do that. And then, of course, there is the inimitable Kresley Cole who writes in three different genres, including adult erotica. Those books are smoking hot—and could also be characterized as more traditionally- focused pornography, but again, she makes it work from a woman's perspective. One of the things I love about Kresley Cole, and which I've written about before here, is that she celebrates women's healthy and enthusiastic sexuality. Which is awesome. Women like sex as much as men do. The difference is that women like good sex. Men just like sex. 

So, please, all of your writers who are my rock stars (Mick Jagger has nothing on Kresly Cole, Laurell K. Hamilton, JR Ward, Thea Harrison, Nalini Singh, Karen Marie Moning, Charlaine Harris, etc.), please keep watching your language and conveying your descriptions artfully and beautifully.  Women want sex to be beautiful, and that includes the words used to describe every, single, minute detail.