If you’re not a fan of sex scenes in your romance novels, then you might want to look away now, because this is a post about the language used to describe those steamy moments. So be warned that there will be several rude words and naughty phrases from here on out.
Back in the day when I used to read (and write) fanfiction, I remember reading some truly execrable sex scenes. You know the sort – the ones where you know the author was trying to burn up the screen but ended up causing widespread hilarity. There is a fine line to tread between something being hot or being funny, and while it is certainly going to be the case that one person’s turn-on is another’s unbridled amustment , I find that there are certain words and/or phrases, or an overall ‘feel’ that is guaranteed to make me giggle rather than get hot under the collar.
I read a book recently which I really enjoyed, but in which the author kept referring to the hero’s “organ”. Now, I’m sorry, but whenever I see that expression used to describe the hero’s tackle, this is the image that pops into my head:
And that got me thinking about the words and euphemisms used by authors when writing sex scenes, particularly in romance novels. I would imagine that in a romance there’s also another thing to factor in when you’re walking that fine line, which is that you have to keep the romantic element of what is going on to the fore. The romance reader might want the steam, the headboard-banging and the screaming Os, but there’s a different language to be used to describe such things in romance as opposed to erotica. In the erotica I have read, I’d venture to say that the language is cruder and more to the point. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – everything has its place, after all – and in some romance novels the prose as been so purple as to make me wonder what the hell is going on! But when it comes down to it, there are a limited number of words to describe male and female genitalia after all, as in most romances, you’re writing a sex scene that extends over several pages, you’re going to need to use a good number of them and to try not to go overboard with the repetitions. And in erotica it must be even … I was going to say “harder” (snigger)… more difficult.
And I got to thinking. What words or phrases are likely to make me squirm – in a bad way? I’m certainly no prude and can honestly say that there is very little in terms of sexual vocabulary that I find offensive. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of anything – even the “c-“ word, which is one I never use, isn’t a problem for me when used in an erotic novel, because, as I said earlier, it’s down ‘n’ dirty and to the point. I do find it less easy to accept in the context of a romance novel, however, for the same reason – it’s too down ‘n’dirty and to the point.
In general, I find that using anatomical terms – penis, vagina etc. can make the whole thing seem rather too clinical. But then that means we need a big bag of euphemisms, and I asked my fellow reviewers here at AAR about which words make them laugh, cry or throw the book at the wall.
When it comes to describing the hero’s anatomy, it seems that “cock” is the favoured word, although in historicals, there are also a plethora of shafts, rods, pricks, lengths, bulges or just plain ol’ erections, which are thickening, turgid, swollen, burgeoning, engorged, rampant, raging or painful. (Poor fellas).
And how’s this for purple prose – “turgid tumescence”? Blythe said she read a book years ago (probably in the late 90s) where the hero had one of those. “I’m not sure on what planet this would sound sexy, but I know it’s not this one.” I think I agree with her on that.
Most of us were agreed that whether the language worked or nod all depended on context. Lynn said she thought that maybe terms like “manhood” were more likely to be found in historicals than more modern, grittier terms, and Jenna reminded me of that wonderful term, “manroot”, which seems to have gone the way of the 80s Bodice Ripper.
Blythe said: “I used to hate hate hate the word cock. But as it’s gotten more and more common in romances, I’m pretty much over it. Still I’d rather authors use dick instead, because at least in America, I think that’s what most men say. But that could just be the ones I know. Member? Manhood? Organ? No thanks.
Dabney said that in the latest novel by Jennifer Haymore, when the virginal heroine asks the hero what he calls that part of himself, he suggests several terms: rod, blade, sword, knocker, rump-splitter, prick – but settles on cock.
I have to admit to finding the rump-splitter more than a little chuckle-worthy.
I admit, I’ve never had a problem with the word “cock”, but I suspect that may be one of those transatlantic differences that exist between my side and your side of the pond, because I’m not sure that we use the word “dick” with quite the same frequency over here. Of course it means the same thing, but I think a British guy is more likely to refer to his “cock” or his “knob” and “dick” is more often used in insults like “dickhead” rather than to describe what’s in his trousers. Given my preference for reading European historicals (which are mostly set in Britain), the term “cock” seems perfectly usual to me, as I tend to think that’s the more common euphemism over here. Pat also said that it’s the term most often used in M/M romances.
And the ladies? I remember reading a fanfic years ago in which the author referred to the heroine’s “golden treasure box” – which could well take the award for the worst ever description of female anatomy!
Otherwise, there are plenty of slick folds, rosy petals, swollen flesh … and lots of musky scents down there.
And where would we be without the lovely “nether lips”? (A lot better off, I suspect!) Then there’s the moist and/or welcoming heat, the tight sheaths and the snug channels; the engorged buds, hard nubs of her pleasure and the nubbins… although personally, that’s one of the times I think I’d prefer the word “clitoris” used.
And Lauren doesn’t see the need for the use of the word “moist” at all – unless one is talking about cake!
Jenna said “Words like “nubbin” and any references to flowers for female body parts don’t quite work for me. And the phrase “slick heat” always makes me think of an oil spill on asphalt!!
And it reminds Lynn of a day at the office when someone was encouraged to feel the “slick heat” – of the photocopier!
Wendy said “The worst one I can remember was from several years ago, and I can’t remember the book now – probably thankfully. The heroine had a “turbid trench”. I wasn’t sure what turbid meant, but I was pretty sure it didn’t mean what the author intended. Later I looked it up and found out it meant “muddy”. Gross!
Above the waist there are those perky, taut, hard, rosy, dusky nipples that always seem to harden painfully. The other day I read a novel in which the heroine’s nipples were insolent. That was a first!
I’ve deliberately not included some of the creaky dialogue I’ve read over the years of the “oh, yes – do it to me, big boy!” variety, as I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to identify specific writers or books, but if anyone else would care to share their favourites, I’d certainly love to read them!
I’ve also not touched on (*ahem*!) the language used in erotica, for the reasons I’ve stated above –it’s a different animal entirely and uses a different language. I wanted to stick more or less within the romance genre with my observations, and now I’m interested in your views.
So come on – own up. When is sexy just … NOT as far as you’re concerned?
– Caz Owens
Note: For more fun with euphemisms, check out the archives of the Purple Prose Parody!