Recently, Kameron Hurley shared this piece by E.M. Kokie on the seeming dearth of language available to workaday prose writers to describe what arousal feels like in a cis female body. Said Kokie:
When I found myself stuck and looking for the words, I started pulling books off my bookshelves and scanning for the romantic scenes I remembered from prior readings (much like when I was an adolescent reader). I was shocked to find a complete lack of language for the female anatomy in all but one of the books I checked, and none at all during an intimate scene. Despite effective and appropriately done intimate scenes, none of these books actually used specific words to refer to the female anatomy below the waist. Almost none of them refer to the obvious reactions these female characters would be having to the scene, and none while the character was actually in the moment. Not one mention of words like slick and wet. No mentions of scent or taste.
Granted, Kokie is writing for a YA audience. At least, she’s writing for the YA market, which means she’s writing for public school librarians who have a tough job already without harassment from asshole parents who can’t handle their kids reading words like “cock” or “cunt” but have seemingly no qualms about giving them handheld computer devices from which they can watch/read/create all the porn they want online for free.
YA or not, this is a problem for a lot of writers. It’s also not a particularly new problem. Feminist and post-structural theorist Hélène Cixous discusses it in her 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” wherein she calls on women writers to engage in l’écriture féminine: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Cixous’ call to writerly action rested on the thesis that the dominant mainstream culture has educated women to hate their bodies, and that women writers therefore have a tough time embodying themselves in fiction because they literally lack the language necessary to communicate their personal lived experiences. From a genre perspective, Ursula K. LeGuin took on a similar notion in her 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr, where she called for a “mother tongue” that spoke the truth of female experience.
The language of the fathers, of Man Ascending, Man the Conqueror, Civilized Man, is not your native tongue. It isn’t anybody’s native tongue. You didn’t even hear the father tongue your first few years, except on the radio or TV, and then you didn’t listen, and neither did your little brother, because it was some old politician with hairs in his nose yammering. And you and your brother had better things to do. You had another kind of power to learn. You were learning your mother tongue.
Using the father tongue, I can speak of the mother tongue only, inevitably, to distance it — to exclude it. It is the other, inferior. It is primitive: inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited, trivial, banal. It’s repetitive, the same over and over, like the work called women’s work; earthbound, housebound. It’s vulgar, the vulgar tongue, common, common speech, colloquial, low, ordinary, plebeian, like the work ordinary people do, the lives common people live. The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word the root of which means “turning together.” The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting. It is written, but not by scribes and secretaries for posterity: it flies from the mouth on the breath that is our life and is gone, like the outbreath, utterly gone and yet returning, repeated, the breath the same again always, everywhere, and we all know it by heart.
Wow. Right? So this is not a new issue. In fact, it’s so old that the self-help industry occasionally tries to solve it. Check out the sample on this Herbaliser song:
Did you catch that? “Suck, cock, fuck, and prick are not bad words. Used in the bedroom by lovers, they are very proper indeed.” Of course, I’d argue they’re not really bad words in general. I don’t really believe in bad words. I believe in hate speech. I believe in gaslighting. I believe that language can be used to exclude, to diminish, to hurt. I believe those are the truly “bad” uses of language. But “fuck” is not a bad word. It’s a word people used to be embarrassed to say, because it calls sex to mind and they were embarrassed about sex because it’s messy and emotional and it involves vulnerability and funny noises and awkward positions. These people confused the privacy you want for something that’s intimate with the privacy you want for something that’s embarrassing. But in fiction, this shouldn’t be a problem. Because you’re not talking about yourself — you’re talking about your character. Right?
Granted, it’s easy to see why people are intimidated. Sex in fiction is hard to do well. So many writers fuck it up so completely that the Literary Review hands out awards for the worst offenders. Even romance writers occasionally get bored and confuse writing Lovecraft with writing the craft of love, and so you wind up with prose that’s as purple as a set of balls in their first O-ring. In those situations, the reader’s arousal is supposed to stand in for the character’s, so the writer doesn’t have to describe it. Because if you’re already feeling it, why belabour the point? (And if you’re not feeling it, then why are you still reading it?) But really, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. I mean, if Lana Del Rey can sing about how her pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola (which I take to mean that it’s better with ice chips and a slice of lemon), then you can do this. You can say the bad words. You can write them.
So, here are some Do’s and Don’ts, with regard to depicting female arousal:
- Do just write the swear words. If your editor doesn’t like them, she’ll let you know. But keep this in mind: nobody gives Junot Diaz any shit for swearing too much. Or Chuck Palahniuk. Swearing is supposed to be manly, so when men swear they’re re-affirming masculine identity. I mean, look at Al Swearengen. It’s right there in the name. Swearengen. Swear-engine. (Two seasons of Deadwood and suddenly every white guy under thirty is wearing linen vests and handlebar mustaches and drinking artisanal hootch out of a goddamn Mason jar. You think that’s a coincidence? It’s not.) So understand that if you’re a woman and someone tells you to quit cursing, there’s a gendered dynamic at work. Then tell them to fuck right off.
- Don’t talk about burning and tingling. Or if you do, use those words exactly once. Sure, vaginas burn and tingle when they’re aroused. But they also burn and tingle when they have a yeast infection. I want to be turned on by your fiction, not wonder if your character hasn’t been cleaning her toys regularly.
- Do talk about the twitching. The clitoris is full of erectile tissue. It twitches just like a cock does, and just as randomly. Write that. Be honest.
- Do talk about the soreness. If you’ve been aroused for a really long time without any relief, the muscles of the vagina work up some lactic acid and get sore, like any other muscle in your body. The first week of my first job back in high school, this other girl on my shift said she was happy to go home because her pussy hurt so much. “You been screwin’ too much?” my assistant manager asked. “No way,” my co-worker answered. “I’m going home to screw.” Then she took her paycheck and left. (My first job in high school was as a character in an early Stephen King short story.)
- Do talk about the craving. Whether it’s the craving for a really good, cobweb-clearing orgasm, or the craving to be filled up, or the craving to see someone else naked, talk about it. You know what’s sexy about Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally? It’s not how good she is at faking it. It’s the scene when she orders her completely neurotic salad and knows exactly what she wants. She’s obviously been thinking about it all day. She’s envisioned every element of it down to the last detail. And that makes sense: women have so many erogenous zones, and are therefore capable of so many types of orgasms, that those orgasms could fill a whole Homeland Security Advisory System colour chart.
- Do listen to music for inspiration. It’s easy to get tripped up in the prose format, there are plenty of women who sing and rap and flow about what it’s like to want sex. Seriously, do tune into the aforementioned Del Rey, or Rihanna, or Portishead, or Massive Attack, or Lucille Bogan, or Melissa Ferrick, or shit, just listen to some Loretta Lynn. Take your cues from them. They have to describe the same thing even more economically than you do. They’re probably better at it.
- Do just keep it simple. If your character wants to fuck somebody, she can just talk about wanting to fuck them. This can be internal monologue, or she can just say it out loud. Nothing really works better than looking someone square in the face and saying, “I’d like to be fucking you, right now. May I?” Or you could just have your character climb on top of somebody. That also works.
- Don’t over-describe. Chances are your reader has some idea what you’re talking about. You don’t have to spend a whole paragraph on arousal, unless the arousal is doing some other work like revealing character or getting plot done. The arousal itself is unimportant. What’s important is why your character is aroused, and what it means to her.
- Don’t talk about dripping orchids or moist caverns or any of that shit. The only person allowed to do the flower metaphor is Georgia O’Keeffe. Ditto food metaphors, architectural metaphors, whatever. If you have to make up a complicated analogy, it’s because you’re uncomfortable with what you’re writing. Go ahead, and write that way in the first draft. Then pretend you’re Hemingway, scrap it, and write what actually happened. (And if you must give it a cute name, call it “her Edsel.”)
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking your teen or young adult characters don’t know what they want. Of course they do. They might not feel comfortable expressing themselves accurately just yet, but at fifteen I had a few problems that I wanted my boyfriend to give me a hand with, if you know what I mean. (The most egregious offender here are The Hunger Games novels. Katniss is constantly talking about tingles radiating from her body out to her fingertips. That’s not arousal. That’s having a damn stroke.)
- Don’t have her bite her lip. Does anybody actually bite their lip, like, ever? No. The humans I’ve witnessed live and in the flesh don’t. You might worry your lip if it’s chapped and you’re chewing some flakes of skin off it, but that’s about it. Biting your lip is painful, and it ruins your lipstick. Why would I ruin my lipstick if I’m trying to get laid? That’s just science.
- Do understand that the line between romantic interest and physical arousal is not so much a line as it is a passing lane on the Autobahn. If you simply must have your protagonist notice how sweet and funny her intended is before feeling something below the belt, okay. But that’s not how it happens for everybody.
- Arousal can result from visual stimuli, but not always. Sometimes it’s the sound of someone’s voice, or the way they smell, or the brush of their fingers across the back of your hand. Looks do count for something, but not everything.
- Those “I’ll be in my bunk,” moments? Those happen for women, too. That whole bit in Secretary when Maggie Gyllenhaal uses the bathroom stall at her work to masturbate? Totally real. Probably an easy way to get fired, but real.
- A lack of arousal can be the result of a lot of things. Your character might wonder why his wife doesn’t want to sleep with him any longer, and there could be any one of many reasons: depression, side effects of medication, hormonal birth control, or the fact that she’s spent the past twenty years with someone who’s never learned to pick up his socks or put new toilet paper on the ring.
- Plenty of studies have been done on arousal in post-menopausal women. Some women notice a huge difference. Others don’t. Hormone replacement therapy can make a difference, but not as big a difference as fantasy. The biggest erogenous zone in the human body is right between the ears.
- Transwomen can experience changes in arousal after surgery, but surgery is only one part of the transition. You should treat transwomen as you would all other women: by trusting them when they say they’re aroused. They know their bodies better than you do. But you could get to know theirs better.
- Changes in arousal are also common post-partum, when hormones are completely out of whack. Some women want to go right back to having sex as soon as they can, because it re-establishes their identity. Others realize it was that kind of thinking that got them elbow-deep in runny shit in the first place. Still others really want sex, but are still recovering from an episiotomy. In any case, if your lady says she wants sex after having a baby, you should probably go for it. You really only have fifteen minutes max before the kids wake up again, anyway. Gather ye rosebuds while you may.
Now, because size isn’t everything, I realize that this Dirk Diggler of a post can’t get at all the nooks and crannies of female arousal. So please, feel free to give me some input down below. As it were.
5 thoughts on “Bad words: depicting female arousal in your fiction.”
Thank you so much, Madeline.
Really, for men, female desire and arousal is *such* a black box. Our western hangups about sex don’t help, either.
In all senses of the word, this is a *fucking* great post. Thanks for the sex/lit education.
This is great and weirdly timed perfectly for what I’ve been working on. I edit a lot of romance novels in my practice and I really struggle with the unrealistic sex. I used to just ignore it, letting the publisher’s editor take a shot at it, but lately I’ve felt compelled to point out that, for example, there’s no such thing as ‘expert penis maneuvers.’ If a female character thinks that a particular lover ‘takes care of her needs’ better than previous loves and there’s no foreplay of any sort, it’s utterly unconvincing. If romance is fantasy for women, writing about women’s arousal unrealistically there can only add to women’s concerns that something’s wrong with them if they don’t orgasm during intercourse with nothing but penetration to help them get there. Not that that can’t ever happen, but it’s not the most common way women make it to the top. Why can’t sex in books, especially those written primarily for women be realistic?
Thanks for this post.
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The only part I disagree with is the lip-biting bit. I bite my lip. In multiple situations. When I’m confused, when I’m concentrating, all sorts. And yes, in spite of being asexual, given that I have been aroused, sometimes I end up biting it during arousal. It just happens. Might just be the way my mouth’s shaped, but it’s a little unfair to say that nobody does it ever. Especially to follow it with the comment about lipstick. Not every ciswoman wears lipstick, either, even if they are trying to get some. I have a hard time figuring out if this tip is supposed to be sarcasm or not, since it seems so very geared toward a specific gender stereotype and a narrow experience window.
Other than that, though, I have to congratulate you on writing an awesome post. I learned a fair bit, and not just about how to write. (Funny how the female body can be such a mystery even to those who’re actually wearing one…)
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