Thursday, October 02, 2008

Erotic Language

I've been rereading a very hard-to-find collection by my idol, C. S. Lewis, SELECTED LITERARY ESSAYS, which includes a piece called "Four-Letter Words." Lewis was responding to remarks by D. H. Lawrence, who asserted, in connection with LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, that the twentieth-century had "evolved. . . beyond" earlier ages' attitudes toward "so-called obscene words" (Lawrence's words). Lewis takes issue with the implied claim that the bluntness of language in Lawrence's erotic scenes represented a wholesome return to nature. Lewis examines a wide selection of passages from classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature in which "four-letter words" for sexual subjects appear. He can't find even one instance of such language being used to arouse erotic appetite. Instead, they are always found in contexts of "farce or of vituperation"—bawdy humor or bitter insult. Several writers, in fact, condemn those words as anti-aphrodisiacs that ought to be avoided in sensual writing. "Lawrence's usage," Lewis concludes, "is not to be reckoned a return to nature from some local or recent inhibition"; it is, rather, "artificial."

I tend to land on the side of those authorities who consider formerly "unprintable" words as anti-aphrodisiacs, some of them anyway. Graphic or explicit erotica can mean either of two things—detailed, specific descriptions of body parts and sexual activities or very blunt (some people might say coarse or obscene) language. The two need not coexist. FANNY HILL, my favorite purely erotic novel of all time, goes into copious detail about Fanny's sexual techniques but never once uses a "four-letter word." An author could indulge in any amount of crude language and still keep the bedroom door shut. One of my publishers rates its erotic romances on the basis of both components. A story can't get a rating above what this publisher used to call "Sensual" (the mildest) without including "those words," no matter how graphic and explicit (in my definition of those terms) the action is. Some of the formerly unprintable terms have a decidedly anti-erotic effect on me; in fact, a couple of them strike me as implying contempt or violence rather than passion. Yet other words that I consider fun and spicy are banned by this publisher as too crude. There's no accounting for taste!

From comments by editors and on this publisher's e-mail lists, I know there are quite a few female readers who like and demand explicit language (in the four-letter word sense). I also know from occasional exposure to male-oriented pornography, both print and video, that lots of men like "those words" in sexual contexts; if the audience didn't like it, the producers of the material wouldn't supply it. So Lewis's conclusion that "obscene" words are never used to stimulate desire isn't universally true. The tastes of both writers and readers vary on this point. Do most writers of steamy romance assume that graphic sex scenes must include at least some "graphic" language? And if so, how much? Are there any words that should always be avoided if the writer's aim is to arouse the reader's passion as well as describe the characters' reactions?

Which leads to an unspoken assumption I'd almost overlooked—that part of the writer's aim in creating such scenes is to stimulate certain reactions in the reader. If the writer wants the reader to imaginatively share the characters' anger, fear, love, pain, etc., why not their sexual passion? I'm far from believing that using fiction to arouse sexual appetite is evil in itself. If it's okay for a couple in love to use wine, candles, soft music, lingerie, etc., to enhance desire, why not art and stories as well? (And, for the record, I’m a practicing Christian.)


  1. "Some of the formerly unprintable terms have a decidedly anti-erotic effect on me; in fact, a couple of them strike me as implying contempt or violence rather than passion. Yet other words that I consider fun and spicy are banned by this publisher as too crude. There's no accounting for taste!"

    I tend to think that whether words are anti-erotic or erotic is almost entirely determined by the tone the author uses. I've found fairly innocuous terms to be anti-erotic and been suprised to find obscene words erotic. So, I think it's even more complicated than just being a matter of personal taste; it also depends on the author's touch.

  2. Anonymous2:37 PM EDT

    I don't shy away from 'four letter' words in my work, but I don't use them without cause.

    My novel has been cited by the press as 'steamy', yet 'four letter' words are never connected to sex. Such words are used, as they are mostly in life, as expletives, as expressions of frustration and anger.

    I can't ever think of the words as being stimulating or sexual in nature. My background is in heavy engineering, and no one used such words to be explicitly sexual, just as an expression of pent up emotions.

  3. I also find four letter words anti-aphrodisiac. I don't find them offensive, though, which I guess is weird. I mean, when bloggers drop f-bombs and such, it doesn't bother me even a little bit.

    I guess it's because I don't see those words as naughty; I see them as vulgar. I have no problem with vulgarity, but it's not a component of my sexuality. I think sex is beautiful and sweet.

    Here's a related question. Do you (generic "you," not Ms. carter) curse during the acts of sex? I'm going to guess that the people who do, or who like it when their partners do, are the ones who enjoy it in their erotic fiction. I don't "talk dirty" during sex. I don't know if I could bring myself to without entirely killing the mood.

    I'm sure the fact that I'm a teacher affects my outlook on this too.


    The captcha for this post is "fcksd."

  4. My grandpa, who was a poet and a judge used to say that profanity was the sure sign of a weak argument or a weak mind. I think there is something to that in fiction tossing in an F-bomb is a cheap and easy way to get a gut reaction from your reader.

    As far as "dirty" words in erotic scenes, I'd rather have the correct term for a body part instead of drivel like "her honey dewed passion petal" or "his proud turgid man staff". I know I'm a science geek, but I find that sort of silliness more of a turn off that the biological terms.

    I think the real problem is having too much dialog in sex scenes. Sure, people talk in books and movies, because except in pure porn sex scenes server to move plot and build character just like the other scenes in a story, but I don't think in real life people talk anywhere as much in the middle of having sex as fictional characters do.

  5. I can't deny there is a certain shock value to particular words. Used too often, they lose their potency, but used correctly they can create a mood simply - in one word or less. The single word can evoke a response in the reader without the use of excessive language that can drag a scene down under its weight.

    I admit, I used to use more four-letter words in my books than I do now, though a certain amount are expected. You see, I'm a writer of erotic romance, although I honestly believe the "erotic" part of that moniker is nothing but a marketing ploy. It's romance. It's not erotica, which I define as sex for sex's sake. (Your opinion may differ.)

    But the use of four letter words is something I don't shy away from. Whether it's a character who always talks like a truck driver or one that uses blunt language only in the bedroom -- if it's true the the character and works in the scene, I use it.

  6. I agree that the author's technique and the context of the dialogue have a lot to do with whether a given word comes across as erotic or anti-erotic. I also think it depends a great deal on how the character would believably speak. On very rare occasions, I've allowed characters in my erotic romances to use words I don't like, because it seemed plausible for the character to speak that way.

    I've read that some people (esp. men, it seems) do like to "talk dirty" during sex. Turns me off, personally.

    I love lots of dialogue in sex scenes. That's one way literature can improve on life. :) The absence of it is one reason why I find male-oriented porn videos mostly boring. The other reason is that they skimp on foreplay, instead skipping directly to the part of the encounter that's most tedious to watch (regardless of how intense it is to participate in).

    I like using "correct" terms for body parts, too; editors often prefer what I consider cruder words. Lewis has another essay, "Prudery and Philology" (I think that's the one), in which he discusses the difference between drawing a nude human figure and describing it in words. The verbal description runs into a unique problem: When you get to the "private parts," you have to choose among medical terminology (the "correct" terms), gutter slang, archaisms, and baby talk. There are no neutral words for the genitals equivalent to leg, arm, hand, eyebrow, etc. Whatever language the writer chooses inevitably implies a particular attitude toward the material.