(Warning, this is definitely a NSFW or not-for-under-18 topic)
Yesterday’s post about erotic romance evolved into a discussion on Twitter and a post over on Facebook about whether regular erotic romance readers demand (that particular word was the source of a respondent’s complaint) graphic language. And yes, maybe I used too strong a term, and expect was more reasonable, so I edited it, though somewhat reluctantly. As I added in a comment to yesterday’s post, I’m not implying that the use of graphic language is a benchmark of erotic romance or a definition of what makes a romance erotic vs a regular romance. I’ve already written a blog post (several actually) about how the lines of erotic romance are blurring these days. (here on this blog and over at Dear Author.)
Obviously I do not think that language is the only benchmark. But as discussions often go, one topic can lead to another and another, and this topic was no different, and it started me thinking about graphic language in erotic romance.
Frankly I don’t think any one word is the line in the sand, it’s the open door description of the act itself, which is why I chose the passage below. While I think it’s a fairly soft/muted description, to those who prefer closed-door, they might find it too much.
I also think a book can be very erotic without having any sex in it. The lingering touch of his fingers on the small of her back, or her neck, the glances, the heat between them, can all be very sensual. (If you can think of any that you find erotic that might not be shelved in the ER section of a book store, tell me about them in the comment section.)
But for the purpose of this post, I’m going to be thinking of my own works, and books that my publishers shelf in the erotic romance section. And I’m going to using the word “cock” as the benchmark of the “graphic” words that might not appear in a non-erotic romance. Now cock is not a word that shocks me or that I have problems saying out loud. (Then again neither is fuck.) But it can be shocking to some, especially if you’ve been reading a Young Adult novel and then switch over to an erotic romance without reading the blurb or the warning. If you prefer you can substitute whatever word you think is that step into “graphic” territory.
I’m going to be speaking about my own personal opinions — everyone else is going to have different expectations, different standards and you’re perfectly welcome to them. But the topic here is graphic language in erotic romance. Not in romances in general, and no romance bashing or erotic romance bashing or bashing of authors will be tolerated. My blog, my rules. That said, take this with a grain of salt because when you think about it, it’s a really hilarious topic and I’d prefer to stay on the lighter side!
So after all this discussion yesterday, I had to ask myself: as an erotic romance author, do I HAVE to use graphic words; do readers demand them? Well, I can only go by the comments I get from my readers or comments on social media. A real life friend of mine who loves reading erotic romances is quite vocal about how books that try to use bland euphemisms like “getting a funny feeling down there” become wallbangers for her:
Ugh….”down there” it’s like erotic romance for goddamn toddlers! LOL!! I skimmed through [title redacted] …the author uses euphemisms like this all over the place!! ” He was touching me down there” Hey lady, it’s a pussy and the hottie has a cock! End Rant! Hmmm…that was cleansing! LOL!!
From the response on Facebook, almost everyone felt exactly the same way as my friend above. I could tell the writers, LOL, because they’d mention how it depended upon the character’s point of view and whether it was appropriate to the character…And they’re right.
I’ve noticed that if it’s a tender scene I’m writing, I tend to mute the graphicness a tad. But sometimes, I have to refer to that specific part of anatomy by name, and I don’t find the words penis or vagina to be particularly sexy, though sometimes the clinical term is all that works.
As someone else pointed out on Facebook, you also use the terms that work for the character. If I’m writing about a virgin who has never seen that particular dangly bit or a naked man before, if it’s a character who wouldn’t say penis if her mouth were full of it *snerk*, then to be true to that character, I shouldn’t be forcing her to use those terms either.
There have been endless discussions on all my writing groups about purple prose vs what term authors should use. (For instance, there’s Deb Stover’s post on purple prose… OMG it’s a hoot to read some of the terms authors have come up with to avoid using the “c” word. Feel free to leave others you’ve heard in the comments. We can use the giggle, right?) Before I was published I had one contest judge mark me down because I used the word cock — she insisted that no guy referred to it as a cock but as a dick. It was probably right for her household, but not in mine. Since I live in a houseful of men, I took a poll. Not one of them referred to their dangly bit as their dick. (What they do call it I reveal later but it’s definitely not sexy) Maybe the difference between using dick or cock is a geographical distinction? I imagine the age of the reader might also be a factor.
Here’s a scene from my I Need You for Christmas…
He fisted his hands in the bottom sheet when she leaned down and licked the full length of his shaft, her tongue leaving a hot, damp trail that glistened in the firelight.
“Yeah. Just like that.” Damn, she undid him. This woman who could run down criminals, be as hard-assed as anyone he’d ever met—more—would humble herself by getting on her knees, between his thighs, and put her mouth on him.
“And you love watching me take your cock in my mouth like this.”
Her gaze still locked with his, she swallowed him down until her nose touched the crisp hair of his groin.
Oh fuck, yeah! He had to clear the rasp from his throat before he tried to speak. Even so his “Meg” was more of a croak than a whisper.
Where he’d held her still, now she gripped his hips, stopping him from thrusting into her mouth. “My turn.”
Wrapping her hand around the base of his shaft, she stroked him using both her mouth and her fingers. With each pump, her own hips moved, flexed and thrust the same way they had when he’d fucked her from behind.
Her pace quickened, and she moaned as she sucked harder, telling him she was getting off almost as much as he was.
Completely lost in sensation, he let his mind float, gave himself permission to enjoy her skill as she drove him up and backed off again and again. When her finger reached beneath his balls to press on that sensitive spot, he tightened his grip on her shoulders, unable to hold back anymore.
Could I have not used the word cock in that passage? Sure. I could have gone with “And you love watching me take you in my mouth like this.” Okay, to be honest that doesn’t do anything for me–it’s bland and IMHO it’s a cop out. Because, you know what she’s doing. Let’s call a spade a spade, she’s sucking his cock. Or his dick, if you prefer. What else could I have used? There’s the bland, his sex, which works well in a regular romance or when you need to change things up in your ER novel because you’ve used cock too many times already; or his arousal ( “you love watching me take your arousal in my mouth”? Nah.) His erection — same argument. Now all those terms such as erection or shaft or his sex or his arousal are acceptable. I have used them in various books; they just didn’t work in that particular sentence of that particular passage. (Please, don’t suggest that she’d say “…you love watching me take your penis in my mouth.” Ugh.) And I’m definitely not using: his hard-on, his Johnson, his willy, or as my sons call it, his wang or his schlong (no, I did NOT teach them these terms.) Or heaven forbid, his purple headed love monster. And while some guys name their personal parts, and the hero might refer to it as his “little Ryan” though he’d expect the heroine to come back with “there’s nothin’ little about you, darling,” It doesn’t fit this scene. 😉
So I went with cock because the scene is written from the guy’s POV and the heroine who is saying it is a Mountie, and knowing a fair number of police officers, she probably has a vocabulary of dirty words that could put a sailor to shame and isn’t afraid to call it a cock either.
But how many uses of the “c” word did I use in that selection? One.
And that, in my humble opinion, is the key.
Cock or pussy or any word that some readers might find shocking, or even if they don’t find it shocking, need to be used sparingly. ANY word that is overused tires a reader, and quickly becomes a cliche.
Readers will each decide when a term is overused or cliched–some will reach that point quicker than others. And yes, that happens. I even wrote a blog post about it after a discussion with Harlequin’s Grammar Girl’s post about overused cliches. (Grammar Girl’s original post is no longer accessible unfortunately, but I give a run down of what she’s determined to be overused terms of the middle 2000s. I imagine she has more to add nowadays.) Jennifer Porter has a couple hilarious posts on her Romance Novel News where she keeps track of the number of times heroes “spurt”. The Original Spurt Study, and The Updated Spurt Study, and here. There’s a whole list on one of the Amazon forums of all the words/phrases readers wish they never had to read again. It goes on for pages and pages and pages — I gave up reading it because if I didn’t use any of the terms listed there, my pages would be blank. Face it, there are only so many terms you can use for bodyparts such as a nipple, a vagina, or a penis.
Ultimately it seems no matter what words we use, it’s going to upset some, and annoy others. But, to paraphrase Freud in a very large leap of imagination, sometimes a cock just needs to be called a cock.
If that word offends you, you shouldn’t be reading my books, or probably most other erotic romances either.