I teach a class in writing erotica and one of the exercises that I do on the first day of each new semester is ask my students to say all the "bad words" they can think of. As soon as I say this, they start shifting in their seats, their faces pinken, they bow their heads and spend a lot of time counting coffee stains on the rug. When they realize I'm serious, and that we're not going to move on until they actually do this thing I've asked, someone hesitantly begins, and slowly they all join in, usually starting with curse words--shit and damn and fuck. And then, bit by bit, it moves into sexual words: dick and penis and pussy and eventually, to the "really bad words," like cunt.
Why do I torture my students like this? (Well, they call it torture, I call it teaching). I do it because it begins to eradicate the taboos of language that so many of us carry in our heads. And I believe that in order to write fully realized characters and fantastic sex scenes, it's important to understand the distinction between what you believe to be a taboo word and what your character believes to be a taboo word.
For example, I personally would never use flowery euphemisms to describe bodies or sexual activities. I cringe at the thought of saying or writing about someone's heaving bosom or her pink-petalled yoni. However, if I had a character who used that kind of language, then she might say all of those things. And while I personally like harsh, strong words -- cock and pussy and tit and nipple -- and I wince when someone in real life uses phrase like "her sex" or "her front bottom," my characters may not. If my male character wants to call his cock a penis or a dick or a shaft or even (gods forbid) give it a name like Joey Junior, then who am I to stop him?
Then there are the ever-changing "really taboo" words (capital r, capital t), which most often seem to revolve around sexual orientation and race. Here, perhaps, is the greatest dichotomy between my own beliefs and those of my characters. Would I ever use a racist, sexist or other negative term in a negative way? Fuck no. Would my characters? Very likely.
Along those lines, I find it's important to ask myself what connotation, or particular flavor, I want to create through the words my character uses. Cock says something entirely different (slightly hard-edged, neither too pretty nor too vulgar) from penis (a little more scientific) from schlong (humorous, dorky, not at all sexy). Of course, the connotation of words is always evolving. Shakespeare's curses are no longer even curses--gadzooks for example, which came from "God's hooks," was considered terribly offensive in its day, and now people use it (if they use it at all) as an expression of surprise (or, in the U.S., as the name of a clothing store for teens). Even that most taboo of words from my own teenage years--cunt--has become accepted and reclaimed as a word of power for women. So, is there any word that I'd never use in writing? There was a time when I would have said yes, but now I don't think so. Words are both my building materials and my tools, and I don't want to throw any of them away. In fact, I am more likely to hoard words, both good and bad. I want to collect every cunt and fuck and twat and cock that I can -- and then dole them out at just the right instance to make the biggest impact on the story, and on the reader. And if I can do that, then all those bad words become not just good words, but great words.
Shanna Germain loves to curse in public, and while living in Scotland this year, she has learned how to properly use bloody, feckin and arsed. Her work appeared in places like Absinthe Literary Review, Best American Erotica, Best Gay Romance, Best Lesbian Erotica, Bitten and more. Learn all about her at http://yearofthebooks.wordpress.com/