Mind your Language by Elizabeth Cage
I like to use certain words. When folk debate the difference between erotica and porn, what people call sexual swear words often seem to find a way into the argument.
Cunt or pussy, fuck or screw? Does the language we use define the genre? Is it that simple? Do euphemisms = erotica and swear words = porn? Does it actually matter? Are we isolating swear words to make a value judgement?
When we write for publishers, some editorial briefs are very specific about what kind of language they want (or don’t want). Since I naturally tend to use certain expressions when I write about sex, it can be an interesting challenge for me to write an erotic story without using particular nouns.
I use swear words in everyday life so it’s the norm for me. I enjoy the sounds the words make, the impact they have. I like the hard edge to the word “cunt”, annunciating the “t” to form 2 distinct syllables. I prefer it to the softness of “pussy”. I know that many people, including a lot of my female friends, hate the word and feel it demeans women. For me, it feels just the opposite. For me, “cunt” is powerful and strong and confident. It demands attention.
“Fuck” has an urgency, an aggression, that evokes the act. Again, the “k” ensures the emphasis of 2 syllables that feel satisfying in the mouth, as the “k” resonates, with relish, in the back of the throat. “Screw” seems lacking somehow, flat and without passion. But that’s just my response, and language can be as subjective as any other art form and provoke a range of emotional reactions. The most exciting thing about writing is choosing and arranging our words to create our imaginary landscapes.
I’ve always been fascinated by language, the fact that some words are banned, or frowned upon, yet it is the context they are used in, surely, that can create disharmony? And who decides which words are good or bad? How do you define a swear word? Words are powerful. They change and evolve.
Recently, I gave a reading at an event in a small seaside town and it was suggested that due to where we were located I confine the reading to vanilla fiction, rather than BDSM, and it might also be more prudent to alter certain words so as not to offend. (Whereas when I had given readings in a more cosmopolitan nearby city, censoring was considered unnecessary). This led to an amusing and quite bizarre conversation in the theatre dressing room, where I stated that whilst my cunts could become pussies, I couldn’t do without cock. A fellow performer felt I shouldn’t censor my work and proclaimed that it was time we reclaimed cunt for ourselves.
On reflection, of course, hearing erotica publicly read out loud is quite a different experience, with a more immediate impact, compared to reading it oneself in private, where our imagination will create the sound of the words and the tone of voice.
From a writer’s viewpoint, erotica is a particular challenge with regard to finding new and different ways of describing sex, and even if the sheer variety and range of the encounters our character experience is as infinite as the imagination, the actual craft of describing this without becoming hackneyed and repetitive is quite a feat. When I re-read some of my work, I find that I have sometimes over-used certain useful or favourite phrases to the detriment, perhaps, of the reader experience.
Exploring language, playing with words, pushing our boundaries, and maybe those of our readers, are one of the great joys of writing. I never set out to offend and I can’t imagine many writers who do. In the end it is about being true to oneself, writing with authenticity and integrity and hoping that we give pleasure in the process. Whatever kind of language that entails.
A published writer for over 35 years, Elizabeth Cage has been writing erotica since 1999. Her stories, poems and articles have appeared in numerous magazines including Scarlet, Desire, Forum, For Women, In the Buff, The Hotspot, and the International Journal of Erotica, as well as The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica 2010 (Cleis) and her fiction regularly appears in the sizzling anthologies and e-books from Xcite. Her collection, Kissing Velvet, was published in 2003 by Chimera. She also does guest blogs, author talks, interviews, events and workshops.