Thursday, August 17, 2006

The C Word

It's a perfect word. It's evocative. It's short. Its roots go back over 15,000 years. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Casanova were among its most famous literary champions.

And yet, cunt still gets the short end of the stick. So to speak.

In erotic romance, "cunt" is generally considered the division between sensual and erotic. Do you have forty sex scenes in youe 25,000 word story? Do your characters say "fuck" and watch each other masturbate, do they use vibrators and have so much oral sex their jaws lock up? Great. That sounds sensual to me.

But do you have only three sex scenes and use the word "cunt" to describe your heroine's love canal? Yes? Then you're writing erotica, my friend.

Why is that? Why is it that one small word has the power to change sexy to erotic, to change arousing to offensive? And is it that offensive, really?

Most women seem to think so. Studies have shown that women find "cunt" the most offensive word in the English language. (Seriously.) It's forbidden. It's absolutely taboo.

But what is forbidden is often what is most erotic, as well.

I never used to write it. I didn't like to read it. Then I found a few erotic romances that did. My dislike of the word changed to--not indifference, because I don't feel a word like cunt can ever inspire indifference--but more like approval. The word was forbidden. The word was direct. The word was a little shocking.

In short, the word was pretty hot.

Remember that episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte is trying to woo that painter to her gallery? It's an old man, and he proudly informs her that he's been doing a series of paitnings of cunts. Charlotte is, of course, stunned by this. He asks her to sit for him, and you can see she's about to refuse when the old man's wife enters the studio. She's holding a tray of lemonade and says sweetly, "I bet you have a beautiful cunt, dear." Hey! That word isn't so bad after all! In fact, it's kind of...dare I say...cute? Maybe if we think of cunt as a nice word, a sexy word, a descriptive word, instead of a nasty one, we can replace it in our vocabulary and our books and hold our heads high. Just hearing the phrase "beautiful cunt" made a difference to me, since we so often associate the word with less pleasant adjectives. But if we think of the word-and the objects-as beautiful...

Chaucer used it in The Canterbury Tales, spelling it "queynte". According to Charles Panati's Sexy Origins and Intimate Things, "Chaucer believed the word was derived from 'quaint', which meant 'a many-layered, in-folded mystery'." Now really, what better way is there to describe a woman's sexual organs than "a many-layered, in-folded mystery"?

Of course, pre-Chaucer, cunt was a name. There are many families on the rolls in thriteenth-century England named "Cuntles" or "Clawcunte", or many variations therof. There were "Gropecunte Street"s or "Cunte Lane"s in medieval England as well. Clearly, the word's meaning was fixed even over 700 years ago--it first appears in written record in 1066, but seems to have had a different meaning then, although "cunt" is derived from early language, when "kuni" or words like it were used simply to mean "wife" or "woman".

Which is all very interesting, except it doesn't mean much to us or help us. Women don't want to see cunt. There's an implication that if they do, they're the type of woman who likes really graphic, nasty sex--the hardcore erotic stuff--instead of the lighter, sweeter, gentle-spanking kind of sex.

What's a writer to do?

See, the problem is, "cunt" works so well. As I said above, it is evocative. It does give the reader a distinct message: this is going to be pretty graphic. This will be pretty hot. Isn't choosing words to set a mood part of what we do as writers?

I decided to try using cunt. I wanted to see what t felt like to actually write it, to actually put that forbidden word on paper. Could I still turn peple on when I threw a cunt bomb into my work? Could I still write scenes people would enjoy, even if a cunt bobbed up at them from the page?

To my surprise, it worked. And it wasn't too bad. It was actually pretty sexy. And so exact! We're always looking for words to describe or identify female body parts. Aren't you tired of writing about slick folds or swollen entrances? Or channels, or tunnels, or whatever? Isn't it hard to use "pussy" to describe both the vagina and the vulva (a word I don't like, btw)?

This is where cunt fits in. I can talk about pussies and cunts as two seperate (but obviously closely related) entities, and I can describe a vagina without adjectives but with a word that everyone can visualize. The many-layered, in-folded mystery of a woman.

I don't use the word much (and never, ever in dialogue. I know I'm trying to be Miss Open-Minded and Miss Use Cunt, but I don't like it in dialogue. Cunt is a private thing, to be shared only with our readers through our voices, not our characters'.) But of late I've been abstaining, and I have missed it. All those folds and entrances just can't compensate for the brevity and clarity of cunt.


Kis Lee said...

Great article!

I've used it in conversation (don't ask) but I don't think I've ever used it in writing. Gives me a lot to think about. :)

Anonymous said...

Great perspective. Not sure I'm as brave as you are.

veinglory said...

A great essay! Once I get out from under this pile of work I will be getting some of these articles onto the website....

Barrie Abalard said...

Great post!

I do like to read the word in description, don't like it used as an expletive. (Although I saw a very funny bit recently on the HBO series "Lucky Louie", where God was described as "the mother of all cunts", reproductively-speaking.)

It's high time we reclaimed the word "cunt" as one of beauty and female power. I, too, find the word "hot" when used in an erotic scene.


Unknown said...

Sorry, I don't like it. I grew up in England where it was used mainly by men as one of the worst derogatory curse words available. Personally, when you've heard it said by people full of hate, I can't being myself to use it in an erotic romance or erotica which for me is about the joy of love and very interesting sex.I'd always hear the wrong voices.
Of course, I don't mind reading it in other people's work. I just don't use it in my own.

Stacia said...

Thanks guys! I'm glad you enjoyed it and it made you think. That was the point, after all. :-)

jd, I don't think it's necessarily to do with bravery so much as deciding to give something a try. One I used it, I found it wasn't so bad--but nobody had to know I'd used it if I didn't want them to. Part of what a writer does is hide, isn't it? :-)

One of my lovely readers at my blog mentioned the word "twat". Yuch. A word almost as old, if not as old, as "cunt" but one I think is just bleh. So it really is a matter of taste!

Stacia said...

Oh, yes, Kate. I wondered if I should mention how the Brits use the word--living here I've become even more familiar with it than I was with an English husband!

As I said above, it's all a matter of taste and comfort. I just wanted to entertain and maybe provide a little food for thought. I just think it's a shame that we've let some words become filthy or offensive that really started out as good, useful words. Perhaps I anthropomophise too much. :-)

susan lyons said...

My books for Kensington Aphrodisia are definitely labelled "erotic romance" and I've never used the word. I tried but my critique group didn't let me! And I figured, if those three women (of different ages, marital status, race, religion etc.) find it offensive, that's a pretty good indicator other women may. Personally, I don't, unless it's used in a derogatory way. And I hate it when it's used to refer to a person rather than a body part (of course, if the character saying it is an asshole, then that's okay because he can say anything he damned well pleases to make me hate him even more).

I do use vulva, labia, vagina, pussy, lips, opening, channel etc. I don't use twat -- that one really bugs me. And, though tons of writers use it and I guess it's not really offensive, I don't use slit because it's a personal turn-off.

Oh, I should say, I write contemporary. I'm guessing my practice would be different if I was writing historical -- I might try to be relatively true to the times I'm writing about.

Lucie Simone said...

Great post. This is a subject I contemplated when I first started writing erotica. It is often used in such an unpleasant way (to degrade or insult a woman) that I was afraid to use it. I was afraid women reading my work would get upset at that word. But sometimes it just works. I think that it can really amp up the heat in a love scene, really draw the reader in and make her feel hot!

Monica Burns said...

Excellent article, and I LOVE, LOVE the Chaucer version. I think there are a couple of reasons why most women object to it in erotic romance and even erotica (although I'm wondering if the objections are as strong there - don't know).

1) The word has a more negative contation that a positive one. It's been used, as Kate said, to promote hate and derision in women.

2) I also think it's a harsh word. Most women love sex and like it passionate and hot, it's why erotic romance and erotica are so hot on the market now. BUT, we still want that romance, and since we're heard cunt used in more negative conations, it's a word we can't equate using in romance.

3)I think vagina and clit are harsh too and have a very clinical feel. Same for penis. Who wants to be reading a really ramped up sexual tension scene and then is suddenly thrown when the stumble across a guy playing with a woman's vagina. It makes one think of the doctor's office and I for one completely lose the tension of the scene.

Naturally, this is just me speaking, but I know there are a LOT of women who feel that way. The question is what the numbers are, and I don't know of any study that's addressed the issue. Hmmmm, something to think about, a survey.

Despite my opinions, I think you did an EXCELLENT article on the whole thing, and I firmly believe it's up to the individual writer.

I rebel against using the F-word, but in one scene of my recent work, the male character thinks it when he's at a critical moment in the relationship. I tried to take it out, he made me keep it in. I now look on that scene as one of the best in the book because it's raw and is appropriate.

If a writer used cunt in a scene where it just HAD to be used for the scene to work, I could handle it, but most writers use it far too much, and then it loses it's "shock" value and or it's importance in a character's development.

Stacia said...

Thanks, Susan! Lol about your critique group--my cp never uses it herself and never liked it, but said that reading it in my work doesn't bother her.

I've never been a big fan of "slit" either. Not sure just doesn't sound sexy to me.

Thanks you, Lucie, and I agree 100%--used judiciously, I think it really amps up a sex scene. I don't use it for all scenes, but when my characters are getting really down and dirty I think it adds to the intensity and heat.

Stacia said...

I love the Chaucer explanation, too, Monica. It really made me look at the word differently.

Agree about the clinical feel. I use "clit" because I get tired of words like "bud" or "bundle of nerves" or whatever, but I don't like to use "penis" or "vagina" for that exact reason. I know I don't use them in sexy situations in my actual life, so I don't use them in my work either.

And yes, it is important to use it sparingly. Too much and it becomes too noticeable-especially since it's a word readers notice to begin with. A little goes a long way with cunt. (Loving the entendres here!)

A survey is a great idea! And thanks, I'm glad you liked the article!

Emma Petersen said...

Great post! I haven't said the word out loud since I was 7. LOL! Don't ask. I write erotic romance but I haven't used it in any of my stories...yet. I'm not ruling it out.

Miranda Heart said...

I love that word. It describes everything in one perfect little four letter word. *S* Too bad alot of pubs don't like it. Had to delete it. And I only used it once! I agree though. It has gotten a very bad rap over the years. It's just a word. It might be more in your face, but if that's what I write, then it should be appropriate. Sad really. Thanks for sharing this.

M.L. Rhodes said...

You know, I really love your take on this, December...about us reclaiming words that have gotten a bad reputation. I used to hate the c word--whether it was used to describe a body part and especially used as a derogatory term for a woman. But I read a lot of erotic romance. Really a lot. And periodically I come across it. Over time, I've realized that used in the right situation it can be a very effective description. I, too, get tired of all the old standy-bys. I'm not in love with the word pussy and never have been, even though that seems to be the popular favorite in most erotic stories. It kind of makes me giggle, which isn't exactly the feeling I want when I'm reading erotic romance. :) I don't love the clinical terms at all (vagina being one of them) and I always avoid that in my own writing.

I've begun to use the c word in my own writing...sparingly. Sometimes it just works in the right scene with the right characters. And for me, as a writer, it helps break up the monotony of the same old, same old descriptions.

Great article!! Thanks so much for posting it!


Stacia said...

I loved your story about how you learned the word, Emma! And you shouldn't rule it out. It's seductive. You'll be writing, and stumped for a word, and next thing you know your finger is hovering over the "c"...:-> Come to the dark side, baby!

I agree, Miranda. I hate that some pubs make you change it, or it amps up your book to the most graphic level. It's just a word, and as you said, a nicely direct and descriptive one. I think we should all start blogging about it. We'll start a cunt blog chain!

Stacia said...

Exactly, M.L. We need to start reclaiming those words. If it originally just meant "woman", and over time started to mean "woman parts"...there's no reason why it can't come back to meaning that, right? I had the same issues with it when I started reading Erorom...shocked, unsure...then I came to see how effective it was, how much power it injects into a sex scene.

And I'm not a fan of pussy either. Something about it bugs me. It sounds like such a sort of wimpy and twee word, with a vague sense of yuck attached. It sounds weak, doesn't it? Your mouth, when you say it, is weak and pursed. I use it, because it's one of the only "acceptable" words, but I prefer using both. When I can add cunt, pussy doesn't bug me so much. When I only have pussy I feel a little trapped. That soft little word is as graphic as I can get? Grrr!

Kis Lee said...

wow! lots of discussion going on. very cool. :)

M.L. Rhodes said...

"It sounds like such a sort of wimpy and twee word, with a vague sense of yuck attached."

Yes!!! The sound of it is what always make me feel like giggling. It just sounds...funny in wimpy, icky kind of way. As much as I find it an odd word, I do use it in my writing sometimes because it's so hard to find variety for women's parts. But in truth, at this point, I, too, prefer to use the c word. It's just simpler. Stronger.


Stacia said...

The sound of it is what always make me feel like giggling.

Yep! Especially when you're faced with a grown woman referring to a part of her body as a kittycat. Hell, "kittycat" sounds sexier!

writtenwyrdd said...

Great essay! I don't mind the word cunt, but I hate the word slit. I heard more men use that term as a nasty reference to women when I was in the Army. (When you were one of three women in a company of 200+ men, you heard they guys, er, let it all hang out so to speak.)

I have to agree, the word works for more graphic sex, but not for romantic generally speaking. I remember being shocked when I first read it, due to the negative connotations, but if it works, hey it works!

Stacia said...

Thanks, writtenwyrdd! Glad you liked it!

Yes...unfortunately it's difficult at first to get past the negative connotaton, but we are strong and we can do it! ;-)