This blog comes with a strong language warning!
This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of participating in the Sydney Writer’s Festival’s first genre romance panel. With me were authors Avril Tremayne and Victoria Purman, and we were masterfully moderated by romance scholar Jodi McAlister. The panel covered romance from its roots, through feminism, heroism, sex (and sexism), and back around to a happy ending.
But an audience question raised an issue that I think has broader implications than the festival and the people we spoke with on Saturday.
That issue, gentle readers, is the word ‘cunt’.
The naming of female genitalia has a long and troubled history, particularly when it comes to describing it within a sexual context – not least of which because how women and their bodies felt (both emotionally and physically) in a sexual context wasn’t of import for a very very long time. Further, when it came to sexual descriptions, the woman was frequently equated with her sexual organs, that is the hero sunk into ‘her’, or ‘she clutched at him’, where the woman became only her sexual organs, where everything felt or done by her vagina and vulva are done by her whole self.
So authors trying to first, distinguish a woman from her sex organs and second, describe her pleasure, arousal, feelings, and physicality, were fighting an uphill battle. They were also fighting a battle of modesty and culture and context, and from thence sprang the purple prose that so many critics like to drag out and expose to the harsh, cruel, contextually unforgiving light of modern critique. The moist caverns, the weeping grottos, the soft petals, and delicate flowers.
Flash forward to a time when (ostensibly) sexual equality has been achieved, and women are free to explore their own sexuality, desire, and pleasure. There’s still the ongoing, historically-laden issue of labels. And that’s where cunt comes in.
Everyone will have differing reactions to the word – after all, on a scale of one to vulgar, the c-bomb tops the list. There is nothing more offensive, and nothing more taboo. (The implications of that are for discussion at another time). But for me, as an editor, and a reader, and a woman – honestly, I quite like it. And I’m happy to tell you why.
Let’s look at the options:
Vagina – well, this is clinically true, but vagina means ‘sheath’, and a definition of the female sex organ in relation to the male sex organ just seems counter-productive.
Pussy – this gets a bit of play, and it’s one of the words that comes out in porn and male-written sex scenes. There’s a bit of an allure to it, a soft, sibilant word, but it’s a child-like word, all susurrations. Pussy is an ingénue, delicate, gentle, waiting for something to happen to her.
Vulva – while certainly better than vagina (and more correct), this word struggles with a bit of a choking, throat clearing effect. Vulva is a quiet word, unassuming, hiding away in the mouth, not wanting to draw attention. Vulva is your naughty librarian – sure, she may be wearing dirty lingerie, but you’ll never know it behind the starch and the grammatical correctness.
Cunt – now this is a word of a different colour. Cunt is a lady who can hold her own. She’s all hard consonants and sharp endings. She knows what she wants, and she powers through to get it. She owns it. This is a red-blooded, pleasure-seeking, power-owning word. This is high heels, red lipstick, or track pants and a hoodie. She’s whatever she wants to be, and no one can get in her way.
Consider the euphemisms for ‘penis’: dick, prick, cock. Who are you going to send in to meet them, on equal footing, a playmate, a lover, a foil? When faced with cock, who do you think is up for the job?
She’s not the word for every situation, but she’s the word to keep in your back pocket, your secret weapon, your power. Cunt. She doesn’t need you, but you might just need her.
That is really telling it like it is! And it is certainly a lot more confrontational than a lot of the hideous euphemisms that I’ve come across when I’m reading. My absolute pet hate is the recent trend I’ve come across to use the term vee-jay-jay. That sounds so juvenile and just plain ridiculous.
Would I use it? Probably not, but I would never say never, it would depend entirely on the story and the context.
But I do like your comment … “Cunt is a lady who can hold her own. She’s all hard consonants and sharp endings. She knows what she wants, and she powers through to get it. She owns it. This is a red-blooded, pleasure-seeking, power-owning word. This is high heels, red lipstick, or track pants and a hoodie. She’s whatever she wants to be, and no one can get in her way.”
No, sorry. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather stick with euphemisms. Can’t say it! Can’t feel comfortable reading it! Even find it disconcerting how it’s now an established word for friend in Australia. (I will admit I hate ‘pussy’ just as much, if not more. It’s so American sounding.)
It’s definitely a word with a *lot* of negative loading, and context is everything. It’s not a word that works for everyone. But I think it works for some, and they shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
I use the c-word in my writing mostly because I’m not happy with other word choices. Sometimes I try to construct sentences so I can get away with using it sparingly because I know it shocks people.
I love this artcile. Thank you! I especially love, “When faced with cock, who do you think is up for the job?”
And the beautiful images! Not sure I’ll be able to eat an oyster without thinking of this post!
The oyster was *particularly* evocative 🙂
For me it all depends on context, I don’t like hearing the word screamed as an insult at women but I don’t mind it in fiction as a reference to lady parts, and when I use it with close friends we actually manage to make it sound endearing. I have one friend and she and I (privately) call each other ‘c***-muffin’ as a joke. I’m all for reclaiming words, like the Riot Grrrls did.
I am 100% behind you. It’s not a word to be hurled in anger, an insult, an epithet. She’s a lady 😉
I have no problem with using ‘cunt’ in the right context. To me, it signifies a powerful expression and ownership of our most powerful body part. It doesn’t sound coy or ingenue and squarely takes possession of the feminine sexual organ. Historically, you can find variants of this word in Chaucer (quointe), for example, so it’s not new. Good article here and I support the author’s opinion.
I enjoyed this playful blog. But I have to say that naming body parts in more or less vulgar ways isn’t generally of interest to me. It isn’t because I’m shocked by the language; rather I feel I’ve outgrown the issue. Saying cunt might have seemed amusing or made me blush when I was a teen – that was a long time ago – and might have fascinated me a few years later. Now I feel we all know which body parts we use for sex and how it’s done (the many, many ways it can be done), so what I like more than anything is coming across an author who finds a beautiful, sacred way of expressing the sexual act. I look for an image that surprises, words that share the intimacy. I still think there’s nothing better than sex and love together and that’s what I like to find in books. I hope there are readers out there who agree!
Great post. Are you aware there is a book, Cunt: a Declaration of Independence, on this very topic? In the right context, it is a empowering word, one women can reclaim from its vulgar usage and redeem with the kind of sass and power you talk about. I agree, it has a place.
It would be interesting to know if men ever have discussions like this about the words they use for their genitalia. I’d be betting not. It’s an issue of sexual politics, that’s for sure.
I have that book by Inga Muscio. When a sweet friend heard I was writing sexy romance she bought me the expanded and updated edition 🙂 She thought it might come in handy. That’s over ten years ago. and I have to confess I haven’t read it yet. I think I’d better, because quite honestly, I can’t find a word I’m totally comfortable with that expresses what this amazing part of a woman’s anatomy means to a woman and her man.
A heading in the book: “Part 11. That Anatomical Jewel”
I find it hard to branch outside of “her sex”…..but I’m good with reading any word you want.
Great article! I wish I could have been at the SWF panel… sounds awesome.
Interesting point you make about equating a woman with her sexual organs. In romance writing, we often do the same to men – we write ‘him’ when we mean his cock. Usually in conjuction with ‘her’ = vagina, when we’re trying to be all emotional-overflow and whole-body experience about their lovemaking. ‘He surged into her’ or whatever is supposed to be more emotional and romantic – more about the lurve and less about body parts – than ‘they fucked’ or describing dicks and cunts.
But yeah – in the wrong context? Not so much. Better to back up that shorthand with other emotional depth in your scene. I mean, we’ve all written heroes who are basically walking dicks 🙂 but curses. I’ll have to rethink that one now, too…
P.S. While we’re at it – why, oh WHY doesn’t modern English have a verb other than ‘fuck’ for the ongoing sexual act? Y’know. A nice word, that doesn’t sound all warlike and conquest-y.
It’s true actually! Ummm…coitus? But that’s a noun. There really isn’t a verb that’s the actual action – thrusting, pumping, rocking. They’re all part of the action, but don’t represent the whole. I’d never realised that 🙂
Yes! It’s a damn shame for writers. And even ‘coitus’ (to go together) is a euphemism.
Do other languages have such words? Anyone know any good ones we can steal?
Well okay then….that woke me up!
I’m kind of ambivalent towards the c word. It doesn’t offend/shock me if I read it or if somebody says it (depending on how/where it’s being said) but I dont really say it myself and I’ve never put it in a book. It took me 40+ books to use the other c word – cock – so I’m a little slower on the uptake clearly. By the same token, I’d never rule out using it one day in the right scene.
My wonderfully clever, sublimely feminist sister, Ros Baxter, uses the word quite a lot (although I dont think she’s ever put it in a book). Her argument for its usage is one of ownership – she’s got one so she has the right to say it in any damn situation she pleases in her personal conversations (obvisouly she’s not splashing it around at work or using it when she’s yelling at the kids!)
I tend to think that’s fair enough.
So do I! 🙂
The only c-word I dislike is ‘cock’ because roosters. I read “He drove his cock into her,” and all I see is Foghorn Leghorn, feathers, and a beak.
I’m cool with cunt, although I was encouraged by beta readers to NOTto have the hero use it as an insult in my first book. So I went with c–. I kinda wish now I’d left it in because Kate woulda been cool with it.
I’m actually not very fond of it as an insult – there’s too much going on when the absolute worst thing you can be is the female sex organ. Like being called pussy is a bad thing.
It always reminds me of the Betty White quote: “Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”
I think it will take time for cunt to be comfortable to read for a lot of readers and that is because of the length of time the word has been used negatively. Time and context will make things right for some but not for others. It won’t put me off reading a book if in the right context.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It raises valid points about context as well as language empowering people. I don’t mind ‘language’ used in context; it has to suit the characters and situation. If it does that, I’m cool with it.
Reblogged this on Selene Zanetti and commented:
Certainly something to think about…I haven’t worked up the courage to use ‘the C-word’ in work I’ve submitted to publishers, but obviously some don’t have an issue with it…great to know. Thanks for sharing, Escape Publishing, I enjoyed your blog post…
This is a fascinating blog post, as I am fascinated by the use of words and language and how some words have such power over us.
Cunt is definitely a powerful word.
Although I do write romance novels for a UK publisher they are clean and would never feature such a word. I also write a series of horror novels with some sex scenes, but I have only used the C word once and then it was used as a powerful word by a certain character. He is remembering having sex and he is rather a blunt foul mouthed person and I couldn’t see him using any other word. But this post has made me think about how I used cunt because of its power and, admittedly, it’s negatve, abusive associations. Here in the UK we have an uncomfortable relationship with the C word. A couple of my readers said how much they hated that word. As I said, fascinating. Thank you for an excellent post.