The Power of Words – Specifically: Cunt

So I’m a word whore. I love words. I love language and the power of the words we blurt, or make a deliberate choice to use. When I was a kid it was a popular thing for parents to tell children that sticks and stones could break their bones but words can never hurt them. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now.

In fact, words have a great deal of power to harm. To raise up and elevate. To love, to cherish, to hate and destroy. Words are far more powerful than fists and they leave scars and other, better emotions.

As a writer, words are tools. Over time, with each book, my toolbox gets bigger and I hope, more sophisticated. I want to use words in a purposeful way to add character realism and punch. So, I choose to use loaded terms in my books. Cunt for instance. Cunt is a word of great weight. It’s got a dark history for women as it has been used to belittle and demean us by using the very thing that makes us female. Cunt is a hard word. It’s not a playful, casual term at all and when I use it, I’m using the power it has. When a man says to his partner that he loves her cunt, the way it feels or the way it tastes, it turns the negativity of the phrase into something else. He takes that abusive power away and imbues it with sensuality, with desire and longing and makes it into a compliment.

On the page, cunt is not a word you gloss over. It snags your attention and because of that, I think its use should be purposeful instead of an interchangeable term with pussy, center, etc. It’s a barb of a word, but to me when a heroine thinks of her body in those terms, she’s owning herself. It’s a word of sexual liberation for some heroines, used in the right way.

When a male character thinks of his woman’s body in terms of her cunt, it’s a thin line. I want him to be respectful and full of admiration and awe at the heroine’s body. There are some who read my books and see a man use the word cunt and they’re immediately pulled from the scene. But there are others who might work past that initial discomfort to see that in his case, thinking about her cunt is like thinking about her tits. Men, like women, come in all shapes, sizes and ways of thinking. There are men who’d never use the word cunt while having sex with their partners, just like they don’t think of breasts as tits. But, there are men who love women and all their parts who do indeed think in those terms. And do so lovingly and respectfully. When my heroes use those words it’s never in a negative sense, never disrespectful. I tend to write those men.

I get dinged for it sometimes. And words are intensely personal so I can totally understand why people recoil when they see cunt on a page. I’d never have a character call a female character a cunt. Because the word is a weapon then, it’s negative, a sort of gender slur and the energy of it is all wrong. But I write erotic romance and I use a full array of words for sexual behavior and body parts. To me, this is part of my job, though certainly I do not think it is impossible to convey sexuality with softer terms, I just don’t choose that path for most of my books. Sexuality carries a great deal of energy, emotion and power, when I write about it, I make deliberate choices about how I describe it, how my characters feel about it, how they feel doing it, etc. There’s a whole universe of the unsaid when it comes to sexuality, so many times people hold back and I want to get into a scene where my characters don’t hold back. Where they say what’s on the tip of their tongue and it’s raw and sometimes dirty. But if you can’t be dirty with a person you’re naked with, what’s the point? (and of course there are couples who don’t have dirty words on their tongues when they have wonderful sex, but I’m not talking about that)

When I first started writing erotic romance I had to stand in my bathroom in front of a mirror and say pussy over and over. I blushed like mad when I said it and at that point I felt like the word cunt was unnecessary. I didn’t use the word in my books because it did not feel natural to me. I think when authors force scenes or words, it always shows and I really just wanted to avoid that. I remember having a wonderfully spirited conversation with my friend Marci about pussy v cunt (and I still prefer the word pussy, it’s playful and sleek!) in another friend’s kitchen. I was adamant about not using it because it just didn’t feel right to me.

And then a few books later I used it in a very emotional, stripped to the bone scene with a very alpha male, very cocksure and bordering on arrogant. He said it and I just kept writing. It’s sort of funny to think of what a big deal it was to me at the time, but really when I think on it now, I think it should have been because I was using a loaded, taboo term and I wanted to use it right and not as a way to hurl anything negative out there.

My point is – LOL, yes I have one – words have weight. As writers, using loaded terms can be immensely useful to move a character forward, but casual use of loaded terms can diminish their power. It’s just like pacing – the choices you make do frame the world you build.

9 comments to “The Power of Words – Specifically: Cunt”

  1. Elisabeth Naughton
    January 12th, 2011 at 6:21 pm · Link

    So funny you blogged about this today – so did I. Not about the word cunt, specifically, but about word choice and the words writers use for certain characters. In my case it stemmed from a conversation I had on Twitter with Larissa Ione where we were discussing the word criminy in place of other-more colorful-swear words. I agree with you, though, the words authors use are used on purpose to convey an atmosphere that’s unique to that character, and they’re powerful when used that way.

    BTW…I haven’t used the word cunt in a book. (I don’t know that I will but I’ll never rule anything out.) But before I was published I never used the word cock in a manuscript either. And like you, it took me a while to get used to that word (even though the word totally fits language my characters would use). LB totally called me on a proposal I sent her just after I sold because I was pulling punches on swear words. At the time I had debut-author nervousness (esp when thinking my friends and family were going to be reading my books), but LB was right. It wasn’t true to the characters to leave those words out and since then I’ve let the characters steer the words I choose instead of the other way around.

  2. Christine
    January 13th, 2011 at 7:49 am · Link

    Very interesting blog as always you always give me food for thought

  3. Lauren
    January 13th, 2011 at 8:29 am · Link

    Eli – I was on the outer fringes of that one! I too use cripes and criminey personally and also with my writing and I wouldn’t be put off by say, a Navy SEAL using Cripes instead of Shit if the author made me believe it. It’s all in the creation of that character!

    Christine – thank you

  4. Lori
    January 13th, 2011 at 9:43 am · Link

    I’ve always known how you felt about that word – I remember you commenting years ago on my blogpost about “the ‘c’ word” (see? I can’t even say “that word”, LOL).

    And although it still isn’t my favorite word, I know that it has its place, and I like the way that you believe in the right setting it can empower women.

  5. Danie
    January 13th, 2011 at 1:34 pm · Link

    I cant think of the title of the first book I read that actually used the “c” word, but I actually had to put the book down for a minute.

    It was an HR, which automatically put the women’s movement back about 200 years- you know the typical arranged marriages and women have no say type thing, she cant work, has no money, has to rely on the husband….

    I think thats where I have a problem with the “c” word. Genres that automatically take away feminine equality, like historicals.

    Dont get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE historicals, and the racier the better. And I love to see the women overcome the obstacles that being a women in that time period bring. It just kind of feels like, and I may not be saying this right, but, adding insult to injury to call the heroine a cunt. I just dont like seeing it in historicals.

    Like you said, if your calling someone a cunt, then it is insulting, and I really really dont like that. But I also think because the word has such a negative connotation, that most readers are put off by it no matter the context. 😉 its not a very romantic word 😉

    With as many books as I’ve read, I can say it doesnt shock me anymore to see the word, and, depending on the scene I’m reading, either makes me blush or want to hit somebody, which is what I think the writer’s ultimate goal is anyway…to inspire emotion.

  6. Bridget
    January 13th, 2011 at 6:30 pm · Link

    What a blog! Hmm, makes you think.

    I think there are appropriate ways to use the word cunt. Referring to a part of the body as opposed to the whole person.


  7. Amy B.
    January 13th, 2011 at 9:54 pm · Link

    Great blog entry, Lauren. This is just as cliche’ as you’ll ever hear, but truer words have never been spoken.

  8. Mary G
    January 13th, 2011 at 10:20 pm · Link

    What Bridget & Lori said.

    While I hate that word, since reading erotica, I see it more & more. There are some instances where it seemed forced & the story generally was just (can’t think of a gnarly enough word) and then there are instances where it fit the story and was sensual as you said. I would like to know what the male equivalent is. Because if both those terms are used in a sex scene, there will be no mistaking that it belongs.

  9. Therinia
    January 14th, 2011 at 9:14 am · Link

    Great post, Lauren!

    I once saw an image, and on it was the phrase “I’d call you a cunt, but I doubt you have either the depth or the warmth.”

    I thought about it, and from that moment on my perception of the word changed from something negative to something positive. My cunt is a warm, sexy place, and I’m not going to disparage it. If I’m ever called a cunt, I’m going to say thank you. It is a complement. How dare people try to turn something so beautiful into something dirty and ugly? I don’t use the word in everyday conversation, mainly because it isn’t an easy word to say, literally, for me. It feels harsh in the mouth.

    But I love reading it in stories, especially in hot, heavy, fast scenes. It feels primal and dark and sexy. Naughty in a good way.