The Semantics of Sex

A few weeks ago, Jade A. Waters and I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey. Afterwards, we recorded a review in which we discussed the movie as objectively as we could. We had a lot of fun, but something kept tugging at my coat, despite the fact that we made a point to cover it. It was this line:

“I don’t make love. I fuck…hard.”

When I hear that line in the theater, I cackled for a couple of reasons. The first was pretty obvious – Jamie Dornan delivered it like a 6 year old trying to be his dad, which was especially funny given the hard-ass, bad-boy sentiment behind it.

The other reason required introspection because I was laughing at myself. The truth is that I actually do feel more comfortable referring to sex as “fucking” rather than “making love.” In fact, I once jokingly said, “I don’t make love. I fuck” (years before Christian Grey, thanks) to a friend whose idea of dirty talk involved words like “reverent” and “darling.”

MakeLoveDrunk_YourCardIt seems pretty widely acknowledged that, as a society, we reflexively make a distinction – making love is one thing, while fucking is another, even though they are, mechanically speaking, the same act. Why would I feel more comfortable with the more commonly pejorative, less openly sentimental of the two?

I’m not entirely sure. On the surface, making love implies particular things to me—pink lighting, chocolates and maybe a feather drifting over someone’s skin. Is this an objectively accurate association to have? Not really. Making love can look like the roughest combative sex if that’s what making love looks like to the people involved. Intellectually speaking, I know that making love implies a connection to your partner that I am wholeheartedly a fan of. I’m just a fan of it under the label of fucking. The label is the sticking point for me, not the connection.

On the surface, it has something do to with that rosy picture “making love” conjures. (I’m not really a feathers and chocolates kind of girl). But beneath that, there is a certain vulnerability implied by the phrase that is absent in the word fucking, and I’m afraid that vulnerability makes me instinctively edgy. I’ve already written several pieces on vulnerability, but it was only when I started considering the semantics of how we talk about sex that I realized how deep my discomfort with vulnerability runs.

In many ways, the things that make me feel vulnerable (as well as strong, ironically) – my emotions, my needs and my history – are associated, in my head, with my femininity. While “fuck” is a very versatile word – you can fuck romantically, or mechanically or lovingly or intensely— “making love” comes with it’s own attendant context, one associated with a feminine softness, and while I embrace my femininity, there are certain things that make me, personally, uncomfortable because they are laced so tightly in with lessons, both good and bad, that I’ve learned. Being open, needy or sentimental are high on this list, not because I don’t feel these things, but because I feel (or have felt) them to a massive degree at some point or other. My discomfort is a kind protective measure – one that makes me outwardly appear to be, as my brother once said, “kind of a dude,” while inwardly being all of those associatively feminine things.

There is nothing wrong with the softness I associate with “making love.” There is nothing wrong with sweetness and reverence and, to a limited degree, there is nothing wrong with neediness. I just have baggage that accompanies the rosy-tinted image conjured by that phrase, which means that, even if I spend the week-end having the sort of sex that most people would call “making love”, I will almost invariably think of it as fucking – just fucking in a connected, loving way.

The contextual limitations I perceive in the term “making love” got me thinking about semantics, (and who doesn’t love semantics?) Why is it that we do have two different phrases with such vastly different connotations to describe one act? Why is it that in mainstream media, making love is something that women say, while fucking is something men do?

It’s a matter of what’s operating beneath the implied meanings of each phrase. The words I prefer – cunt, cock, fuck – have a hard, unapologetic sound, very much at odds with the euphemisms of my youth. People didn’t have sex when I was growing up. They “made love” – but only when they “cared for each other very much.”

As I grew older, “making love” became the phrase used by the heroines in romance novels – a bold alternative to “take me” or “make me yours.” Somewhere along the line, I began to associate “making love” with an apology. Pleasure wasn’t enough—sex was wrong, unless you make love. Making love was sanctioned by the good people of the world, whereas fucking…not so much.

Fucking was what dockworkers and whores did. There is no apology in the word fuck, just ownership – of your actions, your body, your needs and your pleasure. I wanted that ownership so badly; seeing no other way to claim it, I appropriated the word “fuck” and renamed sex for myself.

That’s why, in the end, “making love” embarrasses me in a way that “fucking” doesn’t—because sex used to be an embarrassing thing, all the more so because I wanted it so badly…or maybe it was the wanting that embarrassed me. Either way, there is nothing embarrassing about fucking. I can look at fucking straight on and want it in any number of ways. Fucking is an expression of my ability to own, without apology, myself and my desires.

I know that my shrinking from poetic language and softer words could easily imply a preference for colder, less emotional sex, but if anything, the opposite is true. There is almost no sex I prefer more than the kind of intensely connected, emotionally charged sex that happens when you’re with someone you’re truly connected to. I just prefer to use language that allows me to own that act and my sexuality, even when I’m at my softest and most vulnerable.

This thing is that the relationship I have to this lexical phenomena is extremely specific to me. My semantic understanding of these words is wholly informed by my youth, upbringing, experiences and slow, haphazard growth as a person. It’s informed by the fact that, for many years, I did not have my own vocabulary with which to talk about sex. That’s why, despite the fact that I do make love, I will always say that I fuck instead – unless I give the word a wry, winking twist, like Lauren Bacall, because when Lauren Bacall said, “make love,” the quirk in her mouth said something else entirely. But I digress..

Because my point of view is so particular to me, I’m curious about how it is for other people. Is there a difference for you? If so, what is it? Does gender or gender identity have anything to do with it for you? Does being kinky or mainstream or vanilla or straight or gay or bi affect what you call, or how you think about, sex? Is another phrase more powerful for you than either “fuck” or “make love”?

These are personal questions, I know, but if you feel so inclined, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to know.


  1. Great post. My partner and I never say “make love” – that phrase makes me giggle a bit if I’m honest. It’s just a bit dramatic. We say “fuck” or “let’s go and do sexy stuff!” and other funny, jokey terms we’ve come up with over the past 11 years. Saying it like Lauren Bacall can NEVER be a bad thing – she rocked!

    • Thanks, Rebecca! You’re right – make love really is a bit dramatic 🙂 I like “go do sexy stuff”” though – there are so many ways to make it playful and so specific to you and your partner. I love that. And *yes*, Lauren Bacall is the ultimate dame. God, I just love her!

  2. i love this soooo much, you completely nailed it…especially this: Fucking was dockworkers and whores did. There is no apology in the word fuck, just ownership – of your actions, your body, your needs and your pleasure. The rawness and realness here is so immeadiate…gorgeous!

    • Thank you!! I’ve been mulling this for a few weeks – it pounced on me this morning, all ready to go. I’m really happy you liked it 🙂

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever asked a partner to ‘make love’ to me – not even in my adolescence when words like ‘pussy’ and ‘cunt’ seemed massively taboo/transgressive.

    ‘Having sex’? ‘Fucking’? Those two descriptors sit far more comfortably with me and I’ve never interpreted either as negative. They can involve strong emotional attachment – or not. It’s entirely up to the participants. As soon as you throw the word ‘love’ in the mix? To my mind you limit the complexity of the experience to ‘the making of affection’. And sex is a far (far) more complicated beast than that, regardless of whether those fucking are ‘in love’ or not.

    • “They can involve strong emotional attachment – or not. It’s entirely up to the participants.”

      *Yes* – that’s exactly it. I feel like the word “fuck” is a blank slate – you can overlay any sort of emotional content (or lack thereof) on it and it will communicate what you mean. “Making love” relies on very particular assumptions, which don’t sit entirely comfortably with me, because you’re right – sex is a complicated beast, and it’s often better to let the participants define their interaction. Euphemism makes that harder.

  4. Love this post, Malin! Sex has evolved. We are beginning to see each other, finally as sexual beings. Women’s sensibilities aren’t quite as fragile as they once were. We’re no longer needing smelling salts. Thank goodness! You know, if you are keeping record or making any lists, one of my other favorite and more playful phrases is, “Hibbity Dibbity”. But “fuck”, yeah, “fuck” is the word.

    • Thank you, Rose! I love that you brought up the historic delicacy of women’s sensibilities! That’s an angle I hadn’t even considered. Of course there would have been a gentler way refer to sex with the gentler sex! Thank you for pointing that out. As for playful phrases, “Hibbity Dibbity” is awesome! I’m going to start using that. I love irreverence and playfulness 🙂

      • Yay! Happy to add to the stable of “playfull & fun” things. And, yes, also to consider; Why were they so delicate? The evolution of male perception. Especially with regards to the Victorian Era, when there was a certain reverence that men held for women. Oddly, I’m reminded of “The Good Earth”. Women have been tough since the beginning of time. And certainly worth protecting because of it.

  5. From a man’s point of view, I think there are three kinds of sexual relations. They are making love, screwing and fucking. Nothing wrong with either, I’ve done all three with the same woman. But yes, fucking is the preferred. Raw stay up all-night fucking. It is free, do anything that feels good sex.

    With anyone that I’ve had relations with, whether just receiving a hand job or a fuck, I do feel a bond with though, maybe not love, just a feeling of having shared a lot of intimate fun and emotion with them. A very good feeling but entirely different from love.

    I really like the way you nailed it!

    • Thank you so much for the comment! I really appreciate your taking the time. I can definitely see the distinction between making love, fucking and screwing, and I’m totally fascinated by how individual people’s feelings on the words they to categorize sex is. I also appreciate that you brought up the difference between “love” and that sense of intimacy, that “bond with though, maybe not love, just a feeling of having shared a lot of intimate fun and emotion.” That bond is really valuable and wonderful, and I think the affection that comes with it is as valid a form of intimacy as anything you might experience while “making love”.

  6. Interesting. In my head ‘making love’ is about the other person’s pleasure while fucking is centered more around your own pleasure, regardless of the surroundings or style 😉

    • I’ve definitely heard others describe the difference in the same way, and it makes a great deal of sense. I suspect I would feel much the same if it weren’t for the specific things that have informed how I think of the phrase, “making love”. It came pre-packed with meaning for me, so it takes a bit of effort to hear it differently 🙂

  7. My husband says ‘make love’ when he’s in a vanilla mood. It definitely sets different expectations of behaviour than our usual play. It’s coy and gentle, not rough or uninhibited. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms but reading this made something click.

    • I like that you and your husband use language to set the mood – that’s kind of a wonderful way to set the tone and expectations for the night (or day). I can definitely appreciate it used that way 🙂

  8. Aloysius Patrick McGillicutty

    March 3, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    I really like the phrase “making love” — it’s utility is in what it excludes: not getting laid by someone random on a Friday night, not face-fucking the chick you met at the munch, nor any of the other things that are also fucking. Making love is expressing your love for someone by fucking them. And I think that’s great.

    • That’s a really relevant observation – the utility of “making love” is in what it excludes.. it just happens to be that, for me, that’s its weakness as well, though I can certainly respect where you’re coming from.

  9. Practically every way of saying it is better than ‘making love’ – fucking, screwing, banging, shagging, having sex, boning… the list is endless and they’re all better! The only one that’s worse? Making sweeeeeet love…’ (Excuse me while I retch!)

  10. Use of language is just like fucking/makinglove itself…it all depends….

  11. I might say, “make love” in an ironic sort of way, but really sex has got fuck all to do with love (pun possibly intended). Do we love everyone we have sex with? I suspect not. Do we have sex with everyone we love? Even less likely I’d have thought.

    I tend to call sex, sex, but yeah, if I’m going to use a euphemism, it’s most likely to be either fuck or shag.


  12. Brilliant thoughts on this. Definitely a must share.
    As for us, I hate making love because of the emotional baggage associated with it, and my husband hates fucking because it implies (to him) no emotional involvement. We have kids, so we talk code anyhow – like “I need a massage” or “let’s talk”.

    • Thank you, cammiesonthefloor! My husband and I are very much that way. When he says “make love” I wince, but when I say “fuck” he makes this face that defies description. Oddly, the now-we-have-a-kid code has forced us to bridge the gap. We aim for ridiculous for the most part and tend to “relate” (as in “having relations”), which sounds hilarious but does the trick when there’s a three year old around. I might introduce “I need a massage” just to shake it up..

  13. My fiance and I say we “bang” instead of “make love” or even “have sex” most of the time. I feel like it’s more playful and fits us better. “Making love” sounds so old-fashioned to me.

  14. Awesome post. I’ve thought, and written, a lot about this question, too. For me, I spent years running FROM the word “fuck.” I felt that it was shameful, somehow too open, too accepting, of the complex thing that is sex. Every time I say it, now, I’m asserting my confidence, my comfort, my acceptance of sex as a thing I want, enjoy, and DO (as opposed to a secret thing I spent most of my time hiding and running from).

    Thank you!

    • Thank you taking the time to read and comment! I know exactly what you mean when you mean – saying “fuck” feels like an assertion of confidence and ownership to me, as well. It’s a happy feeling, one that I’m glad to associate with sex. It’s amazing how years spent feeling that sex was somehow shameful or embarrassing can somehow lead to a sexually liberated adulthood. It’s an encouraging thing, and one I’m grateful for.

  15. When I first read 50 and came across that line, ‘I don’t make love. I fuck…hard.’ I was like, yes! The term making love sounds naive to me (no offense to those that prefer it). It conjures up images of harlequin romance covers and seventh graders contemplating the act, and a sense of apology. It makes me cringe. But fuck? Fuck is powerful. There are few arenas in this world in which I feel truly powerful, but my sexuality is an exception. So, in the company of brilliant sex bloggers and fictional dominant billionaires, I too, choose fuck. Wonderful post, thanks for opening the discussion.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and for adding to the discussion! “Fuck” is a powerful word, and using it as a way to claim ownership or power for yourself and your sexuality has been pretty integral in my own sexual development. I love hearing that other people have a similar understanding of the word – I feel like it gets a fair amount of negative press, but really, there’s a lot of good to be said for it too.

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