Tag Archives: Semantics of Sex

The Semantics of Sex

Last year, I wrote a post called Of Cocks & Cunts: The Language of Erotica. I was pretty happy with it so, until very recently, I haven’t felt the impulse to revisit the subject of word choice in erotic writing.

Then, 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 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.