Romance Pet Peeves: Excessive Euphemisms
All of the romance pet peeves in this series are my opinion as a reader and writer, but this one is particularly specific to my personal experience. Many of the other opinions I’ve shared in this series are widely held, but while many will agree with this one in theory, the debate appears when we consider quantity and quality. My “excessive” is someone else’s “acceptable.”
But let’s talk about euphemism in general. One of my problems with euphemism is when it’s being employed because the author feels uncomfortable writing about sex. Back in my series on writing sex scenes, I said that there is no shame in not wanting to write sex into a book. Sex is only good when it’s fun for everyone, so if you’re not having fun, don’t write it. Relying on euphemism to obscure discomfort isn’t going to help–in fact, it’s going to make the scene worse. The same thing happens when authors randomly toss in “crude” or explicit words because they think sex scenes need to be raunchy. Whether the author overcompensates or obscures, it just ends up feeling awkward for everyone.
Side note–I am not saying this to discourage writers from pushing outside of their comfort zones. There’s a difference between overcoming societal stigma against sex because you want to and doing it because you think your book needs a sex scene for whatever reason. If writing sex is what you want to do, then go for it! I suggest reading many many sex scenes in romance and then writing your own versions of your favorites to get more comfortable. Practice, practice, practice!
But even in an otherwise confident sex scene, authors can fall into the euphemism trap. The problem is with word repetition. Writers are trained to keep that to a minimum, and so we’re always looking for synonyms and alternate phrases to employ to keep things interesting and not an endless monotony.
So there is also a difference (in my mind, anyway) between synonym and euphemism. I understand that I’m going to see a penis called any of the following: cock, prick, dick, erection, length (usually with modifiers stiff or hard), shaft, cockstand, hard-on, etc. For me, the jump to euphemism happens when we switch to metaphors and/or more humorous descriptions: boner, stiffy, pole, tool, rod, member, meat (man-meat, meat-stick), battering ram, dong, etc. There’s an amusing list here if you’re interested (although I’ve only seen a handful of those in romance fiction). A few of those more colorful euphemisms sprinkled into a sex scene will only make me giggle; they won’t make me throw down the book.
I’m also fine with metaphor for things that aren’t easily described, like how it feels to build up to and then experience orgasm. A clinical/physiological description of climax doesn’t delve into the character’s emotional landscape, and that’s the most important part of a sex scene. So metaphor is not completely off the table, either.
But where things really go off the rails into absurdity is when everything is a euphemism or a metaphor, ie.: “Her flowery petals opened to accept the stabbing of his love sword.” To me, that is not only very un-sexy, it is downright ludicrous. Sentences like that win awards in the worst sex scene category.
So where’s the line? As I said at the beginning, this one is tough to call, because everyone’s line is going to be in a different place. The only way to find out where the line is for you is to read a lot of sex scenes, and then start writing them yourself. My best advice, though, is to avoid euphemism until you’ve mastered the basics.