When I was a little girl, I didn’t have genitalia. I had a nebulous zone referred to as ‘between your legs’. I can’t blame my parents. They were simply part of a certain generation. But really. Between your legs? It’s like describing your face as ‘above your shoulders’.
For a long time, I had no word for my ‘down theres’. I wasn’t alone. Female sexuality is such a mysterious, scary element our language has evolved with a hole in it. We even lack an anatomical word for the whole shebang. Vagina is internal, vulva is external, and no 'official' noun unites them.
In my twenties, I quietly fell in love with ‘cunt’. Feminism and Chaucer helped: feminism because it insisted women reclaim the word; Chaucer because he was merrily using it in the Middle ages where it appeared as ‘queynte’ (quaint). Now, I don’t necessarily regard my nethers as quaint (and that wasn’t what Chaucer meant anyway) but queynte’s gentle bawdiness tempered the coarseness I was more used to. And somehow, Chaucer made it sexy in a way Germaine Greer couldn’t. ‘He shall have queynte right enough at eve,’ said Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a character who, were she alive today, would surely be a member of Lust Bites. ‘Randy little bitch’ we’d probably call her.
Chaucer’s queynte is robust, vital, ordinary and sexy, and, in some contexts, so is cunt. Generally speaking, I love a good, hard Anglo-Saxonism, and nearly all the best sex words rhyme with ‘uh’: suck, fuck, cunt, grunt, lust, love, come. But it’s impossible to escape cunt’s taboo status, and the dark thrill of that makes it even richer. It’s a forbidden word for lovers and pornographers to share, a word to whisper, gasp or snarl. Try and murmur it seductively, and it will always top you. It’s too goddamn dirty, too monosyllabic and guttural to behave nicely by candlelight.
Whenever we use cunt sexually, we’re challenging language by trying to make the word our own. Cunt resonates with secrecy, deviance and vulgarity. You might aim to make it a glorious embrace of femaleness but shivering at the edge is the shock-language of porn – slutty redhead gets her cunt fucked (yay! did our hit rate just go up?) – and of abuse – you fucking cunt! The word is riddled with conflict. And conflict is hot because that's where, as individuals, we are all undone.
Some feminists, recognising the misogyny inherent in cunt being the ultimate insult, make a case for only using it positively. I think this is misguided. So many slang words are connected with sex. Trying to exempt cunt works only to reinforce its illicit potency, and to transform female genitalia into something precious and untouchable. Too much of this, and you end up with batty (but well-intentioned) women celebrating the ‘sacred portal to the feminine temple’, describing themselves as goddesses and making yoni art to honour the 'life-giving power of the feminine'. (Heck, you all like those snatch-bags, don't you?)
I’m not exactly the most tantric chick on the block and so, while I can understand the impulse to reclaim, I reckon all this mother Earth reverence takes us back to where we started. It steeps female sexuality in mystery, distortion and confusion; it elevates us into something we are not. What's more, it is horribly biologically reductive in privileging fertility over fucking, and is about as sexy as your granny's cushions.
Cunt is cunt. I do wish people could get over it. One of my favourite dirty books is My Secret Life by ‘Walter’, a diary of a 19th century gentleman. It runs to 11 volumes and contains cunt 5357 times. (I counted.) He uses the word cunt as matter-of-factly as ‘arm’ or ‘nostril’ and repetition soon neutralises it. I find the blankness curiously sexy but that perhaps says more about me and Walt than it does about cunt.
The word didn't make it into the Oxford English Dictionary until 1972 although its first recorded use was 1230 (Gropecuntelane was a London street - huh, guess what they did there). I could risk boring you all with various etymological debates about cunt's origins (is it from High German Kunte, Latin cunnus, Sanskrit cushi?) but what I really want to say is, wow, seven and half centuries of being ignored by dictionaries; that's one helluva word. Okay, so I know Dr Johnson wasn't around in the 13thC but doesn't it make you glad we have The Urban Dictionary?
So how does this affect me as an author? Darker Than Love, my first erotic novel, is set in Victorian London and features no instances of cunt. It isn’t that cunt doesn’t appear because I wrote an historical novel. Rather, I wrote an historical novel in order to avoid using cunt. Black Lace, then relatively new on the market (1998), advised authors to ‘approach with caution’. They had a similar warning about ‘fuck’. I couldn’t conceive of writing contemporary while watching my Cs and Fs so I stepped back in time.
One year later, guidelines were practically jettisoned. I wrote Asking for Trouble faster than anything I’ve ever written and used cunt 47 times. It felt right - for me, for the characters and the story. And it's a BL bestseller.
My forthcoming book, Split*, uses the word 9 times. My publisher has its eye on the US romance market, and is returning to its softly-softly origins. No one told me to go easy on cunt but there were rumours and it seemed prudent to do so. I am, appropriately, split about the wisdom of this. On the one hand, I want more women to enjoy erotica (and to buy my hot, dirty books) and if toning down the language achieves this, perhaps it’s a decent sacrifice. Or am I selling out? Because I also want people to feel okay about cunt, and sadly, it seems I can’t have it both ways in the current climate. (And I always want it both ways.)
Perhaps cunt sounds harsher to US than to UK ears. Perhaps writing which is comfortable with cunt will always be niche.
And perhaps I’m preaching to the choir here. Because I’m sure you’ll agree, ‘slutty redhead gets her feminine temple fucked’ ain’t going to work for any reader of Lust Bites.
In researching this article, I found this, possibly one of the most disturbing videos I’ve ever seen. And I just wrote a novel set in a puppet museum. I may need therapy.
*You see how I casually linked to Split there? Truth is, that’s the first time I’ve ever done that on Lust Bites. The book only appeared on Amazon a few days ago and I am madly excited I could link. I still am!