A Dewy Pink Rose By Any Other Name

Erotic romance authors have all been there. Your hero—because he’s AWESOME—is camped out downtown between the heroine’s creamy thighs. It’s been going on for a paragraph or so when disaster strikes! His lips are center stage. So are hers—her nether-lady-lips. You already mentioned his tongue, mouth, and heated breaths, and her folds. You’re fresh out of your fall-back euphemisms and facing a nasty echo. So, just suck it up and say “lips” twice in two lines? Or could you…is it totally unsexy if you…

Just do it! Use labia!

I was in this exact quandary a couple of weeks ago. Too many lips, and I was worried labia was too clinical, a mood-killer. So I ran an informal Twitter poll to see what my bitches had to say.

Turns out, labia’s cool. Like clitoris, it’s one of the prettier anatomical terms, and the majority of respondents (check me sounding all scientifical) said it wouldn’t disrupt their reading. I prefer lips and clit, myself, but we quickly overuse our favorites, so I’d like to offer a run-down of acceptable synonyms for the various and sundry human underbits. This is a combination of my opinions and those of friends, writers and readers alike. Bear in mind a) I write contemporary erotic romance, b) my readership is largely female and they don’t blush easily, and c) my characters tend to be candid, if not outright potty-mouthed. My audience may very well not be your audience. Also, I’m going to keep these examples heterosexual, merely for the sake of simplicity.

We’ll start at the top—mouth. You’ll burn through the basics in a kissing scene in no time. Mouth, lips, tongue, kiss—all spent in the first two sentences. We don’t have any sensual slang for the mouth [see also: pie hole] so you have to employ some euphemisms: his greedy assault; her steaming exhalation; the sweet violation (yeah, actually, go ahead and call every sex act a sweet violation). And when you’re out of nouns, refer to the parts as the person (her, him) and focus on the actions: he claimed her hungrily; she welcomed his intrusion, and so on. Oh and now seems a good time to suggest that no orifices should ever be referred to as his or her wet hole. Yeah…no.

Moving swiftly southward: breasts. As with the nursing adage, breast is best. Isn’t that a lovely word? Boobs is too juvenile. Tits can work, but generally only if you’re in male POV and don’t mind your hero sounding like a bit of a horny douche. Fun-bags, dairy pillows, boulders, knockers, jugs, milkers…need I even say it? To be honest, there aren’t a ton of great options. Mounds is weak. Globes is terrible—even fake breasts aren’t spherical. Bosom…maybe try that, once every five books, but it’s pretty old-timey. If the reader knows where the hero’s hands are at, flesh isn’t too awful. Again, you may want to humanize the part as “her” and let the verb be the explicit element: he cupped her; the weight of her in his hand; he fondled her through her top.

Nipple is an adequate word, and your best option, if not dripping with sex appeal. Also half-decent: peak, point, bud, nub. Like boobs and tits, nips is doltish. Avoid having nipples pebble. That’s as overdone as heroes named Griffin. Let them draw tight instead, or simply stiffen under his touch. It was also decided on Twitter that a guy “suckling like a hungry babe” is mega-squicky.

Next up: abdomen. Abdomen and abs are acceptable, the former flirting with being too clinical, the latter with being a bit…I’m not sure. Bro-ish? Abs are something you spritz with Axe Bodyspray, but they’ll do. Belly is good, though its default tone is one of softness, so if he’s ripped, you may want to mention it’s his taut belly. Middle is okay, but offers nothing in the way of implicit description. Six-pack is explicit but also pretty cheesy—definite Axe territory. Stomach is technically incorrect, referring to an internal organ, but we’re so used to terms like “a flat stomach,” no reader will think she’s admiring the firm contours of his digestive system. Don’t use gut in the bedroom—too negatively evocative. He can feel desire or trepidation or a bean burrito stirring in his gut, but leave it at that.

Before we dip down to the exciting bits, let’s pause at the hands. Hands are great—lots of perfectly acceptable sub-elements and configurations. Get specific, and swap in palm, finger, fingertip, nails, knuckles, fist, grip, touch. And since the hand is the most likely part to do these things, use actions to mix things up: cupped, gripped, squeezed, grazed, teased, held, circled, and so forth. I mean, there’s no reason to write, “He cupped her in his hand.” That’s like saying, “He chewed the food with his teeth.” If it’s implicit, save “hand” for when you really need it. And if both hands are getting up to stuff, don’t differentiate by saying left or right. Those distinctions are distracting, making readers pause to check that they’ve got the mechanics straight. Mood-killer. Instead say his other hand or his free hand, or the hand fondling her fun-bag.

Next up: pubic hair. Tricky, but happily one of those details you can omit if you want—readers don’t expect to have pubic hair described. If you do need to mention it, plain old hair (if the region is implicit) is fine, or curls. Other terms I’ve seen used are nest and thatch, which I suspect would divide an audience in their squickishness, and distract many a reader. Please file landing strip in the same bro folder as tits, jugs, and six-pack.

Hey, we’ve arrived at the junk! So, how about wangs? First off, don’t use wang. If your targeted readership is female, don’t use wang, schlong, dong, prick, boner, pole, stiffy, rod, love bone, any label belonging to something hanging in your garage, meat, beef, little guy, etc. Your best slang bets are cock and dick, and don’t overlook erection or even hard-on. Quite a few decent euphemisms, too: his length; his hard or driving flesh; his pulsing excitement. Manhood’s okay, though curving slightly toward the old-fashioned. Penis is best when referring to the organ in a non-sexytimes context (my default setting tells me penis refers to the soft state; you pee with your penis, you bone with your cock). For the head, I’m down with head, crown, and tip. Helmet? Neutral. Bulb and anything referring to a mushroom? Not so much.

Squirrellier still are the balls. And in my opinion, balls is the best word for them. Testicles isn’t sexy, and neither is sac or scrotum or nads or nuts or jewels. There simply isn’t a great, evocative, sensual term for those puppies. But if your heroine is cupping down there, chances are your reader will know what part she’s handling.

We’ll break the lady-area into three sections: clitoris, vulva (the outside bits), and vagina (the part you stick it in).

Clitoris ain’t bad. It’s sort of pretty, and its shortened version, clit, is also fine in my book. When you use those up though, where to go? I’ve relied on nub before, and smeared Vaseline on the lens and softened it all to “he stroked her arousal” or “that most sensitive spot.” Personally, I don’t like bud, and I really don’t like button. As someone said on Twitter, it made her picture a remote control. [Note to self: refer to clitoris as self-destruct button in upcoming sex scene.] Need I say, no little man in the canoe. Another I see, especially in historical romance, is pearl. That’s a bit frou-frou, but I wouldn’t sigh aloud with annoyance if I read it in a sex scene. If anyone has further acceptable terms for clit, please, do tell. I could use them.

On to the vulva! Don’t use vulva, first off. A depressingly small percentage of people know what it is (it refers to the outside bits, basically—both sets of labia, mons, the opening of the vagina, and the aforementioned clitoris) and it’s not a super nice word. Vulva. It flops off the tongue like a damp towel. Which is a shame, because it’s like, the best thing ever. The meat—har—of the area are the labia. As I said, the clinical word in this case is passable. It’s actually Latin for “lips”, and lips is great, too. In erotica, you’ll see the term pussy lips now and again, and I hate it, far more than I hate netherlips. Folds isn’t bad. Crease or cleft can work, nice alternatives to the too-blunt slit. Petals…see pearl, for clitoris. If you want avoid naming the area, some verb-based strategies that work are things like, “he parted her softly” or “he stroked the length of her plump flesh.” Do I need to even tell you what not to call them? Anything involving flaps—piss flaps, mud flaps, meat flaps, and no, not beef curtains either.

How about that vagina? I don’t love the clinical term. I’d prefer to leave it in the gyno’s office, though again, I wouldn’t toss the book across the room over it. In erotica, it’s generally acceptable to use pussy or cunt. It all depends on your POV. If your heroine would never in a million years use those words, you shouldn’t either. Let the POV character choose the term, always. As alternatives to the clinical and the crass, the hero can also penetrate the following: her slick heat; her welcoming body; her depths; or, simply, her. Some words I’d put on the do-not-call-it list: twat, snatch, anything involving tunnels or channels or velvet, and most anything with hole. Also wildly unpopular? Womb.

What what, about the butt? For the outer area, butt’s cool. Ass works, if that’s what your POV character would call it. Backside, good. Cheeks is preferable to lobes. Rear-end and bum and booty are a bit doofusy, and buns to me screams 1985. Please, no badonkadonk, because 2002 is the future 1985. I wouldn’t recommend dumper, either. I don’t need to tell you why. As for that contentious bit between the cheeks, all up in the cleft? When I write male-male erotica, I go ahead and say asshole, because my guy characters are filthy fuckers. A female character might be less inclined to think of it using that term. Here, hole may have to suffice, or soften it to tight entrance or puckered opening. Yeah, the options aren’t great, but come on—you’ve committed to writing anal. Now’s not the time to get coy. Still, the clinical options are grim—anus, rectum, sphincter, prostate. No. Also not sexy: back passage, rear entrance, service elevator. And I don’t even need to tell you, but steer clear of anything that reminds readers what that orifice is actually there for (don’t make me reference the shocker.)

Oh, and what to do with all these parts? I recommend fucking. Or making love, if your characters are feeling it. He can plumb her depths or they can use one another’s bodies. Possibly screwing and maybe getting off, but hopefully not boning or boinking or bumpin’ uglies or schtupping or tapping that ass or making whoopie [cue Newlywed Game theme].

Finally, them fluids. As a general plea, I beg writers to let bodies taste like what they taste like. Don’t make your heroine’s pussy taste like a peach, or say the hero’s spunk is surprisingly sweet. It ain’t. Not even if he’s been eating nothing but pineapple after you clipped out that idiotic Cosmo sidebar for him. Junk tastes like junk, and that’s great. As for what to call the fluids? Juice is fine for ladies, or wetness. I think I’ve probably called a woman succulent before. Famously unappetizing adjectives are moist and damp—shot down across the board due to the mildew factor. Don’t go too far, either, in the direction of lady-parts gushing, dripping, erupting, etc. Nectar and honey and the like are pushing it, though I’m sure that hasn’t stopped me from using them. I’ve also had heroes “lap up the spoils of her pleasure” or something like that. You can work around it. You can also call it her come. Or cum, as cum refers to the fluid (not the orgasm itself—you never cum, but there is often cum when you come) though I personally think cum is a homely, distracting spelling. I don’t even need to tell you that a guy doesn’t shoot sperm across her belly, right? He shoots semen (which contains sperm cells) and semen is a decent, if borderline clinical, term. Come is probably the best, and I like his release as well. Or he can release in three long, body-quaking spasms and you don’t need to name the fluid at all. I’d warn against jizz, spunk, load, bust a nut, and I’m undecided on cream for either gender.

So there you go. Bear in mind, this entire topic is massively subjective. You may use pussy and totally disgust Reader A, but another author could call it a velveteen love glove and she’ll be swooning like me at an illegal cage fight in the basement of a disused factory in Detroit. First and foremost, turn yourself on. Ignore everything I’ve said and use the words you think are hot. But please, don’t use a word that feels off just for the sake of avoiding an echo. Reading his turgid manhood is far more distracting than two cocks in one passage [bonus har].

Now please—share your most loved and hated terms in the comments!

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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27 Responses to A Dewy Pink Rose By Any Other Name

  1. Ruthie says:

    You didn’t say a single thing I disagreed with here, except that I have a definite opinion on “cream.” Don’t like it. I’m not sure why, but it bugs me.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yeah…it’s sort of too-nasty, but sometimes too-nasty is right. I remain divided. I mean, I remain “gently parted by his sweet violation.”

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        Ooh, you know what? I think I figured out why I don’t like it. When I was a kid, one of the phrases I heard too young and didn’t understand was “creamed his/her jeans.” I associate it with that type of crudity.

  2. You’re just…*wipes tear*. Wonderful, so wonderful. And you’re performing such a service for humanity by compiling this vital information in one easy-to-access location. I plan to send everyone to this blog post, forever. While this may puzzle some (my mom) I think at least the romance writers will be thrilled.

    While I don’t have a strong opinion on cream for girls, I share Ruthie’s issue with it vis-a-vis guys. Creaming the jeans? Not sexy. And in the early-to-mid 80s it was usually guys this referred to. Ah, the importance of one’s formative years.

    I also have no problem with the use of the term “velvety” but only in reference to certain parts/circumstances. Cock heads, for instance, can have a velvety feel against the cheek. Until you get slimed, at least *note to self: omit references to pre-ejaculate as “slime”. Or “pre-ejaculate”. Or “spooge”*.

    I eagerly await your forthcoming masterpiece, “Self-Destruct!”

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh dag, how could I omit “pre-come” come this discussion?! Pre-come walks that line between silly and clinical, but there aren’t many ways to say it. I’m forever referring to it as “a bead” of moisture, which isn’t tremendous, but beats “tear” which is too much like its homograph—”tear,” as in a wound. No “tear at the tip of his cock,” please. Ouch.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        For a second, I thought “h-o-m-ograph” was “h-o-r-n-ograph,” which seemed appropriate.

        Yes, “pre-come.” It pulls me out of the story every time. And yet there really isn’t a better word.

      • I was curious to see what I’d called it in my contemporary short and saw that I wrote ‘bead of moisture’ too… I think I had pre-cum originally and just didn’t like it….

  3. mssarahb says:

    My honey likes to scan through my books looking for sex scenes. His favorite euphemism: cleft. I now intentionally use it at least once in everything I write because it is so… geological.

  4. Fantastic, fantastic post. Fantastic. Interesting too to see the slight differences between what Brits will accept and what Americans will. Tits and bum used to abound in Black Lace titles, and no one blinked an eye. But I’ve heard readers complain about my use of tits (bah-rump-bump-bump) so I’m definitely phasing that one out.

    As for cream…I like it sparingly. But I’m weird, cos the phrase “he creamed in his jeans” actually hits some weird hot button of mine. And no, not that kind of button.

    Not sure about any really anatomical terms – even labia. I kind of tend to avoid and just work around it if I’ve used folds or lips too many times. He stroked her wetness, etc. But really, the only major turn-off for me is clinical terms for asshole. Rectal passage and the like…oh no no no. Other stuff won’t send me out of a story, but that will.

  5. Great post! Pretty much agree with your words, though I might be old-fashioned in hating the word pussy and pussy lips (LOL, my autocorrect on my phone corrected that to ‘pushy lips’). Takes me out of the story.

    Having her juices run down her thighs pulls me out of the story too. Is it just me or does that seem like an awful lot of liquid to make it run…?

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yeah…erotic romance heroines are a remarkably gushy bunch. They must go through panties like WHOA. Though I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, I’ve yet to be roughly claimed by a former SEAL turned broody, firefighting tiger-shifter billionaire.

  6. Amanda says:

    Oh, if only I could go back in time and share this whole post with all the fanfiction authors I ever read in my teen years. It should be given out as a pamphlet in gift bags at parties or something.

    I love how straight-forward this post was, plus it was chock-full of hilarity (to me) and yet was also invaluably informative. Writing your sexy scene(s) to your characters, not to your audience, is what I’m taking away from this.

    If the scene calls for crass and in-your-face, do it. If you’ve got a virgin who’s never seen anything below the belt-line, you’re sure as shit not gonna break out with the vocabulary of a seasoned madame (biggest pet peeve in historicals!).

    Oh. And the anatomy image up at the top of the post makes me *die* laughing.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yes, that’s probably the optimum take-away. If ever you should be in deep POV, it’s during a sex scene. Seeing a sheltered, nervous virgin reference her own “tight pussy”? Whoa, jarring. Ditto a filthy-mouthed roughneck observing how “she quivered and mewed as he caressed her sensitive pearl.”

      Now somebody go and write me a book about those two characters!

  7. Penelope says:

    *thump—Penny passes out*

    *Penny revives herself with a huge espresso*

    Rule of thumb: Unless you’re writing a paper for first semester medical school class of human reproduction, over-use of clinical terms…anus, prostrate, vulva, etc etc….may be lacking in the sexiness department. Use sparingly and inter-mixed with other terms (personal fav is cunny, but I know folks who hate that one)….and all should be well. And sexy.

    Red-faced and eyes as big as saucers,

    *Penny runs back to the romance area and breathes a huge sigh of relief*

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, shudder. Yeah, I’m one of those who hates “cunny”. I know it’s a historical term, but… [pukes]

      • Penelope says:

        Ha! I just made an erotica author puke…I win! I win!

        Yes, it’s found in historicals, and it’s very naughty which is why I like it. Juxtaposition of formal behavior and dress with wicked naughty dirty talk is sexy IMO. But I know other historical authors who hate it.

        31 flavors!

  8. Edie Harris says:

    I meant to comment last week when this went up — I blame the heat, making my brain go all slushy. Anyway:

    I think Charlotte Stein does an amazing job of utilizing the “right” kind of language in her books. She doesn’t shy away from terminology, doesn’t cover it in flowery-perfumed prose, and as a reader, I really appreciate that. I read “Restraint” this past weekend, and she had her heroine say the word “vagina”…which, of course, made the hero all blushing and awkwardly adorbs (something I really love about Stein’s heroes), but it drove home the point that the language we use as writers, read as readers, say in real life is very indicative of how we all feel about…err…you know. That thing we do. In bed. Sometimes not in a bed. Involving body parts and…and…penetration. [covers face with hands]

    So, now that I’ve finished being redundant (language = important), I’m going to scurry away again into this horrid Midwestern heat wave.