After a recent conversation with Editor Sara regarding a sex scene in her novel, I realized that not many know about some of the more unusual rules romance and erotic writers face. So buckle up Bucksters, because you’re about to go on a magical journey into the land of sex scenes in the publishing industry.
This post contains NSFW words! You’ve been warned.
Jumping right in, most romance publishers won’t let their writers use “penis”, “dick”, or “cock”. Every publisher has different regulations (check them before sending your manuscript somewhere!) but all of them have decreed that certain words just can’t be used. For instance, Avon Romance highly discourages their writers from using the above words and often block words like balls, vagina, cunt, and pussy. Even publishers like Harlequin – known for their outrageous stories so hot it burns the page – ban words. Instead, they encourage writers to use commonplace terms like member or piece but also the terrible ones like sword and log or his masculine essence. (I need a second to contain my eye roll.)
The history of these puritan rules stems from money woes. In the early 1970s when romance novels were cutting their way into the publishing industry, most readers didn’t want to read “vulgar” words and would complain to publishers. Fear of losing readers made most executives decide to reduce or remove vulgar words and thus was the birth of unique “synonyms”.
Another reason is sexiness. Author Sara Anderson briefly talks about the hassle of genitals in this blog post, but she also mentions how readers react to seeing the word “penis”. She points out that the word can pull someone out of the flow of the story, effectively ruining the sex scene – which is often one of the highlights to romance novels. Everyone wants the happily ever after, and sex is a part of the winning formula.
Of course, as opinions on sex become less and less puritan, words like “dick”, “cock”, and “penis” are becoming more common in books. Take 50 Shades Of Grey – there’s no way that book would have been published ten years ago, but now it’s a number 1 best seller.
As more and more writers find success online where there are no rules, terms like “penis”, “dick”, and “pussy” are slowly becoming seen as acceptable. As a writer, it’s your job to figure out what terms you’re comfortable using and go forward from there. Every publisher is willing to work with talented writers.
Struggling with writing a sex scene? Check out Editor Joe’s advice now.
(Lead Image by Vivian Shih)