Fucks Given: Sex and Swearing In Writing

I’m still pretty new to the blogging game, but I’ve found I have the time and material to update far more often than I first expected. This is bound to be one of my more controversial entries, but I encourage you to share it as often as possible. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on my own writing talents or influence, but there are certain topics that I think need to be discussed not only amongst writers or readers but the public in general, as it pertains to the conceptualization of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable in terms of prose (be it in a novel, a comic book or on screen).

Before I get into the writing aspect of it, I want to cast a very honest spotlight on our honest-to-God societal reality, at least as pertains to the United States:

Children swear. A lot. So many children so much, and that is how it has always been. When I was in first grade of elementary school, a TON of children would use “curse” words whenever they felt an adult wasn’t listening. That was over twenty years ago. By the time I hit fourth grade, 70-85% of my class was swearing, easily. Does that mean I think you should go out of your way to swear in front of children, or that you should even share this blog with your eight-year old? Absolutely not. But I do think it’s something that is being blown out of proportion. You should let your children know which words are considered adult-only and inappropriate to use as they come up in conversation. This instills in them an awareness and understanding that they can then use to formulate their own usages and personalities regarding it.

Fact: Other children are going to swear around your children. Fact: Other adults are going to swear around your children. Fact: With the expansion of and exposure to the Internet over the last two decades, and with the gradual acceptance of more and more words on television and young adult novels that were once considered taboo, they’re going to be exposed to those words no matter what. Pretending it’s not happening and punishing because of it is far less useful than educating about the proper ages/circumstances and usages.

Let alone a double-standard. When I was younger, “hell” was considered a bad word if uttered in earshot of an afult, but it’s also a religious concept. So one usage of a word is acceptable but another is not? That’s absurd (there is an exception to this, and that is any word that has been co-opted with the intention of becoming a slur to denigrate a race, gender or sexuality. I will say that words only have as much power as you allow them to have, but these words are never okay and neither is intentionally trying to hurt someone.)

Secondly, sex happens. Ohhh my God, does sex happen. And not wanting to talk about it or pretending it doesn’t happen can actually put your children at risk. I’m not saying show an explicit sexual video to your children. That’s horrible and without context or a certain level of emotional maturity, that can lead to a drastic misinterpretation of what is considered normal and what isn’t.

However, I was shown the Miracle of Life video in my 5th grade class and there is definitely a baby exploding out of a vagina. Granted, you needed a permission slip signed, but still: from the reality of birth, there needs to be an understanding of the act of procreation. If you’re going to figure out how a penis-shaped block fits into a vagina-shaped hole, one needs to be educated on the differences between men and women.

In 6th grade, when I was 11 years old, the teachers split the classes up to explain puberty, periods, ejaculation and masturbation. Our bodies are weird little machines that do scary things sometimes. It’s good to know that’s normal, but now we’re curious. I was in 5th grade when I first discovered I could feel pleasure when my genitals were manipulated a certain way.

With curiosity comes experimentation. In 8th grade, we learned as a co-ed class what condems and speculums were and what sexually transmitted diseases looked like. I was 13 years old.

I lost my virginity when I was 15, with a condom, to a girl my age who weighed significantly more than me and went by the nickname Pixie. Not my proudest moment. I’ve had worse. I learned a lot.

Now, granted, teen pregnancy has actually dropped almost consistently since the 1950s (the 90s were a crazy time, what with all the pastel colors and mail-in prizes), but even in 2009 46% of high schoolers had admitted in a survey to having had sex at some point in their lives and over 30% had been sexually active within the three months of the survey. ALMOST HALF had lost their virginity before graduation and it would be naive to think that the rest weren’t at least aware of the concept of sex and their bodies.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m slowly starting to realize that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom is doing a faitly decent job of showing just what challenges are involved with and  how hard it can be to be a teenage parent. Sex is going to happen, but education and preparation go a long way towards making less accidents and more understanding of one’s body and interests and relationships.

Which is why it baffles me that such things in the existence of Young Adult novels can be met with such astonishment and protestation. In the Hunger Games, children 12-18 years old brutally murder each other. A child takes a spear through the chest. There are flesh-eating gas attacks. In Harry Potter, people are tortured and murdered left and write. Hell, the whole premise is kicked off with a double-murder and attempted infanticide that leaves a baby with a CURSED SCAR.

But the exploration of love and intimacy is to be ignored or shied away from or looked down upon.

These books/films I mention are for young adults. Typically 13-17, and I acknowledge that.  There are reasons that there is an MPAA to dictate ratings and, as I said, I’m not saying you should let your young children read, say, Stephen King. But if you find a copy of It tucked into their backpack, snuck away from the library as I did, maybe talk with them about it instead of clutching it to your breast as if it were a gun.

In regards to swearing, it also has a time a place. My first three novels are filled with swearing and violence and a little bit of sex. They would garner an R-rating. It’s the kind of show you would watch on HBO, if they would ever pick it up (Hint hint). I swear a lot personally, on this blog and in real life. I try to censor those words around children or in professional conversations or conversations with my elders out of respect, and I don’t talk about sexual things.

But in the context of writing, “swear” words can pack an emotional punch. They have a strength behind them. An “Oh, no” can have a resignation behind it that lets you feel the moment the character realizes all is lost, but an “Oh, shit” packs a whole lot more desperation and shock in it. There have been videos almost comically detailing the versatility of the F word, but they aren’t wrong. The word can take the emotional attachment out of an act of sex. It can describe bewilderment, anger, astonishment, exasperation and more.

Damn and dammit can be used to express frustration or dismissal (as in “Damn you.”) Ass can be used as an insult or description of anatomy. You could say someone has a nice ass, or someone could “fall on their ass” which sounds much sharper and more painful than landing on their butt.

Language can also be used to define a character. I’ll use my novel Waypoint as an example. Harper Beiden detests swearing and even grows frustrated and angry at others for the usage of what he considers crass words. Nicolas Rubel swears almost non-stop because he’s a blustering bully. Cale Farari rarely swears but when he does, the reader pays that much more attention because they know he’s frustrated or desperately trying to get a point across.

Sex can also be used as a literary tool. When Salem finally loses has sex with a woman, it is clumsy and awkward and slow as she leads his inexperienced body through the motions. When Basker and Mazel have sex for the first time, it’s out of mutual desperation after long periods of hardship. They’re able to push find fleeting comfort in each other where the world has given them none. Kight is promiscuous and loves both men and women. She is confident in that, picky in who she chooses and unfazed by the comments anyone chooses to fling her way (Oberyn Martell of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is much the same way).

Bottom line, I suppose, is this: Sex and swearing are facts of life that your children will be exposed to much sooner than you might expect, via classes or conversations or what-have-you. But growing up is a complicated thing and sex and swearing will be integrated into their lifestyles in varying degrees as they get older and especially once they hit teenage/young adult years. If sex is something you want to save and swearing is something you detest, that is fine. But don’t decry the use of it in art and literature when the world has always been a collective culture where these things exist and different people have different appreciations of them.

Utilizing these things in books and scripts and poems allows for a more accurate portrayal of feelings and diversity and the confusion that comes with maturity.

Basically, shit happens and people will give fucks. Just try not to be a bitch, bastard or asshole about it, dammit.

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5 thoughts on “Fucks Given: Sex and Swearing In Writing

  1. This requires applause. Mother of two, former preschool teacher’s assistant and lover of all words, I have always struggled with swearing in front of my own kids. Keep in mind, I NEVER had an issue with it in a school setting, but at home I felt myself. My mother swore like a truck driver around me at their age, and I remember experimenting with swearing at age 5. It sort of defined my sense of humor if nothing else. I don’t want my kids to sound ignorant, and you know what? They won’t. Saying curse words in front of children that you instill a sense of dignity and respect in does not make them potty mouthed children. Also, READ TO YOUR KIDS. I have rarely met a well-read child of any age that used any words in poorly. An honesty of language is learned.

    –Julie

  2. How true this is. Perhaps this should be taken to heart in life and not just in writing. TALK TO YOUR KIDS PEOPLE. They know a lot more than you could ever imagine. Even the young ones.

    I like swearing in a book as long as it fits the moment and doesn’t jolt you out of the moment.

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