A Prick by Any Other Name?

by | August 21, 2016 | General | 8 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

When it comes to sexual vocabulary, I’m agnostic. I will use whatever word seems to fit in a particular situation. Some authors I know are uncomfortable using terms that are particularly graphic or viewed as obscene. In contrast, I have no problem calling female genitalia a “cunt”, assuming the term is consistent with tone of my tale and the personality of my characters. On the other hand, I won’t eschew a bit of euphemism, even somewhat purple-tinged, when the story, the characters and/or the readership require it. I’ll use clinical or anatomical terms, too, if that’s what seems right. I think carefully about the words I choose in sexual description, because an unfortunate decision can distract and even alienate readers.

Hence, I don’t appreciate being told what words I can and cannot use in my fiction. For the most part, I am deeply satisfied with my main erotic romance publisher, TotallyBound. They’re the most well-organized, diligent and supportive publishing company I’ve ever encountered. And they let me get away with a lot! However, I’ve had a few run-ins with editors when I wanted to use the word “prick”.

I’ve been told that, according to their style guide, “prick” is not acceptable terminology. I’m really not sure about the motivation, since for me the word is no more graphic or offensive than “cock”. It’s true that in American English, calling a man a “prick” (or a “dick”, for that matter) is considered deeply insulting (though the two epithets do not have the same implications). Does that carry over into the original use of the word to denote the penis? Not in my dialect, anyway. It has occurred to me that the connotations might be different in the UK, where TB is based, but we do have readers all over the world.

I’ll sometimes choose “prick” as an alternative to “cock” when a man is thinking about his own organ. It seems to capture, for me, some aspect of gritty physicality. It makes me think of locker rooms and surreptitious hand jobs, of embarrassing hard-ons and Internet porn watched on the sly. Personally I wouldn’t tend to call a penis a “prick”, because I don’t have one, but I feel that a man might (and I hope that our male Grip members will either confirm or refute this).

“Prick” also has the nice implication of something that pierces or penetrates. I’m certain that extra level of meaning makes it sound a bit dirtier.

Anyway, when I received the edits for a recent erotic romance, Challenge to Him, there were several instances of “prick” called out.

He could scarcely look at her without imagining her rounded limbs wound with rope, her neat bosom bared to his pinching fingers, her lively brown eyes hidden by the blindfold that would give him license to use her however he chose. His prick swelled to an uncomfortable bulk inside his trousers. He was grateful that the motoring duster he wore concealed the evidence of his excitement.

This example fits in with my commentary above. The hero is slightly embarrassed by his sudden arousal, and thus thinks of his organ as a “prick”.

I thought a long time about whether it was worthwhile to fight about this. Ultimately I decided to change the word to “cock”. In my opinion, this loses a bit of the meaning, but not enough to justify antagonizing the editor.

However, a second case occurred here.

“You’re a clever little slut,” Andrew muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ll wager this isn’t your first time eating a man’s prick.” He wound his fingers into her hair and held her head still. “Open!” Jerking his hips, he drove his cock down her throat with bruising force.

I refused to change this instance. Andrew has deliberately selected the term “prick” to embarrass and excite the heroine. Replacing this with some other term would weaken the utterance. There’s also the problem of repetition, since I wanted to use “cock” in the following sentence.

Some authors agonize over every word. I have to admit that I don’t do that. However, I can usually trust my instincts, especially in a sex scene.

I’m not a prima donna, I swear! You can even ask my editors! However, I’ll stand up for my right to use the words that work in my story. Penis, cock prick, dick, dong, schlong, shaft, meat, phallus, skewer, screwer… there’s a place for each one. Maybe even “hardness”! Words are my tools. I’m not going to reject any of them out of hand.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Donna

    Great photo! I encountered this fairly early on in my erotica-writing career–being lectured by an editor that "dick" and "pussy" were unacceptable and somehow objectionable, but "cock" and "cunt" were okay. Since we're breaking taboos anyway, I personally think we should embrace the broadest range of vocabulary possible. Words are our tools and our treasures. How said to censor ourselves.

  2. Jean Roberta

    I agree. IMO, the only reasonable objection one could make abut a term for sexual organs or activities would be that a certain character probably wouldn't use it — or maybe the word isn't/wasn't used in the cultural setting of the story. (On that note, though, I'm tempted to write a sex scene in which one contemporary academic or literary lesbian asks her date: "Would you like to be gamahouched, my dear, or shall we progress directly to frigging?") 🙂

  3. Fiona McGier

    Love that photo! In our town, the only sex ed the kids get in high school is abstinence, as in, "girls, keep your legs closed. Boys, remember all of these pictures of diseased organs, and keep your zipper up!" But in the next town over, where I used to sub, I'd walk down the hall and hear about a banana being used to demonstrate for the kids how to put on a condom. Different towns, different school boards, I guess. I apologized to my kids for raising them in this town, but I taught them all what they needed to know.

    Men have so very many names for their cock, that to say you can't use such and such a name for whatever reason, seems so prohibitive. Especially when you are delving into the man's thoughts, and how he refers to his own organ. Remember that scene in the second Austin Powers movie, when they use quite a few euphemisms in the space of about 10 minutes? Very entertaining.

    As a writer, I prefer cock myself…as a woman I like it no matter what you call it! (couldn't resist!) But I'm one of those who dislikes cunt, because I enjoy using it as an insult so much, that I don't want its power lessened by using it in an erotic scene. But that's just me.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Donna! The lecture you received seems odd to me, since I've always felt that "cunt" was more hardcore than "pussy". But maybe that was the critic's (or editor's) point.

    Really, it depends so much on the story. Some female characters would never use "cunt", even in their own thoughts. Others would find "pussy" much too wishy washy and overly nice. When you're writing historical fiction, it's important to get the period terms correct. (I've always been hugely partial to "quim".)

    The notion that you can define a specific set of terms that will work for every subgenre seems ridiculous.

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    Jean, you've hit the nail on the head with your example. The characters you imagine might well use the terms "gamahouche" and "frig"– either seriously, or in jest. After all, academics and writers love to play with words.

  6. Lisabet Sarai

    Hey, Fiona!

    "Cunt" has both fans and detractors. Because it's often used by men to describe women they dislike, it can have negative overtones. However, I find that it can be really hot in sex scene, at least partly because it is crude and slightly shocking.

  7. Fiona McGier

    Lisabet, I use cunt as a swear word to refer to women who are acting stupid, just like I use prick, or one of my favs, "pencil-dicked geek," for men acting stupid. I also like to comment on men driving by in HUGE SUVs or Hummers, "Compensate much? Where are your truck balls?" Or to those who drive like entitled assholes, "Someday maybe you'll finally get laid, and realize there's a time and place for all of that pent-up frustration."

    I think men use cunt to describe women they desire who won't have sex with them. Women don't seem to have the same level of disdain for men who won't have sex with them…maybe because most men don't usually turn down any free pussy?

  8. Lisabet Sarai

    I wouldn't use 'cunt' as a swear word. Too much baggage from the way it's used by men.

    Love your point about the asymmetry between men and women with regards to their view of people who won't have sex with them!

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