Now that a duly-elected government has been installed in the U.S., there is an ongoing debate about how to define the protest or insurrection or badly-organized invasion of the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6. The most reasonable explanations of that event include the four years of Trump’s presidency, which led to a climax that was both bizarre and horrifying, but completely predictable.

Most labels only make sense in their context, and that especially applies to vague terms such as “abuse” and “disloyalty.” These words have meaning, but since they can be used as weapons by people on opposite sides of a conflict, they need to be explained.

This is why I don’t keep a list of “obscene” words to avoid, as distinct from safely “erotic” words. I’ve heard men use terms of endearment, such as “baby” and “sweetheart,” on women they clearly despise, and no observer could be left in doubt about what these words signify at the time.

Many years ago, I had a husband who often reminded me that I was his wife. “Wife” sounded threatening when he used it. True wifedom, in Husband’s world-view, was a saintly, submissive condition I could never reach because I was an Olympic-level slut. He was careful not to use such words, even while he accused me of having sex with random men whenever I was out of our home: at work, at school, at social events, or en route between any of those places. The man seemed convinced that I kept spare lovers under the bed, but he took pride in being too decent to use “coarse language.”

For centuries, “wife,” previously spelled “wyf,” just meant woman. Out of context, the word is morally and emotionally neutral, so banning it wouldn’t serve any good purpose. Now that I am legally married to a woman, I enjoy the sense of belonging implied by the word “wife” in the context of an equal relationship: she is mine, and I am hers.

Here at ERWA, attempts have sometimes been made to compile a list of words that are guaranteed to heat up the person who hears them, and other terms that should never be used because, supposedly, they are always degrading. I realize that these divisions usually come from good intentions, but they just don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Consider this: in a previous relationship, my Significant Other sometimes called me a “bitch in heat.” I didn’t take offence because it seemed intended as a description of my current state of arousal, not as a negative definition of my personality. It was used by someone who never harmed me, and who had no real power to harm me. Her drinking (like that of my ex-husband) concerned me, but in this case, I noticed how her drinking harmed her more than it did me. I was free to leave, and eventually, I did.

When reading an erotic story, I like to get a sense of the characters before they or the narrative voice use any terms for body parts or sexual activities. Would a particular female character think of her vagina as “pussy,” a “cunt,” a “snatch,” a “beaver,” a “vajayjay,” or a “spoon?” (That’s some local slang.) Would a male character refer to his “member,” his “johnson,” his “cock,” or his “dick?” All these terms deserve a blog post apiece.

For example, let’s consider “dick.” It always sounds to me like the punch line in a joke, especially since it can also mean a detective, or it can be the nickname for a lot of men named Richard. I imagine a “dick” as a cartoon character with a face, or (and here is some serious incongruity) an innocent boy in simple stories about Dick, Jane and Sally, the books I first encountered in grade school.

What you imagine may well be completely different.

The exact terms for body parts and sexual activities depend on the culture and the historical period, as well as the character’s background. I can’t even guess the implications of a word if the scene doesn’t give them away. Clearly, “cunt” is not a compliment if one person hurls it at another before slamming the door. “I just love your beautiful cunt” conveys a whole other tone.

This is one reason why censorship has never appealed to me as a strategy for making bad things go away. For one thing, history has shown that simply outlawing a thing or an activity, and even applying drastic legal penalties, do not make anything disappear. A hundred years ago, alcohol was banned throughout the U.S. and Canada, and it continued to be wildly popular. People drank home-made hooch instead of more palatable stuff with known ingredients.

On the subject of sexual harm, it’s simply impossible to determine which words should be considered unacceptable. This doesn’t mean that words can never be used to wound, especially if someone has developed an allergy to certain terms because of previous experience. When in doubt about the emotional tone, flavour or nuance of a word or a phrase, the hearer or reader shouldn’t hesitate to ask.

Words used in bad faith (e.g. sexual terms used as insults, which are then dishonestly explained away) are always part of a toxic interpersonal context. In the long run, it just doesn’t matter what Person A called Person B in a context of manipulation and control. Behaviour speaks louder than words.

On the other hand, a good-faith discussion of the uses of language can be erotic in itself. We need to have more conversations about words that tickle the ears.