In Our Own Words

I get asked a lot about how difficult it was to write Personal Effects from the first person POV of a seventeen-year-old male.  I answer the question by talking about avoiding generalizations, by knowing your individual character, by knowing that we are all more alike than different, and that this seventeen-year-old male I know very well, etc. But the truth is, there was one aspect of writing Matt that I’ve been surprised, and saddened, to find was easier than my current project.

You see, Matt had a ready language for thinking about and relating to his body, and his body’s desires. Hard-on. Standing at attention. Dick. It felt easy and natural to go there in Matt’s POV. And few readers have commented critically about those words in the book, about the fact that Matt does react physically and respond physically to desire.

But my current project is from the first person POV of a girl. A queer girl. And I’ve discovered, to my frustration and anger, that it’s actually much more difficult to talk about her body, and her body’s desires, in ways that feel natural to her character (and her love interest’s character) and that feel readily accessible to the landscape of YA readers.

When I found myself stuck and looking for the words, I started pulling books off my bookshelves and scanning for the romantic scenes I remembered from prior readings (much like when I was an adolescent reader). I was shocked to find a complete lack of language for the female anatomy in all but one of the books I checked, and none at all during an intimate scene. Despite effective and appropriately done intimate scenes, none of these books actually used specific words to refer to the female anatomy below the waist. Almost none of them refer to the obvious reactions these female characters would be having to the scene, and none while the character was actually in the moment. Not one mention of words like slick and wet. No mentions of scent or taste.  And yes, it is YA, and there is a tendency to vague out the details and fade to black. But then there is Matt, and I found not one scene with the female-centric equivalent of Matt’s dick and hard-on. If our YA male characters are allowed their experiences of desire, it seems wrong that our female characters are not afforded that same personhood, the same standard.

So I am left with the quandary, as I write, later as I revise, when my characters are touching each other, what words will they use as they navigate the lines of desire and consent? What language will they use to talk about how it feels to be touched? What language will my character use in her own head as she is experiencing what it is like to touch and be touched?

We don’t filter ourselves in our heads. Matt didn’t. And I don’t think Bex would, or should, either.

But we live in a culture so uncomfortable with female desire and female anatomy that some think Anne Frank’s reactions to her own changing body as recorded in her diary are unsuitable for 7th or 8th grade students. (See, here and here). [Update!]  And others want to discipline a science teacher for, at least in part, using the word vagina in a high school science class while discussing human reproduction. (See, here).  So that we are clear, using the word vagina in a high school science class on human reproduction requires parental warning and a chance to opt your child out. And 7th and 8th graders learning about the holocaust is fine, but reading a reference to a girl’s thoughts on her own body, on her vagina, is inappropriate.

As a culture, we avoid the word vagina. We also lack the wide array of neutral and inoffensive slang terms that have been constructed for the male anatomy. Those slang terms we do have are a minefield of negativity and too often used against us as slurs. So, we avoid any specific language at all. We talk about “down there” or me or her, as if that is sufficient. As if we are the sum of our parts, or our parts defy discussion. And by avoiding specific, non-shameful words for our own bodies, we are complicit in the continued shaming of the female body.

Every human cis female, from birth, has a vagina. A clitoris. Labia. Her vulva will change over time, but it is there, from birth. From puberty on her body will indicate arousal in specific, organic ways. In beautiful ways. Our natural reactions are not shameful. Neither are our bodies.

I don’t know where my book will end up. I don’t even know if there will be romantic scenes in the final version. And if there are, what words Bex will use. I will try very hard not to judge her, not to filter her, to allow her to have the same freedom of expression and existence as Matt.

But as I write it I realize just how far we have to go before women and girls will truly exist in this world with the same levels of confidence and self-possession and freedom as men and boys.

When the body you are born with is so shameful as to even lack terminology –- when it is that-which-can-not-be-named – we have a very, very long way to go.

By E.M. Kokie

Author of young adult fiction, including PERSONAL EFFECTS (Candlewick, 2012) and the forthcoming RADICAL (Candlewick Press, Fall 2016). Often opinionated. Sometimes Sarcastic.

Comments (34)

  1. Emily Hainsworth May 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Oh Emily, thank you for writing this post. I could have written something VERY similar, but you’ve already done it so well.

  2. Catherine May 10, 2013 at 7:26 am

    This is a wonderful post, articulating so well much of what I’ve been thinking recently re. my own WIP. But I haven’t seen anybody else write about this. Linking all over the place, and thank you for posting it.

    • E.M. Kokie May 10, 2013 at 9:11 am

      Thanks, Catherine. I think it’s something we should be thinking about, and talking about. I hope we are all finding our words (and our character’s words). :)

  3. Debbie Reese May 10, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Last night I read Block’s BABY BE-BOP. In it, Gazelle tells Dirk about touching herself, and being found touching herself. She also talks about caressing her belly. Belly and “herself” is as close as Block got.

    • E.M. Kokie May 10, 2013 at 9:14 am

      Yeah, and in my pulling of books I read so many well-done scenes, and yet there was a lot of that — me, her, herself, there… While it often worked fine for the character and scene, I still felt uncomfortable with the pervasive lack of language. Thanks for commenting with such a great example.

  4. Alyssa May 10, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Very interesting post…thanks for bringing it to my awareness. Interested to see how your book turns out.

  5. Ilex May 10, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I complained to my writing group about this exact same problem! I’ve been working simultaneously on a novel from a teenage male perspective and a teenage female perspective, and I was shocked at how easy it is to let my male character feel desire and want to do something about it — and how “dirty” it seems to let my female character feel the *exact same things.* And that really bothers me on a fundamental level. How is it that on the one hand, we women and girls are supposed to present ourselves as sexual, but on the other hand, we’re somehow not supposed to experience ourselves as sexual? It’s nuts.

    BTW, in my experience, the biggest forbidden word for girl parts is “vulva.” :-)

    • E.M. Kokie May 11, 2013 at 10:06 am

      Vulva, huh? I thought that might be the most innocuous term. Regardless, yes, it’s frustrating. But hopefully as we think about things we can break down our own internal discomfort and translate it into positive portrayals. Thanks for commenting.

    • Christine May 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      I think the key here is ”How is it that on the one hand, we women and girls are supposed to present ourselves as sexual, but on the other hand, we’re somehow not supposed to experience ourselves as sexual?” Women are often thought to be meant for male consumption, thus the importance of the presentation. And as consumers of the presentation, men aren’t thought to care about the experience. If you don’t consider the object of your desire as a whole and distinct person, you wouldn’t consider that they would have their own reactions. We see this same dichotomy in rape culture: women are supposed to dress to attract men, but when they are attacked, the first question is often ‘what was she wearing?’ Conversations like this are so important because they do relate to larger problems in our society.

      • E.M. Kokie May 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        Thanks for the comment, Christine. I agree that these issues are pervasive — beyond fiction, obviously — but talking about them is a good step toward awareness and action.

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  7. Jes May 11, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I’m totally with you on this. I’m getting edits back from my betas on my current project (YA fantasy), and a lot of their comments are about sexuality. “You can’t have that sort of thing in YA” and “It’s fantasy, the girls can’t be having sex if they’re not married. It doesn’t fit the genre” are two of the most-common comments, and it’s driving me mad. I want to grab the lot of them by the shoulders and shake them until they understand that just because they are not comfortable with sexually-active 15-year-old girls, doesn’t mean that most 15-year-old girls aren’t either sexually active or exploring what sexuality means to them.

    And all that is over the idea of sexually-active girls and available (if magical, I mean, this is fantasy :P) contraception. It’s neither graphic nor descriptive, despite the fact that writing it otherwise feels like a betrayal. Like you said, we’re encouraged to “vague out the details and fade to black” lest we cross that line. You see, we can’t condone sex amongst teens. We have to continue to make them feel guilty for having those feelings, for exploring those desires…which rides up against a lot of sexist-bullshit that I won’t rant about here.

    My thought is, we’re meant to inspire, and in certain genres to validate the normalcy of growing up that the world would rather pretend doesn’t exist. Teenage girls have enough problems without feeling guilty over desire.

    • E.M. Kokie May 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      We build the worlds of our stories, and I think our characters should act and speak and think consistent with those worlds. Absolutely. It’s your world! LOL.

      And yes on it feeling like a betrayal to fade faster or vague more for our female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for keeping scenes in the tone and time of your story — and that might mean vaguing out and fading to black. I’m fine with an author making that decision if it’s right for the story. So many wonderful scenes do that, and I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with it. But I think we need to stop censoring our female YA characters more than we do our male YA characters, and I think we can also use specific language before the lights go dim. ;)

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment! I hope as you revise you feel more comfortable letting your characters be themselves, and have their own words. :)

  8. Eddie Louise May 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    This is a pervasive societal problem as you mentioned and it infects our writing. Being aware and striving to overcome it are all we can do.

    In the interest of helping I will need to get personal. I was a teen with early sexual awareness and a long period of sexual awakening that was delayed by a date rape. I remember masturbating the first time when I was 11. I was raped when I was 14. I had my first consensual sex at age 17. All along I dealt with strong sexual feelings and great desire as well as societal shame and disgust. Here are the words of my inner dialog. I hope that some of them might help you.

    Positive words (things I thought when feeling good about my body)
    Electric Avenue (what can I say I was a child of the 80s)
    My Want

    Negative words (shame and pain induced thoughts)

    There is no help for a girl like me. I felt such strong desire so early. Boys responded like dogs in heat and I had no framework for how to deal with those feelings. I would have KILLED for books that dealt honestly with what I was feeling and gave me ideas for how to deal with it all.

    Good on you for being willing to write honestly on this subject. Girls everywhere need this! And boys too! Maybe one day we will learn to treat all people as equal and worthy of respect, sexual and otherwise!

    • E.M. Kokie May 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm

      Wow. Thanks so much for sharing this comment (not ranty at all!). I think that as we share experiences and perspective, the cultural underpinnings to much more than language become more clear. Thank you for being willing to get personal!

  9. Cayla Kluver May 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    This is a wonderful post – thank you so much for writing it.

    I’m in the semi-unusual position of being both a professional author (well, I’m published, anyway – I don’t know about professional) and being 20 years old and still within the primary YA audience age group – still coping with the after-effects of adolescence, still trying to figure out the complexities of sex and gender, particularly as pertaining to society’s interpretations thereof. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderfully open-minded family, a kick-ass mother, and a circle of friends who not only defy but revile stereotypes, so I’m not scared or ashamed of my body, or afraid to call my vagina a “vagina”.

    But that in no way makes me immune to other influences, and I’m just as afflicted as the next girl by the sociologically-driven paradox of wanting to feel like my body is sexual without feeling like I’m disrespecting it and myself as a side effect. Sometimes I feel like I struggle twice over (which I know isn’t true, but bear with me) because I was raised to be a strong and assertive female. I’m so aware of the various ways women’s bodies are degraded – often without intent, by women as well as men – that I almost come around to rejecting anyone else’s interpretation of me as a sexual being. I even hesitated to put ‘almost’ in that last sentence.

    It frustrates me because I have such a good starting point. I respect myself, recognize the problems facing women today, know that healthy consensual sex should be awesome and not shameful, and I have a dozen or more incredible women in my life whom I can consult if I get confused. But even with that good starting point, “vagina” doesn’t feel like a sexy word to me, and in my own head, I don’t know how to refer to my body when I’m turned on, because there really isn’t a sex- and women-positive alternative to straight-up anatomical terminology. Guys can say “cock” and “dick” and still feel empowered about themselves. I feel sick to my stomach when I consider the C-word, and terms such as “va-jay-jay” and “pussy” (which I HATE, by the way) are so cutesy and belittling as to seem nearly pedophilic. I mean, come on – one of them is synonymous with “kitty-cat”.

    Anyway, this turned into something of a rant, but what I actually intended was for it to be a thank you, and an expression of my own confliction as to how to address this issue. I wish there was some definitive, unassailable action I could take to change things, but I’m drawing a blank, and that leaves me nervous and defensive about romantic interactions, which in turn makes me angry because I don’t like feeling nervous and defensive about things that should be within my control.

    I’m glad there are women like you to get us thinking about the issues, and to offer guidance.

    • E.M. Kokie May 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Cayla, rock on with this comment. That 4th paragraph especially, because I think it so demonstrates taht even with a strong and positive base, the cultural stuff is pervasive and can get in our heads. We need to find our words, whatever words those are that we like and that make us feel powerful and good, so that we can stop letting others and other words in our heads. Yay for your foundations and for being self-aware enough to see that even with those foundations, it can be tough. I hope we all continue to have these conversations. And to find words that work for us!

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  13. Lexxie May 21, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Great post! As an avid reader from when I was really young, and now a mother to teenagers I agree with you, it’s such a difference in how guys and girls are ‘supposed’ to see their bodies it’s not even funny.
    I can’t wait to see how Bex develops, and what she tells you is right! I want my daughters to be able to feel as free and good about themselves as my sons will! And I think that reading about sex in YA books is a part of that – maybe even a big part.

    • E.M. Kokie June 11, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      Thanks, Lexxie! I am still first drafting, but seeing the discussion continue and unfold and evolve into other conversations about female sexuality in YA lit has been awesome. And posting this and reading the comments has helped in those frustrating first-drafting moments of Bex’s story.

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  16. Ryan Smith June 11, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’m currently writing a story from a female POV, and I’m trying to be honest to a female perspective of the world. I’ve come up against a lot of problems with that: My own misconceptions, writing outside what I’m familiar with, and attempting to make it genuine and not contrived. This has helped.

    Also, being 19 myself, I fully agree that the ‘exploratory’ scenes of some YA books helped me through the more difficult parts of growing up. These are experiences that everyone goes through. Once past them, some adults look back and seem to pretend they never happened, weather in unfounded, nonsensical shame or for some other reason I do not know. But the effect is that they vicariously try to keep their kids from having these universal experiences, which I feel has created the stigmas against teens exploring their sexuality prevalent today. It is not fair that YA books tackling this problem are limited to doing so for only boys by the culture we live in and the terminology we have at our disposal.

    • E.M. Kokie June 11, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Thanks, Ryan!

      I think first and foremost we have to be true to our own characters, to see them as individuals, flaws and all, and let them experience the world through their choices and desires. And recognizing out own misconceptions and biases and blind spots is so important. Glad the discussion has helped! Good luck with your story! :)

  17. mclicious June 21, 2013 at 8:15 am

    This is a fantastic post! I consider myself pretty open to talking about sex in person, but you just made me realize that I don’t even use specific language in my everyday speech. And while I’m not super published yet, this is probably why I have avoided writing this stuff in my own fiction, even while i actively participate in conversations about how important it is to have positive portrayals of sexuality for girls. It’s funny when you realize you’re a hypocrite/complete product of your society even when you’re trying to be outspoken. It’s weird, because I find terms like “my special place” and “down there” to be infinitely more skeezy and yucky than “vagina” or “clit,” but I’m still apt to use jokey words like “vajayjay” when all is said and done.

    This is definitely something to ponder and to work on. Thank you for writing this.

  18. Shaila July 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Great post and very timely for me! I’m almost finished with my first draft of a teen romance with a Indian American girl and Irish guy — told in both their voices. It’s been so easy to find ways for me to describe my male’s character’s reaction to seeing and feeling her, but I’ve (shame on me) limited myself to how she describes him. Probably the closest I’ve gotten to being realistic is “my lower abdomen clenched,” which is hardly equivalent to the language he’s able to use. In a scene where they’re getting carried away just rubbing up against each other fully clothed, I realize I’ve glossed over her narration by having her say her hormones were making her hips do things she wouldn’t have dared. Why can’t she say she was enjoying the friction and pushed her hips upward to meet him?

    The other thing is that culturally she’s sheltered, and like most first or second generation Indian (or other cultures, for that matter) girls, we’re even more hampered by not knowing the language to describe our own sexuality. We’re not taught it. Period. I set out wanting to explore this in my book, and now I see how poorly a job I’ve done. That’s actually a good realization. I can fix it! I look back at my own teenage experiences and wish I had a book with an Indian character who was not afraid of her nascent sexuality.

    As a writer though, I guess I’m like everyone else — I’m afraid to push the envelope to beyond what’s considered acceptable and into something more realistic.

    Thank you!

  19. guinevere August 24, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    not to come off as a feminist, but men are terrifies of a woman being aware and in complete control of her sexuality.

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