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.