Initially posted on World Enough and Time
on December 20, 2008 - NightBird posted a copy here on Sunday, December 21st, 2008 - 21:30 PM
Seriously: is that how you think of sex? In clinical terms?
I've read more than one book marketed as authoritative on the art and craft of writing that says to 'call things what they are,' and then goes on to give the example of clinical terminology for human naughty bits as the 'right' way to talk about such things. Most of these same books also say to immerse yourself in the perspective of the character(s), and to remain faithful to their perception of the world.
But who besides those people who feel a nudge toward a medical fetish really ever do talk that way when in the midst of passion? I know I don't, and, to be honest, the thought of somebody whispering clinical phrases in my ear would be one of the fastest ways I can think of for me to lose any arousal I had going at the time.
The same thing happens when I read clinical terminology in a scene of passion. I lose the connection to the scene, and yeah, the soft burn of warmth that well-written erotica sends through my veins. That, too. If humans write and read religious treatises for the exaltation of that part of their spirit, it seems much the same to me that I read erotica to exalt another facet of my psyche, or a different reflection of the same facet, depending on your particular religious views.
It makes me wonder if the clinical terminology isn't so much about recommending the 'right' words, but, rather, dictating usage of the words that create the most analytical distance. That's a central part of what it means to become a medical professional, actually: learning a very significant distance from humanity in order to look at people as bodies through what has come to be called "the medical gaze." Using that specific language, the medical professions' specific jargon, is part of the process of learning that distance. There's more to it than that, of course, as a whole library full of books on personal experiences of doctors in training, the history of medicine and medical anthropology will tell you.
So, is it, really, any wonder that it leaves me cold? Let's go back to the question at the beginning of this essay: Is it how you think and talk when in the throes of passion?
What if we focus, instead, on the other piece of advice I recall from those books on writing: to be true to the characters and settings and moments we're trying to depict. How many people talk about rainbows in terms of the refraction of light, or sunsets in technical terminology for various cloud formations? How many books on writing urge us to use that sort of proper language when we write? Not many, right?
So, what's the difference? Why is sexuality set aside in its own little ghetto of vocabulary, hedged around with caveats about the 'right' way to deal with it, when rainbows and sunsets and automobiles and puppies don't receive the same recommendations toward clinical/technical terminology?
I think we both know. It's because sex is 'dirty' and visceral and real on a level that disturbs a lot of people. It's because sex digs deep down into our brains and reminds us that we're all still animals inside, with the instinct to hunt and kill and eat and defend our territory and fuck and raise offspring to do the same thing all over again. It's because sex is able to reveal the lies we've adopted to control those animal sides of ourselves, like birth and death, both also medically distanced anymore.
I want my writing to be 'real', though. I want it to dig into the mind and heart of the people who read what I write. I want it to connect, to make them feel as much as it makes them think. And I want to be 'real' with my characters, to be faithful to them, to tell their story in a manner that sounds as raw as the experiences that most deeply change lives and selves. It seems like a cop-out for my non-medical characters to use those terms. It seems like I'm cheating them of their real voices, substituting something thin and false for what should be raw and honest.
That means I have to choose my words carefully. I need to think about the character, the setting and the situation, because, let's face it, people don't always even use the same words for the same things with everybody they know. People are selective... which means that there really is a 'right' place to use clinical terminology, but only when there's reason for a character's mindset to veer towards the clinical. Otherwise, I'd rather my characters talked dirty.