Sex in Fantasy

Writing about sex in a fantasy novel is difficult!

Oh, it isn’t writing the scene. I prefer a behind-closed-doors approach anyway. The reader knows what is about to happen and what just did. The difficulty lies in using the word sex.

Throughout most of its history, the word sex was used the same way we use gender. You’ve heard the phrase, “Woman is the fairer sex.” It derives from the Latin word sexus, which in turn is derived from seco, meaning half. The male sex is the masculine half of the human species. The first recorded usage of the word sex to mean intercourse was in 1929, by D.H. Lawrence. That was only 87 years ago. Writers of urban fantasy can use the word sex all they wish. For those of us who write in older eras, and even marginally try to remain faithful to word usage throughout the ages, that presents a problem.

I can see it now:

“I had sex with Sir Galahad,” Guinevere said.

“You what?” Arthur asked. “What did you do to him, turn him into a woman? You had sex with him? What does that even mean!”

The same problem exists with sexual and sexuality. My era is equivalent to our late Dark Ages, roughly 1050. I can get away with a few anachronisms, since it isn’t our world, but that’s stretching literary license beyond the breaking point. So, what do I do?

In A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin cuts to the chase and calls it fucking. That actually works. The word fuck does not derive from any acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King or Full Ultimate Carnal Knowledge. Linguists aren’t certain if the original word was Old German or Old Scandinavian, but it descends from the Saxon era word fek, which simply meant sexual intercourse. The reason it is considered vulgar is the conquering Normans considered all Saxon words vulgar. The sense of vulgarity extends into our modern age.

I can’t do that. I am too much of a romantic, and value the esoteric and emotional sides of sex, to ever employ what I see as a slang term for it.

Other writers avoid the need for a word altogether. I’ve only read the first two books in the Sword of Truth series, but Terry Goodkind doesn’t mention it by name. The reader is fully aware of what has happened or what is about to happen. If he mentions it at all, he calls it mating.

That also works, but it’s a bit cold to me. It also evokes the idea of sex for procreation instead of for pleasure or love.

The words intercourse and copulation are way too French. They’re also too prudish for my tastes.

Well, I found a solution. Two of them, actually. First, I borrowed a phrase from the Bible. If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you’ve no doubt read a line like “He lay with her.” We still use it, as in “Man, I got laid last night.” I use it as, “You expect me to be lain?” Second, I created the word bedpleasure to describe the general act. It has a nice Old English ring to it. With both, the reader has a pretty good idea of what I mean.

As for sexual and sexuality, I use the word sensual. That may be skirting close to the edge by employing a French word, but I feel I can get away with it.

Along the same lines, I caught myself having a character who has just been bashed in the head, shout “Fuck!”

No, he would not!

If a blacksmith of 1050 dropped an anvil on his foot and shouted “Fuck!” all his apprentices would look around the smithy and say, “What, with a horse?”

He also wouldn’t exclaim “Shit!’ either. His apprentices would say, “We don’t have to go.” That word is also not an acronym. It does not mean Store High In Transit or any such thing. It is derived from the Old English word scitan (later pronounced shite), meaning dung. It’s roots are similar to the roots of the modern German word Scheisse. It, too, was considered vulgar by the Normans solely because the Saxons said it.

In that case, a simple “Damnation!” does the job. It has a quaint ring to it.

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