Keynote: Name Your Bits

This represents my (Renee Dahlia) notes on the presentations at the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of verbal presentations (ie this is not a transcript). This blog uses affiliated links. Additional apologies for the quality of the photos I took of the slides.

Content Warning: potentially offensive language

Name Your Bits: an academic discussion of the struggle to name the Magic Foo Foo with Dr Amy Matthews, Dr Lynn Ward, and Elizabeth Rolls.

Dr Matthews opened with an acknowledgement that this presentation has a cisgender perspective.

What do we call our ‘bits’?

  • Cutesy
  • Down there
  • Animal names, eg pussy
  • Historical
  • Offensive (cunt)

These names infantilise us and dismiss us. Even the old fashioned French term ‘chose’ means ‘thing’ or ‘privy chose’ means ‘private thing’.

Is there are a correct term to use?

  • What are the ‘love’ terms about?
  • What is the intent?

Four things define our word choices – character, mood, emotion, plot.

Naming something gives it legitimacy. The lack of precision reduces the female genitalia to something not worthwhile or valid. Germaine Greer once said, “the worst name is cunt.” Why? Because cunt has violent implications.

Society teaches women to look at their bodies in separate parts, eg I don’t like my arms. Women often self-describe as dirty, smelly, or gross. This flows through to romance genre marketing, with books sold as ‘clean’ meaning no sex. This implies the other books are dirty. Sex isn’t dirty, and we can use terms such as closed door or low heat, without passing judgment onto books with high heat, or open doors.

It starts early. Boys love and name their penis. Girls are taught not to. The presenters asked every table to discuss what they’d learnt to call their genitalia as children. One person said her parents had referred to it as “the area” which had hilarious, confusing, connotations when a new person “moved into the area”. You can join this conversation on Twitter by searching #nameyourbits

Romance novels matter because we can change this. Examples offered were Jo Beverly’s The Devil’s Heiress, where she played with the purple prose around sex, and Jen Cruise’s Welcome to Temptation. In romance novels, it’s often men who teach women about their bodies – it’s so arrogant.

As a writer, what words should you use?

Think about genre and context. What is appropriate for your genre? For your heat level?

Know your readers and sub-genre. Know what your reader finds sexy.

Don’t be afraid to push yourself (and your readers) into uncomfortable, confronting territory, but don’t drop people in it too hard. Your readers are learning to overcome this as well. At it’s core, our job is to deliver a promise to the reader. We have to fulfil that promise, even as we free women from the ‘shame cave’.

Renee Dahlia = Rainbow Meat. I’m cool with Rainbow, but Meat is gross. As I said on Twitter, I need to scrub my eyes!


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