WMT: Stop Using “Love” to Mean “Sex”
I hopped in on a Twitter chat a few weeks back. I mostly just observed; I’m new to the community and don’t want to step on toes. The topic was writing “love scenes.” Almost immediately, it became quite clear the showrunners were using “love” to equate with sex. The decision sparked a bit of debate among the chat participants, with many of those who were writing low-heat or sweet romances feeling a bit alienated by the terminology.
While the showrunners quickly defended their choice of terms, suggesting they hadn’t wanted to use “sex scenes” to avoid alienating exactly those people who felt alienated by “love scenes,” it was still evident from the phrasing of the questions that that was indeed what we were talking about.
It’s a huge problem to replace the word “sex” with “love,” however.
The Definition of a Love Scene
The chat participants quickly interrogated the meaning behind these questions. Most concluded “love scene” really meant “sex scene.”
Those behind the chat said they’d specifically chosen “love scene” to be more expansive than “sex scene,” because they know the sweet romance genre exists. Some writers simply do not write sex. It’s certainly understandable in, say, the YA genre, where characters may be underage and depicting sex acts may actually be illegal under child pornography laws.
So we ended up with the term “love scene,” which was meant to be more inclusive. However, people immediately interpreted “love scene” as “sex scene,” including those who don’t write explicit sex scenes, preferring sweet romance or fade-to-black. Those who write sex didn’t seem to notice. Those who don’t write it were troubled by the phrasing.
The Problem of Using “Love” as a Euphemism for Sex
The problem pointed isn’t a new one. Sex and love are often equated—and conflated—in Western culture. All we need to do to see that is to look at the euphemism “making love”—it means having sex. Yet most of us know that term, sometimes before we even know the word “sex.” Parents, grandparents, and movie characters will talk about sex in these sorts of euphemistic terms.
There are plenty of euphemisms for sex—screwing, boinking, doing the deed, the mattress mambo—which speaks to the level of prudishness and reticence to talking about sex in Western society. In short, it makes us squeamish, so we dance around it, eliding the act by giving it cutesy terms.
The problem with the “making love” euphemism is it equates sex with love. It’s something people in love do. This, again, is the work of cultural prudishness. It’s a long-held Christian ideal that sex should only happen between married partners.
Sex, in Christian ideological thought, is sinful. One would be better to become a monk or nun and extinguish all sexual desire from the body, instead devoting oneself to the emotional worship of Christ and God.
Nonetheless, some thinkers, such as St. Paul, acknowledged that not everyone has it in them to become a monk or a nun. Human beings have sex drives. So how can you reconcile the fact that people are going to have sex with the idea that sex is inherently shameful and sinful?
The simple answer is you seek to sanitize the act somehow. Marriage was the answer. Marriage removed the sinfulness from the sex act, because marriage was a holy union in front of God. Sex inside marriage became sanctioned, while sex outside of marriage was dirty, filthy, and sinful.
Marriage and Love
Marriage has often not been about love. Throughout human history, marriage was more of a political game. You still see this in traditional societies with arranged marriages. How can you convince two babies they’re in love? You don’t. You sign the marriage contract with an eye to social and political gain. Love isn’t a factor.
This complicates the issue of sex outside of marriage being sinful, since we often get things like courtly romance and chivalry. There’s plenty of literature devoted to the idea of marriage partners being brought together for political gain, but then “learning” to love each other. In fact, the married couple who eventually fall for each other is idealized.
Eventually, it became more fashionable to imagine marriage as a strict bond between two people, and infidelity as the most terrible of sins. In Victorian England, women were envisioned as sexless “angels,” demure housekeepers and patient mothers. They were suspected of being “cold” toward sex, and those who were not were conceptualized as Mary Magdalenes—whores who had sex for the purpose of seeking bodily pleasure.
Of course, women’s sexuality was still constrained in earlier periods. In the Middle Ages, women were viewed as simmering sexpots, ready to drop and get dirty at a moment’s notice. It was a husband, father, or brother’s duty to keep women’s sexuality in line. Men asked women to control themselves, but recognized they may not be able to because they were the “weaker sex.”
Victorian England swings the pendulum back in the opposite direction—hard. While Queen Victoria herself enjoyed some pretty sweet bonin’, she portrayed herself as the demure wife and mother. She also epitomizes the “married couple comes to love each other.” Her marriage to Prince Albert was arranged, but she loved him quite dearly and mourned him until her own death, some forty years later.
The Victorians saw themselves as progressive and the pinnacle of civilization. They were, after all, the drivers of the Industrial Revolution and controlled the vast British Empire. The cultural impetus was that they should set a model for other societies around the world, that British culture would eventually be the be-all and end-all in culture.
The Victorians desperately tried to separate themselves from notions of what was “base” and “crass.” They compared themselves, as their predecessors had done, to colonized people who were depicted as “savages.” In Africa, where women had many different traditional styles of dress, Europeans pointed to nakedness as a marker of “barbarism.”
Victorian morality suppressed sexuality in order to support the idea Victorian culture was more advanced and superior to others.
Of course, the Victorians were no saints. The simmering cesspool of sexuality was everywhere. A man couldn’t say “chicken breasts” because “breast” was a sexual word, and tablecloths were invented lest someone look at a table’s naked legs and liken them to a woman. This kind of moral stricture speaks to just how deep sexuality goes. The Victorians knew that almost anything and everything could be taken as sexual.
Victorian men were also encouraged to “sow their wild oats” under a “boys will be boys” sort of paradigm. They did this while they were young and unmarried, but it wasn’t uncommon for men to bring syphilis and other STIs home to their unsuspecting wives after Hubby had visited the whores.
Nonetheless, the Victorians drew a hard line between sex outside of marriage and within marriage. Sex outside of marriage was crass, animalistic, uncivilized. It gave people over to their baser desires. Marriage sanitized sex. How to differentiate these two subsets of the same act?
The Victorians handled virtually everything with euphemisms, so it’s no surprise they used “love” almost synonymously with sex. This was also a period when arranged marriages and marriages for the sake of political or social advancement were beginning to fall out of favor. In the era of the individual, the era of the suffragettes, people began to advocate marrying for love. They should do what made them happy.
Love, marriage, and sex thus become equated with each other during this period, whereas before they were somewhat more separate. A man and woman marry because they’re in love, they make love within the context of that holy union, and the act is this sublimated. It becomes less about fulfilling the basal needs of an inherently sinful, dirty, and uncivilized body and more about the fulfillment of the heart, the spirit.
We’re Still Confused
Victorian ideals took root and we’re still here trying to pull them out. Sex-positivity is only just now gaining true ground. Stigma against women who enjoy sex still exists. Researchers only finished mapping the clitoris within the last 10 years, after we finished mapping the entire human genome.
Women still tread a line between “angel” and “whore.” The innocent virgin is pure and good; a woman who enjoys sex or has sex freely is a whore. Abstinence-only education still exists as the primary form of sex ed. in some North American schools.
And we still talk about sex as love scenes, as making love in books. While many writers have eschewed this, there’s still a distinction. Characters have may have sex, but when they make love, it’s tender, passionate, and emotionally fulfilling. Sex itself can be rough, it can be quick, it can be long, but it is rarely considered “making love.”
Women are still taught to conflate love and sex; boys are also taught to express love through sex. Anyone can find sex an emotionally fulfilling experience. Anyone can have sex and find it physically satisfying. Some people truly enjoy sex. Others do not. Some people are “oversexed”; some are “undersexed.” Emotional attachment does not necessitate physical intimacy, and physical intimacy does not imply emotional attachment.
We imply physical intimacy is bound up in emotional attachment when we call sex scenes “love scenes.” And while it can be, it isn’t always.
Struggling with Sex
The choice of the term points to the inherent struggle within the romance genre, as a female-dominated genre. We conflate love and sex.
As a result, there’s still a sort of prudishness around certain segments of the romance genre. And while it’s fine to have different attitudes, it’s sometime necessary to call a spade a spade. The chat wasn’t about “love” scenes. It was about sex scenes, plain and simple. One of the questions was about dirty talk. Even if we expand the notion of “love scene” to include petting, kissing, and flirtation, dirty talk is explicitly associated with foreplay and sex. Thus the question is bound up in notions of sex and sexuality.
We simply have to stop referring to sex scenes as love scenes.
Because sex is not love and vice-versa. While the best of intentions may have been present in the chat, using “love” to refer to sex is problematic. It brings up all of the baggage of Victorian social and sexual mores and allows us to elide the facts of physical intimacy (and even that term, physical intimacy, elides some of it).
Sex is many, many things. It can be love. It can be a tender, raw, emotional experience. But when we call it a “love scene,” we’re pressing it into a particular value system, one rife with misogyny and notions of sinfulness.
We need to be quite frank about these things. These are sex scenes. Like ’em? Great. Love ’em? Super. Hate ’em? Fine. Never write ’em? Fantastic. But let’s call a spade a spade. A sex scene is not a love scene, and vice-versa. The sooner we leave this antiquated terminology in the past, the sooner we can have real discussions.