Cursing and Sex: How Do We Write About This?

Posted on September 27, 2015 by glarien

Edited by Paula Weinman

As Christian writers, one of our first priorities is to create morally good stories. Different people define this different ways – some would argue it boils down to 1 Corinthians 10:31, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” (NIV) others would argue our first mandate is to cultivate beauty in a world filled with chaos (Skye Jethani, Futureville) – but it seems to be universally agreed our work should stand out as being different, enlightened by our connection with God.

More than anything else, this comes up in the way we approach using profanity and sex in our stories.

Most Christian writers would agree we should avoid using profanity in our stories, and while sexuality is a grey line, particularly for those of us who don’t write about Christian characters (example: The Priest’s Graveyard opens with a woman living with her lover in Malibu), it is definitely agreed we shouldn’t follow the techniques of writers such as Alan Moore – whose very well-written stories tend to showcase a lot of perverse sex.

The moment you develop your story’s dialogue though, it becomes clear this is harder than you thought. Because if you’re going to write a good story, at a certain point you have to follow what Stephen King calls “the unspoken contract between writers and reader… to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story,” (On Writing 185-186). Most contemporary Americans, Christians and non-Christians, respond to certain situations with a lot of profanity.

You may have grown up in a Christian home where nobody cursed in conversations or even shouted, but as of this writing I have four dollars in my pocket which I will give to anyone who can honestly tell me no one in their family resorts to using words like “crap,” “dammit” and “hell” when things go wrong: when someone hurts themselves, or someone does something extremely foolish, or someone totals the family car – not that I’ve ever done any of these things myself (cough, cough).

By the same token, writing about relationships without overt sexuality couldn’t be harder. Many people in American culture feel it is perfectly sensible to move in with your partner after you’ve been dating several months. When we write stories that treat sex as something that binds two people together permanently, something people should wait for, it usually seems strange or preachy to non-Christian readers. Once again, we are faced with the unspoken contract to portray life realistically in our stories, and our faith struggles against it.

I can’t propose a definitive answer on how we should approach cursing and sexuality as Christian writers – there probably isn’t a single answer for everyone – but as you explore this question on your own and find out what God has called you to write, I’d encourage you to think about this: realism is a cycle.

We display things a certain way in our stories because we believe it is realistic, but our stories shape what reality will continue to be.

You can have characters who curse in situations because that’s how real people would respond, but when some people read your story they just might decide cursing is okay simply because you portrayed things that way in the story.

The same is true of sexuality; you could write a rough parallel history of how premarital sex became so acceptable in America by looking at which stories pushed that envelope, which influenced people to think it was alright in real life, which it made it realistic to portray it that way in later stories … and the vicious cycle of realism keeps going.

This argument sounds overly dramatic, but it really isn’t – not when you think about the fact that history is full of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the original Tarzan stories) who underestimated what impact their work would have, and stories they thought were worthless went on to become influential classics.

In our quest to write realistically, we have to remember we are creating the new reality.

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