Thinking About Lovers and Language

MenKissing004Erastes had a family emergency so author E.N. Holland stepped in with a guest blog today. Enjoy!

I was reading a book recently and Character A and Character B were about to tumble into bed for the first time. The author used the word “lover” to describe the relationship of one man to the other. It pulled me completely out of the story-how could they be lovers? They had not yet been intimate and were barely friends. Given that this was a romance, there was the expectation that they would move to a place of affection, but inserting the word at that point in the story and their acquaintance was jarring to me. The narrative recovered but I have been musing on this usage of language for a few days now.

AllsFairinLoveandAdvertisingThink about the way relationships are described in m/m romances. Generally the characters start out as men together, then move to being lovers; publicly, boyfriend is often used as a declaration of a relationship that has moved beyond the friendship stage. In fact, it may be a declaration for the character himself to be more out. Such was the case in All’s Fair in Love and Advertising by Lenore Black (a book I enjoyed, by the way). Max, who was in this thirties but had only been out as a gay man for 10 months finally found the courage to say to his co-workers what they had all suspected for ages: Joe Bennett was not just a friend or potential client; he was his boyfriend.

80920In my story, Taming Groomzilla, Joel was very deliberate about what he called Luke. First boyfriend, then fiancé, and in the last blazing moments of happiness near the end of the book, husband. In the story we don’t get as much from Luke’s point of view but in reality, he has always been a bit more reticent, usually calling Joel his partner. A few readers pointed out to me that Luke does have one toe still in the closet. Although he has come a long way over the dozen years he has been out, traces of what he went through still shows in his language. Contrast that with Joel who came out as a teen and has always been very comfortable in his sexuality. He uses his words very deliberately to describe his relationship and to make a point to others around him about who he is.

Back to my original example, I realized that we don’t really have a good word to describe the person who is a one night stand. As I said, lover seems premature. Friend with benefits? That usually implies some sort of friendship, as opposed to the pure lust that often draws people together in a passionate sexual pairing. Fuck-buddy? Can be crude. I thought of making up a new word, “sexer,” but somehow I don’t think it is going to catch on. Musing on this, I wonder if the absence of a word harkens back to our Puritan sensibility, reminding us that we really shouldn’t be having sex on a first date or after a first encounter. But, as Dan Savage has said many times, the man he has been with for fifteen-plus years started out as a one-night stand. You never know when you are going to meet the love of your life. I have read plenty of stories based on that premise and they often work out very well, with lots of hot sex thrown in along the way. But we still lack a word for the person/relationship!

Lover and partner have been the common words for long-standing relationships; husband is making its way into the vernacular (and writing) as same-sex marriage becomes more widespread. I will admit, the first time I heard a man refer to his husband, I was startled. Now I have become comfortable with the usage and only wish it could be more widespread. Perhaps more people should take a lead from Wayne Courtois, author of A Report From Winter, who calls Ralph his “husband in-everyway-but-legal,” which is a mouthful, but it gets his point across. I had hoped we would have an outbreak of husbands in California, Maine, and New York, but unfortunately, not yet. At least we have Massachusetts, Vermont, NH, Iowa, and DC–plus Canada, Belgium, Spain and more. Interestingly, in the fight over same-sex marriage, “marriage” seems to be the word that people object to, but I have heard much less dissension over the spousal words, wife and husband. Maybe they’re just too far off the radar for the people with an issue about marriage to care about.

This is the sort of stuff I spend time pondering–when I probably could be doing something more productive, like writing. Oh well, I’ll throw it out for comments.When is someone a lover? What is a couple after a night of sex? In the old days, a good lay was a pretty high compliment. Maybe we need to go back to that. 🙂


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