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The Stigmatizing Terminology of “Clean” and “Dirty” Fiction

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This is a long story. Stick with me, it really is going somewhere.

Today, I was cleaning out my mudroom. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the mudroom is the room at the back door of a house, where you keep your boots and your coats and your umbrellas and literally every object you’ve cared enough about to bring in from the car, but not quite important enough to make it into the house.

One of the things I came across was a box of paper promo from a past conference I had helped set up. When we sent out our call for promo, we asked for a small amount and told authors that we wouldn’t be shipping promo back. My idea– which was “ambitious, but rubbish”– was that we would hold on to the paper promo and just stick it into the bags at the next conference. But now, it’s been sitting, twenty bookmarks here, thirteen postcards there, for the past year. Yikes.

I decided I would sort the promo out; anything that was touting a current release, I would pitch (it’s a sad but true fact that 97% of all paper promo ends up in the trash, either at the conference it was intended for or at home when the conference goer looks through their goodie bag), and anything that was just author branded, I would keep for the next conference.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled out postcards advertising a release with a small press who prides themselves on “clean” fiction, and the author they were promoting is now a blockbuster bestseller in the New Adult genre.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all New Adult books have sex in them (this author’s books do) or that there’s something wrong with authors writing at different heat levels for different publisher requirements. But this author was practically unknown three years ago, and now she’s inspiring the squees of dedicated New Adult readers, making them long for her heroes as “book boyfriends,” and raking in the dough with #1 New York Times bestselling novels.

This gave me pause. Let me explain why.

A few weeks ago, a writer whom I absolutely adore personally, had a book released with this same small press. It became a bestseller on Amazon, and I was so, so proud of her. But when she posted the good news to her Facebook, another author associated with the “clean” publisher posted a response to the effect of, “I’m so glad people are waking up and recognizing that clean books are better!”

Since it was Facebook, I wrote up a lengthy reply about why her comment pissed me off so much– and immediately deleted it. Because I’ve had enough experience with Facebook to know that anything, literally any critical comment, no matter how carefully expressed so as not to cause offense, is going to be labelled “bullying.”

So, I had a lot of pent-up anger when I saw this New Adult superstar’s name splashed across a book cover from a press whose publisher once explained patiently to me that romance is actually hotter when it doesn’t go past the bedroom door. I was absolutely furious. Who did this fraud think she was, jumping from “clean” fiction to sexually explicit fiction, and making an extraordinary leap of success? She must view sex as the magic key to cash, and she had no problem turning that key when she was calling it “smut” before! How dare she pride herself on her lily white, virginal fiction, then come into my genre and have greater success than I have!

Obviously, there was a lot of emotional thinking involved there. In the first place, I have no idea if this author thought books with sexual content were “smut” or not. For all I knew, she wrote a Regency and decided this was the best publisher to approach about it. Maybe she had no opinion at all on her publisher’s policy, because it didn’t affect her work. Nobody has to put sex in their stories, and sometimes it doesn’t fit [that’s what she said]. And this author really didn’t write in my genre. From what I could tell, she wrote Regencies before (which I have never written) and now she writes New Adult (which I have never published… but more on that at a later date). Throw on my mantra of “the success of others does not invalidate my own success” at the professional jealousy aspect, and I had a long afternoon of thinking to do.

When I examined the reason for my initial reaction, I realized why I had felt such a strong sense of betrayal. It was because there has been a strangely passive-aggressive war between “clean” and “dirty” fiction for years. And it’s all tied into our culturally nurtured feelings and ideas about sex.

My first series was about vampires. It was just your standard Urban Fantasy/Kick Butt Heroine 00’s vampire story. I had no idea at the time that vampires were even controversial anymore. I thought they were an accepted part of life or whatever. So I was shocked at how many people– readers and authors both– would scold me for what I was writing. They couldn’t read it because they were Christians and they didn’t like the occult and they thought paranormal books filled your head with “dark thoughts” and blah blah blah. I would come away from these encounters thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s a fucking book, not a portal to the Netherworld.” And if it was an author saying something like this, it would always, and I mean without fail, lead into a lecture about how the Christian Inspirational Romance genre was going to be the next big thing and vampires were dead anyway (wtf, why do people say that? OF COURSE THEY’RE DEAD) and I should look into changing what I write because I was destined to never sell another book. Because readers preferred “nice” stories.

This directly parallels my experience with “clean” vs. “dirty” fiction. Every conversation I’ve ever had on the subject has involved some shaming aspect, equating chastity with “clean” and labeling anyone who wanted to read about sexual activities– no matter how mild; this could apply to a Harlequin Presents– “dirty.” I’ve had “clean” authors tell me that I “don’t need to lower yourself to writing erotica,” or that they would “read your books, but I don’t like all that trashy stuff.”

I have a problem with this. First of all, are we all on the same page when I say that, at their core and before any proud reclamation of meaning, “clean” and “dirty” are positive and negative words, respectively? Everyone likes “clean,” at least as an adjective. We like crisp, clean sheets. When choosing a restaurant, we want to eat at the one that looks clean. Clean is a desirable enough commodity that we hire people to clean our house, our clothes, our teeth. If clean wasn’t a big deal to us, then there wouldn’t be at-home butthole bleaching kits, right?

But dirty, oh… dirty is bad. I’m not talking about the fun way, the way that applies to fiction. Dirty is a smelly diaper. Dirty is a subway pole still warm and slightly damp from a stranger’s hand. Dirty feels bad, looks gross, and it’s even dangerous; a mother’s frantic, “don’t eat that!” when her child picks a sucker up off the floor. “That’s dirty!” We hear about “dirty money” and “dirty cops.” “Dirty deeds” describes crime. The message is pretty clear: dirty is bad.

And obviously, this all applies to our sexuality. I’m sure this is not news to you. Sex is “dirty” and no sex is “clean.”

There are readers out there who want fiction without sex, and publishers certainly have a right to sell and market their product to those readers. And I’m not going to judge an author because their artistic vision didn’t include sweaty humping times. But what I am going to suggest is that we stop referring to fiction as “clean” and “dirty.” It devalues the work of the authors and the interest of the readership.

I respectfully ask that the readers and authors who are proud to call their books “smut” or “dirty” really consider what kind of message those words are sending. I understand that it’s supposed to be a cheeky, fun reclamation of the terms, but is it really? It’s a negative word that bolsters the argument of people who want to vocally reject “dirty” fiction as undesirable and harmful. And before anyone argues that “dirty” actually has a positive, fun meaning when applied to sexuality, answer this real quick: what do we call it, colloquially, when a person is free from sexually transmitted disease?

Bingo.

After a long, hard think this afternoon, I decided that I’m not going to call my books “dirty books” anymore. I’m not going to say I write “smut” or that my books are “raunchy.” Because I feel like I’m reinforcing a message that I don’t agree with; that sexuality is dirty, and therefore less preferable, to the clean absence of sex.

I would also like to see a decline in the number of “clean” authors, publishers, bloggers, and readers insisting that the market is oversexed and soon everyone will be reading “clean” stories instead of “dirty.” That’s a really arrogant attitude, and it smacks of malicious willful thinking. Do you really want other authors to fail, just because they include sexuality in their stories? Do you really want authors to gain their readerships through disillusionment, rather than by finding their own niche and making readers happy?

There are books about space, books about cowboys, books about vampires, baseball players, elves and doctors, and there is a readership for each of these varied tastes, not just in the bookstore but specifically within the romance genre itself. Why can’t there be room for readers who prefer sexually explicit and non-sexually explicit material? Why does it have to be a competition to see who is better, of sturdier moral fabric, or who is a real writer and who’s just a pervert with a keyboard? Do we have to label readers as prudes or wild women based on what they want to spend their book buying dollars on?

The short answer is, no. Writing or reading sex doesn’t make you morally loose and automatically cool and free-spirited, any more than not writing or reading sex makes you a superior person with a pure soul. So why are we bothering to assign positive/negative symbolism to either? Why not just accept that some books have sex in them, and some don’t?

I’m interested to read Troutnation’s thoughts on the matter.

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95 Comments

  1. Zee
    Zee

    Two words that seem to apply to everywhere else: sex sells.

    Seriously, I don’t see what the big deal is about including sex in books, as long as it’s appropriate. And I think it’s appropriate from the time of sex education. July Blume got that. Erotica is enough of a description of the genre for me.

    I still like the term ‘clean’ for books, but in a different context. Like, 50 shades is not clean, because the editor barely touched it. It’s a messy book, and not because of the content. More because of everything you’ve pointed out.

    It’s funny though, I’m trying to write a young adult series, and I find myself writing about sex a lot, just as a theory. All my main characters are about fifteen, sixteen, whatever, and I remember discussions of sex being really big at that time in my life. There was a lot of misinformation, and competition, and I really hope that I can reflect that uncertainty in the story, without sounding overbearing about my beliefs. I would’ve hated that as a teen, almost as much as I hate the perfect sex all teenagers seem to have in fiction right now. We weren’t all like Bella and Edward right off the bat, so why is that the case in literature?

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • The idea of calling a manuscript “clean” because it’s free from errors doesn’t bother me. I mean, I’ve never called a manuscript “dirty” because it had errors, but I don’t think there always has to be a corollary.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • Zee
        Zee

        No, I’ve not called a book with errors messy, but I would still think, if someone said their book was “clean” that they were referring to the lack of errors. Maybe it’s just because I’m a little bit weird 😉

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
  2. The-Great-Dragon
    The-Great-Dragon

    This post was really fascinating and I agree wholeheartedly. I wasn’t even aware that there were “clean” books (at least as far as terminology) but it makes sense given the rampant misogyny and sex negativity and the fact that Romance and Erotica are generally considered female genres.

    This situation sort of smacks, to me, of women trying to get respect as legitimate authors by putting down and disparaging other women. Like, “See, we write ‘clean’ books, we’re real authors, ‘Clean’ romance is real story telling. We’re not like those other women who write ‘dirty’ stories.” It’s a really hard industry for women writers (and basically anyone who’s not a cis white dude,) especially in the Romance or Erotica genres, and I think a lot of authors just want to have their work respected, so they fall into this trap of promoting misogyny to get some validation.

    On a personal note, I never understood the big deal about sex or sexually explicit content. I mean, sex is in everything. Romance is in everything. People are really fascinated by sex and romance and the two coming together, and it’s kind of sad that, when women writers write about it, it’s suddenly this odd thing that takes people by surprise.

    I mean, we can all watch Spiderman have upside-down makeouts with Mary Jane in the rain, but The Hunger Games comes out and everyone acts like they’ve never heard of kissing before.

    Ugh, I’m gonna stop before I start ranting.

    In short, I agree with you, and you are amazing.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • I mean, we can all watch Spiderman have upside-down makeouts with Mary Jane in the rain, but The Hunger Games comes out and everyone acts like they’ve never heard of kissing before.

      THIS.

      I think it’s probably related to the madonna/whore/purity myth bullshit that still gets applied to women; they’re “supposed” to be pure-thinking virgins while men are “supposed” to be horny lecherous dogs. So a dude writes about sloppy makeouts or hot fucking sessions and it’s like whatevs, but the second a woman does WOAH SCANDAL how will you ever get a husband if he knows you’ve ~*~thought~*~ about sex before?

      So basically I guess I’m saying that the gendered double-standard surrounding having sex in the first place has been transplanted onto the career of writing. HOORAY.

      *digs out the whiskey*

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • The-Great-Dragon
        The-Great-Dragon

        Yes, exactly. (and it’s especially awful, because women writers’ novels get reduced to romance regardless, so it’s just like, ugh. There is no winning for women, basically.)

        Also, are you a wizard?! How did you get italics and bolds in there? What is this magic?

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
    • Great Dragon, you hit the nail on the head in the second paragraph. It really does smack of, “I guess I’m a little bit better than you.” But it sounds the same way coming from authors of sexually explicit fiction when they talk about prudish or uptight the authors of non-explicit fiction must be. It’s this overall bizarre policing of our sexuality that we’re participating in as though it’s just a business tactic or a genre classification.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • The-Great-Dragon
        The-Great-Dragon

        Thank you so much for the reply!

        The whole attitude kind of reminds me of the “Frigid bitch” and “Slut” thing. Like, when women don’t put out, they’re just heartless and frigid and cold, etc., but when they do have sex they’re sluts and whores with no standards or self-respect. And anything in between is a tease.

        And it’s really sad to see women buying into this attitude, even partially. Women are adopting these labels (only instead, they’re using words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ and ‘prudish’ and ‘smutty’, but they all carry the same sentiment) and using them to engage in in-house bickering when the real problem is so much larger than that.

        Women writers shouldn’t be getting respect based off whether they’re going along with societal norms or deviating from them; they should be getting respect because they wrote a good book. Hell, even just writing a book is hard enough (plus ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are so subjective and culturally influenced anyway.)

        Or, better yet, how about we all just start respecting women?

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
    • I am a witch! So close enough. 😉

      You can use HTML coding in WordPress comments. italics and bold (remove spaces) will give you….

      italics
      and
      bold

      Ta-da!

      October 8, 2013
      |Reply
      • goddammit it did the code anyway.

        Ok. So you want to encase the code for HTML in a less-than sign and a greater-than sign. For italics you can use “i” or “em” between these two (for bold, “b” or “strong”). In the closing-tag, you need to have a forward slash before the code: “/i”, “/em”, etc…. And you put these tags on each side of the word/sentence you’re doing.

        So the code looks like less-than sign () followed by the word or words you want the code to effect…affect…I’m terrible at remembering affect/effect sorry…followed by a less-than sign, a forward slash, whatever letter or word you used in the opening tag, followed by a greater-than sign.

        Gods I hope that made sense. I am kind of crap at explaining this. I’m not sure if WordPress allows you to use a code tag so you can write the code out without it just rendering the changes.

        …I’m going to try that but it may not work.


        italics
        bold

        ta-da?

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
      • The-Great-Dragon
        The-Great-Dragon

        let’s see if it works

        I probably should have known this, because it’s the same code I have to use

        for archiveofourown when I want to post stories

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
      • The-Great-Dragon
        The-Great-Dragon

        oh my god. It worked. That is awesome. Katje, I love you.

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
        • Awww, I love you too. 😀

          October 8, 2013
          |Reply
  3. I have never heard of the terms clean and dirty referring to books. Where have I been? I know in my genre, it’s either sensual or erotic, and I write both. I do use the word smut, since that’s what it is, but I don’t think of it as dirty. Sex isn’t dirty, unless you’re doing it in a litter box.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • Can you explain for us what you mean by “I do use the word smut, since that’s what it is,” because to a lot of people, smut is a very dismissive term. I’ve used it in the past, but I’ve been getting tired of it lately, I’m just interested to know what context you’re using it in.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • Well, when we write erotica, it HAS to have foul language, like the F, C and P words. THAT is smut. You can write sex without calling it smut, but there is no way to candy coat the bad language associated with naughty writing. I don’t think I’ll ever think of smut in a bad context. Dirty as opposed to Clean? Maybe. 🙂

        October 5, 2013
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      • Also, I apologize for anyone who tried to visit my site and couldn’t reach it due to that dang s after http. I don’t know how that got in there. 🙂 You really can trust my site!

        October 5, 2013
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      • The books I’ve always heard of being called smut were the ones where the sex was the main focus and any strands of a story were merely to keep the different sex scenes connected somehow. I’ve never heard of it used to mean anything negative. Similar to the Harlequin “Romances” that people buy for the sex that will be in them and who cares about whatever plot-hole-filled story the author quickly tossed in in a hurt to get to the part about the hero sucking the heroine’s clit through a gauzy cotton night gown on a hot summer’s night.

        I think the concepts of clean and dirty should be reassigned based on whether or not willing and enthusiastic consent has been given by the parties involved (clean, like The Boss) or whether it’s forced or coerced (dirty, like Fifty Shades).

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
  4. wonderbink
    wonderbink

    When people ask me “So, what do you do?” my stock response is “I write dirty books!” Pretty much every novel I’ve ever completed has been a story of two people meeting and falling in love and all the messiness that comes with it. (Even the one where I tried to leave it open as to whether they ended up together . . . darn it if they didn’t wind up together.) Yes, they have sex. Yes, I leave the camera running when they do. In theory I could render them “clean” by cutting those scenes out and leaving a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, but they’d feel incomplete to me.

    I’m personally okay with calling the things I write “dirty” because it signals right off the bat that if you want a sanitized narrative, if you want to read about a place where sex and drugs are things that don’t happen to anyone, you’d best move on to another item on the shelf.

    Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I don’t always see “dirty” as a negative. “Dirty” is what you end up being after weeding the garden. “Dirty” are what dishes become after you’ve cooked and eaten a meal. “Dirty” is what a house becomes when you live in it like a normal human being. Becoming “clean” is a perpetual process, not a stable state of being.

    (And now that I’ve gone and said all that, I suppose I should finish cleaning the house, since I’ve been putting it off all day.)

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • I don’t know, I think at the end of the day, all those “dirty” things you list are things you “clean” up, because we prefer clean over dirty. Obviously, call your work whatever you want, I just don’t see “dirty” as anything other than a state of neglect or disrepair that needs to be fixed.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • That’s your OCD doing that hun. 😛 I know, because that was the first thought that came to my mind too. The dishes in particular; dirty dishes mean germs, and germs, are not sexy. >w< arrrrgh… I don't mind the labeling of books as dirty or clean though. The issue seems to be the competition rather than the labels themselves. Neither is better than the other, but will relabeling them help? This is what bugs me about the "we're not dwarfs, we're 'little people' now" bs. "Dwarf" is the correct medical term, not a slur – and is still the reality, and now people are being forced to relabel something; but that something is still the same thing. Saying that they're now "orange books" and "teal books" won't change the fact that people will still snub the one of which they do not approve. All it would change is the words used. "A rose, by any other name…" …It's a damned shame. Ooh! I rhymed. 🙂

        October 7, 2013
        |Reply
      • The examples given are dirty thing that are the remaining evidence of something that was fun, and cleaning up is setting up to do it all over. If I don’t wash my pans, I can’t make another tasty dinner. I’ve actually taken pics of the table after dinner on holidays and posted them on Facebook for the memories of the fun had dirtying the dishes.

        We’ve all had hot and sweaty times in the sack (I hope) where we linger in wet bliss for a while, completely content and maybe even enjoying the feeling of slick skin. But we need to take a shower because we don’t want the perspiration to clog our pores and lead to break-outs. Getting hot and sweaty is “dirty,” but damned is many of us don’t love getting “not clean” when it involves what it does.

        It’s somewhat of a state of mind. Some people see dirty dishes as ZOMG bad, do not want ever!, while others see it as what remains of good times. I know there are some people who are squicked by sex to begin with, but many of us see the aftermath as something to be desired and hesitate to get in the shower.

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
  5. Somehow I always fall under the impression that books exist in this vacuum where stuff like this doesn’t happen, but then it does and it really burns my biscuits (to borrow a phrase from someone I know). The so called “moral fabric” has nothing to do with sex or sexuality, but I’m tired of the idea that it does. I’m tired of Victorian purity mentalities invading my modern day. I am a woman. I like sex and I like reading about it sometimes and sometimes I don’t and sometimes it happens to be part of something else I was already reading or wanted to read and hopefully it’s a bonus and doesn’t express some effed up view of sex and sexuality that breaks the deal. If I’m going to get a warning label about sex then let it be in the vein that the sex is written terribly or abusive and packaged as romance or something useful. I’m tired of sex being a “big deal” because it’s “dirty” or “gross”. It drives me up the wall. Not to mention when you get 50 Shades being treated as the “first coming of sex” in the writing industry I just want to start setting things on fire and strangling inner goddesses.

    Also I think it reveals sexism in the writing industry. On the basic level writing about sex is a no-no and when women do it we have to talk about it and dissect it and talk about moral fiber and blah, blah, but if it’s a man then it’s whatever. It’s just infuriating, and I can’t even imagine like the bigger scale within the heading romance writing because I’ve only really started dipping my toes in the pool recently as a reader.

    I agree with you that what I’m reading isn’t “dirty” it’s normal and natural and anyone touting the line that it isn’t can go peddle their wares elsewhere.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • Re: your second-to-last paragraph, have you noticed that if a woman writes a book that has sex in it, no matter what else happens in the book, it’s now a romance novel? I recommended Jacqueline Carrey’s Kushiel’s Dart to someone, and they read the back cover and said, “Sounds like a trashy Harlequin romance to me.” It’s by far one of the most epic fantasy series I have ever read, on par with A Song of Ice and Fire. And hey, doesn’t A Song of Ice and Fire also have sex scenes in it?! But it’s written by a man, therefore it’s gripping fantasy/adventure, never mind the fact that there are love stories wound throughout the plot.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • I guess that explains why some women write under a man’s name. Didn’t JK Rowling just do that?

        October 5, 2013
        |Reply
      • Sherry
        Sherry

        First – I have to add my own disclaimer: I do not follow author blogs except for yours, therefore, what I am saying may sound silly. That being said –
        I have never heard anyone in my circle talk about the Kushiel saga before and was thrilled that you brought it up. I love your work, Jenny, and some of your books are among my recent favorites. But the Kushiel saga was my introduction into the world of BDSM fantasy. I have since read 8 of the novels in this series and find the over arching themes to be totally gripping. The attitude of the characters toward sex is probably the “healthiest” I have ever seen portrayed in writing. The entire culture in Carey’s series was developed around the reverence of love. Love in all its forms – romantic, platonic/fillial, and physical. I truly believe that reading the three Kushiel novels is what convinced me I wasn’t “weird” or “sick” or “twisted.”
        Thank you for your original works and for your blog. I truly love reading your witty or thought-provoking comments!

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
      • Exactly that too! I have to wonder what I may have missed out on because of just such a mislabelling. If a woman writes and there is romance that is not the central plot then whatever else it is shouldn’t take a back seat to the Romance label, ESPECIALLY if the protagonist is female. I feel like if it’s a female author writing about a male hero, speaking of Rowling, it less likely to get labelled as romance (though using her initials was to mask her gender).

        Also, putting that series on my ‘to read’ list ASAP because it has been woefully thin lately.

        October 23, 2013
        |Reply
  6. I prefer to read novels that reflect the reality I live in. Which means I would avoid “clean” novels like the plague. The world is not a clean place, and I find it refreshing when authors describe “dirty” details- not even just sex but the imperfect, unattractive aspects of being human (flabby skin, body odor,etc). I don’t think sex in a novel is a big deal or even worth noting, but I do notice when there’s a curious lack of sex (or in the case of books for younger teens, awkward sexual tension) or realistic details about the human body- those books always feel censored and unnatural and tend to have Mary Sue like characters.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • Zee
      Zee

      Re: the books lacking sex. Are they also the ones where the main heroine only dates/marries the main hero? No one else in the mean time?

      Even Harry Potter dated Cho and avoided the attention of Romilda before he got with Ginny. At least Ginny dated Michael Corner, Neville and Dean before Harry got it together. Hell, even Hermoine gave Krum a try in case Ron wasn’t right for her, and Ron had Lavender, and a huge crush on Rosmerta … even a children’s book understood that!

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • No no. Don’t you understand? Women are pure and nonsexual until THE ONE awakens their sexual desire(but only for THE ONE)

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • Yeah, in my trilogy my hero character is far from virginal, and in the course of the books, the heroine still gets snuggly with someone else. It’s just plain more realistic. She IS slow to finally have sex, but it’s not a message of prudery. She was a sexual assault victim who dealt with the trauma through all three books, and even then, she references her adult toy collection.

        I can’t stand all these books where women never want sex because “good girls wait,” and they don’t even have an interest in masturbation. I know women like this really exist, but using them as some Victorian ideal who just need to find Mr. Right is offensive. And of course the ideal man usually has ample experience and it’s part of his allure.

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
  7. Alison
    Alison

    Sex is a way that people express themselves, show their personality, let another person know how they’re feeling. It’s a big part of most romantic relationships. It seems like leaving out sex when you are writing about someone’s personality and relationships is throwing away an opportunity to explore the characters more.

    Of course, your characters can express themselves in other ways. It doesn’t always have to be through sex and it isn’t always appropriate for the story but if you are a grown up in a romantic relationship, then there is probably sex going on. Why would you leave out such a huge chunk of the human experience?

    Women authors and readers being made to believe that an interest in sex makes them somehow a bad person is just misogynistic, patriarchal bullshit. Not writing about sex isn’t something to be proud of. If you don’t like writing sex scenes that’s fine but it doesn’t make your book any better written.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • Jemmy
      Jemmy

      I’ve always assumed that if an author doesn’t write about sex in detail, it’s simply because they aren’t comfortable doing so.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • I agree. Truth is not everyone CAN or WANTS to write sex and it’s fine, but it certainly doesn’t change the quality of the book.

        October 8, 2013
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    • kristy
      kristy

      THIS. Leaving it out just seems completely unrealistic to me. I personally don’t like romances without the payoff.

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
    • laina1312
      laina1312

      …you know asexual people exist and have romantic relationships, right?

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • SandorClegane13
        SandorClegane13

        Yes, but I would think that the author would make a point of noting the character(s)’ asexuality somewhere in the text. I know I would. That way if someone was like “ARGH, just fuck them already!” I could point to it and say “hey Einstein, they’re asexual.”

        October 7, 2013
        |Reply
      • Alison
        Alison

        I am aware of asexual people, and that they have romantic relationships, yes. That is why I wrote, “It’s a big part of most romantic relationships.” I used the word “most” instead of “all” to take into account the existence of aces. Sexual people are still the majority, though, and that is who I was talking about.

        October 7, 2013
        |Reply
  8. Jemmy
    Jemmy

    I’d never heard of the concept of ‘clean’ novels and the idea of it doesn’t really appeal to me. It sounds very limiting conceptually, but then I find genres a bit limiting as well conceptually. I mean sure, flag that a book has sex in it so people who want to avoid it can, but I don’t see the need to break things down into ‘romance’, ‘action’ etc. Don’t the best stories have a touch of both? I read very widely though, I had a friend who only ever read modern crime fiction written by female authors. Seriously, that’s how specific she was.

    I will admit to skipping the sex scenes in books so I can get on with the story <.< If I like story, then I want to read it as fast as possible, and the long sex scenes get in my way. I also skim extensive descriptive passages with authors that like to ramble on about how scenic the area is or go into great depth of detail about what everyone is wearing.

    I always figure the author writes the degree of explicitness that they are comfortable with. You don't need to have explicit sex scenes and lots of 'bad' language to have a romance. But having sex scenes doesn't make a book bad by definition, or dirty, or a 'chick lit' book etc.

    I use the word 'smut' when describing things to other people some times, mostly because it conveys a concept that people recognise, but erotic would work just as well and probably be a word with less background bias.,

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • Jemmy
      Jemmy

      The one thing I don’t like is extreme strong language, I cant’ think of how to put it without sounding judgemental really. Some words I just don’t like reading, I’m the kind of person that puts a chat filter on World of Warcraft simply because I don’t like the look in text, and I prefer to see the $%#$$% than the language. I swear, but not in text oddly enough because I don’t like the look. I don’t mind if other ppl swear, I just alter the way it looks out of personal preference.

      The Boss and The Girlfiend use the word ‘cunt’ a lot, which I dont’ like the look of, and i find it jarring. But then I’ve also spent the time wondering what word you could replace it with and remembered the extremely limited number of options regarding words female genitals, at least ones that aren’t used offensively. I’ve always made sure to use correct body part names with my daughter, and then we had a boy last year. I realised all of a sudden that boys have a number of reasonably polite options to use in place of ‘penis’ if that’s how you want to go. Girls really don’t get much.

      October 5, 2013
      |Reply
      • I used to hate the C word too. 🙂 But now I use it frequently in my erotic romances. You can only use the P word so much before it gets redundant. Though I’m quite fond of snatch, even though Total e Bound didn’t let me use it the book I published through them. LOL Can you imagine? They’re ok with cunt with not with snatch? That made me laugh.

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • Jemmy
        Jemmy

        That is odd, I wouldn’t have thought one would have been preferred over the other.

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • I agree. I swear a lot in real life and don’t mind it when other people do, but in books/movies/tv shows – I can only take a certain amount of swearing and at one point I’ll be bothered by it, but I don’t like ridiculously ‘clean’ language either. In rommances for female gentalia, frankly I prefer the C word than the P word, – that one just makes me cringe. I also use cootch, loins, private parts, lady parts (though last two usually not in sex scenes) and if I’m trying to be funny (in dalogue) I would use vjayjay. It just sounds hilarious, I love that word!

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
  9. Cherry
    Cherry

    I didn’t even know that books were termed “clean,” though I did know that they could be “dirty.” And you’re right,those are some seriously judgy terms right there. I feel like some sort of categorization of whether or not there was an explicit sex scene in a book would have been appreciated by 11-year-old me (who was reading books made for high-schoolers and adults and felt awkward reading about sex). however, a non-judgmental version would be better.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
  10. Andrea
    Andrea

    I really wish more books had sex in them as a matter of course, because it’s just more realistic. Life has sex in it. Books are designed to play on people’s emotions, how can that exclude sex? I still read and love books that dont involve sex, obviously, but I’d find them so much more emotionally satisfying if they had sex scenes instead of fading to black.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
  11. Andrea
    Andrea

    Sex is a part of life, and particularly so when people enter into romantic relationships. It feels like a book is artificially constrained when important events, including sex for the first time between characters, etc., are off camera.

    On the other hand, there are also a lot of books where the plot is little more than a way to transition from one tab A in slot B description of sex to the next, with a lot of body part euphemism bingo thrown in. When sex is on camera, it should advance the plot or characters, not just be thrown in as a way to meet some quota for sex content. Sex scenes should be subject to the same ruthless criteria as any other scene, it should get cut if it doesn’t bring anything new. All they do is bog down the book, and the scenes are frequently not at all that titillating. Seriously, some of the steamiest scenes I read have little or no description of what various body parts are doing, it’s all about what the characters are feeling or saying.

    In general, I find that the more easily a book is described with a very short description, particularly if all you have to say is something like, “regency romance” or “paranomal romance” or “bondage erotica”, the more boring it is, and its usually because the author has artificially constrained themselves to fit within the boundaries of the genre. I can’t count the number of romance books where I note that I’m about to hit the 50% mark on my Kindle, and think, “Well, about time for the first sex scene,” and a few pages later, boom there it is. I can’t imagine that these authors could be doing anything more than following some rule. If I weren’t stuck waiting in doctor’s offices so much, these books would be hitting the wall as a DNF.

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
    • laina1312
      laina1312

      “Sex is a part of life, and particularly so when people enter into romantic relationships.”

      Not for everybody, actually.

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • keelyellenmarie
        keelyellenmarie

        WE GET IT, asexual people exist. Instead of saying “adult relationships involve sex”, we should say “most adult relationships involve sex”. But to be fair, the “clean” romances mentioned above are not generally “clean” because the characters are asexual… rather, the characters have sex that is implied but not shown. Which is what the post and the comments were discussing. I don’t think failing to mention asexual people in a post about romantic fiction written for a sexual audience is some huge slight that you need to correct.

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • laina1312
        laina1312

        @keelyellenmarie “I don’t think failing to mention asexual people in a post about romantic fiction written for a sexual audience is some huge slight that you need to correct.”

        First of all, the last time I checked, you didn’t have to be having sex to read romance or erotica. Does having sex make you a more important audience for romance?

        Second, how do you know Jenny doesn’t have asexual readers? I don’t camp, but I read her posts about that. So it doesn’t matter how people who are feel when they read comments with statements like that?

        And what about people who believe in waiting for marriage to have sex? Do their relationships suddenly become not genuine adult relationships? Making statements about anything needing to be a certain way, be it having sex in a relationship or girls being bad at science, or whatever, normalizes it and hurts people. I’m sorry, but I try to not casually hurt people when I talk.

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • Laina, believing in waiting until marriage for sex is almost always related to religion, and those who believe in waiting are far less likely to want to read anything about sex and are far more likely to involve their parents in their decision on whether or not to get married (many people would argue that this is not a real adult relationship if Mommy and Daddy need to have a say). So when you aim books with sexual characters who believe in waiting, which is an entirely religious-based concept, a wider audience and then expect them to identify with those characters, or when you aim your books at a religious audience and have premarital-sex-having characters, you’re going to have a lot of people who are dissatisfied. Most books with on-camera sex are aimed at a secular audience.

        The reason I don’t care for the “wait for sex until marriage” books is because I am an atheist and don’t care for covert religious messages on the virtues of marriage-only sex. A well-known example of this is Twilight. Edward killed potentially hundreds of people, but only pre-marital sex would have guaranteed him hell. Frankly, the series was a Mormon woman’s fantasy and Bella was her Mary Sue, and so nothing could happen to Bella that Stephenie Meyer would feel bad about doing. A lot of fans felt ripped off when every sex scene for Edward and Bella was either a fade-to-black or curtained off.

        But The Boss was aimed at a secular audience, and so it’s more realistic to not have characters waiting.

        The audience needs to be considered, and most in the secular audience are fine with premarital sex and even engage in it and consider it a part of their normal experiences. Since these people make up the majority, it would be prudent to deliver to these expectations. If someone wants to write for a niche audience, then write for that audience.

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
      • Also, though you probably wouldn’t care to know, but my book, Sacred Blood, has a virgin woman, a married straight woman, a woman who, despite having had children because it was expected of her, never shows an interest in sex or personal relationships, a former womanizing man who feels guilt and stops, a married straight man (married to the aforementioned married woman, and they are different races), a man who is a playboy who has no qualms about threesomes and his family knowing (and they don’t have hang-ups about it either), a gay man who is later in a relationship with another man, and a man who is never shown to have any sexual interest in women though he becomes emotionally attached to one.

        Also their religions span from atheism to Catholicism to Buddhism.

        So I cover aces.

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
  12. Jordiebelle
    Jordiebelle

    You know, I think the most impressive part of this post (while I agree with it wholeheartedly) is the care to which you’ve gone to outline a mature, rational and adult response to a situation. You describe: deliberately inhibiting a response (the Facebook comment) because of the likelihood of unproductive misunderstanding; self analysis following a strong emotional reaction to a seemingly innocuous stimulus; separating and labeling the components of your emotional response; thinking carefully about what these components mean until you understood them; making new decisions about thought and action based on your new understanding. It’s absolutely textbook and I applaud the way you’ve laid it out here as a learning model. If more people took the time and care to do this (IRL and on the Internet) the world would be a better place.
    Mostly I appreciate your work for its content, but today it’s your form that has me sit up and pay attention. 🙂

    October 5, 2013
    |Reply
  13. I’ve heard of books being “dirty” before but I’ve never heard of specifically “clean” ones. I don’t think it particularly makes sense, personally. To me, “clean” fiction sounds almost as though it has been stripped or sanitized, which isn’t a particularly natural state. Not something I would be interested in – but then, I read erotica sometimes, so I guess I’m not the target audience.

    I totally see your point though. I mostly write child-friendly fiction, so my experiences with writing erotica are more toe-dipping exercises, but I can remember reading “adult fiction” (which is another way of making it “clean” for sales purposes I suppose, I certainly don’t see an “erotica” section when I walk into a bookshop) as a teen and feeling guilty or embarrassed about it, as though I was doing something wrong.

    I’ll admit, I don’t always have the healthiest attitudes towards sex. I struggle with my rational side knowing that there’s nothing “wrong” about anything I do or enjoy on that front and my irrational side fearing the opposite, but I think my struggles are definitely echoed in the way that anything to do with sex is often labelled in that “dirty” way. Here in the UK there’s less focus about moral purity and more about how children shouldn’t see things they are too young for, so the undercurrent that sex is “dirty” or shameful is sometimes harder to pick up on amid the whole “Think of the children!!!1!!” fuss. It’s certainly still there though, especially seeing as the age of consent here is 16, and yet anything to do with marketing sex, or sex toys is seen as something for over 18s only. And we certainly have just as much of a problem with kinks.

    One of the semi-slurs that people sometimes use is to euphemise (again!) and refer to people as being “Continental” in their attitudes to sex, because mainland Europe has a more relaxed attitude (in much of Western Europe, at least) towards it. It’s still a process of othering though. And it does just as much damage in terms of painting sex in that light.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  14. I could never get into “sweet” or the so-called “clean” romances. To me, leaving out something so relevant to the human experience isn’t my cup of tea. I need the sex, dammit, just like ancient cave painters needed to include a phallus on every male animal drawn on those stone walls.

    The cave paintings aren’t “dirty” in nature; just recording the world around the painter, much like an author uses everyday inspiration to weave stories. I don’t buy the argument that putting sex in a novel is to bulk up word count. There are more than a handful of “sweet” novels that have padding of one kind or another.

    I don’t think those who write “clean” novels as being morally superior to those that indulge in the spicier side of life. It’s very possible to balance tawdry hot times/cursing with character development and plot.

    I grew up with my mom and paternal grandmother swapping “dirty books” by paper grocery bag-fuls; when I think of their reading habits back then, the covers were nothing but bodice-rippers clad with Fabio, for the most part. Except they (mom and gramma) didn’t call them “dirty,” they called them “adult” and I appreciate that they made the distinction.

    When I wrote my first novel (oh so close to my heart because of how it echoed life) I struggled with how to classify it. While there was romance/engagement/wedding, that wasn’t the focus of the novel. The story revolved around the protagonist as she coped with inner demons which impacted her relationship with the male lead. It is in no way “clean”. But it is true to life, which is gritty, foul-mouthed, and fueled by sex. But because the story had sex between a committed couple, I listed the genre as Contemp Romance rather than the literary fiction I felt it was. You know, because it had sex early and often, and thus wasn’t really as literary as I thought, because “real” literary work doesn’t have gratuitous graphic nookie. So fuck it! I’m changing the genre because I won’t be pigeonholed since I choose to include more instances of “fuck” than Joe Pesci gave in My Cousin Vinnie and enough graphic sex that I felt anxious when I handed a copy of the novel to my son’s very awesome pediatrician.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  15. Zee
    Zee

    You know, I’ve thought about this a little more, and I realised that your post sounds almost exactly like a conversation I had with my sister a few days ago.

    My sister is very religious. She has (I’ll get this wrong now) MRKH (or MRHK?) and she turned to religion when she started finding out just what was wrong. She used to play mum-and-baby games until she was like, ten, and five years later she was finding out she would never carry her own baby (her condition means her womb and cervix never met when she was developing in my mum’s womb. She’s been tested and told her ovaries work, and checked in case her womb was full of old periods, but she’s okay on that front) and even worse, she was finding this out as I was having my son.

    She’s used some really awful-sounding medical equipment to make sure she could have sex with what cervix she does have, without being in loads of pain. I think she was told she got closer to them meeting up than some girls.

    But she has hormones the same as everyone else. She’s dated a few boys at her church, or on her courses at university, where she’s studying religion. None of them really worked out, or the guys freaked when they realised she wouldn’t be able to have kids naturally, as God would want. She told me the other day about this guy who said he wouldn’t date because it was irreligious and he would have females friends until he met his potential wife (me: which is why you date. Her: and how many “friends” did he have as well as me?)

    A year a a bit ago, she met someone at work. Their first date was super cute, they made each other origami animals out of their napkins. He is such a nice guy, they have a great relationship. Thanks to her prep work, they have a good sex life too (eh, we live in Essex, no one’s ashamed of sex here) but her church have told her to dump him because he’s not religious, and he’s beneath her, and sex before marriage is a sin.

    And you’d think with all of the above, she would agree with them, and the people you mentioned, that her life should be Clean and Pure. But she doesn’t, she sounded like you.

    She said ‘I think sex is a big part of a relationship. It’s not dirty, it’s a way of communicating. If you’re not having sex, you’re not committed as much as you should be and your relationship won’t last because you’re denying a vital part of it.’ I paraphrase, but that’s the essence of her view. She’s 21, and that mature about all of it. Yes, sometimes she talks about her ‘husband’ the way a little girl does, yes her religion seems at odds with her relationship, yes she struggles with notions outside of the nuclear family concept, but she’s got a good view of how it should be with a partner. Maybe it’s because she had to face her reality during puberty, or maybe it’s because it’s hard to be Above Sex in an area notorious for teen moms and Using sex as a way to say hi to people. Whatever it is, I was just glad she got to that point, and with someone who isn’t being pressured by his beliefs.

    Sorry for the essay btw.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
    • Zee
      Zee

      Also, she has a great sense of humour about everything. Like, she says she never needs the pill, and since her boyfriend is clean they don’t need condoms and anyway, would would a VD do, stop her having kids? And one time at her work, someone started a conversation with ‘you know when you get a period?’ And she said ‘no, but go on’ and the girl was like ‘funny, you know when you get your period-‘ ‘really don’t, but I’m really interested, go on’ … the girl got so frustrated that my sister had no idea what she was talking about, lol

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
    • laina1312
      laina1312

      “If you’re not having sex, you’re not committed as much as you should be and your relationship won’t last because you’re denying a vital part of it.

      For her, maybe, but assuming something like that for other people is a terrible thing to do. Not everyone needs to have sex. Some people don’t want to, for whatever reason, and that’s a valid life choice, including a life with a romantic relationship in it.

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • Zee
        Zee

        True, and that’s more in line with my beliefs, but that was why I outlined her background. Because it would be easy for her to withdraw, and say because it can’t happen she’s worthless, or she shouldn’t even try. She didn’t have to opt for the equipment she used. But for the person she is, for the age she is, I think that’s a healthy view. It’s her view, it’s what she expects from a relationship. I don’t think it applies to me, or anyone else. I think she feels prompted by the people around her who act like sex, especially sex before marriage, is a dirty thing.

        And you know what? I identify somewhere in the Grace area of sexuality. But that doesn’t mean I think sex is bad, or relationships aren’t worthwhile. I get what your crusade is from seeing your other posts, but actually, from a personal perspective? It means a lot more to me. I would only enter into a relationship after a lot of internal debate, after I’d built up a rapport with someone. I don’t feel comfortable with the word ‘love’ unless someone’s been in my life for a long time. I’m not huge on sex, despite having a son with one of the only two people I’ve ever been intimate that way with. I guess I bought into the notion of what love should mean too strongly, because I don’t easily settle for ‘good enough’. If anything, I should be reading books like 50 shades and thinking ‘I’m so Ana’ and agreeing with you wholeheartedly because your view is more in line with the interpretation of what anyone in the asexual spectrum should be. But I still support my sister, and her views on this, because of everything I mentioned above.

        And really, the whole discussion is about the censorship of the subject of sex, regardless of sexuality. You could easily take the same standpoint with same sex relationships and how say, yaoi is suppressed in mainstream society … So why just the asexual spectrum here?

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
  16. Deryck
    Deryck

    Jenny, here’s a thought: Send nagging “clean” authors a copy of Nabokov’s “Lolita” and watch their heads explode…

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
    • Lolita is a tragic story about a girl whose life was blown apart by a murderous sexual predator. I never got the “love story” idea of that book. And the descriptions of what happens sexually aren’t all that explicit, really.

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • I think that was the point of the comment, that Lolita is actually a “clean” book, but still not “clean.”

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • I guess, to me, when I hear “dirty” it means the sex is there purely for entertainment and titilation (nothing wrong with that, of course). So Lolita, in my opinion, doesn’t fall into that category because it’s a commentary on a societal blight that at the time was usually swept under the rug and ignored because people didn’t want to believe it happened. People didn’t talk about it and Nabakov made it front and center and wrote an incredibly accurate portrayal of Lolita’s acting out and things like that. I don’t see that as “dirty” because the sexual material in it isn’t meant as masturbation fodder.

        No woman reads a Harelquin romance novel for its literary elements.

        October 6, 2013
        |Reply
      • Deryck
        Deryck

        See Jenny’s reply. I used Lolita because it’s a great example of dissonance between content and execution, between the lovely, amorous prose with its chaste descriptions of love-making and the horrifying narrative events that inspire them.

        Just because something reads like a nice love-story doesn’t mean it is. Likewise, just because there’s explicit sex doesn’t mean it’s somehow a lesser genre.

        October 7, 2013
        |Reply
  17. “So why are we bothering to assign positive/negative symbolism to either? Why not just accept that some books have sex in them, and some don’t?”

    I’d like this to be the case too, but that would require everyone to grow up, and that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. When I used to write ‘dirty books’ I used to shrug at the raised eyebrows and hug to my heart the squalid and amusing fact that dirty books have been a mainstay of English literature since Grubb Street days. Daniel Defoe wrote because he was a financial idiot who could barely keep himself out of debtors prison. He looked around at the printers who were knocking out ‘whore biographies’ of famous ladies of pleasure and decided to write Moll Flanders.

    Sex and money – the roots of the Great English Novel. Granted, the novel’s come a long way in the hands of some very talented authors, but I’ve always thought it was a bad idea to forget where you came from.

    Personally I found that the worst thing about writing erotica was that everyone assumed I was ‘open minded’ and then they’d back me in a corner at parties and tell me terrible sex stories in the hope that I ‘won’t put them in a book, will you?’

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  18. Jessica
    Jessica

    I find this argument about clean and dirty absurd. I can understand flagging that some explicit sex is inside the same way you would flag an R rated movie so that the appropriate audience is reached. But to shame authors for including sex?? I really can’t understand the self-righteous prudishness. I’m a happily married woman. And I find reading a novel with some well written sex scenes adds a healthy boost to my own sex life. I need the mental stimulation in getting in the mood for sex (which I think many women are similar) whereas my husband is more turned on by visual cues. I find when I read a good erotic fiction, I’m even more in the mood than usual and often will feel more adventurous based on what I’ve read, which is great for our relationship. How can this possibly be viewed as immoral or dirty?? Reading so-called smut (I really don’t like the negative connotation of that word) contributes positively to the intimate side of my relationship with my husband. That’s a great thing. Denying that or demonizing that feels awfully childish and immature to me.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  19. “They couldn’t read it because they were Christians and they didn’t like the occult and they thought paranormal books filled your head with “dark thoughts” and blah blah blah.”

    To be fair, these same people also say that about practicing yoga for exercise. You kinda can’t reason with that logic.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
    • Some school is being sued by some zealots who say yoga as part of PE is teaching kids religion.

      October 16, 2013
      |Reply
  20. I actually know of a very prolific author who writes both “Christian” romance and extremely explicit erotica. She keeps multiple pen names and it’s a big hush-hush secret because of the stigma.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  21. keelyellenmarie
    keelyellenmarie

    Only tangentially related but… I have an aunt who uses “smut” to mean basically “trashy guilty-pleasure reading”, and usually uses it in reference to celebrity gossip magazines. She called 50 shades “smut”, but she said the same about Twilight. 😛

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  22. Plus ça change et moins ça change: The author of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Defoe. Miller. Nin. Lawrence. Greer. Susann. Trout/Barnette. The list goes on. Perverts unite!

    The above is a very select sampling of authors whose works have been labelled at one point or other as obscene, smutty, ribald, dirty, filthy, and a whole boatload of other adjectives engaged by those waving their metaphorical pitchforks. Most of the authors I listed above have now transcended into the ‘L’iterature category because of time served. I like sex, I like reading about sex. Sexuality and sex, unless it is used in an abusive and hurtful way, is not immoral. I think it’s immoral to be wilfully ignorant, close-minded, mean and cruel. The pervasive, all consuming conservatism that is trying to assert dominance in American society is the problem. I’m Canadian. I watch US news and try to follow along with what’s happening in American society. I really don’t understand what the big deal is about sex and women’s reproductive rights. Sex isn’t the problem – ignorance, hate and fear are near the tip of this neo-puritanical iceberg.

    I personally don’t care whether or not a book has any kind of sex in it – implied or soft core or explicit or none. I’m not a fan of the current BDSM craze, but Jenny I have read The Boss and bought and read The Girlfriend. I’ve really enjoyed them because of the story and the characters. The sex is not secondary to the story, but is an integral part of it because the sex sets up the relationship between Sophie and Neil. I get that. If I happen to read a book with whatever type of sex scenes are included in it, I don’t judge the characters for the sex they have. My comfort level varies with the content of the scene. If I find myself to be uncomfortable, then I know that it’s my issue and requires some introspection as to why I’ve reacted in whatever way I have. I’m currently reading “Malarky” by Anakana Schofield. It is rife with sex and sexuality, implied-to-soft-core, and how sex and relationships are inextricably intertwined. I’m about half way through and really enjoying the telling of the tale.

    I usually don’t judge the author for having written those scenes. By that I mean that if I’m reading a sex scene in a book and in my opinion it’s poorly written or feels like it was shoehorned into the story because requisite sexy times, then I’m thinking that the author should have stayed away from the scene or genre. It’s a technical/execution issue with the writer’s abilities, not a moral one.

    Jenny I really enjoy your writing. Write your fool head off about whatever you want, in whatever style you want, in whatever genre you want. A good story is a good story. And everyone should know that you need a little dirt in order to grow good things.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
    • There is a remnant of America’s heritage still working overtime: America was settled by the Puritans. From the word Puritan, we get puritanical. and a history lesson for those caring: the Puritans were so repressed and stifled in their religious beliefs, that they basically got kicked out of England. Kinda sorta quote Eddie Izzard, how much of a stick in the mud do you have to be to get kicked out of England?

      This legacy of being ‘pure’ in body, mind and spirit is insidious, woven in the tapestry of modern America. We even have a holiday celebrating the pilgrims, who were Puritans, reminding us to be thankful for what we have.

      Many call America a Christian country, thus it is expected to have Christian ideals, many of which are not fair to women. And that includes reproductive rights.

      If you wish to understan d America’s fascination with women’s rights, just remind yourself we are run by a white collar Taliban. That pretty much sums it up.

      October 6, 2013
      |Reply
      • K@sey_june
        K@sey_june

        Man, so much this. A lot of people in my mom’s country were all, ” What, a woman has to look pretty, squeaky clean, and not do anything such as work and obsess over her sex life? Ain’t nobody who has time for that!”

        Seriously, I’m descended from factory-workers who sneak booze and have sex before 18. We’re pretty much the reason why up-tight white-collar whiteys created the ‘Prohibition’ a long time ago.

        The only problem is that now thanks to the technology (TV, books, magazines) it’s now hard to escape their doctrines and think, “Eh, it’s nice to stay at home and worry about thinking up 99 ways to please your man. But that’s for rich women. I’m lucky if I can get up at 5 and come home before 8.30 at night.”. Now, they can’t even turn on the tv or radio and constantly get blasted over how they should live.

        October 7, 2013
        |Reply
      • Well, if we’re being technical, the pilgrims and the Puritans were two different groups of people that came over at the same time. However, because the Puritans were able to all vote as a block (why does that sound familiar?) they did rule the roost for quite a while despite being less in number than the pilgrims.

        However, I think that their “purity” is right up there with America being a “Christian nation.” It sounds really good, but only if you don’t really dig into the actual history. Sure, that’s the picture our school history books present, but it’s really not the whole story by a long shot.

        (Woo hoo- research for an unfinished story actually being useful elsewhere!)

        October 8, 2013
        |Reply
      • This “purity” nonsense and the idea that a non-virgin unmarried woman is worthless is what Elizabeth Smart didn’t run from her captors. She believed her life had no value. The idea of virgin=pure and non-virgin=impure really hurts people.

        October 16, 2013
        |Reply
  23. soren
    soren

    I’m sorry you have to deal with these people. I’ve read plenty of books without any sex in them, but I’d never read a book that was advertised as ‘clean.’ The implication is that I’m someone that needs to be protected from sexuality and I’m not. TBH I don’t think I’ve ever not had a negative reaction to the word ‘clean’ used non-literally. ‘Clean language’, ‘clean living’… I (perhaps unfairly) associate that kind of language with people who want to control me, who not only want to live their own lives a certain way (which of course is fine) but want everything else hidden away, or eradicated. I imagine a lot of erotica readers feel the same. I’m personally more likely to say ‘porn’ than ‘smut,’ or ‘dirty’ books, but a lot of people object to that too. I’m not using the term judgmentally. There is a particular book I’ve referred to as ‘filthy pornography’ but I’m not being judgmental there either. I’m being literal. It’s about garbage men.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  24. Maria
    Maria

    It’s interesting that you mention the stigma of “dirty” versus clean, because I would say that depending on the genre, “clean” could mean terrible things. I know in horror if something is clean, especially too clean, then evil exists there. In some dystopia, clean can be used to denote the authoritarian group, who are clearly not good.

    I would say that there’s definitely a genre issue here. I don’t think people outside of publishing think about “clean” as a story descriptor unless the primary focus of the novel is romance. Most “modern” novels and many classics and many sci-fi/fantasy have sex in them, and I don’t think they’re considered dirty or clean. They’re just considered novels. But when the focus/purpose is romance then I think people get really weird and superior. That’s not to mention that the genre itself is allowed to be thought of as “lessor” which I think is where a lot of the social positioning comes from.

    October 6, 2013
    |Reply
  25. Reenie
    Reenie

    I really learn a lot reading this blog! I didn’t know there were labels for ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ types of romance/adult books… I just figured there were different levels of saucey fun times. It does very much make you think that an author claiming their book is ‘clean’ is trying to give the impression that they are ‘better and above such things’. Fact is, people like sex. People like having sex. People like watching sex. People like reading about it.
    To me the word ‘dirty’ does imply something is bad/unclean whatever. That said, my husband is English and when he says “Dirty” in moments of sexy adult times…. PHWOAR! It’s really quite, quite good.  To make such a point though, to shame potential readers (because just as it shames authors of such novels, it shames their readership too), well that’s just hideous. And also saying that a book can only be dirty and full of sex OR can only be romantic and clean and never the twain shall meet, well that is stupid. You’ve proven it yourself Jenny, The Boss, was full of very sweet romantic moments and fantastic sex. To me thats far more realist and sexier than a one or the other type book. I don’t just gaze lovingly at my husband while he quotes pithy prose at me till I swoon. While he has on occassion written poems for me and read them to me (I know, he’s a doll!) our relationship has more layers than that, excellent sex being a rather wonderful layer.
    Sometimes you just want a sweet story with hints of sexy fun times and sometimes you want to read about “in your face, bend you over the dining table, make your eyes roll” kinda sex. Neither is bad. Its just a personal preference, for whatever mood you happen to be in.
    I like the idea of a rating system to denote how sexual a book is, as sometimes a book that just depicts hand holding or the odd snog, its just not gonna cut it for me. So yeah, by all means have like a little rating so you know what you’re in for (“explicit” or “non explicit” would be sufficient).
    An author with a preference for writing explicit sex, mild sex, no sex, romance, BDSM, whatever, shouldnt have any type of negativity or positivity branded on them because they choose to write what they do. That’s like saying you can only have one kind of cake for the rest of your life. The hell with that, I want all the cakes.
    If any book should be given a negative branding it should be 50 Shades of Grey. And that branding shouldn’t be ‘dirty’. It should be “Utter Shit.”

    October 7, 2013
    |Reply
    • Reenie
      Reenie

      oh oh oh! coined a new term… “Smut Shaming”!

      October 7, 2013
      |Reply
  26. ZombieBear
    ZombieBear

    I have noticed in myself, when describing my writing, I would say Scifi-Horror, and Fantasy Erotica as the two genres I have written in… Unless I am talking to someone who is well… less sexual, I tend to fall back upon the term dirty to refer to my work, that I have written dirty stories. It may be telling that in uncertain company I am far more willing to admit to having written saucy stories then I have written nihilistic black commedy/horror scifi schlock.

    There have been some works of other people I would label dirty, after I had read them, mostly ones that leave me feeling unclean and skeezed out.

    October 7, 2013
    |Reply
  27. I am not a published author (obviously), but i cannot write anything without sex in it. And I write Young Adult and New Adult a lot. I’ve just never been able to, not even when I started (ok, when I stardet obviously, because my first book was about kids between the ages of 10-14, but had they been older…) Even if it’s not an explicit sex scene, I always have it in my writing and quite frankly I don’t like to think that it makes what I write any worse than anyone else’s. I put a lot of swearing and drinking in my YA as well – because, duuuh teenagers! But anyway my point is – you are right and I so totally agree.

    October 8, 2013
    |Reply
    • And the lack of sex/sexual tension/desire, as well as things like drugs and alchohol and swearing and such rarely make an appearance in Young Adult fiction, especially gay people. It’s like someone is trying to keep it ‘clean’ for young people, because they are not suppossed to read about this for some reason, even though it happens in reality and TV shows about teens have recognised this and they incorporate these elements. Like for instance something someone mentioned on the internet. ‘When Katniss kisses Peeta she feels a stirring in her chest, which is YA-talk fr ‘in her loins’.’ To be honest, I also don’t mind the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, I mind the stigma behind them, like someone else said ‘A rose by any other name.’

      October 8, 2013
      |Reply
  28. Totally off the topic (great post btw), but I started The Boss last night. It blows 50 shades of crap outta the water. I happen to have gotten further in your blog recaps than I have in the actual books. Also, for your amusement (and because I am a soon-to-be librarian) http://librarian-shaming.tumblr.com/ It has some librarians confessing to some 50 shades stuff.

    October 8, 2013
    |Reply
  29. Yup. Thumbs up, Jenn.

    …It’s also really nifty how you’re able to unite the voices of outrage and common sense. 😉

    October 8, 2013
    |Reply
  30. I’ve heard of dirty books, and I’ve always kind of known that if you want romance without sex that Christian books are pretty much the way to go. I do kind of like the idea of having non-sex books that are also not religious, but that’s really more adding another flavor to the ice cream freezer, not to make a “better” one.

    Growing up, I was ahead of the game on reading levels, but behind on giving a damn about romance and sex. I was given The Horse Whisperer because it was a horse book- and I’m still a sucker for horse books. I was, at most, in early highschool when I read it, and I remember being seriously ticked that what could have been an awesome story about a girl and her horse healing was really just a convenient plot device so that momma could get the kinda nookie she wasn’t getting at home. It would have been nice to have a heads up that the focus wasn’t the cowboy whispering to the horse. (In which case, that aunt never would have given it to me in the first place.)

    Of course, the real problem with “dirty” vs “clean” is . . . where’s the line? Is it specifically stating p in v insertions? Is it specifically stating insertions? In which case- man- don’t write about blow jobs! That’s dirty! Is it when you start removing clothes? But what if you’re inserting things while fully dressed? The only line I can think of that works is whether or not you’ve really captured that smug superiority. If not- you’re just dirty.

    PS- Jenny- you’re awesome!

    October 8, 2013
    |Reply
    • I suspect the line is how much female pleasure is emphasized. 50 Shades is smutty because it’s a woman wanting sex. Stephen King has written some disturbing sex, but I’ve rarely heard people call his books “dirty”

      October 8, 2013
      |Reply
      • Sadly, you’re probably right. Multiplied, as Jenny mentioned, by the gender of the author.

        October 9, 2013
        |Reply
  31. I agree with you on all counts, but I wanted to comment on something very specific that you brought up, something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m trying to scrub my vocabulary lately of words that are actually super sexist or racist or whatever, because I don’t believe you can generally reclaim a word, especially one that has never historically been positive. So I’m not going to use “slut” colloquially, even as a supposed positive, because that word comes from the same root as mud and has always been about policing women and their sexuality. I won’t refer to myself as “bitchy” when I’m cranky and mean, because being cranky and mean isn’t gendered, but bitchy sure as hell is. I think calling myself names, even if I mean them positively, only gives other people permission to call me names, and how they mean it isn’t in my control. So, no, I don’t think dirty can ever be made a truly positive word, and I think you’re 100% right that there’s no point in pitting the concepts of sex/no sex against one another. I tend not to write sex scenes because I’m not very good at writing sex scenes. I don’t really think that means much one way or another.

    Yeah, so a lot of babbling that adds up to rock on.

    October 8, 2013
    |Reply
  32. I was reading an article about Michelle Duggar earlier, so I think that primed my brain for my reaction to this post…

    How can we even begin to debate the appropriateness of sex in literature when women can’t even be open about their sexuality (and people like the Duggars still receive attention from the media)!?

    October 9, 2013
    |Reply
  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Gosh!

    Ok, let me tell a little story: my best friend likes young adult romance books. A lot. It’s not a genre I enjoy myself, and a couple of years ago when I first realized how much she liked them, I enjoyed feeling quietly superior about my own taste. Then I realized that this was bullshit, because having a different taste in books than myself doesn’t make her any less of a smart, charming, and generally totally awesome person, and who am I to say these books are somehow less valid than the books I read?

    I think a trap people often fall into is thinking certain genres are more rife with detrimental themes than others. It’s not true, and I think people would be better served paying attention to whether or not a book has positive themes, rather than on whether or not a book has or doesn’t have vampires or sex in it.

    October 10, 2013
    |Reply
  34. My sister labels my romance novels as erotica. Like every adult romance I buy automatically gets called “erotica” even though it’s not. Yeah, they have a few sex scenes in them but that’s standard. My sister’s very weird like that and just loudly calls them erotica in public to embarrass me. Ugh. She doesn’t like to read sex scenes (which is fine) and thus she avoids ANY adult romances… but she’s totally missing out on some really quality books! I like YA but sometimes (a lot of the time) I NEED to read about heroines who have more life experience and don’t act like giant 12 year olds. I need more maturity in the story. I honestly don’t understand why she avoids them like the plague when it would be so easy to skip the five pages of a sex scene.

    October 12, 2013
    |Reply
  35. Sevoi
    Sevoi

    This seemed like the most relevant post to put this on: would it be possible for you to put a link somewhere in the navigation here on where to go to buy your books? Sidebar? I was searching for The Girlfriend, having been away from your blog for several months (pre-Wordpress move) and I had to go via your main website link, wait for the flash to load, click on the book, end up on Goodreads, *then* work out that of all the listed places to buy books there, Amazon seemed to be the correct one? If I was looking idly I’d have given up and gone away. (If not on here because of blogger-like removal reasons, then on your main website maybe? There’s a glaring lack of HERE’S WHERE YOU CAN BUY THIS buttons. Unless I am missing something obvious).

    October 21, 2013
    |Reply
  36. I just want to read a book about Space cowboy vampires playing baseball with elves who are also doctors.

    And then they all have sex.

    October 21, 2013
    |Reply
  37. Hey Jenny
    I wasn’t aware there were books labeled as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, but i thought your take on it is excellent.
    The two things that stick are your definitions of clean and dirty. Our perception of those words, and their link to sex is entirely wrong, and continues to support societies weird relationship with one of the most natural things in the world. Well said 🙂
    The second was the whole moral superiority thing, which is supported by the aforementioned society being weird thing. Why are some sentences/descriptions/subjects less or more ‘correct’? Where did we find that idea and why are people still stuck on it? Gah.
    Ooh, also, loved the ‘vampires are dead’ gag 🙂
    Mike

    October 24, 2013
    |Reply
  38. April
    April

    I like both kind of novels…depends on mood. Sometimes I want to read books with sex, other times I don’t. I’ve never had a problem with an author because he or she included sex.

    December 31, 2013
    |Reply
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    May 16, 2019
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