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Dot, dot, dot – the difference between clean and dirty?

Caravaggio: Amor vincit Omnia

Some things get to me. One of those things is the label “clean” which is used to refer to books that lack any sexual content. Why? Because per definition, the antonym to clean is dirty, ergo all books that do have sexual content are soiled and tawdry. I also find it interesting that there is a perceived need to label lovestories as clean – sex-free – but should such novels contain violence, even brutal death, that’s okay. Readers, apparently, are more disturbed by explicit depictions of love-making than they are of murders.
Hmm. My books have sex in them – my protagonists are consenting adults in loving relationships, and in my experience such relationships tend to include sex. Do I perceive my books as dirty? Absolutely not – they are an attempt at depicting the complexities in life, spiced up with time travelling, historical events, evil brothers, rogues and ruffians, religious persecution, conflicts with Native Americans, the hardships of colonising new land, indentured servitude – and love. My leading couple would not have survived all that life throws in their way had they not had each other, and yes, they take great comfort and pleasure in each other.
Perrault_Leon_Jean_Basile_Cupids_ArrowsPersonally, I am not a major fan of these so called “clean reads”. He kissed her passionately, took her by the hand and led her to the waiting bed. “Tonight you shall be mine” he said. Turn the page and they’re having breakfast – a classic dot, dot, dot moment. I do, however, fully respect that some people don’t want more detail than this (and yes, books with plenty of sex but without an emotional context tend to be devastatingly tedious – and sort of sad). My gripe is with the label as such. I also find it somewhat amusing when “clean” is suddenly equated with “Christian”. What, so Christian people don’t have sex? Poor them… (Plus, I must hasten to add, I have several lovely Christian people among my friends who would never presume to judge – or are all that thrilled by the idea of “clean” books.)
My books have – among all the other stuff listed above – a strong spiritual theme. My 20th century time traveller is plunged into the confusing and downright frightening world of the 17th century, where she encounters people for whom God is a given, and what religion you belong to is the difference between being persecuted or being a persecuter. My Alex is not religious – she is the product of an agnostic upbringing and initially she finds all this God stuff weird and amusing. But as time passes, as she is forced to come to terms with her new, substantially harsher, environment, something happens. Alex Graham, born Lind and raised as a hard-nosed realist, develops a personal, if unconventional, faith in God.
Of course, seeing as my books don’t fall into the “clean” category, chances are no “Christian” readers will ever read about Alex and her relationship with God. As if God would object to people having sex…Ha! I’m thinking there’s a lot of stuff out there that He finds far less palatable – such as all the violence perpetrated in His name.
Love Image-François_Pascal_Simon_Gérard_006“Wait, wait”, some people will say, “the clean label is really useful to ensure teenagers don’t read too much of the really hot and steamy stuff.” I’m not sure how to break this to all those concerned parents, but teenagers generally read what they want to read anyway – or watch explicit videos on youtube, or discover things for themselves when all those hormones brewing in their bodies take over. IMO, teenagers don’t need to be protected from sex. They need to be taught to set a high value on their bodies and on intimacy, so as to ensure they never do anything they don’t want to do.
I recently read a book in which there was a lot of violence. People died left, right and centre, and some of these killing machines wore crucifixes and prayed before dispatching some more baddies to hell. It was a good, complex read, and there was even some lovemaking – albeit more of the dot dot dot type. This book could, potentially, be labelled as borderline “clean” – despite all that death. Makes my head spin. I for one would prefer to have my teenage daughter reading Diana Gabaldon’s fantastic if explicit sex scenes to having her read about people having their heads shot off. But that may just be me…
I fully appreciate that some people DON’T want to read about sex. At all. Just as I don’t want to read about zombies. At all. But can we please change the label to something that, per definition, isn’t derrogatory to all the other books? How about “non-explicit”? Or why not “dot dot dot”? And as for me, I will continue devouring books in which love – all aspects of love – are depicted. Dirty? Not at all – in fact, it’s very, very beautiful.

30 thoughts on “Dot, dot, dot – the difference between clean and dirty?”

  1. Great post! Nothing better than a bit of sensually explicit romancing within a book, else the real-time element is lost to pseudo fantasy of peckish kisses (no hanky-panky) and virgin births. For those of who also pen steamy or sensual novels set within the Georgian period and Regency era are almost bound by publishing etiquette to add the correct label i.e. Sweet Traditional (Clean), Sensual Traditional (touchy feely), or “Steamy content”. Either that or suffer the consequence of a tight knicker reader who will promptly slam the book for gratuitous sex even if the sex scene is far from gratuitous and, lacks any sense of violence. But even so, violence in sexual terms (rape) was no less in the past than it is today, and whilst some authors shy away from the awful humiliation, shame, and trauma a victim of sexual violence suffers, there are those of us who will bring that kind of plight to the fore.

    1. Thank you for your comment – and I agree with you re the unfortunate fact that rape has always been around. For me, (and, I know from your books, for you) rape is an act of violence and has little to do with sex.

  2. There is a lot of truth in what you write here. I don’t like the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ either – those are adjectives that we used as kids (especially the latter) when we went behind the bike sheds to read a magazine or a book our parents would not have approved of. I think there’s good literature and there’s bad literature, and THOSE adjectives mostly don’t depend on the amount of sex or violence contained therein. It’s how the author handles these things that matters.

    1. All of us live our lives as we think best. All of us should have the possibility of reading what we want to read – without denigrating the choices of others :). I too believe there’s a purpose .

  3. Anna, you should see some of the fights readers and writers have over sex in romances! Really bloody, pitched battles, and the war is ongoing.
    There’s more going on here that just sex or the lack thereof in books. There’s hypocrisy, as well as power plays. You must do things my way! No sex! (But we’ll do it later.)
    We’re not talking about porn or advocate people fornicating in the streets. Sex is part of life, and even those who rail the loudest against sex have done it.

    1. Once again: I have NO problem with people not wanting to read about sex – I can even understand if they want some sort of flagging to guide them to the books they feel comfortable reading. Just don’t use a label that indirectly soils all other books.

  4. Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)

    Anna you have many valid points in this post and I applaud you for talking about it. I prefer to refer to the regencies I pen as either sweet, kissing and lusting in the heart allowed, or cozy (cosy) same as sweet but the murder is done off the printed, so to speak, page but the body is found.
    This is what I like to write but it won’t prevent me from reading a book with explicit sex scenes in it.

  5. Thank you, Anna. Well said. I nearly died when a one star review for one of my books recently was headed ‘NOT A CLEAN READ!’. There are hard earned love scenes in my books and probably only one and they don’t tend to be long (hardly the ‘pages and pages of explicit sex’ decried by the reviewer!)… I do not write ‘dirty’ books and as a practising Christian myself, I am appalled by the hijacking of romances by conservative Christians who think they speak for us all… Don’t get me started! Shared!

    1. Everyone is entitled to their view and to their preferred reads – conservative Christians as much as anyone else. I am mostly irritated by the label as such. Also, I have this revolutionary suggestion to those who are irritated by the odd sex-scene: SKIP those pages Having read the book you refer to above, I would say this is a prime example of a beautiful love-scene in a sensual context.

  6. Great article, Anna. I’ve used and am comfortable with the term ‘sweet’ (although even then ran afoul of a reader who objected to an off the page implied sex scene between a husband and a wife), but ‘clean’? Sex is wonderful, powerful, a whole heap of fun, and (so my Catholic faith tells me) sacramental. For a couple in love not to think about sex; for a married couple not to engage in it; is tragic, not sweet, and certainly not clean.

  7. Great post! I agree that the “clean” designation is problematic as it suggests anything else is “dirty.” Funnily enough, I just met a neighbor of mine down at the gym and we got into a conversation about a “clean” romance she was reading. She said she likes them because there’s “not of that nasty stuff I don’t want to read–or shouldn’t want to read.” I didn’t tell her what kind of books I write! I agree that rape and other forms of violence are–and should be–more disturbing than consensual sex in fiction and like all of you, I try to write it in a healthy context. Sensual, yes, but I wouldn’t say it was “dirty.” Thanks for sharing!

  8. Pingback: Dot, dot, dot – the difference between clean and dirty? | Jodi's Luscious Book Reviews

  9. Good blog, Anna!
    Personally, I don’t mind a little squeezin’ and smoochin’. I’m certainly not a prude and don’t look for ‘clean’ reads, but I’d rather stay out of people’s bedrooms. I don’t particularly like watching people have sex. What a writer finds sexy may not be sexy to any given reader, so if the writer can leave a little to the imagination, the reader can fill in the blanks with their imagination and always think it sexy.

  10. I wasn’t aware there was a clean vs dirty read debate. Clearly I don’t read ‘clean’ books or no doubt I would. However that doesn’t mean that I consider what I read as dirty.
    If what I’m reading has sex in it, I prefer it to be non violent, consensual and in context but I can live with explicit. If it’s a bit too much for me, I just flick the page. If I’m honest I’m more likely to be offended by the awful way that some sex scenes are written than the act being described. I don’t see how you can write novels with normal relationships that are realistic until you reach the bedroom door and suddenly you have to pretend that ‘that sort of thing’ doesn’t happen.
    I don’t want someone else deciding what is suitable or not for me too read and deciding that if it doesn’t fulfil their criteria it is ‘unclean’. As the saying goes, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’.
    I think we’ve got far greater problems in the world to worry about than being offended by something we don’t need to read if we don’t want to.

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