Labels can be good. They are a way to pass on information quickly. For example, if I describe a story as gritty noir, the person I’m talking to can safely assume that it will deal with dark subject matter, be graphic in describing suffering and violence, and there’s almost certainly going to be deaths within the story. On the other hand, if I describe something as a beach read then they know it is relatively light in terms of subject matter, happy endings are guaranteed, and the pacing will be quick but not intense.
|And if I describe it as a George R.R. Martin read, then you know to buckle in for a long ride.|
Sometimes the terminology used for labels brings its own baggage and issues. And one of the most problematic examples of that is describing romance novels with no sex (or only closed-door/fade-to-black sex) as clean.
Our society already has a challenge with sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. There is only a narrow window where it is accepted: when a woman is young, attractive, and thin. (And there’s a corresponding issue that women who do fall into that category are excessively sexualized and are therefore made vulnerable to sexual predators. And for those who aren’t sure what I mean, take the usual drunken rape scenario and imagine it with a grandmother in her mid-sixties instead of a college girl in her early twenties. The level of societal outrage would be much higher.) Women who are older, not conventionally attractive, or overweight are not expected to be sexual beings and are often mocked if they defy those expectations. Luckily for all of us outside-the-mold gals, we have romance novels with a wide variety of heroines who get happily-ever-afters in all walks of their lives.
To be clear, I don’t have an issue with whether or not a story graphically portrays sex. I’ve read wonderful novels where everything after a kiss fades to black. I’ve read wonderful novels that were about the hero or heroine’s erotic adventures and were 90% or more graphic sex scenes. In the interest of bias disclosure, I’ll admit that my preference falls in between those two extremes: where there are some steamy sex scenes but they don’t dominate the plot.
But I do have a problem with using the term “clean” to describe the fade-to-black end of the spectrum. Because it implies that the other end is “dirty” and that is an unfair designation and perpetuates the stereotype of women’s sexuality as unnatural and undesirable. I much prefer the term “sweet” romance or using the same system they would use for films. A G rating would be a book with no sex. PG would be some implied, but not explicit (closed door/fade to black). R would be explicit and X would be a sex-dominant plot. We’d need something between PG and R for books that were steamy but not necessarily explicit. Maybe an S for sexy or steamy?
At the end of the day, quibbling over a single word is a small thing. But small things have a habit of building up, especially where labels are concerned. Because labels are verbal short-hands, which means that they carry baggage by definition. I think it’s worthwhile to make sure that they’re only carrying the baggage that we intend to convey and aren’t loaded down with things that are unnecessary or potentially harmful.
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