At this time of year, we talk a lot about romance, particularly romance novels. There’s a lot of discourse about this. One of the conversations that almost inevitably emerges is of the line between “sex” and “love”—and from there, the line between romance and porn.
One reason we give romance novels a bad rap—aside from calling them escapist nonsense of zero artistic value—is that they’re “dirty.”
This discussion suggests that there’s no literary merit in the romance novel because it contains sex scenes. More than that, though, we label those sex scenes erotica or pornography—they have no artistic merit. It’s funny given how much litfic has sex scenes, or how many fashion shoots have naked women in provocative positions. But, you know, Playboy shoots have little to no artistic merit—like photographers don’t stage them to elicit a specific response in the viewer.
Of course, as with most things, there’s something larger going in the background of this discourse. Something … sexist.
Clean vs. Dirty Romance
Purity culture is probably the biggest problem here. It’s the reason we term romances that don’t contain sex scenes “clean romance.”
While this is easy shorthand, it also implies something: sex is dirty.
And sure, we use that language every day: dirty talk, filthy animals, doing the nasty. We construct sex itself as an impure act; after partaking in it, one would no longer be clean (pure, innocent). Instead, you’re dirty (tainted, corrupted).
This has long roots in many religions, Christianity most certainly being one. The early church constructed sex as a sin; the purest possible life was to abstain from sex, taking a vow of celibacy, and devoting oneself to God. Monks and nuns were thus closer to God.
Why was sex a sin? Aside from Christianity hating on fun, it was an unclean act that “fouled” the body, which was a God-given gift. There’s also that whole thing about a serpent and Eve and the apple. The implication of Genesis is that humans were pure and innocent until they gained the knowledge of sex. At that point, they were corrupted by sin and shame.
Early Church leaders did know that humans needed to have sex to beget children. So they sanctified the union of a man and woman through marriage. By taking the sacrament of marriage, one could mitigate the sinfulness of sex. The couple would propagate and beget new little Christians for God, which was A Good Thing. Therefore, sex done in the service of making more Christians—through a legitimate union—wasn’t nearly as sinful. You still weren’t as holy as a nun or a monk, but hey, ascetic vows were not for the average person. They were for the most holy and devout. Not everyone can marry Jesus.
But this is where the language of “dirty” and “clean” comes from with regard to sex. Every time we use it, we’re invoking a distinctly Christian paradigm that views sex as inherently sinful.
A Paradigm Meant to Control Female Sexuality
If you hadn’t connected this to patriarchy and misogyny, you probably haven’t had a chance to study much medieval history. Or much Victorian history. Or much history at all.
Western culture is super fun.
All right, so in the Middle Ages, women were “less than” men. They were the weaker sex, and they were also closer to nature. This made them much more susceptible to temptation—think about how the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s also where we get the idea of witches being predominately female. Many “witches” were likely pagan healers, whom the Church viewed as a threat, and thus called them servants of Satan. Women’s close connection with nature made them more easily corrupted by magic and devils.
It also meant they were little sexpots, with insatiable appetites. (That’s totally inverse to how we view men and women today. That shows us notions of masculinity and femininity change over time, which means we make it all up!) So, women were seen as needing to be controlled by men, particularly when it came to sex. A husband would keep his wife’s desires in check and lead her on the path of righteousness.
The idea of sex-as-sin is a control mechanism for those who engaged in sex outside the marital bower—although it happened. (Check out the cicisbeo, a “gallant” figure who was sometimes the accepted lover of a married woman). Don’t forget Europe was based on the patriarchal system of primogeniture, which meant a man’s first son inherited his property. Particularly in the case of nobility or royalty, you wanted to be sure that kid was yours, not ye olde milkman’s.
Marriage is thus a convention that serves male interests in controlling “wayward” female bodies. The idea that women love sex and have fewer morals about getting it is also there. So marriage, coupled with the Church’s outlook on sex, becomes a method of controlling female sexuality in medieval Europe.
Spoiler Alert: It Doesn’t Get Better
So what, right? That was the Dark Ages! Clearly, we evolved in our thinking nowadays. Things have to be better!
Eh, maybe the old saying “it gets worse before it gets better” applies here. Flash-forward a couple of centuries to Victorian England. There’s a huge crisis about what it means to “be a man” and what it means to “be a woman.”
That’s something our society is still wrestling with 200 years later.
Victorian fears around sexuality usually intersected with imperialism. Victorian morality was seen as a mark of civility. It proved their fitness to “guide” the other peoples of the world. Christian notions around some bodies being closer to nature and prone to sin are echoed in racist constructions of many peoples. Victorians may have thought of some peoples as “innocents,” free of the knowledge of sin or shame. Alternately, they may have thought of them as “savages,” corrupted by sin and “like animals.”
Victorian Christianity was on a moral crusade to save them all from themselves, by bringing them Christian civilization and morality.
Victorian women were innocents who were almost incorruptible; they needed to be protected, at every stage, by a man—a father, a husband, or a brother, or perhaps a son in old age. Women were paragons of virtue, “angels in the household,” who reared children and provided comfort for men.
Women were also important in upholding society—they taught children (“innocents,” who needed to be “tamed” from their “natural, wild” state); they could “tame” men’s wildest desires by remaining innocent, and men would be inclined to protect virtue; and they could help to “civilize” the other peoples of the world.
In this, women becomes innocents—almost childlike—and “angels”—unearthly creatures above the baseness of sex. Women were thus “frigid” or “cold.”
This is the era of “lie back and think of England.” The idea of creating more good Christians is now replaced by fervor for the nation-state, for empire—for “civilization.”
The idea that men must still guide or protect women to keep them from “falling” figures largely here. Victorians tended to see those engaged in prostitution as “fallen women.”
Fallen women were objects of pity or scorn, for they engaged in sex work. If the woman enjoyed her work—like Madame Pompadour as mistress of the king of France—then she was an object of scorn. She liked sex! OMG. How sinful and awful. She had reverted to a “baser” state, being, again, closer to nature. (There’s a connection between enjoying sex and being decadent, something Christianity tends to frown on. It’s also something the Victorians would have keenly felt, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.)
If a woman seemed to be doing it out of sheer desperation, then she would be an object of pity. Often, charitable societies attempted to “rescue” these fallen women—something that we still hear in social work today.
Poor Souls or Empowered Women?
The same angel/whore dichotomy still informs our attitudes toward women and sex today. If a girl doesn’t like it, she’s a prude; if she gets around, though, she’s a slut.
Sex workers are often treated as objects of pity. The assumption is that they must hate the work, that they’ve been driven there by desperation, and that they’re being exploited and abused.
And in some cases, this is certainly true. Sex work has many risks, and some involved in it—perhaps Black trans women most of all—are in danger. Yet some feel they have no other choice. They need to do something to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads. Others are desperate for cash or drugs. Yet others are coerced by pimps and brothel owners, human traffickers.
Yet we’re wrong if we think every person in sex work is only there because they’re desperate or a victim of coercion. We’d be wrong to suggest that every person involved in sex work feels they need “a rescue.”
Sex work, for some, is an active choice. They look at their options—be exploited by Wal-Mart or Amazon, or go do sex work. Sex work may pay more than working at minimum wage; it may entail more control over one’s work schedule. It might even provide better protection, if one works in a brothel or for a pimp who will stand up to clients.
Disempowerment is not necessarily guaranteed either. Some women actively choose sex work because it pays better or even because they enjoy it. It is still exploitative in some ways, but then again, almost all work in a capitalist system is. Empowerment comes from making an active, informed choice about that’s the “least” exploitative or “best” option for you.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t risks or that some people engage in sex work for reasons beyond their control. Some people are in these situations. Yet it’s still wrong to assume all sex workers find themselves in the “poor souls” category.
We tend to assume that though, because we’re working under very Victorian notions about sexuality. Sex is sinful and particularly for women. Sex outside the marital bower is bad. Women enjoying sex or actively choosing it is not something that patriarchal capitalist society can abide by.
I specifically point to control over female bodies here. Capitalism much prefers that the exploitation of those bodies happens in low-wage, part-time jobs. How dare women and femme-presenting people try to exercise some control over their labor, their bodies, their sexuality.
We can see this in how a job at Wal-Mart is often just as exploitative as sex work. I already mentioned low pay and unpredictable hours. One week, you may have 35 hours, which is just shy of full-time; the next you have 10. Can’t ensure your rent is paid this month because you’re not getting enough hours? Too bad, get another job. Oh, now that job’s conflicting with our job or you need time off? Bye! And that’s to say nothing of how abusive customers can be—and how cowardly management can be when customers choose to actively abuse frontline staff.
Suddenly, Wal-Mart doesn’t look like a great option. Yet we’ll often suggest sex workers should attempt to get back to something like that, because that’s a “legitimate” job. Thus, we treat it as somehow better than sex work.
Sometimes, the only difference is that it’s legal for Wal-Mart to fuck you in the course of your employment.
Purity Culture Invades Romance to Control Sexuality
All right, what does any of that have to do with romance novels? Funny you should ask.
Sex work extends beyond prostitution to include porn stars, strippers, sugar babies, OnlyFans, and anyone producing erotica. Since romance novels often contain explicit sex scenes, some people would lump them in there as well.
There’s also the fact that the readership of romance is largely female. Thus, romance novels are a dangerous site of female sexual expression.
That’s why we all kind of titter about “Grandma’s dirty books.” (It’s always why we grabbed the dang things when we were 12 or so.) And it’s why we have debates about precisely what level of “heat” our smutty novels should have in them.
The use of the term clean romance invokes that same pseudo-religious paradigm—that sex is somehow filthy, dirty, unclean. Even reading about it would besmirch your virtue. That, of course, plays back into the tension between medieval conceptions of female sexuality and Victorian notions of the female as “frigid.”
Clean romance is somehow morally superior, while dirty romance is temptation. Women who read (and enjoy) dirty romance are the sexpots of the medieval imagination—the same “whores” who need a rescue.
(A Note about Personal Preference for Clean Romance)
As a very small aside, I’m not attempting to coerce reader preference or choice. Sex-repulsed asexuals might prefer to avoid romances with sex scenes. That is quite legitimate. The same is true for others who do not identify as asexual, who merely don’t want to read about other people’s sexual exploits. That is a legitimate choice.
More what I’m arguing is that the terminology we use to talk about the various heat levels in romance is stigmatizing, quite on purpose. We may not even connect the dots here. We don’t realize that women and AFAB people, femme-presenting people are expected to perform sexuality in a very particular way. If you’ve ever mocked someone for “being a slut” or felt that sex was shameful, that’s the larger cultural narrative influencing your perceptions of a very natural, normal act.
In sum: it’s fine to say something like, “I prefer not to read that,” or even “I don’t like sex myself.”
That is all well and fine. We do need to be careful that we’re not policing others. Often, we take those personal preferences and begin censuring others for not behaving in a way we find acceptable. That’s where we begin plying that larger cultural narrative that seeks to control female and female-presenting bodies. The language we use to talk about romance, in particular, often reflects that larger cultural impulse.
Let’s Stop Talking about Clean and Dirty Romance
So, the solution to this is simply to stop using “clean romance” as a euphemism for “doesn’t contain sex.” It’s virtue-signalling; it invokes all this pseudo-religious crap that doesn’t really belong here; and it contributes to misogyny within our larger culture. Why should we censure people for reading sex scenes or enjoying sex? Why should anyone be ridiculed or made to feel shame around picking a “dirty” book?
“Sweet” and “spicy” are better. They move us further away from the virtue-signalling, although they don’t get us all the way there. (“Sweet” is often a euphemism for innocence, and it is very much associated with the “good girl” paradigm.) Heat levels are even closer to neutral. They draw on that “spicy” idea, but they refuse to suggest a high-heat novel is “better” or “worse” than a low-heat story.
That, in turn, means we don’t need to worry about exercising preference as readers. I can prefer high heat novels, while other people prefer stories that rank a zero on the spice scale. Individual tastes are as much at play here as they are when we walk into a restaurant. Some people want the spiciest thing on the menu. Others would much prefer not to feel like their mouths are on fire. And that’s totally fine.
So, let’s leave this nonsense about “clean romance” where it belongs—back in the Victorian era with the notion of frigid female sexuality; back in the Middle Ages with the idea that women are the weaker sex, closer to nature, and needing male guidance to live pure, moral lives.