I’m Not Dirty: Why Calling Books “Clean” Is A Problem

For some reason, calling romance and Young Adult books “clean” has come into fashion. In the romance world, it means books without on-the-page sex. In YA, it usually refers to books without cursing, sex, drugs, and alcohol. (Once again, no one cares about violence.) In the past couple of days, I’ve seen both YA and Romancelandia twitter having a discussion about “clean” books.

Romance author Sarah MacLean drew our attention to this sanctimonious headline:

This thread from book blogger Vicky Who Reads has the conversation going in YA twitter:

I don’t have a problem with romance books without sex or teens choosing to read books without certain elements. It’s the word “clean” I take issue with.

Words mean things. Words are important. That’s why we’re readers, right? That’s why this site exists. And the word “clean” when applied to books is a clear value judgement against books that aren’t clean. Not “clean” = dirty. “Those books” are deemed less-than, worthless, like a used tissue.

Sex isn’t dirty. Public toilets are dirty. (Sex in a public toilet…I digress.) Sex is not shameful and no one should ever be shamed for enjoying consensual sexual activity, especially within the pages of a book. This is the kind of talk that leads “good girls” to hide sexual crimes committed against them. This is the kind of talk that contributes to rape culture.

Cursing and underage drinking aren’t dirty. People who do these things, in addition to women who enjoy sex, are not dirty or unclean or soiled. Whether you mean to or not, calling books without these things “clean” tells teens that if they have had sex or curse or have had an alcoholic drink, they are irrevocably contaminated. It implies that people who enjoy on-the-page sex in their romances should be embarrassed.

Not having sex in a book doesn’t make it morally better. In fact, there are quite a few books advertised as “clean reads” that have harmful themes in them, especially in regards to prescribed gender roles, rape culture, and plenty—plenty—of violence. There is a book currently being advertised as a “clean read” that has an illustration of dripping blood all over the cover. But, hey, no one with breasts takes off their shirt, so it’s “clean.”

Books without sex, profanity, alcohol, drugs, and violence definitely have their place in the market and in literature. But the way we talk about these books matters. Calling a book “clean” in comparison to others is judgmental, smug, harmful, and imprecise.

Publishers and authors are in the business of words. I trust they can find a better, less holier-than-thou way to say what they mean. Unless, of course, this is exactly what they mean.

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