“There’s No Such Thing As Cold, Only Less Heat.”

I’ve always loved Alton Brown. He presented cooking as a science and an art for as long as I can remember. It’s that presentation of something we fundamentally have in our lives- food – and science that always interest me. It’s with this in mind that I want to write about how we present sex in books.

“Recipe writers hate to write about heat. They despise it. Because there aren’t proper words for communicating what should be done with it.” ~ Alton Brown

In the same way that cooks talk about heat, writers of all genres talk about sex in books. We use different words like heat-level, steamy, scorching, pepper ratings, close door, open door, explicit, fade-to-black, and (the somewhat dreaded-in my opinion) “clean” as descriptors for how much sex is present in a book.

Why? Well, the main reason, the one that we often come back to, is some combination of religion and politics.

The pendulum swings about every other generation on how open and honest we are about human sexuality. I read a recent article, specifically about bisexuality, where it seems we’re okay with talking about sexuality, but not sexy itself. A basic, “read the label, but don’t give me a visual.” Somehow queer people came out of the closet, and yet, the sex we have is still considered too explicit and too illicit to be talked about.

We’ve seen a recent backlash, via payment instruments, against legitimate sex workers and erotic romance authors. Sometimes, even well-known romance authors have been disappeared from the Zon for a few days because of various complaints about the sex contained within their books. LGBTQ authors have been ratings bombed. Anti-abortion and anti-trans legislation continues to be passed at the state level. And all most of us want to do is be allowed to have control of our bodies and express the full range of our adult sexual selves in safe and consensual ways.

Having given my opinion of how we wound up here, I’m going to throw in something controversial:

Maybe books should have ratings on them, like movies and music.

Not because I want some Evangelical-run board of ethics deciding whether I can write about pegging, or fucking, or count how many times a character says “shit” or “fuck” in my book, but because if we had a system of ratings from G to XXX for books, I might figure out what books I’d enjoy before I even open them.

Some days I like a PG-13 movie, and some days I watch porn. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m an adult and I can choose. That’s the point.

What annoys me is that I can start reading a book, and someone will say, this is super steamy, and it will literally have one kiss and a hand job that fades to black, and now I’m annoyed. Because not only where my expectations not met, but the book becomes lackluster to me because my expectations weren’t the right ones going into it. I’ve read low-heat (lots of kissing and implied sex) books and enjoyed them. I’ve read monster-fucking, sword-crossing, dildos on fire books and surprised myself when I realized I wasn’t in the mood for it (though I admit – that’s very, very rare).

Besides the words we use, there’s a whole debate about covers and what they signal to the reader. There is an unspoken code about colors, what the characters are wearing, what positions they have, if there are animals, and even what fonts represent. These can relate to the genre, the tone, the setting, the overall bawdiness of the book. However, with the breakdown of traditional publishing, and the rise of indies and self-pub (these are not bad things btw), we’ve lost some of the general unwritten rules.

Side note: I fucking hate unwritten rules btw. I hate that publishers dictate color schemes. I hate when you can tell what year they published a book based on the cover. There are some exceptions to the cover thing because of shifts in art, but when you have a year where everything has abstract objects, to another year where everything has flowers and snakes or animals on the covers, it gets annoying. When you can’t pick out a YA from an adult book because you can only do so much with illustrated covers in either direction (Because photography and models are expensive). It’s annoying, and it’s hard to navigate for anyone publishing a book, let alone anyone trying to figure out what they want to read.

So this is where we could get some help from organizations like Science Fiction Fantasy Writers or The Authors Guild might want to help like they did with Amazon returns. Help authors put a system in place that will help readers understand what’s in the books!

This isn’t just for romance either! I read a Sci-fi book recently that had on-page rape, and sex, and a lot of very graphic violence. That’s fine – these are themes I don’t have a problem with seeing in movies or reading. What I would have loved was a content warning. The author writes adult themes, so I was prepared for that, but giving a general heads up about it would have been nice.

If that Sci-fi book was a movie, it would have been “Rated R for: sex, violence, and depictions of smoking.” I still would have watched it. I still would have read it. However, I would have known exactly what I was getting into when I started the book.

If the guilds have a say in the system, and writers have a way of gauging where their books are on that system, then we might reach that wonderful place that Ursula K. Le Guin described in an essay about genres not really making a difference. But that might give up one problem for another.

After Care:
Here’s a good write up about the essay I mentioned earlier.

Ursual K Le Guin’s essay called “Genre: A word only a Frenchman could love,” was republished in “Words Are My Matter.” A collection of essays, talks, reviews, and book introductions that are well worth the read.

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