April 12, 2024

TikTok’s Romance Novel Revival Is Changing How We Think About Sex

Gill isn’t the only one: Social media creators are leading the spicy romance renaissance right now. Readers are more vocal than ever about reading — and enjoying — sexually explicit novels. Like many creators, Sanjana Basker’s BookTok following «started out as an accident. »

At one point, Basker devoured 500 romance novels in the span of four months. Now, her content includes romance book reviews and academic discussions about sex and intimacy in literature, and she says TikTok has given her «a really great place to find community» among fellow romance readers.

Caroline Green of @salty_caroline_reads turned to TikTok because «none of [her] friends were really big readers» and #BookTok and #BookTok gave her a chance to discover new-to-her romance reads like Sarah MacLean’s historical romance series Love by Numbers. Caroline now shares weekly «coffee chat» videos, in which she reviews her week in reading by analyzing each book’s themes or literary elements. Kennedy acknowledges the app’s power when it comes to attracting new readers. «TikTok, in particular, really brought the genre to the mainstream and allowed non-romance readers to realize that there is a lot more to the genre than bare-chested men on the covers,» she says.

Those covers have a lot to do with romance’s recent popularity. Wander through #BookTok and you’ll now see romance titles paired with candy-colored, illustrated jackets with cheeky titles like Tessa Bailey’s Fix Her Up and Lyssa Kay Adams’ The Bromance Book Club. This shift away from the more classic scantily-clad heroes and heroines is lowering one barrier that prevents readers from engaging with romance novels. There’s still unconscious bias and shame, says Gill, when discussing the turn toward the modern book art she calls «clinch covers» versus the older, more graphic style. «Do I necessarily want to take abs on the cover to my work lunchroom? » The answer: probably not, but this aversion to traditional romance covers is why so many readers resonate with these cartoon versions. We can read them in public and keep them on our bedside tables without fear of stigma.

Romance novel covers have come a long way.

Book cover or Sarah MacLean's Nine Rules When Romancing A Rake with a woman in a ruffled red gown posing in front of a. . .

Beyond carnal pleasure, there’s more power in the sex scenes depicted in these books. A well-written sex scene can explore pleasure, consent, emotional intimacy, and the dynamics of attraction. Andrea Lystrup, a relationship and intimacy therapist with an MS in Couple and Family Therapy from the University of Maryland, highlights one of the benefits of reading sexy romance novels: «Women predominantly have responsive desire, meaning that they are not interested in sex unless they are responding to sexually relevant stimuli. »

What qualifies as «sexually relevant stimuli» varies widely from person to person, but can include things like emotional closeness or having non-sexual touch. Often, romance books can be included in that stimuli. While many readers aren’t directly reenacting the sexy scenes in these books, the books can be «a vehicle for activating that desire,» says Lystrup. Exposure to types of sexual interaction, including masturbation, foreplay, and different kinks, helps readers understand themselves and their sexual desires with more clarity.

But does that mean romance novels are the best form of sexual education? Not necessarily. While romance novels certainly expose readers to different types of sex, Kennedy thinks of these novels as a «discover-your-desires education» rather than a guide to your sex life. She adds that romance books «are entertainment, not manuals. [They] might show you how to voice certain issues, like asking a partner if they’re on birth control… but it is not providing sexual health education. » That includes comprehensive education on topics like contraception and STDs.

Lauren Consul LMFT, a relationship and sex therapist, agrees that a common red flag in a sex scene is «when it perpetuates the kind of sex we see in movies: foreplay is two seconds and then the woman’s ready to go… and then they both orgasm beautifully at the same time. » Rather than leaning solely on romance novels for sexual education, Consul recommends Emily Nagasaki’s Come As You Are  — a non-fiction book that explores redefining women’s sexuality through the lenses of science and social standards — as supplementary reading.

Romance readers are turning to spicy novels not for the logistical education of how to have sex, but for what types of sex we can have. We’re reading not to learn how to put on a condom, but to explore the possibilities that sex affords us. Lystrup says it best: «We’re trying to give ourselves the education we didn’t get. «

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