I’m a dark fantasy writer, and fantasy is my preferred reading genre. But I noticed that several Instagram authors, as well as people who are members of a Facebook group for writers I belong to, use the term “clean romance”. I had a inkling what it meant, and looked it up.
Yep. “Clean”, or “Wholesome” in some circles, is exactly what I guessed: romance without the sex. And yes, that annoyed me. Well, annoyed is a light term for the emotion I felt.
The explanations I’ve read about this subgenre claim that “clean” and “wholesome” just means no sex, that kissing and hugging’s OK (maybe), and this allows the romance to shine through.
Huh. OK. But why not use the term light romance or something along those lines? Because “clean”, when it comes to love, has a specific meaning, and the opposite of that is “dirty”. When you claim “clean romance” is one that has no sex, you’re automatically saying “dirty” is a romance that does.
And that, dear reader, is what western societies have been telling girls, teens and women for eons–you have sex, you’re filthy. You have sex, you’re disgusting. You have sex, you’re a licked lollipop with flies on it. No one will ever want to marry you because no one could possibly want you.
Yes, this term is used on purpose. Yes, it plays on the stereotype of women as either “good” or “bad”, and promotes the unhealthy attitude that sex is dirty. If you don’t want to write sex scenes, fine. But don’t pretend you’re not making a judgmental statement using the terms “clean” and “wholesome”. You are, and it’s a misogynistic one that shows how little you respect women and girls.
The more often girls, teens and women are exposed to the idea that “clean” means “wholesome” means “good”, if something terrible does happen to them (rape, for instance), they’re more likely to see themselves as “dirty“, a slut, and unsalvageable. Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at fourteen and raped, and I remember how so many people wondered why she didn’t try to escape her captors. She said it was because she realized she fell into the “dirty” category after what happened. Who wants a used piece of bubblegum?
No one. Smart assumed, as she had been taught by her family and her church, that she was damaged beyond redemption. And that is what “clean” romance is implicitly referring to; good girls don’t do icky things like sex outside of marriage, and if they do, they’re no longer clean, so no longer good or worthy.
There are booklists titled, “Clean Romances that won’t make you feel dirty”. So yeah, the term is on purpose. It’s meant to highlight that sex is dirty–at least for women (and if you say that’s not true, peek in on the Duggar saga).
Women have been talking about the harmful effects of such language for years, because words do mean something. But, as usual, since it’s women’s voices, they’ve been ignored.
I have seen the harmful effects of “clean” vs “dirty”. I’ve watched the self-destruction and pain play out because molestation victims struggled to see themselves as still viable human beings instead of nasty, worthless sluts. Some of the families even used “dirty” to describe the victims, girls who were considered despicable liars and outcast because they were now spoiled. So sure, continue to use the word “clean” in relation to romance–and remember, there’s a little girl, a teen, a woman out there who internalizes the reminder they are a hopeless, dirty monster.
There’s nothing wrong with writing and reading a romance without sex, but is it really too much to ask to use another term that isn’t seeped in hate and misogyny?
Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!