Is It Bad to Say Clean Reads?

The term “clean-reads” is sometimes misunderstood, and these misinterpretations are limiting and inaccurate. I am often told, “You shouldn’t use the term ‘clean reads’ because it implies that sex is dirty.” This is an erroneous assumption.

While there are extremes in every situation, by and large, when someone is looking for a Clean Read, it’s not because they think sex, sexuality, intimacy, etc. is dirty. It usually simply means that they don’t like to read about those things in explicit detail. They prefer that if sex does happen, it is “closed-door” or “fade to black.”

The idea that someone thinks sex is bad, wrong, or dirty simply because they don’t like to read it described in detail is also harmful and incorrect.

Clean Reads Aren’t Just Romance

Not only that, but a Clean Read is much more than romance books! (Clean reads are more than a genre; they are descriptors that can be applied to almost any genre.) Clean Romance is a rather large sub-genre, so it makes sense that most people think about it when they hear ‘clean read.’ However, it’s not only about romance (and it’s not just Christian books, either). I narrate in almost every genre out there as The Clean Reads Queen, but they are all considered “clean.”

Clean Reads aren’t only in reference to sexual content; there are other subjects and topics that readers may not want in their choice of literature. In most other entertainment industries a rating system is provided to inform the consumer of the content they are about to consume. There is no governing body to evaluate book content, so it is up to the reader to decide what they want and don’t want to read about.

To me, this is broken down into four categories.

Romance in Clean Reads

I’ll start here since it’s the biggest one people think of. Clean Romance, also sometimes called Sweet Romance or Closed-Door romance, generally means books that either don’t have sexual content or, if there is sex, it happens behind closed doors and is not described on the page. For me personally, it means clothing stays on, and any physical intimacy that does occur isn’t explicit.

Can I be real here? To me, steamy romance books are akin to pornography. Pornography, to me, is content created to elicit sexual feelings in the consumer. Pornography is something I choose to stay away from. I don’t feel sex should be used for entertainment. I know that sex sells, but I don’t personally think it should be used in that way.

And this is NOT because I think sex is dirty; quite the opposite, I think it’s wonderful and beautiful and sacred.

Language in Clean Reads

This is the next topic that comes up often when people think of Clean Reads. Generally speaking, a Clean Read doesn’t have much swearing (if any); if it does, it’s pretty mild. My hard line is the F-word. I do not use that word in life or narrate books with it, and as a consumer, I do not listen to books or watch shows that use it (thanks apps like VidAngel and the Parents Guide on IMDB, I don’t have to!).

Words have power! That’s what is amazing about this industry. Unfortunately, some words are offensive or hurtful. Even if they are not considered “swear words,” some words can be profane, derogatory, discriminatory, or hurtful. Some words are offensive to some individuals and not offensive to others. That makes this category challenging to navigate. Context matters significantly in how words are used and for what purpose. I personally do not consider a book a “clean read” if it targets or degrades a group of people in the words that are used, even if they aren’t ‘swear words.’

Substance Use in Clean Reads

This doesn’t come up too often since a clean read will not generally revolve around themes of drug use; however, it still comes up. Again, context matters, though. For example, maybe it’s a beautiful redemption story of an alcoholic in recovery and their relationships during that. I would be fine with a book like that.

What I’m not okay with is illegal or underage substance or alcohol use. Again, context matters. Is it a side character that we know does drugs but doesn’t really come into play with the story? I’m fine with it. Is it the main character shooting up with friends? I don’t consider that a clean read.

Even if the book does not describe the characters using substances, language that glorifies or sensationalizes the recreational use of controlled substances would also prevent a book from being a “clean read.”

Violence in Clean Reads

This one is challenging; the threshold can be wide. One of the best ways I’ve heard described is with a cozy mystery: “murder but no blood.” This isn’t to say there can’t be blood, but again, it’s just not grotesque. The context here also matters. Is it dragons fighting each other? Or is it a person inflicting it on another person? For me, it just means any violence is not overly gratuitous.

The power of books is that the reader uses their imagination to see the scene. Movies have normalized epic, sweeping battle scenes that include vast violence, but it is shown from far away to provide scope. Gratuitous violence in a book includes graphic descriptions of the carnage in a way that gives the reader a “close-up” view of the violence. Additionally, if the characters are engaging in violent behavior and the experience is glamorized by being described as positive and enjoyable, then it is not depicting the violence in a “clean reads” way.

A Clean Reads Analogy

Let’s say you are in your kitchen baking cookies or crafting in your front room. You’ve got flour on the counter, vanilla drippled on the stove, or ribbon pieces strewn about. You are living life, making something wonderful, beautiful, fun. You get a phone call that someone you want to impress is on their way to your house… what do you do? You CLEAN up. You put things away behind closed doors. Were those ingredients or materials dirty? No! But there is a time and a place, and something belongs behind closed doors in front of others. Nothing about what you were doing was wrong or dirty, but you clean it up.

Opposites Don’t Always Fit

The statement that “clean reads implies sex is dirty” is based on a false assumption of opposites. Saying something is beautiful doesn’t mean you think everything else is ugly. Calling something cold doesn’t mean everything else is hot. Describing something as high doesn’t imply that everything else is low. The opposite of black is not always white; the opposite of bad is not always good. We often use the term “bad words” with kids when we teach them not to use certain words, but does that mean every other word is good? Certainly not; plenty of words aren’t good but wouldn’t be considered a ‘bad’ word. Just like dirty isn’t always the opposite of clean.

What Else Do We Use?

And quite simply, what other term do we use? Yes, Sweet Romance came about, but spicy books commandeered it, and now it is often used for those books, too, so it’s not a safe word to find explicit free books.

Closed-door romance and fade-to-black romance are good terms, but as I’ve mentioned, clean reads are NOT JUST ROMANCE. Until a universal term is agreed upon, I don’t know any other way to say it. It’s commonly used, and people, publishers, and readers alike understand what it means. And, even Amazon uses the category “clean and wholesome romance.”

This is why I’m okay using the term “Clean reads” and why I’ve created my entire brand around it as The Clean Reads Queen. I feel good about it because I know I’m not shaming or calling others dirty. It’s a brand I can stand by and deliver on.