DISCUSSION: Is the term “clean” harmful?

I read an article from Book Riot the other day discussing why the term “clean” is harmful. The author explains that sex, underage drinking, and swearing are not “dirty” things and so calling books that don’t contain those things “clean” is harmful.

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I understand the author’s point completely and, to an extent, I agree. My main issue with the article is that she ends with this paragraph:

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.

Honestly, this paragraph feels a little “holier-than-thou” to me, but that’s beside the point. My problem is that she never offers an alternative to the term currently being used. I live in a super religious and conservative community. We have patrons coming into the library EVERY DAY looking for “clean” reads. That’s just the term they understand and we have to call these books something. I’d love to use another term, but…what other descriptors are there? This is not a rhetorical question, I’d really like to know. I discussed this very thing with one of my fellow librarians and we were pretty stumped.

In library school, it was very heavily emphasized that a librarian’s job is to be discreet and that no patron should feel judged in any way for what they choose or choose not to read. With that being said, obviously no self-respecting librarian wants a patron to feel dirty or less-than if they choose not to read “clean” books. Because of this, I almost feel like if a better word were out there, then librarians would have found it already?

Another point where I kind of disagree with the author is where she says how all books that aren’t considered “clean” must, in fact, be dirty.

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.

I don’t really think it’s that black and white and I don’t think that the existence of “clean” books necessarily implies that not “clean” books = worthless. The way I see it, the term “clean” is more a descriptor of what the book is than what other books aren’t. However, I can see the point that labeling a book “clean” may imply that the acts of sex, drug/alcohol-use, and swearing are “unclean” or “dirty” (which, again, is not how we want patrons to feel).

In the end, I agree that “clean” isn’t the best term, but I don’t agree that it’s the worst. Sometimes I feel like we’re in a world that is so sensitive about the littlest things (and this is coming from a POC who has lived for the last seven years in a very white community). I’m not saying we shouldn’t be sensitive to things, and I’m not saying that this specific example should be something we ignore. But I feel like every alternative to the word “clean” that I’ve come up with, could be argued as insensitive to someone, somewhere. And thinking about that makes me so very exhausted.

What do you think? Should we move away from the “clean” label? What would you use as an alternative?

28 thoughts on “DISCUSSION: Is the term “clean” harmful?

  1. As a librarian, I have to deal with this constantly. I had a parent come up to me presenting a book, wanting me to remove from the shelves because it a featured a naked child. I don’t know what extent the child was naked because she refused to return the book back to the library. Telling parents that it is considered censorship and we as librarians do not censor anyone’s reading habits is a hard sell. I agree that there is no such thing as a “clean” read. We a live in a hectic and sometimes scary world and the books are just starting to reflect that.

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    1. I was just listening to a similar story! It was from the parent’s side, though. She was refusing to return a junior high school library book because of swearing in the book. She told the school she would rather pay the fines or for the book and no return it than have it in the school library. It’s crazy that you have to deal with that. I can understand both points of view, but I agree that you shouldn’t censor.

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      1. This is why I would HATE to work in a school. I mean, I’m a parent so I kind of get it…but I can’t ever imagine imposing my beliefs on the rest of the school like that. Obviously I’ll be watching what my kid is consuming, but it’s not my job to monitor everyone else.

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  2. This is a lot to think about. I haven’t minded that the word “clean” was used to desribe romances without sex, etc before. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. I do think there is probably a better way to describe those characteristics than “clean”. I am not sure what would be a good word. All that popped into my head was the phrase “Does not contain mature themes.”, but that doesn’t work either because of course an adult book is going to contain mature themes in general other than what “clean” refers to.

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  3. Super interesting discussion. I’ve typed out about ten different comments and deleted them because they didn’t come out quite right – and I think that’s the problem. It’s impossible (in my opinion) for there to be enough words for every thought and emotion to be perfectly articulated without any disagreement or misunderstanding. For that reason I think people should be more open to discussion and expansion of thoughts instead of fixating on specific words that has a particular meaning to them. You’re right, this is exhausting to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you there. I think that might be part of my problem with this article is that it doesn’t seem open to discussion. I feel like it’s saying, “This is a problem and somebody else needs to fix it because I don’t like it.” I mean, I know it’s just a blog post basically so it’s not obligated to be balanced, but I just don’t feel like it’s helpful!

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  4. I think “clean” is the most sensitive term I can think of on the subject. Everything else sounds even more morally superior which I think would annoy people even more. And this is kind of off topic, but one thing I was so surprised to learn about working at a library is that we don’t have porn filters on the public computers. There have been some big incidents about it and people asked my boss (the executive director) what her response was and it was basically “we don’t judge.” So as long as it’s not illegal content, it’s fine. Though there are some guidelines about if the screen is viewable by other people who are offended by it. But I had such a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that “we don’t judge” what they watch on the public computer. I get the concept, my puritan upbringing really doesn’t agree.

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    1. Yeah, I’m struggling finding another term besides clean. And that’s interesting about your library! My library (again conservative/religious community) does have strict policies against porn, but I know other libraries don’t unless it’s illegal like you said. I raised my eyebrows at it as well, but I’m not completely surprised.

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  5. Wonderful post! This is something that I’d never really considered before. While I do think there should be a label of some sort to let people know what the books they are getting into contain, and the word “clean” is probably the best we can come up with without offending people further because surely, no matter what other word is used, someone somewhere is going to take offense. And you’re right. It isn’t at all black and white. And the person who wrote the article honestly just sounds like they needed a moment to rant without actually wanting to open up a discussion and help find a solution.

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  6. I think this is one of those interesting theoretical conversations that would baffle the general public. Yes, there are nuances in the word “clean” that we can unpack, but the reality is that most of the world isn’t reading any deep meaning into it when someone refers to a “clean” romance. And I certainly don’t think most people are assuming that any book not labelled “clean” is therefore “dirty” and that people who read those books are thus also “dirty.”

    I also think the original author has to bear in mind that changing terms doesn’t always change how people view something. For instance, when I was in middle school, we got a new teacher who had classroom “expectations” because the new thing was that these were somehow better than classroom “rules.” But we all knew the expectations were still rules and that repercussions would be the same for failing to meet expectations as they would be for breaking rules. We basically all laughed at her new-fangled teaching methods because we weren’t fooled into behaving better because of a word change.

    Or, a more depressing example is how “special” was supposed to be the appropriate word to use when I was growing up, instead of terms that are now considered derogatory. The problem is, children know what “special” refers to and, as long as they know, “special needs” means “different from me,” some of them are going to be mean about it. They can say “You’re special” with a condescending sneer just as well as they could say, “You’re [previous terms we no longer use].”

    So the problem here, I think, is that changing “clean” reads to something else isn’t necessarily going to solve the perceived problem of morally superior books vs. morally inferior books because everyone is still going to know that the new term is being used by people who don’t want certain content in their stories. The word has changed, but it’s referencing the same dichotomy and, in that respect, I suppose you could argue that implied judgment is always going to result.

    Personally, though, I’m not convinced that people who read clean books are judging people who don’t. It seems to me that it’s usually a personal preference and most people aren’t going to concern themselves with what other people are reading.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I just feel like applauding your comment. You’ve literally put into words everything that I was feeling and thinking but in a much more elegant and intelligible way than I did. Yes yes yes. I completely agree that people who read “clean” books aren’t necessarily judging books that aren’t considered clean (or people who don’t read clean books). And you’re right that any other term would essentially be the same and create the same division–that’s why it’s been so hard for me to think of any viable alternatives!

      I was a little scared this post might be controversial, but I’ve been really encouraged that people who have been commenting seem to be thinking along the same lines as I. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a well-thought out comment!

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  7. I don’t particularly like the word clean either to describe these types of books, but there is no other way to describe them really. I mean how else would be describe them that would mean free of x, y, z? And the patrons that one them describe them that way because that’s how they perceive them.

    But I do think readers of so called “clean” books do judge books and their readers. I have had patrons refer to book containing swearing, sex, and drugs as dirty, or having foul things in them. Typically they are older senior patrons, but not always. I’ve had them sneer at books that have those things in them, and even sneer at movies rated R! “Oh, I can’t watch that!” Some people can be very judgmental. But I think it depends on the community. It doesn’t happen often here, but it does happen where I feel like they are judging the books and the readers, especially if it’s a book I’ve recommended! I’ve even overheard “Young people watch/read the most disgusting/foul/dirty things” at a program.

    But there is no solution to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I can definitely see that. In my community, I wouldn’t be particularly surprised for people to look down on books that aren’t considered “clean”. I guess that might contradict parts of my post… It’s unfortunate and I wish we could just not judge other people, but here we are.

      I totally agree with you, though, that there really doesn’t seem to be a good replacement.

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      1. It is sad. But, it happens. I think it’s because the people that see things that way grew up believing those things were dirty. It’s a really old school belief. My mom wasn’t allowed to have a Barbie Doll because her father thought they were obscene since they had breasts. He was born in 1904, so ankles were obscene!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Great discussion and great post! I have never thought about what non-clean implied and I think you hit the nail on the head: we’re describing what books are, not what other books aren’t. On the other hand, I do believe shaming people is wrong and can cause many problems the author brought up.

    It’s definitely not a hard and fast rule like the author made it out to be. The only thing I can think of is implementing content warnings, but then you have to get into the discussion of whether that means books are more/less accessible to kids with higher monitoring parents. Like if they can just open the book and see all the stuff in it, they’re a lot more likely to even closely monitor what their children are reading—maybe it’s just because of the demographic I live in or something.

    I think, “clean” more often implies sexual content versus drinking, drugs etc. And since we are talking about books with various levels of sexual content, it would be remiss not to discuss why some people don’t WANT to read books with sexual content. Whether for religious reasons or that the person is sex-adverse or it makes them feel uncomfortable or they’re asexual, it seems like this aspect was completely ignored. And those are totally valid reason to not want to read high sexual content books. It’s not about not being sex positive or anything. It’s about simply feeling uncomfortable while reading it. I feel like the author of this book was assuming EVERYONE likes, wants, and enjoys sex. While that’s simply not the case for many people.

    Side note: I do think underage drinking is bad and dirty. If you want to drink fine, but don’t make your self stupider in the process.

    Anyway this comment was so long so sorry about that haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I love the long comments! I think you brought up a great point about what sex positivity actually is. You can still be sex positive even if you don’t want to read about it. I think a major part of why her article rubbed me the wrong way was that she didn’t really make it seem like a valid choice for people to want to read clean books. As she assumed that people who read clean books look down on “not clean” books, I felt like she was looking down on clean ones. I just feel like everything should be considered equal.

      And I totally agree with you on underage drinking and drug use. Those things are illegal so…perhaps not dirty? But objectively speaking, they are wrong. So maybe books should be marked with stickers saying, “Warning: teenagers doing things that are illegal in this book”.

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      1. I completely agree. It was very polarizing. Like if you don’t like explicit romance content you’re against women in general. I agree, one isn’t better than the other just different. I’ve read amazing romances with fabulous chemistry between the two characters and the most that happens between the two is kissing.

        On the other hand, I’ve read more explicit romances with dull plotlines and borderline problematic love interests. It’s not like if it’s explicit content it’s automatically better or worse.

        Maybe it’s just me not being as involved with Romancelandia, but I don’t know if I know anyone who reads clean romance like it’s morally superior. I just know a lot of people in general who make fun of people who like to read romance.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think this is a really interesting discussion and one I hadn’t considered before. I think to me the term doesn’t really matter, but rather the judgement that comes when you don’t read “clean” books.

    For those who read books that aren’t deemed as “clean”, including myself, may still feel shame when reading those books no matter how nice the term for books with sex, swearing, or drugs are. I think part of the issue is also that there is the term “clean” and everything else is “other” rather than even dirty. It’s the idea that you’ve separated yourself from reading clean books to go read something so bad we don’t even have a proper term for it.

    I also think it’s interesting that you mentioned that librarians are taught not to judge reading choices because for a time I wouldn’t take out physical romance novels because I feared I’d get a disparaging look. After a while I grew out of that notion, but I still am more comfortable just reading romances on my kindle and only discussing them with my friends. Thankfully the online book community is making me more comfortable with sharing all of my reading choices!

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments! It’s such a shame that any reader should be made to feel bad (whether self-inflicted or not) for what they choose to read. Obviously, not every librarian has gone to library school and even if they have, they’re not always great at not being judgy. That being said, I personally make it my mission to make sure no patron leaves an interaction with me feeling judged or embarrassed.

      I think you bring up a good point that we don’t have a term for books that aren’t in the “clean” category. I can definitely see what you mean by the feeling that it’s “other”. I obviously still think it’s important that a label exists for those books, but perhaps we should also be focusing on creating a positive label for those other books.

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