Opinion: What’s Up With All These Sexy Books?

A collection of romance books owned by the author, Ann Arbor sophomore Jocelyn Kincaid-Beal. These books were bought after they saw them recommended on Bookstagram (Photo illustration by Jocelyn Kincaid-Beal).

Sex sells: In this case, it sells books. 

Well, bookstores, authors and publishers sell books – but social media “sells” sexy ones. In recent years, the popularity and circulation of certain sexy books has been heightened by the social media niches like BookTok and Bookstagram.

Bookstagram is a corner of Instagram where you’ll find users recommending their favorite books, swooning over fictional characters and advertising their own novels. BookTok is a similar – though smaller – community over on TikTok. Personally, I’ve spent much more time on Bookstagram than BookTok, and I think it has more consistent user behavior; that is the platform I’ll be focusing on. 

An Introduction to Bookstagram

Bookstagram is full of quotes, book reviews, trope lists and elaborate bookshelf displays. Like many social media niches, it serves as a community where users can unite behind their shared passion. Don’t let the colorful shelves and cartoon cover art fool you though – Bookstagram is not for the faint of heart or innocent of mind.

You can’t swing a cat on Bookstagram without scratching the covers of five sexy books. I’m talking novels with explicit sex scenes and I’m talking multiple chapters of ‘em. Those are the books that Bookstagram promotes, over and over again. They’re not the only books that get posted about, sure, but they are the ones that get the most attention. You can see this in the fact that they’re often the books that end up at the front of bookstore displays. Bookstagram has popularized – and normalized – explicit books. 

Instagram’s Infatuation with Sexy Books

Sexually explicit written fiction is commonly known online as smut. What I call “sexy books,” Bookstagram would call smut or spicy books; the sort that comprise a vast majority of the posts I see. 

The word “smut” has meant “obscene or indecent language” since the 17th century. As of late though, it’s been used online as a descriptor of fanfiction, especially for works written on the website Archive of Our Own and the app Tumblr. “Spicy,” meanwhile, is often used in congruence with chili pepper emojis: 🌶️🌶️🌶️. If a Bookstagram reviewer rates something 5/5 chili peppers, then my god, that’s a sexy book.

Now, I’m no literary Puritan. I’m pretty deep into Bookstagram – every top post on my recommended page right now is about some romance book or another. I enjoy looking at Bookstagram posts as much as I’m a fan of a good sexy book. That’s my claim to expertise on the topic. The thing I think is weird is how big of a deal sexy books are to Bookstagrammers.

On Bookstagram, sex is the most important thing in a book; it’s what authors advertise and it’s what readers look for. This attitude has changed the culture around reading and the way people interact with authors and books. I’ve seen lots of posts that name a popular Bookstagram book and list the “spicy” chapters, so you can skip over all the plot and action and get right to the “good stuff.”  It’s not unusual for people to post a picture or video of a book opened to a sex scene; these posts are then flooded with comments demanding that the poster turn the page. 

This is also something popular authors do with their own books, which is wild to me. I’ve seen authors post lists of the spicy chapters in their own books. Other authors market their books on social media by posting snippets of the smut that’s in it, basically saying “buy it to see the rest of the good stuff.” And according to the comments, it works. 

Hell, it’s worked on me – Ana Huang’s gotten me to read two of her books that way. But, it’s weird to me that authors are buying into this phenomenon and acknowledging that people will read their books just for the smut, even encouraging it. To me, it’s demeaning to the author to tell them that you only want to read the sexual parts of the book they wrote, you don’t care about the rest. But, apparently not all authors see it that way.

This doesn’t mean that all authors do this. Sometimes on Bookstagram, an author will promote their book without any mention of sex. On these posts, the comments are filled with people trying to figure out whether the book is spicy or not. If it turns out there’s no smut, these commenters express their disinterest in reading the book, loudly. These kinds of authors then sometimes make a video expressing frustration at these types of comments. 

That frustration is super valid; I can only imagine how much it sucks for those authors to get that response from their audience.

From what I’ve seen, Bookstagram readers don’t value plot or quality of writing; they value smut. That’s what makes a book good to them, regardless of the story’s content. Sex scenes are exciting and fun to read, and going off of the books that I’ve seen recommended on Bookstagram, they don’t have to be well written for people to like them. One author praised on Bookstagram for her sexy books is Sadie Kincaid. I’ve tried to read a couple of her books on Kindle Unlimited, but had to stop a couple chapters in because the writing was so bad.

The Bookstagram books I’ve read on Kindle Unlimited have had grammar errors galore, robotic dialogue and the most questionable euphemisms possible – I read the phrase “trouser snake” last night. 

It’s a real minefield out there. 

Not every book that’s gotten popular on Bookstagram is badly written though; at least I hope. I might not have read them all, but I’m sure some of them are really thoughtful and eloquent, with no mention of trouser snakes. However, the dominant culture of Bookstagram seems to prefer smutty books over well-written ones. This doesn’t create the most welcoming of environments for new readers. 

IRL Consequences

The problem is not that people want to read trashy romance novels; it’s that Bookstagram communicates that smut is all that’s worth reading. This is especially a problem for new readers, or those who want to try recreational reading for the first time. 

For one, there are tons of different books that are worth reading; new readers should be encouraged to explore a variety of genres. Reading is a powerful tool for education, resistance and liberation. Folks need to be exposed to a diverse array of literature in order to access that power. Bookstagram, in its current form, isn’t helping with that. 

The issue doesn’t end there because the Instagram algorithm works just as hard as any author or influencer to bring smut to the forefront of Bookstagram. If someone shows an interest in book-related posts, the algorithm will start showing users similar posts. Book-related posts are often tagged #bookstagram. If you like posts under that hashtag, you’ll start to see other hashtags that commonly accompany it, like #spicybookrecs, #darkromance and #smuttyreads. 

Keep Out of Reach of Children

Another problem arises when one considers the demographic smutty books are reaching. Perfectly in the center of the venn diagram between new readers and Instagram users are children. Teens and tweens, yes, but minors nonetheless. The algorithm brings Bookstagram to their feeds, where they’re given hardcore smut recommendations right off the bat.

I think it goes without saying that that’s incredibly inappropriate. 

The Young Adult book section at the Walmart in Jackson. Many of these titles contain explicit sex scenes, which makes their place in the Young Adult section questionable (Photo by Jocelyn Kincaid-Beal).

To make matters worse, popular smutty books are often placed in the young adult (YA) sections of stores. Not only are explicitly sexual books becoming readily accessible to children, they’re literally being marketed to younger readers. 

The YA section of the Jackson Walmart highlights this matter perfectly. I’ve come across at least half of the books in this section on Bookstagram; I know they contain smut, either from a picture of a salacious page or a high chili pepper rating. The books I recognize are categorically adult books – the “Twisted” series by Ana Huang for instance – but they’re clearly on the young adult shelves. This could be a shelving error by employees, but the impact remains the same. I’ve also seen videos online of people documenting this in their local bookstores, so it isn’t an isolated event.

These Walmart shelves also illustrate how books that have gained attention on Instagram have become commonly stocked titles in bookstores and non-book stores alike. The book aisle at Walmart had an overrepresentation of smutty books. I assume that’s because these are the books people want to buy, and are therefore profitable for a store like Walmart to have in stock. Bookstores have also hopped onto the Bookstagram train; many Barnes and Noble locations have displays dedicated to popular – and often smutty – Bookstagram and BookTok books. 

However, the books aren’t labeled in stores as being smutty, so any reader, including a minor, can pick up a book and buy it without knowing what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve even seen videos parodying parents cluelessly buying smutty books from Barnes and Noble for their kids; the cutesy, brightly colored covers of many sexy books makes this a pretty understandable mistake. 

Bookstagram is not inherently bad – neither are people who like to read smutty books. However, the problem with Bookstagram in its current form is that anyone who wants to find something to read – be it online or in-store – is immediately met with sexually explicit books, sometimes advertised as such, but often not. 

Sexy books deserve a place on the shelf, but maybe it should be a more discreet – or at least clearly marked – space. Furthermore, other books deserve a chance in the spotlight. Dare I say it, maybe social media should recommend books that are actually good. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but maybe it’s time to let the sexy books gather a little dust.

About Jocelyn Kincaid-Beal 7 Articles
Jocelyn Kincaid-Beal is a sophomore from Ann Arbor, Michigan. They are an English major who's interested in all types of writing, and are exploring their options through being an editor of the Albion Review and a volunteer writer on the Pleiad. Contact Jocelyn via email at JAK17@albion.edu.

1 Comment

  1. As someone who’s trying to write a book myself, it’s hard to justify not having spice in my story since I want it to be accessible… but I also want it to sell. Thank you for having a differing opinion to what seems to be the loud majority. It’s truly validating to see someone who wants a REASON for the spice to be there, if at all. And I completely agree that there should be more separation of books that have it from their tamer counterparts. Not everyone wants to have that kind of content.

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