Is Reading Sexy?

"Nothing about sex is cerebral...at least, none of the good parts are."--Chuck Klosterman

People have a tendency to predict the demise of art forms, in some cases not long after their inception. Reading and literature have certainly been no exception, and those who would consider themselves gatekeepers of culture have tried multiple paths towards preservation, often presented in the form of “reading awareness.” Awareness campaigns have a long and controversial track record, with many being maligned as redundant and a needless waste of money, but for better or for worse, they’ve been with us for a long time, and probably always will be.

And what better way to make someone aware of something than by tying it to sex?

What possible benefit is there to attracting people to reading and literature by dressing it up as something it is not? While both activities are immensely stimulating and enjoyable, sex is not like reading and reading is not like sex.

The above quote isn’t directly tied to reading, but we can surely all agree that reading is at least something of a cerebral exercise. I realize that I, like Klosterman, am a man, and at the risk of tarnishing my sterling reputation as a hopeless romantic, my sex drive tends to be visually focused, and when fully engaged, reduces my intellect to something usually found in lower life forms. Perhaps this entire column should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I find this latest “reading is sexy” campaign to be silly at best, and perhaps detrimental at worst.

The first entity up for review, and one that has actually been featured on LitReactor before, is the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Let me be clear: I’m pretty on board with this group. I think their general policies of observing gender equality and crossing social (but not legal) boundaries is admirable. I also realize that the general idea is NOT to create something for men to ogle, but the unspoken (and perhaps unintentional) takeaway is: topless women are sexy. Y’know what’s even SEXIER? Topless women READING.

I can already hear the comments section burbling: what’s wrong with finding reading sexy? Well, nothing of course. But the question must be posed: if this group is at least partially about reading and literature there seems to be undue focus on bare breasts rather than pages. As mentioned, this group is also about a woman’s right to go topless in public, but the boob-to-page ratio seems quite skewed, leading me to wonder exactly how much of the traffic on this website is taken up by people looking to expand their literary horizons.

A far more silly and juvenile site is Hot Guys Reading Books, which I briefly discussed in my very first LitReactor column way back when. The title leaves little room for interpretation: this is a Tumblr almost exclusively full of photographs of attractive men reading. Even though I’m outside the target demographic, I fail to see the point. Are we to presume that these men, aside from being pleasing to the eye, are also intelligent, educated, and interesting because they’ve been photographed holding books?

Last but certainly not least there is Hysterical Literature, a project from Brooklyn-based photographer Clayton Cubitt that is interesting enough in its own right, but also guilty of the aforementioned book-fetishism. There are a few installments up on YouTube (and Cubitt's Tumblr) at the time of this writing, and each follows the same basic setup. An attractive woman sits at a table, with the camera facing her head-on. She reads out loud from a book of her choosing. As the video progresses, we begin to notice changes in her voice, and eventually she seems altogether distracted, unable to focus. Eventually, it becomes clear that somebody underneath the table is using a vibrator to bring each woman to the point of orgasm.

All these websites share more than a little with a John Waters quote that’s been going around the Internet for some time now. The text of the quote varies, but it generally follows the lines of “If you go to someone’s house and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.” While Waters’ intent may have been right on the money, the widespread interpretation of this quote has led many to conflate reading and book ownership with cultural currency. The publishing industry may be flagging, but these campaigns’ attempts to group reading and books into the same mental heading as sexuality seem more than a little half-baked. I want to stress again that these projects have every right to exist, but the means to which they are accomplishing some sort of end (in the case that one exists) is questionable.

What possible benefit is there to attracting people to reading and literature by dressing it up as something it is not? While both activities are immensely stimulating and enjoyable, sex is not like reading and reading is not like sex. It is of course true that intelligence can be (I would say “is”) attractive, but isn’t it time for the entire supposedly cultured world to stop pretending that being well-read is the key to sexual fulfillment, or that somebody who only reads magazines is somehow unsexable? As the old adage goes, correlation is not causation, and to quote another bespectacled fellow, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady once asserted that “big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers”.


I realize that this is one of the more baldly critical columns I’ve ever penned, but let me stress that I’m interested in discussion, not castigation. What do our readers think of the trend in sexin’ up reading (and where does Fifty Shades of Grey fit into all this?)? Positive? Negative? Strangely arousing? Speak up, but please folks, keep it civil.

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Comments

Profunda Saint-Sylvain's picture
Profunda Saint-... from Calgary, AB is reading Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series October 18, 2012 - 8:15am

don't forget http://nakedgirlsreading.com/

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 18, 2012 - 8:26am

NEVER forget.

This is interesting, and speaks to John's question. From their site:

I mean, sure, we also like to do it in front all of you voyeurs via photos, videos and very special live events, but you don’t have to look for something larger here – something pretentious or even seedy.

I don't necessarily see the idea of merging reading and sexuality as problematic, but I do agree that most of the time it is more about the sexiness than the reading. Being well-read is definitely a quality in a woman that excites me, but that excitement isn't inherently sexual.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables October 18, 2012 - 8:31am

I totally think reading is sexy. It is probabaly different for men and women, however. Women aren't nearly as visual when it comes to sex as men are. But for both sexes, attraction always encompasses more than just the physical, and for people whose lives revolve around reading, it might not add something directly to the sex act itself, but it would definitely detract from it if it were missing.

 

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading Perfidia October 18, 2012 - 8:53am

Books being read by the opposite sex is already fairly sexy if you're an avid reader, simply because there's every possibility you will have stuff in common to talk about and enjoy.  It's like being a fan of music and spotting an attractive member of the opposite sex sporting a t-shirt of a band you are particularly fond of.

I'm not sure if this is detrimental to the art form, except for the fact that those who are extolling reading via this means are missing the point a bit by giving too much weight to nudity and not enough to the literature itself (a point well made in this article).  Also there's a shallowness to this too - advertisers for years have realised that sex sells products but only if it involves attractive people.  I scanned all, I repeat all, those pictures on the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (you'd have thought these literary types could have come up with a name that could be turned into an acronym - something like Boobs And Pulp Society) and all those pictures are of attractive women (of course, this could be photographer bias), with the exception of suddenly being confronted, for no good reason, with a close up of a cock - which personally didn't push any of my buttons, and nearly had the reverse effect of making me give up reading for good.

It's all a bit odd really.  Reading is sexy anyway, if you enjoy reading. 

And on a final note...

sex is not like reading and reading is not like sex

Couldn't agree more.  This is an important lesson to learn.  I got them confused once - the paper cuts were hideous and most of my books are now unreadable.

 

MarilynGray's picture
MarilynGray from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is reading Too many books at once October 18, 2012 - 8:53am

I understand that this might seem a little more silly to men, who are usually visually turned on as you mentioned.

But I think it works best when used with a little humour.

Consider the Edmonton Public Library's recent marketing campaign slogan:

"Chicks Dig Big Brains"

As a chick, I dig seeing this on park benches around town.

greengeekgirl's picture
greengeekgirl October 18, 2012 - 9:21am

This seems suspiciously like hand-wringing over a non-issue. If you don't dig what the projects are trying to achieve, or don't think they're achieving it.. so what? Everyone has the right to try to probe (pun slightly intended) the world around them in the way that they choose. Sometimes they fail, but hey, they tried at least. If you can't get behind it (I am on fire today with the puns, no?) there are dozens of other causes and projects and ideas that you can.

I also wish we'd stop repeating the nonsense claim that the publishing industry is nose-diving. Penguin did pretty well last year, and so did Random House and Simon & Schuster, thanks to a rise in ebook sales. They're doing pretty awesome considering that the economy hasn't fully recovered yet in the US.

antonia's picture
antonia October 18, 2012 - 9:27am

Whatever... lalalala... Not reading is definitely unsexy!

kimberlynotkim's picture
kimberlynotkim from the Delta is reading everything October 18, 2012 - 9:27am

I'm not familiar with the campaigns mentioned, but I definitely think reading is sexy. I'm not interested in people who don't read and it's impossible to get any kind of connection, even a temporary lust kind, with some illiterate buffoon. Sex starts between the ears, at least for me. It all starts with a conversation.

I remember the first morning I woke up in the bedroom of the guy who's now my husband. He never went to college, but he had bookcases full of really great stuff; he read a lot and didn't watch TV. It had started out as a one-off (inspired also by hot literary conversation), but I was impressed by the bookcase and started falling hard for him in that moment. Nine years later we still love to spend entire weekends reading in bed.

So yeah. Reading is very sexy, at least for me.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 18, 2012 - 9:42am

From @ClaytonCubitt, the director of the Stoya video, via Twitter:

Hysterical Lit doesn’t “seek to sexualize reading in order to promote it.” It uses reading to set up a mind/body conflict.

Did LitReactor miss the point? Discuss.

John's picture
John from Brooklyn, NY is reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis October 18, 2012 - 9:50am

I admit, this is a much murkier subject than I had originally though when I first dreamt up the idea, but I do think it's one worth inspecting, if not wringing hands over.

I've long thought that the comment threads at LitReactor are among the most civil and intelligent on the Internet, thanks to everyone for keeping it that way!

Andrew Valdez's picture
Andrew Valdez October 18, 2012 - 9:53am

Is reading sexy? The answer is not yes or no, but, it can be. If you are in a bookstore or library, and there is an attractive person that you notice reading a book, so you go "What book are you reading?" as an icebreaker, is 100 times better then spotting same attractive person sitting at a table, on their computer and asking "What website are you browsing?" When you first enter a date's home and look about, its common to be interested in what books they have. So now a few websites have combined pin-up photography with literature. Showing an attractive female or male either in a risque outfit or none at all. Are there going to be critics who jump to the conclusion that its merely pornography disguised as statement? Sure, you'll get those types, and some visitors of these sites may simply be taking from them their own carnal interests. Yet, as a fan of reading myself if I'm attracted to someone, be it a A list celebrity, an adult actress/model, or just an attractive person reading at my local bookstore. The fact that they love to read, and what they love to read, only adds to their appeal, its another thing that makes me interested in them, beyond my initial physical attraction towards them.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade October 18, 2012 - 10:12am

The gimmicky dressing-it-up-as-something-it's-not is the desperate attempt to throw attention upon one of the least-recognized sexy attributes - cerebral stimulation. Much, much too little of that in media. 

For one of the funniest accounts of the sexiness of intellectual stimulation, see Woody Allen's short story "The Whore of Mensa" http://ebookbrowse.com/gdoc.php?id=167970386&url=8dca377fda033c83013b2ad39be0f1f1

FYI everyone: Readers Are Sexy

Hatice Irdeleyen's picture
Hatice Irdeleyen October 18, 2012 - 10:20am

what a large set of answers could appear for this. neither reading nor finding a guy/gal attractive in a library is sexy. typewriters, old books, old shields, maybe a naked old reader lady painting would be sexy. but reading  itself ? there is a common belief like 'man can only find a thing sexy if he thinks of that action like a picture'.  well, maybe not that common but makes sense. people look things to see something familiar. that familiarity makes them like/unlike/hate/be a fan  
of products of art. as an absurd example; reading is an act, fiction may be sexy, christian bale can make it sexier. 

not that complicated to have a head f*ck. 

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On October 18, 2012 - 10:24am

Well, I met my last girlfriend at a bookstore because she was attending, of all things, a Chuck Palahniuk book signing. The fact that we were both reading Haunted (even though the signing was for Rant) gave us all the fodder needed to raise the temperature between us. Is reading inherently sexy? No. No sexier than looking at flowers is. But mix hormones with either one?

Also, given equally attractive women, say, sitting on a beach--one texting on her phone, the other reading a book--I'm setting my towel next to the reader. Books are soulful accessories.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel October 18, 2012 - 10:30am

Sapiosexual (n): a person who is sexually attracted to intelligence in others.

Sapiosexual (adj): of, or relating to, finding intellectual stimulation sexually arousing.

"Sapiosexual is a recently constructed word (neologism) that has come into common usage, particularly on social networking sites where people are self-identifying as sapiosexual. It is a concatenation of the latin root sapio- from sapiens meaning wise or intelligent (itself derived from sapere which means to taste, or rather, to discern) and the latin root -sexualis as it pertains to sexual preferences."

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade October 18, 2012 - 10:33am

^ F*ck yeah J-Day! 

Never saw this word before....!?!

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 18, 2012 - 10:33am

It's just taking two things people like and putting them together.

They do this with video games: a picture of a naked/nearly naked girl and OMFG ISTHAT A PS# CONTROLLER!! The two are not related.

Same with beer: old beer ads had toucans, race cars, misty mountain scenes, and the occasional fully-clothed winking woman, and then (once it was okay) Swedish bikini teams.

I doubt anyone is going to argue that the very act of reading will be cheapened by the cumulative effect of a few tumblrs and ad campaigns. Was beer cheapened? Maybe in the short term, but afterwards we saw a swing back towards craft brewers and emphasis on quality.

Besides (and this is the big point) if it's okay to have all kinds of sex in books, then who in their right mind can possibly argue that it's not okay to have sexiness around the books?

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 18, 2012 - 10:41am

yes.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade October 18, 2012 - 10:41am

I just self-identified as "sapiosexual" on FB...

rmatthewsimmons's picture
rmatthewsimmons from Salt Lake City, UT is reading I just put down 'A Game of Thrones' after 6 chapters....Couldn't do it. October 18, 2012 - 11:13am

Great article and even greater links strewn about. My literary bookmarks just swelled (pun intended).

 

GretelTrilogy

kimberlynotkim's picture
kimberlynotkim from the Delta is reading everything October 18, 2012 - 11:39am

Sapiosexual is my new favorite word this week. Thank you for that.

Stephanie Bonjack's picture
Stephanie Bonjack from Boulder, CO is reading The Wanderers by Meg Howry October 18, 2012 - 2:32pm

Josh, I hear you about reading and excitement (of the non-sexual variety). At the same time, every time I walk into the living room and see my husband reading the New Yorker on the couch, my instinct is to crawl on him and instigate trouble.

I think that because we're all avid readers here, we forget just how many folks don't read on a regular basis. Even in my profession - academic librarianship - I've had colleagues tell me that they don't read for pleasure. Someone just told me that last week! So I wonder if there is something deeper here about finding compatible partners in a sea of non-readers?

 

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne October 18, 2012 - 2:34pm

I've always been a book fetishist. I mean, I just plain love books, the smell and feel of them, so combine that with sex, of which I am also an avid fan, and you've got all kinds of win happening. A picture of a beautiful woman reading a book is lovely just because it involves two of my favorite things from that sort of... beauty/enjoyment area of my brain.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast October 19, 2012 - 6:22am

Nothing about sex is cerebral...at least, none of the good parts are."--Chuck Klosterman

As one of my FB gal pals pointed out, only a man would have said that.

 

 

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books October 19, 2012 - 11:38am

Ah. "Dressing it up as something that it's not"? Unless I'm hiring a prostitute (which I've never done) when I am deciding whether I want to date (or even just fuck) someone, they usually have to win me over with more than their face/physique. I mean, I tend to talk to people before having sex with them (I'm sure it's not JUST me? Is it?). And yes, it turns me on to hear a potential partner talk about books. A love of literature means we have something in common, we have stuff to talk about, it means after an energetic roll in the hay we can unwind at the local book store with a cup of coffee.

For someone like me who reads obsessively, and writes--there is little sexier than a man who reads, and enjoys reading. Sex itself may come down to animalistic, primal urges, but GETTING to sex involves a lot more. We could say that being funny or wearing glasses can't be sexy or unsexy because no wears glasses or tells jokes during coitus--but we call things like that sexy ALL THE TIME. Because it boils down to what attracts us to another person.

Anyone looking to get into my pants has got to have a big book collection. Even though marrying my husband meant double stacking books on the shelves. 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books October 19, 2012 - 11:36am

Fascinating article. You introduced me to a lot of sexy projects I hadn't heard of before. I think there are two questions here:

1) Is reading itself sexy?

I'm afraid I disagree with the foundational argument. The quote about sex ("Nothing about sex is cerebral") is not true to my experience. The sensual elements are enhanced by the cerebral, and vice versa. Equally important, reading isn't a purely cerebral experience. Reading a good book can be a deeply sensual experience. We've all had moments in books where a description makes our mouths water, our hearts race, or our stomachs turn. Nothing is just sensual and nothing is just cerebral.

Reading as an act can be deeply sensual and sexy. And reading in others is definitely sexy. You used the right term for this: Fetishism. As a fetish, books symbolize a cultural and intellectual background/outlook that can be very sexy (and is certainly sexy to me). Being smart is sexy---not just related to it. We fetishize certain symbolic objects: glasses, books, certain types of attire. It's a symbolic reference to a deeper value, but that it's a constructed reference doesn't ultimately make it false.

2) Are these projects doing reading any good?

Here I question. I looked at the topless reading site, and I didn't spend much time looking at the fiction. I looked at their about page as an afterthought. And I listened to several of the Hysterical Literature items, but I fast-forwarded to the point where their reading broke into pieces.

Reading here is serving sexuality (the pseudo-pornographic elements). Sexuality is not serving reading, because no central element of the reading experience is illuminated. It's not the reading itself that makes the woman moan, nor is the toplessness directly connected to the reading. It re-establishes the fetishism on objects that symbolize intellectualism (especially in women), which has a value---but it's not using sex to sell reading. It's using reading to sell sex.

No offense. The sex was sold very well. And I'd be interested in taking a deeper look at the libertine attitude of some of these groups; maybe there's something I'm missing. But the sexuality seems to overwhelm all the rest.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books October 19, 2012 - 11:44am

Rob--I agree with your first statement wholeheartedly. As for your second statement--yes and no.

I think most people try not to have sex with people they don't like. If someone grates on your nerves you're less likely to want to take them to bed, right? I mean, yes in my life I've gone to bed with people I didn't want to keep in my life--but for the most part, I've gotta like them, at least a little.

So when I saw this picture circulating of the actor Jensen Ackles, posed in a pretty sexual way with a book--sure, I looked more at his physique than I looked at the book--but it still hit more pleasure signals than if it had been a photo of him half nude watching the Jersey Shore. Because the fact is--even in porn--we look for things we like. Which often comes to hilarious results... but the point of looking at sexy things is to turn people on. If you can incorporate the sexual element with the element that makes real people more likely to bone--you're going to find some popularity.

As an aside--I love that John Waters quote. It speaks to me as someone who is both passionate about books and sex. Why shouldn't I have plenty of both?

John Jarzemsky's picture
John Jarzemsky October 19, 2012 - 12:58pm

"As one of my FB gal pals pointed out, only a man would have said that."

A caveat I made in the article.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 19, 2012 - 1:44pm

I remember the first morning I woke up in the bedroom of the guy who's now my husband. He never went to college, but he had bookcases full of really great stuff; he read a lot and didn't watch TV. It had started out as a one-off (inspired also by hot literary conversation), but I was impressed by the bookcase and started falling hard for him in that moment.

Hey, kimberlynotkim, do you have a sister? My bookcase is massive.

(We all knew it was only a matter of time until someone turned the conversation this way, right?)

kimberlynotkim's picture
kimberlynotkim from the Delta is reading everything October 19, 2012 - 2:14pm

No sister, I'm an original. I always enjoy the stimulation of a massive bookcase though.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore October 19, 2012 - 2:41pm

Yeah, I'm an only as well (though I have half-sibs on both sides). Maybe if my parents had read more . . . haha  My dad got my mom the old-fashioned way: singing in a band.

I concur with much of the consensus, that reading implies intelligence, patience, open-mindedness, artistic/cultural appreciation, etc. — attractive qualities in a mate.

Oh, and one of my favorite tumblrs, http://thisisnthappiness.com, often features sexy book/reading imagery, though it's not their focus.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated October 19, 2012 - 10:05pm

Once again I'm the odd one out, because when I read/buying books the last thing I want is human contact or interaction.