Yes, It's Okay To Read Erotica In Public

It's not like you're watching porn or anything. Right?
JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

Sitting in seat 6A, uncomfortably close to the passenger in 6B, I pulled a book out of my carry-on and began reading before takeoff. 6B, it seemed, was not an airplane reader, opting instead to lure those around him into casual conversation. Fair enough, I thought, but I was reading. Icebreaking etiquette mandates that no book-toting individual shall be interrupted from her very personal past time, regardless of whether the activity is being performed in a public space -- didn’t 6B know that?

Apparently not. He nodded inquiringly at the novel in my lap -- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff -- and asked what it was about. Suppressing my initial, curmudgeonly thought (“Well, it’s not really about anything”), I said that it was about a marriage, from the perspective of the husband first, and then the wife. The author constructed certain truths about the relationship, only to tear them down later. Secrets, though ultimately devastating, were integral to the success of the marriage. Secrets and sex -- but I left that second part out when describing the book to a stranger.

Once 6B and my banter fizzled, I turned back to the story, opening it again to a passage where the protagonists -- Mathilde and Lotto -- were reuniting after a long separation. She writes:

When he tried to speak, she pressed her hand hard over his mouth so he couldn’t and she led him upstairs in absolute silence and had her way with him so roughly that when he woke the next day he had plum-colored bruises on the bones of his hips and fingernail cuts on his sides, which he pressed in the bathroom, hungry for the pain.

As you read that excerpt, did you become hotly aware of your surroundings, of whether your colleagues or fellow commuters might’ve caught a glimpse of you reading something uncouth? Typing it had that impact on me -- even though Groff’s books aren’t erotic, they’re literary. She comes at sex scenes slantwise, revealing the characters’ underlying feelings and motivations. They move the story forward; they’re not specifically meant to arouse, even if arousal is, inevitably, part of their effect.

Still, after the above passage and others like it, I found myself glancing over at 6B, relieved to see he was snoozing, unaware of the world I’d just inhabited. Was it totally weird that I was reading -- immersing myself in -- a sex scene amid a plane full of strangers?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few times, mostly during the Fifty Shades frenzy. When I binge-read a couple E.L. James books in advance of the movie release, I was wary of taking the paperbacks on the subway, and when I did, I got a few bemused glances from other passengers. Were they -- and I -- being prudish? It’s not like I was watching porn in public -- an act that might be pretty unjustifiable by comparison. If it weren’t for the books’ covers, commuters wouldn’t have been clued into what I was reading. A few words on a page don’t pack the same punch as sexual imagery, which asserts itself boldly wherever it appears.

This is probably why there’s a big discrepancy between books purchased on e-readers and books that are more popular in their traditional ink-and-paper iterations. The latter’s the choice for book club picks and literary fiction; the former, unsurprisingly, is the format of choice for guilty pleasure titles -- fun thrillers, and, of course, romance novels. Whether this is due to reservedness or snobbery is unclear, but the fact remains: many people don’t want to be seen reading E.L. James and her ilk in public.

A 2012 New York Times op-ed crowdsourced answers to the prompt: “Seeing a grown woman on the subway reading Fifty Shades of Grey is like seeing a grown man on the subway reading [BLANK].” Answers ranged from Playboy and Maxim to Tom Clancy and On the Road. So, some readers found Fifty Shades cringeworthy for its erotic nature, others for the juvenility of the writing. The article concluded that NYC commuters aren’t prudes -- but they can be snobs.

Which, of course, is a negligible concern. Etiquette-wise and otherwise, if you’re worried about the literary quality of what you’re reading in public -- well, don’t. You’re entitled to your own zone-out preferences; if you’d rather fantasize about sexual scenarios than watch sweaty men run around on a field or wannabe actors verbally spar onscreen, read on, and publicly!

Unless you’re crossing the boundary between invisible personal fantasy and visible public engagement, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sexy fiction in the company of others. And, luckily for romance readers, that border is nearly unbreachable when your mode of transportation is a jumble of text.

The more valid concern is whether your public reading habits are bothering people around you -- which brings us back to the pornography comparison. Although readers are opting to download romance novels on Kindles and other e-readers rather than revealing their guilty pleasures covered in tie-clad paperbacks, suggestive covers seem harmless, even to the most reserved co-commuters. Raunchy covers with steel-hued handcuffs aren’t any more offensive than most advertisements, and are more likely to turn up noses than elicit genuine discomfort.

The only potentially icky problem with getting lost in erotica in public is if your enjoyment of the story becomes, er, evident. Unless you’re crossing the boundary between invisible personal fantasy and visible public engagement, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sexy fiction in the company of others. And, luckily for romance readers, that border is nearly unbreachable when your mode of transportation is a jumble of text.

Writing that’s meant to arouse is still writing -- codified symbols that pile up to make meaning. Glancing at a pageful of letters isn’t going to generate the same response from onlookers as a Playboy spread, even if some of those letters spell “ample bosom.” Arousal from reading takes full sentences, paragraphs, pages -- anticipation built up and released. It also necessarily requires some imagination on the readers' part: there’s less sensory input on the page, so there’s more swirling around in the brain. This arguably makes it more of an individual experience than, say, watching a video, whether you’re in public or not.

So, read on, erotica lovers, regardless of what the dude in 6B thinks.

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