Where to start? Because I have thoughts, so many thoughts and because this whole ‘thing’ relates to books and I am now a book blogger I thought (see, there’s one) that I would write some stuff down and send it out to the ether.
What am I talking about? Well dear reader, I am referring to the very recent Twitter controversy of #soapgate. Or as it is also known… #soapdick. Ahem.
I have ventured down the rabbit hole to bring you this post. For a while it looked like I would never return as that thing goes deep. No pun intended. Ok, fine. We’re all adults. Maybe there was a little pun.
I’m just going to go ahead and do this. This is a long post. Like essay long. Get a tea or other beverage of your choice and get comfy.
On Wednesday the Twitter (and possibly Tumblr) YA book community exploded into life with tweets using either #soapgate or #soapdick. Buzzfeed even got in on it with an article. Go Buzzfeed. Seriously, go Buzzfeed. I love it.
These tweets differed in tone from either; ‘OMG, this whole thing is hilarious, fandom’s are WILD,’ to ‘what kind of crazed fandom is this, everyone is a sex crazed weirdo,’ to ‘those who don’t like the contents are pearl clutching prudes, get over it,’ to the more measured, ‘there are some problematic elements here and I think we need to discuss.’
What happened was that purchasers of a particular book subscription box opened their crate and shared their unveiling via Instagram. I think the book subscription box creator also unveiled but I could be wrong there. Regardless, the contents of the box made its way across the public sphere.
Among the varied items were two particular things that caused the controversy, some people on Twitter focused on one more than the other. We are talking these two things:-
- Printed and bound fan fiction referred to as a ‘novella’
- A black soap (complete with suction cup) shaped like a penis
I’m going to give you a wee sec if you want to go look this up on the internet. Because that soap was very anatomically correct. The only reason I’m not putting a picture here is because I don’t want to flood my blog with penises. I’m tasteful that way 😉
I’d be surprised if you don’t know as these are becoming more and more prevalent but I’ll break it down anyway.
You pay money (and this is the part that comes into importance later) to receive a box that contains swag/ goodies/ items/ paraphernalia/ stuff – whatever you want to call it – that relates to books.
This box can either be associated with a particular genre (i.e. fantasy) or a particular category (i.e. YA) and while I know there are probably a lot out there the ones that I do know about are mainly focused on YA.
I’m in no way affiliated with any of these so here are a few that I have found, just to give you context:-
These ones that I have selected are all focused on YA. Does this mean that only young adults buy them. Nope. In fact those that I see doing a lot of un-boxing are adults. I am tempted to get in on some of these and I can assure you, I am sadly past the age range of what is considered young adult. *Sobs not so quietly*
The book subscription company that has come into the spotlight is one called Book Boyfriend Box. The theme of their boxes is that they pick a male YA character (or sometimes a female YA character for a ‘Book Girlfriend Box’) and fill it with swag relating to that character.
From what I can see the content is usually a tote bag, a drinking cup, some lip-balm, a candle and some fan-art. Usually. For the love of whatever is holy they made an active choice and decided to, in the words of the ever wondrous Spice Girls, ‘spice up their lives.’ Or someone else’s.
There are adult book subscription boxes but let’s be honest with ourselves here. YA is a lucrative market, not just in terms of book sales but in terms of the merchandise that teenage girls will buy. I know. I was once a teenage girl. I am an adult and I still buy stuff that relates to what I am a fan of.
I will leave this section with this comment – the Book Boyfriend Box is aimed at the YA audience.
The series in question is this one:-
Sarah J. Maas is the writer of two series; A Throne of Glass and the above A Court of Thorns and Roses. Both are very popular series and both are fantasy YA published via Bloomsbury Children’s division. Both can be found in the Young Adult sections of bookstores – both in-store and online.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Young Adult as a category is considered to be marketed at readers between the ages of 12 and 18. This will also come into importance later.
This particular subscription box was the Illyrian Boyfriend Box where you could choose from one of three characters – Rhysand, Cassian and Azriel – these are Illyrian warriors who are noted for being handsome, winged (it is a fantasy series) and muscular. There are numerous references in the books to their wingspans because apparently the size of their wingspan correlates directly to the size of their dicks. Ahem. *Clutches pearls.* I am mentioning this for a reason.
Let me say these three things:
I am not a fan of these books and have said previously that I don’t like either the content or the writing. On a personal level I feel the writing is not good quality and the story telling is weak. On another personal level I have also mentioned before that I don’t like the narrative that the writer presents in these books. I believe the ACOTAR series is faux feminist and presents a skewed sex positivity message while being very liberal with concepts of toxic masculinity. I am happy to have these discussions with you if you want and I am happy to engage further as to why I feel this way.
Despite the way I feel about these books I always say that people can read what they want and enjoy what they want. If you don’t like these books than I will talk about it with you until the cows come home and I’ll probably bring out the snark. If you do like them than I politely agree to disagree and we’ll both get on with our happy lives. The tweets that I haven’t liked in this #soapgate trend are the ones that attack the fandom and the book series fans as being sex crazed weirdos. Nope. I’m not about that. But I also haven’t liked the ones where the hardcore fans blindly deny any issues and call those with concerns frigid prudes. I’m not about that either.
Despite my personal feelings on the books and the writing neither the author nor the publishing company have sanctioned this box. The soap controversy is something that’s just slipped through their hands.
Te he he he he.
It all comes down to those two items that I mentioned:-
- Printed and bound fan fiction referred to as a ‘novella’
- A black soap (complete with suction cup) shaped like a penis
Like I said, some people on Twitter expressed more discomfort at point one and others for point two. There were also those that highlighted both items are problematic.
Many people got involved including some prolific YA writers like Susan Dennard and Victoria Aveyard as well as some literary agents who specialise in YA. Their thoughts were of the same ilk of mine and they have said their peace with significantly more eloquence then me.
Really, I should just point you in the direction of their Twitter feeds and say, ‘have at it’ but I can’t because I’ve put a lot of effort into this so far.
It seems very lighthearted and it some ways it is genuinely hilarious to have a #soapdick and there are those who are saying they can’t see the fuss. But, to sound harsh, I believe they are unable or are actively burying the issues that have come out. That is what I find interesting here because the simple act of putting a piece of male genitalia soap in a subscription box has opened up a can of worms.
I love discussion which is why I followed this trend with interest and which is why I am compelled to write a post about it myself.
I’m going to tackle each item separately.
If you want a confession I’ll give you several.
I’m not ‘just’ a fan of the things that I’m a fan of. Oh no. I have engaged in full fandom behaviour.
Have I dressed up as Harry Potter to go to a fancy dress party in London? Yes. It’s the nearest thing to Cosplay I’ll ever do. Do I have a ton of items that relate to different books/ movies? Yes. I requested a Katniss Barbie doll for my 30th birthday. No shame.
Have I read fanfiction? Oh heck yes. Loads of it. I love it, adore it and there are talented people out there and I consume with glee what they produce.
Have I written fanfiction? Yes. It exists out there for two separate fandom’s. It’s out there now. I am still actively contributing to them. I wrote a piece and put it on AO3 two weeks ago. I am writing a piece that I hope will go up next week. I’ll never tell you the fandom’s (mwah ha ha ha) and I use a ridiculous pseudonym so no one can track it back. Because there be smut.
This controversial box contained a printed and bound ‘novella’ of three short stories relating to each of the Illyrian characters and a personalised letter from the character of choice to the buyer. Now at the moment I’m not going to focus on the content of the novella or the letter (although they are apparently x-rated with one of the letters having a character state, ‘I’m going to f*ck you later’) or the questionable quality of the writing (spelling and grammar issues) but I’m going to focus on the simple fact of the novella’s existence.
Remember when I said that people paid money for this box and that it would come into importance later? Here is later. People paid around $50 for this book.
Now I wouldn’t be impressed at all if I spent $50 for poorly written fan fiction with dodgy quality. I would want decent quality, I would want every single line to have been thoroughly edited and I would deep and enriching characterisation and I would want…
It doesn’t matter that I have paid money for poorly written fan fiction. It matters that I have paid money for fan fiction.
This isn’t a question of morals or personal taste. This point here is a question of the law. As in – this whole thing right here is illegal. We’re looking at copyright infringement.
Fan fiction may be loved by fans but it is not universally loved by authors or publishing houses. I have touched on this before but fan fiction is a shifty area. Someone has created an original world and original characters and told us a story. This world and these characters, however you feel about them, are someone’s intellectual property. We, the fans, don’t own them. We have no rights over them. They have merely been loaned to us to love.
Fans will always absorb what creators give us and build and create upon it. We’re greedy. We don’t want the stories to stop. We don’t want to leave those worlds. We don’t want to say goodbye to characters. So we make fan-art and create tote bags and candles and we write fan fiction.
In terms of fan-art and candles and ‘stuff’ it is easier to turn a blind eye even if those items are sold for profit. Why? Because in some ways if you have an Etsy company making candles they are adding to the fandom experience and are providing a boon/ marketing to those books. I have a Peeta Mellark inspired candle. No lie.
When we write fan fiction we are taking something that is very close to the original material. We are taking something that isn’t ours and we are making it ours. I get protective of the fan fiction I write, as though the time and energy spent on the characters were as though they were my own. But they’re not. This is why some authors don’t like it. I get it. Someone is taking what is yours and making it theirs.
The caveat that fandom’s have managed to cling onto is this: –
The sexy disclaimer that the work is not their own, the characters are not their own and that they are not profiting from the work
As soon as you charge $50 for a box that contains fan fiction you are charging someone for that fan fiction. You are profiting from fan fiction. You are infringing copyright law. You are stealing.
This means that you could get slapped with a cease and desist and maybe even sued. Eep.
The industry has a right to be concerned because authors and publishing houses don’t want their content stolen. Publishers will be concerned over losing money and authors, although also concerned over losing money (this is their livelihood) are also concerned about the theft of their intellectual property. And it is theirs.
Fandom’s have a right to be concerned because no one wants to slide back into the days where lawyers were sending out letters to fan content creators telling them to take their content down or risk legal action. We have AO3 to share content and are free to do so as long as we do it for free.
The last thing anyone wants is for publishing houses with their huge and expensive legal teams to start looking at fans like the bleeding Eye of Sauron and shutting stuff down.
Let’s stay within our legal lanes, yes?
I have actually seen a penis. It is a shocker I know. *Holds smelling salts under the fainter’s noses*
If I decide to buy a book subscription box for say an erotica novel or series and a rather… um, accurate soap was un-boxed I would probably laugh. I would laugh my ass off.
I mean, I would never use the thing because I’m posh and have Baylis and Harding and their range is both moisturising and fragrently scented and… I digress. This isn’t actually about soap.
Let me say that again. This isn’t about novelty soap. Not really.
Before I start I want to remind you of what I said earlier – I have written fan fiction. I have written smutty fan fiction. I have used naughty words in naughty contexts. I have read smutty fan fiction where they have used even naughtier words in the same naughty contexts. I also read romance novels where the content is sexual – to varying degrees – but it is sexual.
I say all this because I need you to understand that I am far from anti in terms of sexual content in books. I am far from anti in terms of sexual content in fan fiction. I am also far from anti in terms of sexual content for novelty items.
But I am all about the appropriate use of sexual content.
Here are some additional statements to add some context, just because I don’t want you thinking I am blowing smoke from my blow hole. I have friends and family who have pre-teen and teenage daughters and so I spend time and have conversations with young adults. I used to be a teenage girl so have sadly lived through that trauma. I also used to be a volunteer at a youth support centre that catered for young adults from 13 – 21. In that centre I specialised in…. dun dun dun… sexual health.
So let me say this again. I am here for sexual content on a personal level. I enjoy it. Usually when it’s well written and serves a purpose to the plot. When it isn’t well written… well that’s just unfortunate writing and detracts from the enjoyment. When it doesn’t serve a purpose to the plot… then it’s unnecessary and superfluous. But when I want literary porn – because that’s what ‘smut’ is right?! Then I will head to the fan fiction marked Explicit or Mature.
If I’m the one writing the smut then I will mark it as Explicit or Mature. Because while I enjoy the sexual content when I want it to read it, you can bet your bottom dollar that not everyone will. Regardless of age.
We enter murky waters now. Hold on, there are things under the surface.
This book box contained an automatically correct, 3D, complete with suction cup, black penis soap. This box is aimed and marketed at the YA audience. As mentioned previously the YA audience is …. 12 to 18 years old.
You know when people say, ‘make good choices?’ Well I can tell you that unfortunately, the team at Book Boyfriend Box, didn’t make good choices. Tote bags and lip-balm, sure. Appropriate. Letters that state a character is going to ‘f*ck you later’ or erotic fan-art and most especially that particular soap? I wouldn’t say that these are appropriately selected items for a book subscription box designed for teenage girls. In fact not even some adults who received the box enjoyed the content.
The argument from the box designers is an interesting one. They have ignored the fan fiction ‘complication’ and instead are defending the adult only content in two ways: –
- That the promotional material and box states it is for 18+ only
- That the books that the box is based from also contains sexual content and so the box is an accurate reflection/ representation of ACOTAR
My first thought is this: the original promotional material did not in fact mention that the box would be for 18+ only. They have whacked it on now but there are people who have taken screen shots of the page where it doesn’t, in fact, have a 18+ warning. But I have more issues than this.
I, an adult, with more wrinkles than I would like will read YA books with abandon. I love ’em. I loved them when I was a teen, I love them now and I will probably love them forever. Because I, an adult, with a slowing metabolism love YA I will purchase content relating to YA. Movies based on books, colouring books, swag boxes etc. But this means that I, an adult, who has more grey hairs appearing every day am consuming content not originally intended for me.
So my first ‘issue’ is this – just because adults can read and enjoy YA content does this mean that we adults get to invade space that is supposed to be occupied by 13 – 18 year old’s? If a book subscription box service that has previously provided and marketed age appropriate content to teenage girls suddenly decides to provide a ‘naughty’ box and slap a sticker on is saying 18+ does this mean we should blame the teenage girls when they continue to want to buy a box that is based on a book they love?
Hmm. Questionable defense here I think from the retailer. Attack the consumer of the product rather than say that maybe the content isn’t suitable for 13 year old’s and that they made a mistake. And yes, 13 year old’s are probably still going to want their boyfriend box despite an 18+ sticker as they may think they are mature enough to handle the content.
I’ll tell you something based on my actual experiences as listed above (previous teenage girl, I know teenage girls, I was a sexual health worker who supported teenage girls) – there is a wide age from 13 – 18 in terms of sexual development. Wide. An 18 year old’s sexual and emotional maturity is usually significantly more developed than that of a 13 year old. Or an 11/ 12 year old because let’s face it, that’s really when teenage girls are getting into YA.
I’ll also tell you that not every 13 year old, not every 16 year old and not every 18 year old is developing exactly at the same rate as their peers. There may be 18 year old’s who do not want and are not ready for this kind of content. There may be 13 year old’s that can handle exposure to this kind of sexual content with a lot more emotional maturity than others in their peer group.
We, the adult audience, don’t get to make those decisions as to which 13 year old’s are comfortable receiving sexual content. That’s up to those individual 13 year old’s. This is why the content creators need to cater for their audience correctly.
Just admit it – this box in particular was a rapid departure from the supplier’s prior content and was designed for adult female readers who are fans of the book. Nothing wrong with adult female readers being fans of the book. But we shouldn’t invade the space of teenagers like that and blame the teenagers when they still want their boyfriend book box.
Now, let me go to their second ‘argument’:-
That the books that the box is based from also contains sexual content and so the box is an accurate reflection/ representation of ACOTAR.
Yes. This is true. The box is indeed a reflection/ representation of ACOTAR and its sexual content. Does this make it ok? Does it flippin’ heck.
This is where I am really trying to restrain myself from going off on one.
I feel that I could rehash all of my previous statements here but instead of focusing on the box we now move to the original content that this box is based on.
What did I say again? Oh yes, in summary:-
- Adult content invading young adult space
- Teenagers develop sexually at different rates – adults shouldn’t make the decisions as to which readers/ consumers are ready to experience sexual content
- Content warnings don’t necessarily make everything ok when we adults are continually invading young adult space and break away from what was a previously ‘safe’ young adult space
Now as the defense is that the box is based on the books I’m going to turn my eye to the books and say this – they are problematic. This is the original source material so let’s look to the source.
Once again – I am all about appropriate sexual content. I am all about teenagers receiving sex positive messages. At some point, if they aren’t already having sex, they will be. Whenever they are ready. Hopefully, when they are ready.
When I volunteered as a sexual health worker, the centre I volunteered at would provide free condoms for teenagers. We encouraged safe sex. If they were having it, we wanted them to be doing it safely. No judgment. Just be safe. If they were a first time visitor we would sit with them and do a practical demonstration before they got any condoms. This meant talking about sex and what the different types of birth control did/ didn’t do and how to safely and correctly use and remove condoms. This was a discussion for the boys and the girls. We also spoke about consent and emotions
This. Is. Sex. Positivity.
I will always remember when two teenage girls came in together for condoms. Teenagers (especially the girls) often came in with a friend because of nerves/ shyness etc. Out of this pair, one girl was already having sex with her boyfriend. The condoms just meant she could have sex without worrying about getting pregnant but she was thinking of going on the pill as well just to be double safe. She was confident about sex, almost to the point of blase.
This. Is. Sex. Positivity.
Her friend? She was also there for condoms because she was considering having sex for the first time. Not with a boyfriend but just because she felt she should. Her best friend was having sex and was unbelievably ‘meh’ about it and she didn’t want to be left behind. I did the demo, had the chat and it was during the chat that this all came out. What I also noticed was that she was shaking uncontrollably. Guess what? She didn’t want to have sex. She wasn’t ready to have sex. She felt like she should because everyone appeared to be having sex but she just didn’t want to.
After the conversation she seemed more reassured that when she spoke to an adult she was told that it was ok to not have sex if she didn’t want to and that it didn’t mean anything negative if she didn’t.
This. Is. Also. Sex. Positivity.
This is why I get angry when people say that these book series are sex positive for teenagers. They’re not. They’re really not. They’re sex positive for adults. They are focused on female pleasure and female sexual autonomy and having emotionally free, no strings attached sex if you want and all those things are 100% great.
Sex positive books for young adults that should sit within the YA shelves at bookstores should tackle sex in a different way. It shouldn’t be about what bit gets inserted where and for how long and the screaming, roaring orgasms that bring down mountains (yeuch). The content of sex in YA should be more complicated, not less. And by that I mean; discussions about whether characters are ready to have sex, what emotions could be felt before, during and even after having sex, discussions about birth control, discussions about STDs, discussions about consent and changing your mind.
I personally believe sex presented in YA should include intimacy but not erotica.
The ACOTAR book series contains heavy smut/ erotica. I know it does because I’ve read it. I’ve also read heavy smut/ erotica so I can do comparisons as well if you like and I’m saying that it is smut and not sex positivity that has crept its way onto those shelves.
Much in the same way as the penis soap, the sexual content of ACOTAR is adult sexual content that has invaded young adult space. Correct me if I’m wrong but those that seem to be speaking up with regards to how wonderful the sexual content is in ACOTAR are not the actual target demographic. From my viewpoint it is primarily adult female fans that are positive about the content. Have we asked any teenage girls what they think? What they actually think? Sorry to be crude but do they enjoy the graphic descriptions of when a character f*cks another doggy style or when one character climaxes at the mentally projected image of his own child as he f*ck’s his ‘mate’ against a wall?
Some teenage girls may not care, some may be ready for that content but some may very well not be ready for that content. Once again, we as adults shouldn’t make the decisions as to which readers are ready to experience sexual content and graphic sexual content at that.
Reminder: these are published, marketed, shelved and sold as YA – a category aimed at 13 year old’s up.
The argument is that because adults purchase these books the content can be sexual. Sorry no. These are not supposed to be adult books. We have the romance and erotica genres for this content and, before it went ‘bust’, we had the New Adult category which was aimed at those aged between 18 – 30 and explored sex and sexual content in greater detail.
Unfortunately the New Adult category never really took off and this created a vacuum effect, especially with regards to this book series. Originally intended for the New Adult audience this is what ACOTAR was marketed as but then New Adult as a category was poorly handled and disappeared into the depths below.
Both publisher and author made an active decision to continue with the explicit content but move it into YA. Remember what I said about good choices?
Personally I think this should have gone another way. Either the content should have been kept but then this should have shifted into the adult fantasy market or, if they wanted the series to remain in YA, then the content should have been removed.
The author’s other series continued a similar path but Throne of Glass started with the typical YA ‘fade to black’ sex scenes and then inserted (along with many, many things) graphic sexual content six books in. Suddenly adult content has invaded young adult space and what was once a ‘safe’ young adult space. Pretty much what the book box retailers have done. So there is no wonder why they don’t really care. They are copying the providers of the source material.
Again, those content warnings on the books are not necessarily obvious (or even exist) but it is the author and publisher that have decided to change the tone of what they are providing and making accessible to teenagers. As a society we are constantly stating that teenagers can’t hold any responsibility and now we are demanding that they take responsibility for checking warning stickers on books that are currently shelved in their YA space and that constantly win Goodreads awards for YA fiction.
My whole feelings on this matter could really be summed up as: –
It is not the responsibility of teenagers to ensure that they are receiving appropriate content. It is the responsibility of those creating the content to ensure it is appropriate for their audience.
I just…. I don’t know.
Even though I personally don’t like the series it doesn’t mean that others can’t and in no way am I deriding anyone’s decision to enjoy the content but for me the content is incredibly problematic. If this was aimed at adult fantasy readers to begin with I would have less of an issue because if a teenager is ready for that content than they could go find that content.
I’m just frustrated at the thought that the content exists for these teenagers to stumble across before they are ready and infuriated that the narrative presents itself in a positive way when I believe so much of the content to be harmful.
So while I laugh at #soapgate and #soapdick as I continue to make my way through the willy shaped sweets that someone brought me, a 30+ adult, for my hen do, I am also glad for #soapgate because sometimes its the seemingly ridiculous things that highlight some really interesting issues.
I encourage comments and discussion always!