I admit it. Several years ago when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I would read things in public with a superior air. I would start conversations with people on the subway and in coffee shops who were reading books I deemed worthy of reading. I would sneer at the multitudes of folks reading Harry Potter books on the trains with a, “Jesus. Grow the hell up and start reading REAL literature.” I was a teenage book snob.
In the last several years, I’ve cared less and less what and when and where people read stuff, myself included. In fact the only book I can recall being ashamed to read on the train in the last several years was when I was assigned The Fountainhead for a class (I am pretty sure I hid it behind another book while commuting), but, jeez, that’s an extreme case. It’s like going on the train with tuberculosis.
And since I have overcome my cares about what I’m being seen reading, I have had a few awkward and weird instances while enjoying books on the subway. Most of them come about when I’m working my way through a title about human sexuality.
Case in point: a few years ago, I was reading The Ethical Slut, a book that talks about polyamory in great detail. I got odd looks on a regular basis, but one day a man sitting near me on the subway struck up a conversation that went a bit like this.
MAN: That book’s about polygamy?
ME: Actually, it’s about polyamory.
MAN: The problem with women and polygamy is that if one of you gets pregnant, no man is going to take care of the baby knowing it might really belong to another man.
(At this point in the conversation, my queer, feminist head explodes, killing several other passengers and resulting in train delays all through Queens.)
But this was not the only time such an occurrence happened. On another day, when I was waiting tables in Midtown, I was enjoying my before-shift meal, reading the book I happened to be in the middle of. The book was Sex at Dawn, a recent and wildly popular study of the roots of human sexuality going back to prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies. A coworker asked what I was reading, I told him, and he replied, “Awwwww, yeah. Love that title. Love sex in the morning.” Which was obviously not was the book was about, but there I was still having a conversation with a coworker who had just joined the staff about a week ago about what and when he liked sex.
But now something interesting is happening. All around me, on the subways, in parks, in coffee shops, I see women reading the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey publicly. Unabashedly. The other day I was in a friend’s mother’s beauty shop, and she was chatting with the customers about it. Openly. As if it were in Oprah’s Book Club. This book FULL of sex and S&M.
When did this become acceptable? I don’t see as much as a sideways look when this happens.
It definitely has a lot to do with the wild popularity of the book. Anything best seller is bound to make it into public spaces all over the city. But this book (poorly written as I think it is) is already getting massive credit for things like saving sexless marriages and turning tons of people on to bondage. Maybe people in this city, and this country, and other countries, have just been waiting to quit being so hung up about their sexuality. And maybe they are seizing this opportunity to do so publicly.
The author of this blog seems to be of the opinion that folks should be hiding 50 Shades in brown paper book covers. (If you agree, this great blog post will give you tons of ways to hide your shameful book habit). I, however, don’t agree. I think lots of people spend so much of their lives thinking about and pursuing sex that it’s pretty healthy that we find ways to get that out in the open, to talk about it, to make it less secret and shameful and more a part of a healthy, sex positive lifestyle. Have, you know, some manners about it. Don’t start telling people how you like gerbils in your ass (nothing wrong with that) the minute you meet them. But it’s okay to acknowledge that many of us have sex and many of us enjoy it.
And, hell, maybe jerks won’t give me a hard time the next time I break out The Ethical Slut for my work commute.
And if that’s too much to ask, perhaps the following will make 50 Shades a little more awkward for everyone: