Racy books face exposure issues
Several mainstream titles include sexual content, leaving booksellers in a quandary. Critics decrya moral decline.
By Dan Thanh Dang
Baltimore Sun Oct 20 2004
BALTIMORE - The trickle, at once literary and titillating, began in July.
As book buyer Dee Peeler remembers it, the first to arrive was a rather indelicate, how-to sexual guide that promised the "lowdown" on sexual techniques,toys and positions. That was followed in August by Jenna Jameson's salacious if heartbreaking life story about her rise from teenage pole dancer to pornqueen extraordinaire looking for love, marriage and babies. Next came a coffee-table book picturing porn stars posed and exposed.
Then the floodgates opened with a whole slew of sexually explicit books.
Not so long ago, buying a sex book meant going to an adult bookstore. But now, as sexuality has become so large a part of the cultural mainstream,corner bookstores as well as the national chains are trying to get in on the action while also maintaining family-friendly respectability.
Peeler, whose Greetings & Readings in Towson, Md., is an independent bookstore, green-lighted the first book, "How to Have a XXX Sex Life: TheUltimate Vivid Guide" and Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," both released by ReganBooks. But she nixed Timothy Greenfield's just released "XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits."
"We had to take a stand on that 'Portraits' one," Peeler said. "We decided it's maybe not something this store can carry, partly because of the cover. We'remore of a family store, so we are careful about what we display and how we display things. These books do present a problem for us.
"They're really graphic and there's more and more of them all the time. It's a sticky situation."
Sex and the city
Books on topics that were once taboo have slowly migrated from their old haunts and begun to show up in mainstream venues. Some, such as Jameson's,are even landing on national bestseller lists. Sales like that make it hard for booksellers to shun such steamy matter.
"We weren't planning on stocking the Jameson book until we had some people ask for it," said Rebecca Oppenheimer, an assistant at the Ivy bookstore inMount Washington, Md. "We have two on the shelf now. We try to keep our stock pretty classy. We don't really like carrying them, but we will. We have to serve the needs of our customers."
At Barnes & Noble in Towson, Md., Pamela Anderson's novel, "Star," is on display with other new fiction near a store entrance. The book is looselybased on Anderson's life and includes, one reviewer wrote, "staggering sex scenes that are too lurid to repeat."
Some publishers have found ways to help booksellers overcome their squeamishness.
Atria Books gives stores a choice between two covers of Anderson's book. One version shows a nude Anderson pinup and the other has a pink starstrategically covering parts of the same image. Most stores have chosen the version with less skin.
"As booksellers, our job is to bring books to the community, and those books can come from all walks of life," said Sam Ranocchia, manager of theTowson Barnes & Noble. "We don't discriminate. We don't censor. We're not going to hide books because of their content."
But to carry such books also means that Ranocchia and other store employees occasionally have to play book cop.
"If anyone who appears underage is looking those books over, I'll jump all over them," said Ranocchia, who added that the store has received nocomplaints about stocking sex-oriented books.
At the nearby Towson Borders, it takes some effort to find Greenfield's "Portraits," which sits right above Jameson's biography.
"Portraits," a 12-by-10-inch tome with a nude cover photograph of Jameson covering her breasts with her arms, is on the top-most shelf of the store'ssections devoted to biographies of film and television personalities. That section happens to be tucked away in a far, dark corner of the store.
"What's on the cover really determines how it's displayed," said Michael Wainwright, multimedia manager of Borders. "That's why 'Portraits' is up high.We don't want just anybody flipping through those books. We haven't gotten any complaints about them."
Wainwright says that with cable television showcasing more sex, foul language and violence - Ã la "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" - and theInternet, where you can do almost anything anonymously, "everyone's pushing the envelope more to compete. It's become more accepted."
Retail giant Wal-Mart, which has made a name for itself by censoring questionable song lyrics in music it sells, also has had to grapple with the sex book conundrum.
Spokeswoman Karen A. Burk said Wal-Mart has chosen to offer Anderson's "Star" - with its less revealing cover - but has so far passed on all theothers.
"We are always listening to our customers and make case-by-case decisions on what items to carry based on what we think our customers want to buy,"Burk said.
Critics of sexually explicit books blame the Internet and the increasing normalization of pornography in America.
Just take a look around, they say. On reruns of "Friends," cool guys Joey and Chandler love watching free porn on TV. T-shirts and other clothingemblazoned with the words "Porn" or "Porn Star" are in abundance.
There may have been public outcry over the "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, but fewblinked at the suggestive dancing and "Rock Your Body" song lyrics that same night.
With porn turning up plentifully in the mainstream, it's no shocker, then, that people are curling up with books about all manner of sex acts these days,says Jack Samad, senior vice president for the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families in Ohio.
"The proliferation of the Internet eight or nine years ago really helped normalize pornography," Samad said. "It brought graphic sexual images right intoour home. Everyone scoffs at it, but the reality is that the young consumer has been normalized to sex through the music they listen to, TV they watch, magazines they read.
"When Mom and Dad take their kids to a bookstore where this material is casually displayed, it sends kids the same message that it's OK," Samad said."Where are we today that this material used to only be found in an adult bookstore? We have gone too far."
Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, however, has ordered several copies of the Jameson book to distribute throughout its system.
"It will be on the shelf, but you would have to look for it," said Mona Rock, an Enoch Pratt spokeswoman. "We would never display it where children canwalk by and look at it. Depending on the number of requests, we would consider acquiring any book that's been professionally reviewed.
"The world," she said, "has changed."
Dan Thanh Dang is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.