Sex and Reading

Goodreads recently published an infographic entitled “Sex and Reading: A Look at Who’s Reading Whom” with stats collected by 20,000 male users and 20,000 female users of the site.




*one of those books “by men” was The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

The takeaway is this: men and women each primarily lean towards reading their own gender. Yet those first two circles are troubling–only 20% of a female’s audience will be men, yet women make up half of a male author’s audience.

Why the disparity?

Women are frequently expected to consume male-oriented media and identify with male protagonists–male is seen is “default,” while female is seen as “other”–yet men can generally avoid consuming female-oriented media and often identify less with female protagonists.

sherman alexie comparison

In Maureen Johnson’s “Coverflip” challenge, people redesigned covers for the opposite gender, showing how they affect our perceptions of their merit.

Stereotypical female media is seen as lesser: less intelligent, less meaningful, less applicable to half the population.

And that’s problematic.

Books written by female authors tend to have “girlier” covers than those written by men, which tend to be more gender neutral. These covers lean towards feminine signifiers“: pastel colors, pensive or dramatic female models, and curly script. Covers of books written by men are more likely to have darker colors, active models or no model at all, and stronger typography.

We judge books by their covers, despite the old adage that warns us not to. And these images affect how we see these books, often relegating profound and relatable books written by excellent female authors to a “chick lit.” This dumbing down of books centered around female protagonists and/or written by female authors implies a greater insult to women in general: that women can’t or don’t want to handle tougher themes in literature, that breezy summer reading is the only genre that attracts females.

Aside from the marketing differences between male and female authors, there’s also a cultural bias that assigns higher importance to male authors. This bias begins early, as kids start to realize that the books they read in school tend to be written by men about male protagonists and women’s books are rarely lauded as valuable.

before I fall comparison

A stereotypically female cover turned masculine–which one are you likely to see in schools or as a NYT Bestseller?

Maureen Johnson says it best: “When we’re kids, we learn what good books and bad books are because someone tells us. They tell us in classes, through the selection of the books that are considered worthy of study…My college reading was 90% male.

She mentions that classes that feature only female writers are considered highly specialized–belonging to the Women’s Studies department or sometimes upper-level English classes. “Because it wasn’t just literature — it was a specialized demographic,” she writes. “I would love a world in which books are freed from some of these constraints.”

My school experience hasn’t been much different, and you can see that clearly in how I’ve tracked my reading on Goodreads.

In 2014, I’ve read 21 books. Of those, 11 books were by women, and I rated them an average of 4.0 stars. The other 10 were by men, with an average rating of 3.9 stars.

That’s pretty even. I’ve read roughly the same number of books by men and women this year and enjoyed them about as equally.

In 2013, I read 10 books by female authors and awarded them an average of 4.1 stars. I also read a whopping 26 books by male authors with an average of 3.5 stars.

neil gaiman comparison

“Nellie” Gaiman’s version seems “light” or “trashy,” words that are almost exclusively used for female-penned novels.

The main difference between my reading choices between those two years? In 2013, I was a senior in high school. The majority of the books I read and rated on Goodreads were written by men and chosen by my town’s school board for their literary merits. This year, I hand-selected every single one of those books as extracurricular reading, and I ended up reading men and women almost equally.

My Senior AP English teacher made a valiant effort to include female voices in the classroom. He was a feminist. We frequently discussed gender roles in class. He encouraged the girls to explain their experiences to him. He admitted that because of male privilege he could never 100% understand. He assigned as many works by females as he could (Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates), but only only two of those were full-length novels. He couldn’t get around the school board’s male-oriented curriculum.

Junior AP English wasn’t much better: we did have a “women’s issues unit” where students got to choose one of four novels to read and discuss in small groups. Two of those “women’s issues” novels were books written by men about women. Ah, yes, reading about women from a male hand, I definitely need more of that in my life.

freedom comparison

On the left: a novel that may make you reconsider what freedom means. On the right: a “beach read” about teen romance.

Those two classes had another element in common: while the authors and protagonists we discussed were predominantly men, female students far outweighed male students. On average girls lean towards English over STEM fields, so we should be giving them strong female literary role models, both authors and protagonists.

Literature is valuable because it makes readers consider other perspectives. The English curriculum fails to represent multiple perspectives, however, when the only books assigned are written by males about males.

Can you imagine classes in which guys read nothing but Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler, and Caryl Churchill?” Maureen Johnson writes, “Boys [must be] more delicate…To ask them to read ‘girl’ stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart.”

English class is arguably the main venue in school for instruction on critical consumption of information. Books are extremely powerful in coloring young people’s opinions and points of view.

How can we expect our boys to become men who understand and fight for gender equality if they never read books from female perspectives? 

36 thoughts on “Sex and Reading

  1. Storytellers will always tackle the portrayal of their characters. Sometimes they get it right, a lot of the time they get it wrong, and that’s fine. Thankfully, I have quite a spectrum of books under my belt, although these days I read more plays than books, but I’ve always found it comes down to three things for me: relatability, escapism and/or quality of writing. Bad writing is bad writing. And with books, I always judge by covers. It isn’t marketing if the cover doesn’t have some hand in catching your eye.

    And truth be told, I don’t focus on the writer. Ever. You’re either good at what you do, or you’re not. I don’t differentiate, because I’ve rarely found it to unite. I am purely interested in story and the craft of telling it. If it’s a male writer, cool; if female, also cool; if an animal – well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t a little intrigued :)

    For me, the easy answer is that women writers are still playing catch up. It’d be lovely if it changed overnight, but it won’t. Perhaps women are still deemed as “other” (just as LGBT experiences are) because we aren’t there yet.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Women’s books are definitely deemed “other” still. I think we may get there someday, but we aren’t there yet. I don’t focus on the writer that much either–I choose books that interest me, although a lot of that is by the cover originally and even I tend to shy away from those stereotypically girly covers because I expect bad, cliche writing when a cover is cliche.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I didn’t realize the statistics were so skewed for readership by gender. One thing, too, is that I think adult males generally read less than adult females in general. So males may be more prone to just reading escapist adventure/spy books that are typically written by men. Women may be more likely to read relationship/character oriented material that is likely written at least as frequently by women. So it would be interesting to break down the readership and authorship by topic/genre and see about further correlations.
    I thought it was a really good point about what school districts are teaching, too. You are right that early reading habits are largely influenced by what happens in school curricula (especially now that fewer schools have librarians on staff).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Goodreads data showed equal readership among men and women, but of course it’s a site for book lovers so perhaps that’s still true. I’d also be interested in a genre correlation but the data is harder/more time-consuming to collect for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re right about “girlie” covers, but these only apply to what the bookshops themselves call “Women’s Literature”. I don’t even go in that section. The idea of creating a space for women is arguably driving men away from that section, even away from books that might otherwise appeal to them. That’s doing the writers and readers a disservice.

    Books written by female authors tend to have “girlier” covers than those written by men, which tend to be more gender neutral. These covers lean towards “feminine signifiers“: pastel colors, pensive or dramatic female models, and curly script. Covers of books written by men are more likely to have darker colors, active models or no model at all, and stronger typography.

    You hit the nail on the head here. The problem isn’t so much what men want to read or will read, the problem is in the distributors and how they market them – plus as I said above, the notion of creating a space for women inside a book shop increases that distance. We know the tropes of covers of most women authored books: pink covers, pictures of handbags and shoes, women looking wistfully at a wind-swept beach, perhaps with a tear in her eye. I know straight away that that does not interest me at all for many reasons.

    I’ve putting together a piece on this at the moment. I think Good Reads have really failed to grasp or tackle several issues – specifically those relating to genre (Sandy above notes this too). Would be great to have your input… nearly done!


    • Honestly, I don’t even want to read books with windswept beach covers or pink handbags, and I supposedly fit into their target demographic. It isolates “women’s books” as if women don’t want to read “regular” books (i.e. “men’s books) and also completely dissuades men from reading these books too. About to go read your longer thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s quite ridiculous. The industry wrings its hands over why men won’t read the wimminz while segregating writers based on their gender. They create a segregated space (both physically in the shops and conceptually by book cover design) for women and then scratch their head for why men won’t go there. It’s… quite obvious really.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree. It always seems the natural choice to me (no doubt for the reasons you explain) to go for male authors, although i’ve been consciously trying to address that recently. I’ve recently enjoyed re-reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and i’ve almost literally laughed myself to death reading Caitlin Moran. Sticking to one gender is missing a whole side of the story.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Oh yes. This.

    “Maureen Johnson says it best: “When we’re kids, we learn what good books and bad books are because someone tells us. They tell us in classes, through the selection of the books that are considered worthy of study…My college reading was 90% male.“

    Saw this in one of my feeds from the earlier, but wasn’t able to slow down and look at it. Found a tweet that reminded me of it. Read the first paragraph and just closed the Twitter tab so I could read.

    This is an awesome piece. Good that your instructor was a feminist and at least tried to get around the curriculum standards. There is so much packed into this, I don’t even know where to start.

    How to get more female authors into the high school curriculum is the most important question, I suppose.


    • It is the most important question. It requires a lot of push from parents and students about the school board’s choices, I think. People have fought the contents of English curricula for years, both for censoring certain books and for including certain books. If you asked me to write down a list of all the authors I could think of in a minute, probably most of them would be male, and that’s concerning.


  6. I don’t agree with this: “When we’re kids, we learn what good books and bad books are because someone tells us.” I never bought books chaperoned. I read books in school and those required by female professors were as profound as those by male professors. The issue here is intelligence and who is making the recommendations. Oddly, I think the female cover on the left would attract men more than the other one, but because of sexual allusion, whereas the one on the right is illogical. Does a fallen body leave a small, black spot? I think a cover should express the underlying point of a book, or at least allude to it wittingly. If this is the case, I believe that subject matter is what attracts us. I once picked up the book I’ll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oats because of the cover. It depicted the neck-to-knees of two young women in Taffeta dresses. I was curious to know more. Our interests become connected to our needs, and according to Maslow, our needs arise as others are met and if they are not met, they circulate becoming obsessive. Anyway, that was on my mind when I decided to buy the book, read it, and critique it as I read it. You can find the review here:

    Beyond this, I am currently reading:

    The Novel — A biography by Michael Schmidt
    The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes
    Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman
    The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
    The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
    And Everyday Was Overcast by Paul Kwiatkowski
    The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich
    Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas by Margaret Fisher

    I am reading these books because I am interested in words and writing. All of them are by men, except de Beauvoir’s and Fisher’s. I am interested in women in the case of de Beauvoir’s and Fisher is a friend of mine. I love how both write. I think that’s what I am looking for. There is a mental transference that takes place when reading and I love how brilliant people put things together.

    Anyway, if you women would write more philosophy books, I might read them. Of late I’ve had a crush on the daughter of a philosophy professor from France and she is so over philosophy. She just wants to have children and so I think many women couldn’t care less about fuddy duddy fixations on the structure of language. If you are out there let me know. I’d be interested.


    • I don’t think it’s the sex of the professor that matters, since often they don’t have the sole say in what they assign. The sex of the author, however, does matter in my opinion, since there is an inherent perspective bias that comes through. I could’ve also looked at the number of male/female protagonists in the books I read in school and would’ve found an overwhelming majority of protagonists and even smaller characters who I can’t identify with on the grounds of gender (perhaps I can identify with them for other reasons, but so rarely do I see a female character, let alone a strong one, in my assigned texts).
      For the covers you’re referencing, I see the “female” cover as conveying vapidity–she’s not an active woman, she’s just a pretty face lying there–while the “male” cover as more attention grabbing because the splatters have a movement to them.
      Your reference to Joyce Carol Oates’s book is interesting, because there has also been a lot of discussion about how often women are portrayed in commercials and print advertising as just pieces of their bodies. You’ll find headless images of women much more frequently than headless images of men if you look around at what advertisers want to show you. Lots of thought-provoking pieces on this phenomenon have been written if you’re interested.
      I’m amazed you’re reading so many books at once, but like you say, your list is male-dominated. Maybe there truly are more male philosophical authors, but there are likely female voices too that either you haven’t fought to seek out or have swept under the rug for the same biases that I mention in this post. Or the biases you show in saying “you women” (which is isolating and honestly I found that a bit offensive/pejorative) and “I might read them” (whereas if you really wanted to give female authors a chance to impress you with their brilliance, you wouldn’t use “might”). I’m not sure one case of a woman who chose raising a family over following in her father’s footsteps is enough to make a generalization about all women’s interest in philosophy either.
      Thank you for sharing your opinions! I encourage discussion on all my posts, but especially on topics like these.


      • The professors I spoke of created their own agendas or so it felt, because they were the experts. This was the University of Hawaii.

Yes, perhaps “The sex of the author…does matter, since there is an inherent perspective bias that comes through.” You realize however that Virginia Woolf said that Shakespeare and some of the great women writers were without such a bias and that is why they were great. You’ll find this discussion in her book A Room of One’s Own.

        You are probably correct about female protagonists. There is also this statistic that there is a 60/40 ratio of women entering graduate schools vs. men. The prediction is that due to the loss of typically male-complementary jobs, like manufacturing, these women will begin to filter in and thus influence education toward their bias. Again, I hope as Woolf implies, that both genders will shoot for an unbiased accounting.

        Yes, of the cover, she is a pretty face lying there. As a color field painter, I suspect, I am not impressed with the other cover as anything but a bad copy of Pollock and Motherwell. It is not more attention-getting than the female on the cover, just saying, because it is about sex. Regarding the male bias, I was comforted to learn that women “savor” men’s legs just as men savor women’s according to the women in my writing group.

        Yes pieces of women’s bodies are like objectified puzzle pieces that men can fill-in, like words missing letters. Sure there are more headless women than men, but men, in general, I would say are not that concerned with what they wear. Although I would like to be more fashionable, I can’t afford it. I am sure this is the case for most men.

I don’t know why my reading list is male-dominated except that I am reading the biggest names in philosophy at the moment, but I would love to see more women studying philosophy. I would love to date such a woman. I don’t look for the authors, per se, just the presumed reputations because they are men we’ve all heard about and Hannah Arendt’s sole book at Barnes and Noble just didn’t interest me, so far.

When I say “Anyway, if…women would write more philosophy books, I might read them…” you have to allow me to use the gender term if we are going to talk about men and women. Here is an answer to that question as taken from:

        “Women are among the most important contemporary scholars writing on Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and Kant (and Nietzsche:  vide Clark)–indeed, sometimes the most important scholars–obviously isn’t incomptabile with the hypothesis in question, namely, that an overwhelming male historical canon, combined with sexist remarks by many of these philosophers, put off female students from the field.”

        My example of the friend, who is the daughter of a philosopher, was an attempt to complement women on their perceived intolerance for useless blather, which of course is a generalization. You can’t win when you talk about women. I feel like everything I say is wrong. Philosophy is about ideas and taking into account all biases is a part of that process. A woman’s point of view is welcome. Anyway, I don’t expect I’ll inspire the granting of any phone numbers.

        It is good that we are at least talking. If we don’t talk we’ll never know.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I was just thinking about how I should look back and see how my Goodreads list plays out after reading a piece by a woman who read 50 books by people of color this year. A quick glance looks like 14 by women and 7 by men, which is interesting because for a long time my favorite authors were all men, so I think I have tried (consciously and otherwise) to correct for that.

    The cover art seems like a big piece to me. I have to admit that when they put the “girlie” design on a cover, I’m more likely to assume I won’t be interested in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should look at my white vs. people of color stats too. That’s an entirely separate but related (and important) idea too.
      I’ve rarely found myself drawn to stereotypically female covers. Sometimes I’ll buy a book with a cover like that anyway but prioritize books with more gender-neutral covers in my actual reading list.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is an excellent post Sabina. And such an important issue that needs to be examined. I watch this play out with my two older children. My son read the Hunger Games trilogy and enjoyed it but the cover was very masculine. I think that’s one of the most encouraging aspects of this series. It was a female author, female character focus and I would bet (based on the kids I know who read it) read just as much by boys as girls. But shopping for books with my son is incredibly frustrating. I can point out a book that I know he would love but if the cover indicates femininity in any way he won’t have it. (And you know I’m raising a strong male feminist :) )

    I know that 90 percent of my grade school and college required reading was male authored and male point of view. I’m curious to look at my kids’ summer required reading list to look at it from this angle. I’m usually so appalled at the dismal quality of the literature choices that I’ve never paid attention to the gender choices.

    (and I did take an African American Literature course in college. But I found it depressing that those books and authors I read in that class were only available in that course. I never would have read some of the most impactful and interesting books I’ve ever read if I hadn’t taken that course)

    Liked by 1 person

    • In one of the articles I read in preparation for this post (not sure which one, but they’re all hyperlinked throughout) somebody mentioned how The Hunger Games was one of the exceptions to the girls-reading-women and boys-reading-men trend in children’s/YA books, and I definitely think it has a lot to do with the cover–like you say, it’s masculine despite a female protagonist/author.
      Like another blogger mentioned above, the race division in books is an entire other issue that needs to be addressed too, and something I should also examine more in my own reading choices. My AP English teacher also made the effort to include more authors of color in the little leeway he had over the curriculum. In college my freshman seminar was based in a lot of texts by people of color, and I’d love to return to a lot of those authors to read more of their work.


  9. I’ve read a lot of books written by females in high school.
    I read Wuthering Heights (actually in college) and Jane Eyre. Actually i take that back, most of the books I’ve read in HS were written by male. I read a book for my English class at my college called My Antonia by Willa Cather (a female). It was REALLY good. You should read it. It’s about a boy who meets a farmgirl from a different country in rural Nebraska. I’d recommend it and I think Cather used her stories from real life. I also recommend Laurie Halse Anderson’s books.

    But I think most authors a long time ago were male and English classes focus on a lot of novels from the several hundred years ago for some reason. It’s only elective classes where you can take Modern English.

    I love reading your blog! :)


    • Most of my HS books had male authors. I did read some female authors–Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, also Wuthering Heights, a handful more + the ones senior year I mentioned above–but still the predominance of male authors in the curriculum is troubling. We did have some choice during summer reading, and My Antonia was one of the choices, but I chose other texts to read.
      A lot of people make that same argument, that more books were written by men in the past. While that’s true for many hundreds of years ago, there are plenty of texts written in the last two hundred years by women that are glossed over in favor of men’s books. We may also have a distorted image of what literature was truly out there at that time BECAUSE of what we’ve read in school from that time period. Things to think about!!
      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoy it :)


  10. I really enjoyed this post. I have never thought about whether authors are male or female (blessing in disguise maybe?…i look at titles and read the inside cover, i could care less who writes it). Maybe I should pay more attention, just to see what it is I’m reading. You’ve definitely given me something to think about…again.


    • You’re likely being influenced by the cover whether you realize it or not! I look at authors but if I don’t already recognize their names it obviously doesn’t make a big impact on me.
      It definitely is something to think about. Thanks for reading!


    • Aren’t a lot of female writers dumbing down their writing to appeal to a wider market, thereby exacerbating the gap? Like COURTJG, I judge a book purely by its cover and the blurb so for me it’s all down to how the book is marketed. The gender of the author does not come into it. Most of the authors I read will be men, but only because as a general rule they are more LIKELY to be writing the kind of stuff I am interested in. I can’t wait to see “Big Eyes”, that should really open up the debate when it comes out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s a possibility. If not actually “dumbing down” their writing itself they more often write YA which is less respected in the literature world (which is an entire different discussion). Note that I didn’t consciously decide to read an equal number of males and females this year, though, and while some of the female-authored books were YA many were also highly regarded for their literary merit. There are excellent female writers out there who aren’t dumbing down their work, but often the covers lead us to believe otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

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  13. Interesting stuff. I was really surprised at my numbers this year, especially since I’ve been trying to seek out more diverse books this year. Only about a quarter were by female authors, and a fifth had female protagonists. It can be hard to read the significant releases/major books in a genre and the diverse books at the same time, because they aren’t the same books.


    • Exactly why I wanted to do the Read Harder Challenge this year–to open myself up to a more diverse range of topics, authors, races and geographic backgrounds. I don’t read THAT many books in a year, so it’s even more important I think to make sure they’re more representative of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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  15. 1.) I love this post. 2.) It reminds me of the anecdote that JK, not Joanna, Rowling wrote Harry Potter so that more males would pick up the book. Sad, yet true.


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