After E.L. James’ blockbuster erotic romance novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” was released in 2011, Thien-Kim Lam began noticing an uptick in friends asking her for romance novel recommendations.
A longtime host of in-home events where sexual devices are available for purchase, Lam had extensive experience talking to women about sexual desire. But, she said, one of the results of the popularity of “Fifty Shades” was that women who were not regular romance readers became more curious about the world of erotica.
“More and more friends started reaching out to me and after so many conversations, a light bulb went off,” Lam said. “Why not put my love of sex toys together with my love of romance novels?”
That’s how Lam’s company, the subscription box service Bawdy Bookworms, was started in 2015. The service pairs erotic novels with devices so readers can experience the scenes the characters go through.
Lam wasn't the only person who noted an increase of interest in sexual devices and erotica. In 2012 , the CEO of Church & Dwight — the company that owns the Trojan condom brand — credited the "Fifty Shades" franchise for the success of a new line of products, according to the Wall Street Journal. Also in that year, a Barnes & Noble executive attributed a climb in book sales to that series.
After so many conversations, a light bulb went off. Why not put my love of sex toys together with my love of romance novels?
“I think that women are still pretty shy when it comes to sex and when it comes to talking about sex,” Lam said. “Fifty Shades” provided an opening for those conversations, she noted, as it was passed between friends who wanted to talk about the relationship — and bondage and domination scenes — the book revolved around.
In addition to receiving a different box every quarter, subscribers can participate in an online book club where they can discuss their experiences and opinions on the book.
Lam knows firsthand how reading romance novels can change the way readers view sex and their bodies. She said she began reading them “younger than I should have” as a preteen growing up in rural Louisiana.
“As soon as I grew out of the children’s section, I started digging into the harlequins," Lam said. "My sister and I read as much as we could.”
When it came time for Lam to leave her small town to go to college in the 1990s, she realized how little she knew about sex, her body, and staying healthy, an experience she noted was shared by many women. According to 2015 research from Boston University, discussion on sexuality in Asian-American households was "severely lacking," with only 2 percent of surveyed women saying they had received sexual health information from their home.
“There are so many women who are not taught about their bodies. The internet was a new thing and my parents were immigrants — read: strict and traditional,” she said.
Now a mother of two, Lam often has age-appropriate conversations with her children about sexuality. “I talk to them both about consent and their bodies,” she said. “My mother was a refugee. I never learned the Vietnamese words for my female reproductive parts."
Those experiences are part of the reason Lam wants Bawdy Bookworms to be an open space where women can talk about their feelings and discover books with characters they can connect to. As part of her selection process, Lam goes through several potential books before making a final pick.
“I read critically. It’s like reading in college,” she said. “I think, ‘here’s a good moment between the two characters,’ or ‘maybe this is the type of tool we can use.’”
The box subscribers received last fall centered around the theme of “hurts so good” and included the book "The Flirtation" by Tara Sue Me. Lam noted that she was careful to pick items and books that catered to those new to the world of adult devices. “The boxes are beginner to intermediate, anyone beyond that would probably get bored,” she said. “It’s a good way to try things out. They can try things and figure out if they like it.”
While those unfamiliar with romance and erotica often malign both readers and authors, Lam stressed that the more open women are with their bodies and likes and dislikes, the better.
“The change starts with us and just talking about these things with our partners,” she said.