Musings: Why Do People Read What They Read

Also known as, can I use psychology in an attempt to explain why people don’t read f/f books?

If you follow me on twitter, you will know I have very very little patience for “where is all the f/f” tweets that crop up about once a month. Because it’s there if you look, it’s not like there’s this gaping great hole of no f/f. So the question isn’t so much where are the books as why don’t people read the books. And sure, for some people, the answer is simply laziness. And for others, it’s bigotry (however much they dress it up with but I read m/m books).

But I got bored, so this idea was born. I’m not going to pretend like this post has the answers (it’s psychology, there’s no such thing). I’m not going to pretend like I know if it’s even right. But hey, maybe it’ll make you think a bit.

P.S. I’m using f/f as the example here because that’s the one I know best. But, hopefully, everything that I write in this blog post might also be used to answer the question why don’t people read [insert other descriptor here] books.

Consider this a handful of hypotheses for why people do (or don’t, as the case may be) pick up a book. Like I said, I’m not trying to claim I have the answers, and I’ve only done a bare minimum of reading to write this post, so this is more in the interests of starting a discussion. (And also. Psychology. Brought one half of my undergrad onto this blog, may as well get the other half in there too. Sport psych is next just you wait.)

1. They don’t hear about it

Let’s start with an easy one, and one that’s probably more attributable to outside influences (i.e. the publishers, not being on social media, etc, etc). The potential readers simply just don’t hear about it, which sends the message to the publishers that they don’t care, which reduces marketing, so they don’t hear, and so on and so on. But this only accounts for a few readers, and certainly not the ones on social media (although maybe they really aren’t following the right people).

2. Bigotry

Another simple one. People don’t read the books because they’re homophobic (or lesbophobic if we’re talking straight women who read m/m but not f/f). But again, this doesn’t apply in the context I’m talking about. Sure, there could be some internalised homophobia also going on, but to claim that that covers all the people not reading f/f would be disingenuous. (Elise wrote a great piece about that though.)

So if neither of these two fully explain the phenomenon, what might?

3. Society centres men (CW for mentions of rape & various forms of gender violence)

“The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible […]”

Adrienne Rich (1980)

In her 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich notes that heterosexuality is “a beachhead of male dominance”, presumed to be “a ‘sexual preference’ of ‘most women’, either implicitly or explicitly”, in the literature. Although you may have most often heard ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (or ‘comphet’) used in the sense of lesbians feeling they are attracted to and supposed to cater to men, as Rich points out, the institution of heterosexuality affects everyone.

Which means it affects both readers and authors as well.

Taking an example from Rich’s essay (which you should absolutely read, while we’re at it), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s book For Her Own Good points out that much of the advice given to women by male health professionals has actually reflected men’s needs, their fantasies about women and their interest in controlling women. While also disregarding lesbian existence. So this illustrates what is meant by compulsory heterosexuality.

If we step back in the chain and ask, if this is a consequence/something that enables comphet to proliferate, where does it come from? To which, we might point towards men having the power in a patriarchal society. This power is what serves to enforce heterosexuality, argues Rich. Characteristics of such power include:

  • denying women their own sexuality (e.g. through chastity belts, punishment for adultery or lesbian sexuality, strictures against masturbation)
  • forcing male sexuality upon them (e.g. rape, domestic abuse, socialisation of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right, idealisation of heterosexual romance in media)
  • commanding or exploiting their labour to control their produce (e.g. through marriage or motherhood, horizontal segregation of women in paid employment, male control of abortion)
  • controlling or robbing them of their children
  • confining them physically and preventing their movement (e.g. enforced economic dependence)
  • using them as objects in male transactions (e.g. prostitution, arranged marriage, use of women as entertainers to facilitate male deals)
  • cramping their creativeness
  • withholding from them large areas of society’s knowledge and cultural attainments (e.g. non-education of women, silence regarding women and lesbian existence in history and culture, ‘sex-role stereotyping’)

And because all of this is the existing power structure, you’re brought up in this, you socialise this. And that’s going to translate to books, both as an author and as a reader. Particularly, the forcing of male sexuality, and even more particularly the socialisation of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right and the idealisation of heterosexual romance.

So, I realise it’s taken a while to get to the point, but here we go. People don’t read f/f because there are no men involved. If you (not you personally, but you generally) are socialised to believe that men’s sexual drive is a right and heterosexual romance is an ideal, then f/f is going to come as a shock. And probably make you feel a bit uncomfortable, in all honesty. From a psychological perspective, it might be a bit of a cognitive dissonance thing. So you don’t touch it because you don’t want that discomfort. It takes time and, more importantly, effort to even start to unpick socialisation.

What about m/m then? Well, there you’re still centering men’s sexual drive. So even if it’s not an idealised heterosexual romance, it’s not going to give you nearly so much cognitive dissonance, if any.

Along similar lines is an idea Michelle brought up (and that she promised to write a piece about too), that cis women are emotionally conditioned differently to cis men. So, those people who say I want f/f like [insert popular m/m book here] are always going to be disappointed on some level. The emotions are going to be different, because getting past your societal conditioning is hard. But that might also serve to explain why people (particularly women) read m/m. It lets them experience the emotions that society says they can’t have. (But I’m still not letting them off the hook for calling m/m books “yummy” though.)

4. Group membership

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) states that individuals largely define themselves in terms of their social group memberships, and tend to seek a positive social identity. Such an identity is achieved through comparison of their own group with others. So, by definition, you have an in-group (the individual’s group) and an out-group (any group the individual doesn’t belong to).

(Just want to note here that not all premises of this theory, such as the self-esteem hypothesis, hold up, but for the basic level at which I’m talking about group membership, it’ll do.)

Because identity by this theory is achieved through comparisons, there’s obviously going to be some intergroup bias. Brewer (1997) identifies three principles of ‘us’-‘them’ thinking and behaviour.

  • intergroup accentuation, whereby we see group members as more similar to each other than they are, we see other in-group members as more similar to the self, and we see the two groups as more different than they actually are.
  • in-group favouritism, whereby we trust and like fellow in-group, but not out-group, members.
  • social competition, where we tend to see comparisons between in- and out-group as involving zero-sum conflicts.

And a major thing that drives this bias? In-group favouritism.

It may make sense, therefore, though I have no solid evidence to back this up, that people pick books to read based on are they a part of the in-group. Casually speaking at least, because it’s clear that’s not all that’s at play. And it’s entirely possible this is a more subconscious bias than anything.

And what about straight women reading m/m? Well, it’s not like those m/m are actually marketed at mlm, so in a way this is still their in-group.

5. Experience-taking

This relates very closely to the above point. Basically experience-taking is the process by which an individual, while reading, “spontaneously assumes the identity of a character in a narrative and [simulates] that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviours, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own”. How does it relate here? Well, say you read one book with an out-group character. You successfully experience-take, i.e. put yourself in their shoes, really. Conceivably, you might then be open to reading more books featuring this out-group and going through that all more. Conversely, if you never read one, or you do but never experience-take, you might be less open to it.

A study which may support this. Kaufman and Libby (2012) found that you experience-take more when you have a reduced state of self-concept* accessibility** (less when you have a heightened state), the highest levels of experience-taking occur when the narrative is first-person and depicting an in-group character compared to third-person and/or an out-group character, and revealing a character’s out-group membership (in this study, as either gay or African-American) actually inhibits experience-taking (delaying the reveal actually meant participants applied fewer stereotypes and had more favourable attitudes towards the out-group).

*Self-concept basically refers to how you see yourself. It’s fascinating in itself to read about (especially when it comes to self-schemas and all), but a little beside the point here.

**If something is accessible to you, in the psychological sense, it’s basically at the forefront of your mind. Whether you’re aware of it or not.

So, some theorising with regards to f/f (bearing in mind that the study doesn’t really tell us how or why people experience-take). If you’re reading a book with an in-group character, this could either heighten your sense of self-concept or reduce it (conceivably either way, and I don’t know of any research into that). The former because seeing an in-group character brings that part of your self-concept to the forefront of your mind (almost like when you try not to think about something and you can’t help thinking about it), the latter because it’s in line with you and your expectations so you don’t notice it.

Say a straight person is reading an f/f book. Along the lines of the second scenario, the narrative is presenting an out-group character (who we already know is going to promote less experience-taking). They’re straight, they suddenly come across a wlw character. Because it’s not in line with their self-concept, they become more aware of being part of their in-group, in this case, straight. So they experience-take less, and never do it again. Based on the study above, you’re doubly not experience-taking (one because your self-concept is more accessible and two because you’re reading an out-group narrative). And there are a lot of groups who might be less than willing to experience-take when it comes to f/f (think back to whole comphet section).

Basically, it comes back to the whole in-group/out-group idea and potentially being less inclined to read books about out-groups. Experience-taking may be an explanation for why you might continue or change a behaviour.

So this got a little lot longer than expected! If you’ve made it this far, thank you for putting up with my rambling.

Let me know if you have thoughts on this! I’d be glad to hear them.

26 thoughts on “Musings: Why Do People Read What They Read

  1. This piece is so thoughtful and amazing. Thank you so much for writing it I really believe we need more of that.
    As a lesbian I know I started out reading a lot of m/m (although I read a lot of f/f now) which I think was due to internalised homophobia where I wanted to read about gay characters (because I was going through the stages of accepting myself) but it was still too scary to read bout female characters being attracted to other women…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you for reading it! oh yeah i get that starting out reading m/m, like it sees you less you can kind of get the emotional gut punch of reading gay characters but without it really hitting you if that makes sense?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I get what you’re saying about experience-taking. If I’m reading a book with a male or female protagonist, I become aware that I’m non-binary and they’re out-group. There are subtle and not so subtle differnces in an out group experience and it can make it less immersive if you’re not used to it. It’s really about being open to trying it, and some people don’t want to make the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes! it’s definitely about accepting you have biases and being prepared to confront them. i’d say a lot of people don’t want to make the effort bc it relies on you accepting you’re not completely objective/neutral and you may benefit from certain things

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve definetly unconsciously avoided f/f books in the past because of a mix of feeling uncomfortable at girls liking girls in books before I was ready to admit I liked girls then I had a lot more black and white thinking that because I didn’t like this one f/f book I don’t like f/f books when it was actually just that book I didn’t like.
    But since I seriously started questioning late last year and realising I’m gay this year I’ve been looking out for more f/f relationships and wlw characters in what I read and watch and it feels so much more amazing and in a way relieving to see these characters now

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oh yeah, i get that, when you haven’t quite accepted it yourself it’s definitely hard to read it at first! but then it gets relieving like you say

      Like

      1. sdgjgsfgh I feel like there are probably a lot of people I follow on twitter who I don’t follow on here and have never noticed because ?? I see all their posts??

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  4. Thank you! I had some of those on my mind already (especially the 3rd point) but no vocabulary to articulate it and you put it together so nicely! On my own, I was wondering whether I’m reaching and m/m is just more popular with straight girls and thus more accessible.

    I struggled (& sometimes still do!) with treating male characters as more ‘interesting’ and ‘nuanced’ even as a bi woman (or something close to woman lol) and it takes time and effort to contradict this thinking.

    I would also add to that — when I just started questioning my sexuality, apart from all of those reasons you listed, it was just easier to ‘take the first step’ from straight fiction and start consuming queer lit by reading m/m books but… IDK, to still keep up the illusion to myself? Don’t question too deeply? by avoiding anything f/f related. Just classic ‘If I don’t think about it, I don’t have to worry about it.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. there’s a definite aspect of m/m having popularity with straight girls that f/f doesn’t, yeah. & definitely we need to think about how we criticise female characters for things male characters are allowed to do…..

      the whole denial thing is certainly a common theme too

      Liked by 1 person

  5. YES. Especially when you talked about how f/f relationships don’t feature men’s sexual drive, I knew this post was it. I’ve definitely internalized this, & it’s something I’m working to get rid of now. I also can think of tons of complex characters that I would die for, but right now I can think of like, 5 male ones and only one female one, so yeah… anyways, you just hit the nail on the head with this post, & I got called out, but I appreciate it so much 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ahh if it calls you out for that it’s definitely also calling me out! i know i find it easier to think of male characters who are complex and my favourites than female ones too

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  6. This is such an incredibly well researched and thought-out piece, Charlotte. It is truly amazing how everything in society boils down to the patriarchy and male dominance/fragile ego. I never made this connection before now, but it makes so much sense and makes my heart hurt. I’m going to have to unpack a lot of stuff now that my mind is racing.

    I learned a lot from this post and am interested in reading more on the subject so I am off to read some of the essays you mentioned! Thank you very much for this!

    Liked by 1 person

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