Why My Sex Education Started With Romance Novels

Like any bookworm, I went searching for answers at my public library—technically, my bookmobile’s collection of mass-market paperbacks.

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Why My Sex Education Started With Romance Novels

I attended my first sex toy party in college. The saleswoman, who was not much older than my girlfriends and I, had brought a Pandora’s bag full of dildos and vibrators to my friend’s off-campus apartment. I can’t recall the exact details, but I remember the anticipation and excitement as we learned that the clitoris was the epicenter of pleasure. We giggled as the consultant held up various toys and explained how they worked. Each toy promised orgasms beyond our wildest imaginations.

Until that evening, I’d never considered using a vibrator, much less with a partner. I left clutching a twelve-dollar egg-shaped vibrator, an indulgent purchase for a college student on a scholarship. It was the best twelve bucks I’d ever spent. Who knew two AA batteries could provide such pleasure? That one purchase knocked down a door for me. Instead of seeking a partner to give me pleasure, I literally held my orgasms in my own hands. That small vibrator empowered me with confidence to explore how I enjoyed being touched and tell my partner the next time we were together. But I wasn’t always that bold.

Like in many Asian families, sex was a taboo topic in my home. I was often told “Don’t get pregnant,” but there were no details on how a woman would find herself in such a situation. Like any bookworm, I went searching for answers at my public library—technically, my bookmobile’s collection of mass-market paperbacks. I believed something inside those romance covers with artfully draped women in various states of undress would reveal the secrets of sex.

As a preteen I often read romance novels under the covers late into the night. As the eldest child of Vietnamese immigrants, breaking this rule was less scary than bringing home a report card with all As and one B. Rebelling against my parents meant I was ungrateful for the sacrifices they’d made for me. I preferred smaller, less intimidating everyday rebellions. Ones that, if caught, would garner minor disappointment instead of anger.

Each night I devoured dog-eared paperbacks, terrified that my mother, a light sleeper, could hear the rustle of pages turning as I read stories of women falling in love with men who somehow knew exactly what they desired in bed without being told. In the dim light, I worried that my mother might burst into the room and discover that I was reading about sex. It didn’t matter that she had no desire to read a novel written in her second language.

In school we watched a video where a white mother made pancakes in the shape of a uterus in order to teach her daughter about periods. Yes, pancakes—complete with maple syrup.

We never talked about puberty. I learned about menstruation in fifth grade, when the school nurse herded the girls into the school cafeteria. We watched a video where a white mother made pancakes in the shape of a uterus (with matching ovaries) in order to teach her daughter about periods. Yes, pancakes—complete with maple syrup.

I had so many questions after that experience, but unlike the blonde in the film, I didn’t dare ask my mother about monthly cycles. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I knew enough Vietnamese to hold a conversation with my relatives, but not enough to ask about puberty and periods. That’s when I realized I only knew the euphemisms for vulva and penis. I flipped through our family Viet-English/English-Viet dictionary with no luck. No way would I ask my parents. Good girls didn’t talk about their private parts, much less sex.

Instead I grabbed more romances off my small Louisiana town’s library shelves, determined to find the one book that would explain the hormones raging in my teenage veins. The romances from the late 1980s and early 1990s were full of “throbbing members,” “woman caves,” and miraculous explosions of pleasure. They weren’t the ideal pleasure education, but they were what I had. I had no idea how to self-pleasure and no access to any books that could teach me. Unsure of the mechanics and hampered by my upbringing, my hands-on experimentation didn’t yield the same thrilling results as the heroines’ sexual transformation.

Once I left for college, I was ready to awaken the desires I’d only read about. I dove eagerly into the dating pool, but soon realized if I wanted to feel good, I had to tell my partners how I wanted to be touched. I was too shy to say anything. Not surprisingly, none of them were mind readers. Maybe that’s why I gave up on romances back then. The books I’d escaped into during my teen years had disappointed me again and again. I was tired of reading about women who didn’t look like me falling in love and orgasming so easily.

I was tired of reading about women who didn’t look like me falling in love and orgasming so easily.

Quitting romances didn’t stop me from searching for a partner who could rock my world. I was naive and horny with no desire for a long-term relationship. College was a means to a career that would allow me to be independent. When one makes such a declaration, the universe laughs. I met my soulmate that very first year. Our romance was nothing like the novels I’d read, but it was the right one for us.

My next outrageous act was graduating with a liberal arts degree with a focus on theatre. A decision my parents didn’t approve of. My partner and I moved to Syracuse, New York, for work. While I loved my job, I needed to supplement my income. My partner jokingly suggested I sell sex toys since I’d become a vibrator evangelist of sorts. I’d amassed a modest collection of toys since that first party and was on a mission to tell all my girlfriends how battery-operated devices could change their sex lives.

I had no idea my new side hustle would take over my life. An internet search put me in touch with a woman who lived in California. After several phone calls, I plunked down seven hundred and fifty dollars plus tax for a home party kit and entry into a multi-level marketing company. Seven days later, a giant box of lotions, lubes, and toys landed on my doorstep. I had no idea how they worked, but my sponsor talked me through it.

Selling sex toys was a lucrative business, and I loved everything about it. I wasn’t a great salesperson in the beginning, but my enthusiasm for the products made up for it. I reinvested a portion of my earnings in research and development—not much of a hardship. While I continued my personal journey of sexual pleasure privately, I also learned how to run a business. I drove to regional meetups to exchange sales tips with other consultants. For the first time in my life, I forged meaningful female friendships as we helped each other succeed. We often hung out at hotel bars after these meetings and bonded over funny stories from our parties.

The money was great, but what motivated me to walk into women’s homes three nights a week was that I could transform their sex lives. Their collective gasp when I explained how most women didn’t orgasm from penetrative sex. Or the one-on-one time I had with each customer as they confessed to faking orgasms or how they were bored with sex. Whether they purchased anything or not, I wanted them to leave with the knowledge of how their bodies worked and that they deserved pleasure.

After twelve years, I outgrew the side hustle that had taken over my life. We’d moved to the D.C. area, and I was now a mother. Dragging my suitcase out the door on the weekends to peddle vibrators didn’t have the same thrill as it used to. I’d rather be home with my kids on the weekends. As the company introduced more and more expensive toys, I grew weary of the sales part of the job. While I’d done many parties for mixed crowds of different sexual orientations, the company began discouraging it, insisting that we only cater to heterosexual women. I stepped away to focus on parenting and writing.

Suddenly romances mirrored my surroundings, my community. Here were novels where women’s pleasure was prioritized. Consent was desired and sexy.

I can’t remember how I returned to the romance world. Juggling parenting two young children while managing a fledgling freelance writing career meant sleep deprivation was my norm. My brain wanted happier endings than the ones in the literary novels I’d been reading. A quick web search revealed the romance community I wished existed in my teens and twenties.

During my hiatus from it, romance had exploded due to the availability of ebooks and the accessibility of self-publishing. I didn’t have to look very hard to find heroines of different races and backgrounds. Suddenly romances mirrored my surroundings, my community. Here were novels where women’s pleasure was prioritized. Consent was desired and sexy. I found queer romances that celebrated the characters instead of focusing on their trauma.

In Romancelandia, I was a kid in a candy store. Reading about different lifestyles and communities motivated me to further my sex education outside of the cis heterosexual one I received during my tenure in direct sales. That world had changed, too. Now there were sex blogs written by queer, polyamorous, and kink communities. I couldn’t read them fast enough.

Image:Avon Books

Even in this joy, something was still missing: Where were the romances with Vietnamese characters who bucked stereotypes? Like so many authors, I decided to write the book I wanted to read. This took some time: I struggled at first between writing a “marketable” story versus one inspired by my life experiences, and after toiling for a year on my first attempt, it hurt to drag over ten thousand words into a “Never” folder. It wasn’t until I turned inward that the first inklings of Happy Endings came to me: a team of sex-positive women who were ready to rule the world and found love along the way, inspired those conversations in hotel bars and one-on-one confessions from my customers. Enter my protagonist Trixie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American woman who’d found a circle of friends who valued sex-positivity and financial independence.

I’d fought so hard to not write a character like myself. I tried too hard to make Trixie different and not play into society’s expectations of Asian women. My writing stalled and, when I managed to put words down, felt stilted. It wasn’t until my editor urged me to write my truth, my experiences into the book that my protagonist Trixie’s story came alive. Yes, there are similarities between Trixie and I. We share the same culture. One where familial duty is ingrained, and sex talk was taboo. At the same time, Trixie will never be me: No boyfriend has dumped me with a Post-It note, nor did I dare bring home a B+ on my report card. (Ok, there were a few.) Her life is much more exciting than mine.

Ultimately, I realized the best way for me to defy the roles society have imbued on Asian women was to write Trixie Nguyen. Someone who was ambitious, sex positive, and had a team of close, supportive friends. All with the hope that a reader who wished for more in their life would find inspiration from my heroine—a heroine who might have taught teenage me to love herself both inside and outside the bedroom.

Thien-Kim Lam writes stories about Vietnamese characters who smash stereotypes and find their happy endings. A recovering Type-Asian, she guzzles cà phê sữa đá, makes art, and bakes her feelings to stay sane. Thien-Kim is also the founder of Bawdy Bookworms, a subscription box that pairs sexy romances with erotic toys. She’s been featured on NPR, BBC America, and NBC.

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