Walk into any bookstore in the year 2023, whether an indie or chain retailer, and it’s impossible not to find a selection of titles that have been trending on “BookTok,” the bookish community on TikTok. It’s not for no reason at all — according to The New York Times, authors with large BookTok followings amassed $760 million in sales in 2022 alone. In an age where so many different things are demanding our attention, it’s easy to turn to TikTok for a book recommendation.
BookTok grew exponentially over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven mainly by teenagers looking to find community over a shared love of literature during lockdown. Which is great! Considering there are so many forms of media in this day and age to occupy our free time, it’s amazing that younger generations have helped to keep physical books and even physical bookstores alive, to some extent, by driving sales of books they love via a social media app. But social media is social media, and there’s always someone or something that’s going to take things one step too far.
Case in point: since the rise of BookTok, romance novels have been a particular favorite genre, including the hockey romance sub-genre. Hockey is a common-ground pastime for people worldwide, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The popularity of hockey romance books on TikTok is even credited with an increased interest and attendance of the sport in Australia. But what’s more frustrating is how a love for books about romance involving hockey turned into real-life thirst traps gone horribly wrong.
Sometimes when people on the Internet love something, they don’t just love it. They love it. We live in an age of “stans,” a portmanteau of stalker and fan, which can be both as lovable and intense as it sounds. Even grown adults with an online presence have been known to throw the occasional “We stan!” into an actual conversation. In an age where it’s easier than ever to have access to public figures’ personal lives via social media, it’s also easier than ever for the line between fan and problematic fan to blur.
As a result of the increased popularity of any number of hockey romance titles, from Sarina Bowen’s Overnight Sensation to Anna Zabo and L.A. Witt’s Scoreless Game, BookTok users began transferring their love for fictional characters in these novels onto real-life hockey players by way of videos complimenting the secondary sex characteristics of these men.
Which, of course, wouldn’t be the first time someone on social media thirsted after an attractive celebrity. But there’s a difference between a funny one-time clip of yourself saying “Timothée Chalamet could run me over” and hockey romance fans starting to attend Seattle Kraken games and yelling “krak my back” at the players, specifically Alexander Wennberg.
At first, these real-life teams such as the Kraken leaned into the popularity they were suddenly receiving from the BookTok community. In a now-deleted video on the team’s official TikTok, Wennberg was seen walking down a hallway in a suit with the caption, “When you accidentally become a BookTok account [and] now that’s all you can post.” What’s viral tonight might be old news by tomorrow morning, so it’s not surprising for the team to capitalize on their newfound reputation among hockey romance fans, especially if they were going to start filling up their stadiums.
But the team getting in on the joke, so to speak, also led to the belief that they should be able to take any lewd comments or videos thrown at them, regardless of whether they cross the line from fun entertainment to vastly inappropriate. Such a situation arose when Kierra Lewis, a TikTok user with over one million followers on her main account, posted a video of absolutely no entertainment value making what she thought was a Wennberg thirst trap, but what read as a very inappropriate bid for likes.
Emily Rath, author of Pucking Around, spoke out on her own TikTok, saying the alarm bells regarding hockey romance readers taking their passion for attractive hockey players a step too far were ringing months ago. But not before Felicia Wennberg, Alex’s wife, took to Instagram to call out hockey romance fans on TikTok who were beginning to cross a line with their thirst traps. She wrote that it “actually sounds pretty predatory and exploiting” and asked fans to please think twice before posting. Alex also spoke out on his social media, writing in a statement, “We can all take a joke and funny comments but when it turns personal and into something bigger that affects our family, we need to tell you that we’ve had enough. Enough of sexual harassment, and harassment of our character and our relationship.”
The Kraken have since removed any and all BookTok content from their page, including unfollowing users like Lewis, whom had been flown out to attend a Kraken game after gaining traction with her videos regarding the attractiveness of certain male members on the team. Lewis subsequently expressed anger and frustration over the team backing away after they had encouraged her comments, and she defended her videos by claiming TikTok is for “entertainment.”
Lewis’ response ultimately received floods of support from other BookTok users with the general consensus being that the team shouldn’t have encouraged the thirst trap-type videos if they were going to now cry sexual harassment. While encouraging immature behavior on social media isn’t exactly the most constructive way of selling tickets, what’s actually being said between the lines is that Kraken players like Wennberg were “asking for it” if they had at once encouraged such conduct online.
No one asks to be constantly objectified on the Internet. If your industry is going to attempt to lean into such attention to fill arenas, that’s putting business and profit ahead of personal safety. While the Kraken’s choice to encourage these videos at one time is equally wrong, it doesn’t justify an onslaught of thirst trap videos — of men who are married with children — recorded solely for views and likes of the person making them.
It’s also ludicrous to claim that apps like TikTok are solely for entertainment when the creators are clearly benefitting beyond a chuckle or a giggle by getting free hockey tickets. They are just as complicit, since they should have realized sooner that being encouraged to continue making such videos lusting over married men was wrong and inappropriate.
Ultimately, controversies like these just speak to the continued toxicity of TikTok, and especially that of BookTok. Authors like Rath are not to blame for writing the literature that ends up causing such a brouhaha, as many in the BookTok community have since claimed. While it’s indeed great, in theory, that a social media app is engaging millions of new readers worldwide, it’s high time many of their creators take accountability for their actions.