Is Romance Reading a Form of Porn for Women?

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I’ve recently been reading some fluffy romance novels for pure entertainment and escapism but I’m starting to wonder if that’s such a good idea.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for entertainment, escapism, and romance.  The novels I’ve read aren’t of the trashy variety.  They’re just unrealistic.

But that’s what they’re supposed to be, right?  I wasn’t expecting realism when I picked them up.  If I want realism, I’ll watch the news.

No, my problem isn’t with the concept of lighthearted reading.  My problem is what that reading might be doing to me.

It seems that when I read romance novels I start to play the “Why doesn’t my husband ever do that for me?” game.  Unfortunately, there is no winner for that game.  So even though I’m a rational adult woman with a good head on her shoulders, I start to get grumpy and discontented.  I thought I was smart enough not to consciously compare my hubby to a fictitious character but evidently I’ve fallen into the trap that so many women do.  I wouldn’t even be aware of it if it weren’t for an interview of Joseph Gordon-Levitt I heard on the radio a few months ago.

In the interview, Gordon-Levitt was promoting his latest film, Don John, about a modern-day Don Juan character who is a porn addict.  Not having seen the movie, I can’t comment on the value or appropriateness of it.  But something the actor said in the interview gave me pause.  He brought up the point that, for men, porn encourages unrealistic expectations in much the same way that romance novels or movies do for women.

Really?!?  Did he say that romance novels are basically “female porn”?  Wow.  I did not see that coming.

In defense of romance novels, I have to say that some of them, especially some of the Catholic romance fiction I’ve read, actually inspire me to be a better wife.  The novels that depict the real-life challenges that marriages face remind me that we’re all human and that marriage isn’t about perfection.  It’s about fidelity and love that continues despite the stresses of daily life.

I don’t know if Joseph Gordon-Levitt is right or wrong, but if reading romance novels makes me even the least little bit discontented with my wonderful, sweet, faithful, handsome, supportive, steadfast husband then I’m officially removing them from my reading list.

What about you?  What do you think?  Do romance novels make you discontented or inspired in your relationship with your spouse?

Be sure to check out our Book Notes archive.

Copyright 2014 Laura Nelson

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About Author

Laura B. Nelson is a Catholic wife and mother of three children. She is also a Catholic blogger, author, speaker, teacher and life-long student of the Catholic faith. After receiving her degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin, Laura let her curiosity and enthusiasm take her down many paths including working in the world of finance, full-time motherhood, ministry leader, catechist, music teacher, speaker and author. Laura likes to be busy but she most enjoys spending time with her husband and three children at their home in Grapevine, TX. Visit her blogs at Green for God and Suburban Sainthood.

11 Comments

  1. Laura, I think you are right on target with your comparison of romance novels to unrealistic expectations of marriage, which is why I never got into them. I am more of a nonfiction reader myself, but I have a friend who watched soaps and read romance novels incessantly in the early years of her marriage. During that time, she frequently lamented to me about her dissatisfaction with her husband, and I would tell her that maybe she should lay off the fantasy world that doesn’t display real love. I’m not sure if she still indulges, but I do know that she is not complaining to me anymore about her marriage!

  2. Thanks for bringing this up. I love romance novels and write them myself. I also frequent and participate in numerous romance blogs and am part of a romance writing group. I have been happily married for seventeen years. If anything, romance novels with their overwhemling insistence on the importance of male female love leading to marriage and in most cases, family building, have strengthened my marriage, rather than hurt it. Characterizing the most popular form of literature for women as mere “porn” is insulting and stupid. There are many, many, romance books which depict men and women learning to comminicate, solve problems, overcome adversity, amd yes, sometimes grow spiritually together. I don’t even think the more spiritual ones are morally better either. Often times, religous romance reads very preachy and didactic to me. Nor do I think the depiction of sex in these books makes them “wrong”, especialy when sex is portrayed as an act of love between married people. All I can say is that if these books are problematic to
    one’s own marriage, then don’t read them. After all, only the people in the marriage can state whether or not a form of media consumption is harmful. But making categorical statements like “romance novels are porn” is insulting and displays a tremendous ignorance of a very varied and diverse genre. Are there lousy, pornagraphic, stupidly written romance books out there? Yep. But one could also say the same of mystery, sci-fi, literary books, etc., There is simply no reason to tarnish an entire genre and their readers with ignorant statements.

    • Mari,

      You make some excellent points. I can tell you feel very strongly about this subject especially because you write romance novels.

      I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when I heard Joseph Gordon-Levitt draw the parallel.

      As you said, perhaps this is a case of knowing your own weaknesses and avoiding things that amplify them. Have you seem the movie, Don John? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Laura & Mari, I’m going to go our on a limb (not that long a limb, since I knew Laura IRL before I “met” her online), but I’m going to guess that Laura was referring to the “lousy, pornagraphic, stupidly written romance books” specifically, and perhaps not to the genre as a whole. I have one SF romance and one thriller/romance book on Amazon, so as an author of faith (not always a “faith-based author”), I feel like authors have a responsibility to show Truth, and it’s the Truth that makes fiction good. Pure “wish-fulfillment” can go awry into the corny cornfield pretty quickly. However, regarding the reader, I operate from a belief that we are drawn to reading because of conflict, romantic or otherwise, so we can learn new ways to handle the conflicts in our real lives. Thus we as readers have the responsibility of not making ourselves The Lady of Shalott; in other words, go to the tapestry, but escape the tower and LIVE, darn it! If we let ourselves fall victim as readers to writing that gives us nothing but unTruthful expectations for human relationships, especially if we aren’t reading it with a careful, critical eye… well, yeah, our brains will start treating that as they treat any addictive material–porn, food, heroin, Candy Crush Saga, and so and so.

        I originally came back here because I wanted to share with Laura this article I wrote on my blog tour, about why we need TOB in our romance: http://www.annmariecreedon.com/2013/11/13/dont-think-of-a-purple-elephant-why-catholics-need-tob-romance-novels/

        I wrote it from a mindset that bodice-rippers and the like are porn for the linguistic mind; however it wasn’t until your blog post, Laura, that I considered that ANY romance novel, faith-based or otherwise, can be misused by a reader looking for a paperback boyfriend rather than for ways to further the real-life relationships that will sanctify her way to heaven. Thanks so much for giving us this food for thought! I’ll certainly be pondering this as I read and as I work on the sequel to _Don’t You Forget About Me_.

  3. Laura,
    I believe that it is healthy to question our motives for doing any activity if we have a concern that it may negatively impact our relationships.
    I probably feel more strongly than many about the issue of men and porn because that was a huge part of ending my first marriage. Now that I am remarried to a wonderful man who (thankfully) has zero interest in viewing any sort of pornography, my own attitudes towards what I use for entertainment have changed as well.
    I know that every person is different and that there is a wide variety within the genre of romance novels, but in the past few years there have been many novels published and marketed towards women that really are pushing the envelope towards porn as I personally define it.
    I choose not to read those types of books because they cannot possibly do anything to benefit my dual calls to motherhood and marriage. Neither my husband nor myself are perfect, but he is a faithful and faith filled man that I share a beautiful life with, and I chose to honor that life by making entertainment choices that support our values.
    I probably rambled, but feel very strongly that what we put into our minds affects our attitudes and actions. If I wanted to focus on meatless Fridays I wouldn’t pull out my Brazillian Barbeque cookbook.
    Thanks for this article!
    Melaina

    • Melaina,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. This is definitely a complicated issue with a lot of emotion attached to it.

      I’m so glad to hear that you have found a wonderful man to share your life with. Keep doing what you’re doing. It sounds like it’s working well for you both.
      Blessings to you!

  4. Gah! Where did my long and thoughtful comment on this post go? It was to the effect of: (1) Mari, as a romance writer myself, I gave Laura the benefit of the doubt that she meant escaping into romance for the sake of escape is the same as escaping into porn. (2) Laura, I sort-of wrote on the same topic over at Ann Marie Creedon’s site during my blog tour, but it was more about how “bodice-rippers” are verbal porn, and that we need more TOB romance to help us get wholistically good images in our brains. However, *your* post made me re-think how we can use ANY reading as a substitute for bringing Christ into our real life relationships. VERY thought-provoking. Thank you for this post!

    • Thanks Erin. I’m glad my post has spurred such a lively response. I agree with your point about bodice-rippers vs TOB romance. (Note my link to Ellen Gable’s romance novel.)

      For me, reading some (not all) romance novels sews the seeds of discontent in my marriage. This is definitely a weakness that I have in many aspects of my life, not just my marriage. I struggle with contentedness and seeing the many blessings in my life. I’m learning this about myself and working to overcome that tendency. I realize that romance novels don’t affect everyone the same way.

      The main point of my post was to discuss the issue that was put forth by the movie Don John and to see what others felt about the idea of romance reading being equated with porn.

      There are obviously lots of perspectives on this and I’m sincerely happy to hear them. I’ve learned a lot through these comments.

      Thanks for adding your perspective!

  5. Romance fiction if you live in the real world is only escapism. It is the same as reading magazines and mainly harmless. I have always found Christian romance novel really mawkish and preachy myself

    • Julie, considering Bl. John Paul II’s play _The Jeweler’s Shop_ is at its heart a romance, and considering all that we have learned through viewing romantic love through the eyes of Theology of the Body, I’d be cautious about dismissing *all* romantic fiction as vapid escapism. As for the mawkish and preachy, well… there are a number of us who are endeavoring to change that. I invite you to look at our books and see for yourself.

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