Today’s guest post is by long-time commenter Martin. You can read his earlier post here.
I got suckered into signing up for Audible. I’m stuck in traffic a lot, so I listen to audio books. Audible had their introductory offer, and I wanted to listen to Laurel Thatcher Ulricht and Terryl Givens. Both were fantastic, but after the introductory rate ended, I forgot to cancel. For six months. Oops. The way I “remembered” was by them sending me an email (forwarded from my wife, since it’s “her” Amazon account) informing me I had accumulated six credits (at their much less reasonable regular monthly rate), and that I wasn’t allowed to accumulate more. I was about to pay for yet another month and get nothing for it. “Okay, thanks for the heads up, I’d better cancel”, I thought. Except, if I cancelled, those six credits I’d accumulated would disappear. I had to spend them first.
After my rage subsided over having been baited and trapped by such unscrupulous and immoral businesspeople , I decided I’d better just buy a book quick. I’d been listening to biographies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton (downloaded from the library to my phone for free) and was ready for some fiction. So I purchased a highly rated fantasty/historical fiction novel at random: Outlander.
When I finally got around to listening to it, I wasn’t sure why it was so highly rated. The writing was fine and there was character and time and place development, and there were hints of interesting, unexplained mysterious stuff in the background, but it didn’t really draw me in. It seemed like the female protagonist was on the periphery of a lot of men’s sexual tension, and that was taking up a disproportionate amount of the narration. And then the dam finally burst. There was sex, more sex, and even more sex. It wasn’t horribly raunchy, but…wow. There was a lot of sex, and the narrative became nothing more than a build-up to the next episode. I found myself a little aroused at first, but that quickly gave way to a lot of eye-rolling. I kept thinking it would blow over and we’d get back to the plot, but then it dawned on me that it WAS the plot. I’d somehow purchased a romance novel in disguise.
Romance novels don’t work for me. Since the market for them consists primarily of women, I’m sure if Audible had separated out the ratings by gender, I would have seen it coming and managed to avoid it . I’d only read two romance novels in my life previously, the first out of curiosity, and the second by accident, and they gave a particular view of women. Apparently, what a woman wants in a man is essentially — a horse. She wants to wrap her legs around a large, powerful, beautiful animal with an element of unpredictability and danger, but which, when it comes right down to it, is essentially under her control and at her command. She can groom him and feed him apples, and he can carry her bags while taking her where she wants to go. Or at least, that’s the impression I get from my statistical significant sampling of 3 romance novels (or rather, 2.5, since I won’t manage to complete the third).
I wondered how romance novels would affect men, if they read them. On one hand, maybe they’d learn something that would spice up their wive’s lives (personal experience suggests 3 novels is insufficient). But on the other, it seems likely to contribute to rape culture. I mean, some of that stuff the heroine finds sexy in one context could get her dude locked up in another. And somehow, these novels suggest there’s a subtle art to knowing when “no” really does mean “yes”. I don’t think that’s a suggestion that ought to made. To be fair, the hero in Outlander never crossed any lines, as far as I read, but the heroine was on the verge of being raped by other men multiple times (and that Danielle Steele book years ago — yikes!)
The question on a Mormon blog, of course, is whether romance novels are pornography for women. If they were, that would mean they’re bad, because we all know porn is bad. But are romance novels bad? They’re clearly designed to arouse sexual feelings, at least in women. Romance novels spin unreasonable and unrealizable fantasies, yes, but they don’t involve real people. No performers were enticed, cajoled, or coerced into performing sex acts on camera. Nobody could be considered to have been taken advantage of (other than the reader). The characters may seem two-dimensional, but they’re not nearly as two-dimensional or objectified as those in traditional pornography. Traditional pornography is generally associated with masturbation and is considered by it’s critics (including me) to be habit-forming, to create insatiable appetites in its users (ie., requires harder core material to create the same arousal), and to interfere with healthy relationships (especially with one’s spouse). Does this characterization fit romance novels?
Sure enough, search for “romance novels” on lds.org (using Google of course) and the top result is an article from 2003 by a woman who was addicted to romance novels. There’s another from 1987 (when the Ensign actually had articles) by an English teacher who’s basically saying they’re not art. And there are talks (by women to women, eg. Linda S. Reeves) that mention that women should avoid them.
On the other hand, this topic has made the rounds before, and on a post considering whether Stephanie Meier’s Twilight series was porn, the first comment by Julie Smith made me laugh:
…when my ward bookgroup read Twilight, one of the (very conservative, uptight) women said: “My husband sure is glad I read this!” (the implication was that whatever desire the book aroused was fulfilled with him)
Of course, as far as I know, Stephanie Meier’s books don’t have much (any?) sex in them, so at worst they’re… what? Mormon porn? And how bad can they be if husbands are the beneficiaries?
I vaguely remembered a podcast by Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, an LDS relationship and sexuality counselor, in which I remember her saying she wished LDS leaders would quit equating romance novels to pornography. Searching through podcasts for content is a pain, so I emailed her. I specifically asked her if, in her experience, romance novels enhanced or detracted from the marriages of those she counseled. She basically said that it’s sometimes difficult to move one’s mindset from the mundane to the erotic, and she didn’t feel that romance novels would create unrealistic expectations because people do that all on their own anyway. She concluded
So in short, generally speaking, women who have not given themselves much permission to be creative or exploratory with eroticism find romantic novels helpful for immersing themselves in sexually interesting meanings. In my experience with clients they have made their sexual lives better and not made them have unrealistic expectations for their marriages (if this is a real threat we should ban all romantic comedies and most of Hollywood films from church members 😉
I picture (rightly or wrongly) Dr. Finlayson-Fife working mostly with Mormon couples where the woman is having difficulty diving into sexuality, so I’d say that makes sense. But does it make sense in the same way it makes sense to prescribe opioids for pain (beware addiction!), or does it make sense in the way giving your spouse a back rub might be a good prelude to sex? And what about for a woman who doesn’t have a husband? She’s getting all worked up with nowhere for that passion to go. And what about a husband? Should he not worry about how his wife works up an appetite, as long as she eats at home?  Or should he be concerned that his wife is reading those things, knowing he’s not nearly the…horse… that’s arousing her? 
 I think I was mostly mad at myself. After all, I’d been suckered by the <booming voice here> “Get 13 audiocassettes of your favorite artists for 1 cent… when you sign up for one year…” back in the 80s too, so you’d have thought I’d have learned.
 Maybe not. See .
 A quote from somewhere that a woman might use to excuse her husband frequenting strip clubs.
 The equivalent of a husband ogling younger, fitter, better-endowed women?