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?
Great first post Martin!
I found it odd how infatuated some women were with Twilight and Edward in particular. I mean the guy is like 100 years old (literally) even if he looks like he is in his 20’s! A few years ago I saw a sister in here late 40’s with an “I Love Edward” t-shirt on and getting lots of thumbs-up comments on the shirt. Can 40 something men get away wearing a t-shirt that says, “I love Taylor Swift”? Umm – I don’t think so. Seems a bit perv.
I do think that within my lifetime (and certainly my kids) we are likely to see computer-generated images (porn) that involves no actual humans exposing anything. Does that change the morality of the equation?
I think in general this is probably a case where “everyone has to fit the same mold” just isn’t the best. Most everyone that drinks alcohol does not have a drinking problem, but there are a few people that it consumes them. The last group needs to be careful. I just watch the Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” and man what a mess that made. I can see a case where a wife reads a novel and it gets her “in the mood” and overcomes desire issues. Where it goes from there is important. If she feels move love towards her husband and if he in turn is more loving and brings her flowers, listens to her more intently, … then it can start an upward spiral of improved relationship. If she starts measuring if her husband against her dream of how it is to live with Fabio – then it is a problem.
Martin, I am confused by the following:
 The equivalent of a husband ogling younger, fitter, better-endowed women?
I always thought that “endowed” was a binary. Either you have gone through the temple or not. How can someone be “better” endowed? 😉
Joking aside – great post.
Outlander is not a romance novel, so there’s that. It’s a time travel/ historical novel with a lot of sex and a female protagonist. Season 3 starts Sunday!
But I agree with Finlayson that sex scenes written for women rather than for men have to have a little more in depth depiction. Even in trashy fiction, wham-bam-thankyouma’am doesn’t cut it, and as with everything else, the male version of bad literature (too many to name, but Dan Brown knockoffs come to mind) is somehow seen as superior to the female version of bad literature (romance novels). Honestly, both types generally fail the Bechdel test, male-oriented books by treating women as interchangeable, disposable accessories as a reward for the hero (or romantic sidekick), but not fully fleshed human beings, and female-oriented books by only talking about women in relation to men, a sublimation of sexual fantasies but with no substance beyond. Neither one is very appealing, but it’s always fair game to trash the one written for women.
Better Endowed = Second Anointing
I agree with you . . . Outlander is pretty dumb.
Are romance novels female porn. Yes.
Does it matter? No, unless you are the type of person that rants about porn. “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
Isn’t it interesting that men are read the riot act about porn, but LDS women have been into Harlequins since the ’70’s with only a few isolated and fairly whimpy rebukes? Is it because it’s victim-less porn? In that view, wouldn’t an artist who painted an imaginary nude (as opposed to a nude model) be acceptable too? Does the same rule hold for more erotic visual art- is it “ok” as long as no models posed?
One of my hobbies is writing and for awhile (errr… 10ish years ago) I was a card carrying member (and local chapter Treasurer) of Romance Writer’s of America (which is the largest and best organization for learning writers). Romance as a genre isn’t porn. Some romance is definitely porn and this percentage within RWA is quite large and loud. But last time I paid attention so were the christian romance writers, so go figure.
I’d categorize romance as a whole as emotional porn more than anything. It’s the female’s emotional journey that is so important and such a draw. Sex can be a part of this (and/or reflective of the bigger emotional journey), but it isn’t the journey itself. It’s the emotions – both the heroine’s and the hero’s (especially as he experiences them in relation to her). This is totally true of Outlander (which I love, although I can’t handle either the author’s sex or torture scenes – they get more descriptive/horrendous as the series continues. She give me nightmares).
A good lot of adult women have moved away from reading the romance genre (described as books that can be purchased from the romance aisle at a brick-and-mortar), but continue to read young adult (lots and lots of LDS women). Pretty much any young adult novel aimed at girls has a strong romance element. Twilight is of course The Example where Edward’s vampire lust is pretty much a metaphor for sexual lust. Not all of them are that way though. It’s all still all a form emotional entertainment. And I guess that is how I see romance novels of all types.
On a total side note, I got to know rather well some erotica writers and it was the most shocking thing ever. The spectrum ran from 70 year old grandmas to 25 year-old librarians. Totally crazy. Most of the erotica writers in our area saw writing erotica as a step into a more traditional publishing contract.
September 5, 2017 at 4:56 pm
“Outlander is not a romance novel, so there’s that.”
Actually it is. Amazon classes it that way and after I got part way through book three or four, I had to give it up. Too many heaving bosoms and throbbing members and too many helpful emails from Amazon about other titles in that genre. I like the TV version but not so much the books.
As regards porn vs erotica it’s in the mind of the beholder and doesn’t hurt anyone anyway, That is unless it keeps you from getting your visiting/home teaching done.
No answers here. I just want to chime in and say I’m not above reading (and enjoying) a romance novel, and neither are many of the women I know. Is it porn? Sometimes. Do I care? Not really. Six years in YW did more lasting damage.
We Mormons tend to be so uptight about things. Life is tough. Sometimes I just want an easy, predictable read with an entirely unrealistic happily-ever-after ending. Any titillation is an unnecessary (albeit nice) extra.
By the way, I couldn’t get through Outlander, either. I am a fan of the show, though. The female gaze is real and underserved.
Although Amazon is willing to try to sell you bodice rippers if you read Outlander, it’s consistently listed as a “genre-buster,” covering the following various genres: science fiction, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and medical drama. I’m not surprised men struggle with it given that 1) it has a strong female protagonist, 2) the sex and everything else is written from a woman’s perspective, and 3) because of its focus on relationships and internal monologue it’s not like most male-oriented books that are focused on the world around the characters. The struggle is real, I know, to try to read something from a woman’s view when your whole life you have been able to avoid it. Believe me, I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times. There isn’t a female character of any real note in it, and the entire story is from a male perspective.
RetX: “I’d categorize romance as a whole as emotional porn more than anything. It’s the female’s emotional journey that is so important and such a draw. Sex can be a part of this (and/or reflective of the bigger emotional journey), but it isn’t the journey itself. It’s the emotions – both the heroine’s and the hero’s (especially as he experiences them in relation to her). This is totally true of Outlander (which I love, although I can’t handle either the author’s sex or torture scenes – they get more descriptive/horrendous as the series continues. She give me nightmares).” Yes, exactly.
I think romance is derided the same way gossip is, as a way to belittle “women’s work,” namely the work of relationships, emotional labor.
I wouldn’t classify Outlander as a romance novel either. Claire, the protagonist, is no one’s patsy – she’s strong, able, and reflects deeply and frequently while she’s stuck in the 18th century on the ways in which women are able to gain and exercise power in that age, from midwives to farm wives to witches. Those are actually great books, if a little spicy.
the male version of bad literature (too many to name, but Dan Brown knockoffs come to mind) Heck, Dan Brown himself comes to mind. Stilted, contrived, wooden, his books suck, not to put too fine a point on it. Never have a plot when a gimmick and an endangered hero with a pretty damsel-in-distress on his arm will do. Other overrated authors include Koontz, Saul, and the late Vince Flynn.
I’ve read one or two actual Harlequin Romances and wasn’t impressed, but I was reading at a college level by about 6th grade, so it’s more intellectual snobbery than anything else. 😉
Just to clarify… Modern romances are all about women being strong, able, independent, and smart. The popularity of the the fainting-violet type heroine died out about 25 years ago.
The reason I concluded Outlander was a romance was the strong focus on the romantic relationship and repeated cycle of building sexual tension into extended foreplay and then exploding into a paroxysm of lust. That cycle happened three or four times without the plot being noticeably advanced, and then just when I thought things were about to move again, started over.
I didn’t know Outlander was turned into a show. My impression of Claire wasn’t as positive as others’ — I thought she made some pretty poor decisions that turned her into a damsel in distress repeatedly. But I know her through the voice of a reader, not through acting or even my own imagination while reading.
I’m alarmed at how much people seem to want graphic sex and graphic violence in their shows and books, and especially by how much people like to mix them together. I guess I’m just not desensitized enough. I read the first book in the Game of Thrones series and felt icky afterwards. I certainly wouldn’t want to see that stuff graphically depicted on a screen. The first half of Outlander had some solid violence, but most of the gruesome stuff was reports of things that happened in the past, so there was some distance. Claire did seem to be on the verge of being raped an awful lot, but given the time, place, and her situation, that seemed to fit and it never happened (as far as I read). If it was going to get a lot worse, I’m glad I quit. I kind of wonder if all the rape-suspense was supposed to contribute to the titillation.
Part of me feels bad for mocking (albeit gently — and even more gently once Hawkgrrrl replaced my images with hers) romance books when some women obviously enjoy them. But the other part thinks we should all expect to get teased about our guilty pleasures, or they wouldn’t be guilty, just pleasures!
Martin: “I’m alarmed at how much people seem to want graphic sex and graphic violence in their shows and books, and especially by how much people like to mix them together. I guess I’m just not desensitized enough.” Your comment reminded me of a scene in C.S. Forster’s Hornblower series. Horatio is newly married to his second wife who insists on walking around the bath naked. He is uncomfortable with this. For whatever reason, she seems to take marital nudity as a comfortable, for granted thing, not an “event” like her seafaring husband.
“I read the first book in the Game of Thrones series and felt icky afterwards.” There’s a world of difference in the context of sex in Game of Thrones (misogynist and exploitative) and Outlander (either war-related violent acts or wedded marital relations).
“Claire did seem to be on the verge of being raped an awful lot, but given the time, place, and her situation, that seemed to fit and it never happened (as far as I read). If it was going to get a lot worse, I’m glad I quit. I kind of wonder if all the rape-suspense was supposed to contribute to the titillation.” Other commenters can weigh in, but I don’t know many women who think rape, which is violent assault, is titillating! On the contrary, rape in the book illustrates the dangers for women (and men) in the mid-1700s, particularly in an occupied, rebellious country where women are mostly in hiding and out of the way of soldiers. The rape in the books is usually because of the lack of justice and law. There’s a scene much later in the series when a fellow time traveler recognizes that Claire is out of her own time because unlike the women in the era, she isn’t afraid of men. That lack of fear (because of the relative safety for women in the 1940-1960 era she’s from) puts her in danger frequently. Although you could say that’s being a damsel in distress, it’s also a statement on the importance of women’s rights at the same time.
I’ve never read Outlander, but I know from reading *about* Outlander that it was the publisher’s choice–not the author’s–to market it as a romance. The assumption was that it would sell better to women, and perhaps that was a correct assumption. Correct or not, none of the women I know who have read (and loved) Outlander consider it a romance novel, nor do they ordinarily read romance novels. And I think the author is still fairly miffed about having it classified that way.
I myself happen to read a lot of romance novels, and I don’t agree that they’re designed to arouse sexual feelings. For one thing, lots of romance novels don’t contain any sex, explicit or otherwise. For another thing, literature designed to arouse sexual feelings is called erotica. There are erotic romance novels, which (in my opinion) are designed to serve a similar purpose to pornography, but as you point out in your post, they don’t involve real people, making them a tad more morally ambiguous than photographic pornography. The primary differences I’ve found between romance novels and erotic romance novels are 1) sex scenes in romance novels serve to move the relationship and/or the story forward, while the stories in erotic novels seem to exist for the sake of the sex scenes; and 2) erotic romance novels almost always involve some sort of kink, whereas traditional romance novels are more “vanilla,” as it were (even if the sex is relatively explicit). Of course, people don’t have a lot of control over what turns them on. As the OP points out, the first few Twilight books didn’t have any sex in them, but women seemed to get turned on by them anyway. To condemn a book without any sex as pornography (for women or otherwise) makes little sense to me. (To condemn it as crappy literature is a different ball of string. I’ve never read Twilight either, so I can’t speak to its literary qualities.)
I’ve read a lot of books with sex scenes, and some of the worst and most ridiculous ones were a) not romances by any definition of the word and b) written by men, primarily for men. Sex scenes can be written well or badly, and they can be essential to the plot or totally gratuitous. No genre has a monopoly on bad/good/explicit/gross/fantastical sex scenes. Romances get a bad rap, IMO, for being focused on sex, but they really don’t necessarily contain more sex than normal, manly books. I read a historical novel a couple years ago that had a strong romantic element (as Outlander apparently does), and if it had been written by a woman, it undoubtedly would have been marketed as a romance with a Fabio-esque model on the cover; but because it was written by a man, it had a stark black-on-brown design featuring a bird of prey and was billed as a historical thriller. Content-wise, it was similar to many romances I’ve read; perhaps if they’d marketed it as a romance, it would have sold better.
Everybody keeps referring to Outlander, and I’ve been thinking Zoolander. “That’s not a romance!!!”
MH: I call this look “Blue Steel,” which is a plausible name for a male love interest in a Romance Novel.
One of my favorite authors, one of the few in the romance genre I’ve enjoyed, is Eva Ibbotson. Not bad as historical fiction goes either. I’ve read the occasional harlequin, but I seem to have an aversion to heaps of angst with the occasional sex scene which seems to bill itself as “how sex -should- be”. That could be why people make the porn connection; romance novels distorting expectations and damaging relationships. It’s not a foregone conclusion any more than regular porn use can be.
I think it’s the tropes that get me. A book tends to be less interesting when they go for the standard tropes, things like “no one can ever be happy for long”, “everyone must be in a relationship”, “unrequited love”, “the sensitive soul with a gruff exterior”, “the trembling virgin who has sex and finally knows what it’s like to be a woman”, etc, etc. Make the women real, not just a vehicle for telling the same story with different adjectives.
To Mormons porn is anything triggering arousal besides a spouse. It’s sin if we enjoy it for more than a twinkling of an eye.
I think JFF’s comments are as a therapist, and important to attend to.
Sexual arousal for women is a whole lot more complicated and can be difficult for women to identify when they have no permission for it – I think that’s the perverse result of much of their church teaching. I knew many women who felt they were somehow of less worth when married and sexually active – that’s how perverse. And the result of that is that when the ordinary challenges to sexual intimacy arise (bad nights, health challenges) mormon women often feel totally justified in giving up on sex that they had little permission to enjoy anyhow.
Whilst that’s no justification for a cheating spouse, it’s going to make it more likely. JFF will have seen this happen many times, and will be treating the couple, trying to restore, or even create, a situation in which both partners can have an enjoyable sexual relationship, and therefore be safer in their marriages.
Sometimes I think we have to get real, and validate sexual pleasure and appetite in women too. Sex is an ordinary, normal part of the course of most happy, healthy relationships, as are differences of desire from time to time. Anything we can do to support the restoral of balance needs to be done, as long as it does no harm to others. Clearly a romance/erotic writing is the least harm that can be done. I recommend Anais Nin, although not for the faint of heart. Others have found the Bronte sisters do the job. And we can always invent our own stories strictly for our own use, like Scheherezade. Just like medication though, it’s best to find the lowest effective dose.
Dabimb: “I’m not above reading (and enjoying) a romance novel, and neither are many of the women I know. Is it porn? Sometimes. Do I care? Not really.”
Martin: “we should all expect to get teased about our guilty pleasures, or they wouldn’t be guilty, just pleasures!”
The most interesting thing to me about romance novels is the double standard that Mortimer pointed out. Can you imagine a man at church calling his viewing of a nude model shoot or purchase of the SI swimsuit issue “a guilty pleasure”? Could you imagine a man at church saying “some of the internet videos I watch are probably porn, but I don’t care.”?
I think the main questions I have around this double standard are not as much about whether erotic romance novels are “sinful” or not. More I wonder what such a double standard might mean for our attitudes and theology towards sexuality. As Toad notes, we have an attitude that “anything triggering arousal besides a spouse” is sinful. Then couple that with “sexual sin is next to murder” in seriousness that we tend to read into Alma’s teaching, and sometimes we sound like we are terribly afraid of arousal. Do we really believe that all arousal outside of the marriage bed is sinful? If not, how does one judge “righteous arousal” against “sinful arousal”?
Dabimb: ” Six years in YW did more lasting damage.”
I have been following Laura Brotherson for years, and trying to understand how the Church contributes to “Good Girl Syndrome”. It is interesting how many people blame the Church for GGS, and just as interesting how many conservative “defenders of the Church” will INSIST that nothing the Church has ever taught could possibly contribute to GGS and that the Church should change nothing about the way it approaches sexual issues. After years in a sexless marriage, I have often thought about the ways that I believe what I learned in YM contributed to my sexual frustrations. I don’t have a solid understanding of how it all fits togehter (sexuality is probably too complex to pin every difficulty down to one or a few causes), but I find it interesting that some believe that the Church contributes to their sexual difficulties like Dabimb suggests. What does anyone make of this?
For a long time I was far above ever reading a romance novel. I will admit that it took reading one for a puzzle piece to click into place in my mind: this is what a woman w a healthy sexuality looks like. Which, yes, I think conservative religious cultures repress in women.
I Thank God for whatever book that was. So does my marriage. I think that fits the family proc. Just my two cents.
MrShorty: I second Handlewithcare’s comments. Do conservative religions create GGS? Without a doubt. Female sexuality is very different from male sexuality in terms of how it works, but also vastly different in how it’s treated. “Good girls” don’t really have a sex drive, either before or after marriage. After marriage, they are obligated to submit to their husband’s sex drive, but they don’t have their own. That’s the underlying premise in conservative religions.
Not everyone in Mormonism is truly “conservative.” By contrast to some conservative religions, Mormonism can be downright sex-positive because we believe (or at least many of our leaders do) that the soul is the body + spirit, not that the body is inherently evil and must be overcome. The next problem is that everything said on this topic in the church is from a man’s perspective, and 80 year old men aren’t the world’s leading authority on healthy female sexuality or healthy sexual attitudes in general. Some conservatives only talk about sex in terms of procreation. Some have the idea that sex is disadvantageous to women, so women are its victims. Another problem is that Mormons tie up married sex in an idea of eternal polygamy which is demeaning to women and causes a lack of trust in relationships.