Romance, Arousal, and Condescension

The media courage of 50 Shades continues, long and frequently enough that there are some themes emerging. One fantastic example: mommy porn.

In two words, there are a lot of things wrong with Mommy Porn. Add to that “Mommy’s naughty reader” and the rhetoric that women are ashamed of their erotic reading material and thus buy and read it digitally, as the Wall Street Journal suggested yesterday, means that the shame-wagging-finger gets bigger.

I have a different finger to use in reply. It’s the middle one.

Romance has struggled with the pornography label for a long time. And I give the middle finger to that label as well. I’m sure you’ve heard it: “romance is porn for women!”

There’s a lot of things wrong with that statement, too, almost as much as “Mommy porn.” I realize this is a long ass entry, so if you read only two sentences, let it be these:

Romance is not porn for women.

Porn is porn for women.

 

There is nothing wrong with either one.

And whatever a woman employs to satisfy her own sexual curiosity and hornypants is her business, not yours.

The coverage of 50 Shades and the number of women willing to discuss their own arousal, and the equation of their reading material with pornography makes me ponder seriously the lines of demarcation between romance and erotica, erotica and pornography, and – hold on to your hatpins – romance and pornography.

I will be the first to admit that I get really twitchy when someone says romances are pornography, or “porn for women.” It’s a complicated yes/no answer. Yes, some romances are explicit and erotic and they do create arousal. But no, not all romances do, and thus romances cannot be accurately equated with pornography. Romances are not merely porn for women.

But as I was discussing with anyone who would listen to me rant, anyone who labels romance as “Porn” is most often being derogatory, because “porn” is also often declared bad, shameful, and something that ought to cause embarrassment. People say “porn” in the same tone of voice they’d use for the word “smut.” And if women are indicating interest in pornography, that same derision is applied to them. “Nice girls” don’t look at pornography and shouldn’t do so. Neither should adult males who used to be stars of children’s programming (Hi Pee Wee!).

Many of the articles about 50 Shades make much of the idea that women are ashamed to be reading explicit books, and hide their arousing material on digital readers. The furious whisper virality of 50 Shades of Grey and the media coverage adds to the shaming and hiding, because several women went on record saying reading the book turned them on, and that they hid their reading on Kindles or smartphones. Yet again, women are reading erotica (true) and reading it digitally (true) – but are they reading it digitally because of shame and embarrassment?

My reaction to that: yes and no. Yes, women do sometimes hide their erotic reading material on digital readers so that they have privacy while they read. But no, I don’t think all women feel shame about it. Moreover, I don’t think they SHOULD feel shame.

It’s not so much that women automatically feel shame for being aroused. Politically and culturally we are instructed that we should feel shame for our own sexual curiosity and arousal. Take a look at the current political climate of my home country, the US of WTF:

In Texas, Gov. Perry has blocked funding to Planned Parenthood. The decision has left more than 300,000 women without healthcare access such as annual ob/gyn exams.

In Virginia, the governor signed into law legislation that requires transvaginal abdominal ultrasounds prior to an abortion. (Correction via Avery F.) Several states have similiar laws.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh publicly and repeatedly ridiculed Sandra Fluke for testifying before Congress about the need for birth control.

The subtext here: your vagina is not yours, neither is your uterus, and various state governments can dictate what you can and will be doing with it. Women are embarrassed to publicly stand up and defend their own gynecological healthcare needs because of the resulting humiliation and publicity, and we watch as someone who testifies on their behalf gets an assload of asshattery dumped their way.

So is it any wonder that healthy sexual curiosity and arousal are something women might prefer to keep to themselves? God forbid Rush Limbaugh see you buying a book that’s sexually explicit or that congress hear you defending your own right to sexual arousal.

So, no, many women (myself included) are not ashamed of reading explicit material. But yes, some prefer to keep that material and the purchase thereof private – for a variety of reasons, sanctimonious douchbagging asshats among them.

Regardless of whether anyone does or does not want to keep their reading material private, it still begs the question: why is reading explicit material something bad? Why is this a “naughty” thing we ought to be ashamed of? Many of the recent discussion of 50 Shades underscore that negativity: “mommy porn” is one term I cannot WAIT to hear more of. Not.

Most of the Superbowl commercials featured male sexual fantasies. I lost count of how many women in bikinis I saw on television. Male sexual fantasy and sexuality is standard public consumption. But female sexual fantasy and arousal are shameful (i.e. “Mommy’s naughty reader”), or held up for ridicule (“Mommy porn”), or both*.

*ETA: To be clear: I referenced the “Mommy’s naughty reader” comment here not because of who said it, but because in the article, from what had to be a longer interview, that was only quote used after identifying the source. Of everything Tori likely said (confirmed by Mandi below), that was the “salient point” to be made in the article, and thus emphasizes the idea of presumed shame.

Take the attention given to the bookshelf at AllRomance ebooks (they sponsor the bookclub hereabouts) when many of the titles that appeared on the main page were exceptionally explicit and featured covers with a great deal of nudity. I saw more than a few conversations labeling the books as “porn” – e.g. ‘That’s not romance. That’s porn.’ Given that the site name is “AllRomance,” and thus promised romance ebooks, the difference was and is important, especially for a consumer looking for one and buying the other. But can those books and stories be accurately judged by their (salacious) covers? Can the determination of romance/erotica/pornography be made without reading the content? I don’t think so. One person may consider a book erotic romance while another considers it porn. Moreover, labeling something as “porn” instead of “romance” or “erotic romance” is also making a value judgment about the material itself, and that’s equally troublesome.

So what is pornography? Surprise, surprise, it can be difficult to reach an agreed-upon formal definition – I’m sure you’ve heard “I know it when I see it.” Another shocker: my definition of “porn” may differ from yours.

My definition of pornography may not be entirely accurate, now that I’ve done some research. I thought of “pornography” as visual: movies, images, and not text so much. But the definition located at Wikipedia says pornography is “the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual arousal and erotic satisfaction.”

Not just visual then. But what’s the difference between pornography and erotica? Wiki suggests (and yes, I’m aware it’s not the strongest resource for definitions) that erotica is “the portrayal of sexuality with high-art aspirations, focusing also on feelings and emotions,” which differs from pornography because porn focuses on “the depiction of acts in a sensational manner with the entire focus on the physical act so as to arouse quick intense reactions.”

Some, such as this MIT newspaper article cited in the Wikipedia definition, argue that porn is the depiction of sexual acts, and erotica “seeks to tell a story.” I disagree with that. Some pornographic movies tell a story. Moreover, some depict emotional connections between the characters. The store Good Vibrations used to label the films they sold in their catalog with tags that included, among other things, “chemistry between the actors.” Their website also makes distinctions between films offered. They have a section for “all sex no plot” movies, and movies that are “feature films,” and all of these are housed under the relatively bland term, “Adult films.”

Here’s an example: there is one film, Love’s Passion, that depicts a romance novelist writing a Civil-War-era romance, with scenes that take place in her historical romance in progress and in the present. The reviews mention the characters “expressing love and affection during sex” and the “tender lovemaking.” (NB: I own it. Some of the dialogue is HILARIOUS.) That’s an “adult film,” though not housed in the “all sex no plot” section. It has a story.

So is that erotica or pornography? Arguments could be made for either label. It’s still difficult to define the difference.

The other source cited in the Wiki article says,

“One point of view is this: eroticism is the exploration of the feelings and emotions inspired by sex and sexuality. Pornography however, focuses entirely on the physical act – be this in writing, photography or film. Pornographic images, for instance, tend to dwell entirely on the sex act. They are voyeuristic in nature and only involve the user in the most alienated way – as an onlooker. (emphasis mine)

The stories in pornographic magazines for instance, all use a string of ‘Buzz words’ to describe various parts of the anatomy and sex acts. These words and descriptions are used for the sole purpose of titillating the reader. What we read is, ‘It felt so good when he did this…’ as opposed to, ‘It felt so good when he did this because…’

Therein lays the difference. A piece of erotic writing will try to explain or explore why something feels so good, or indeed, bad. Pornography does not. One of the key points about eroticism is that it can also uncover the darker side of sexuality. It has the ability to do this in a much more analytical way.”

[Pardon my inner 12 year old snickering at the idea that the difference between erotica and pornography is "Analysis."]

So let’s use that as the “working” definition of porn vs. erotica. Porn is the depiction of sex in written or visual media, without focus on emotions, cause or effect, while erotica includes the depiction of sexual acts with additional analysis of the reason why that sexual act works. To put it another way, with pornography, you’re not included in the character’s minds or motivations, and with erotica, you are.

Thus erotic romance is the story of a courtship or establishment of a romantic relationship… with a heavy focus or presence of explicit sexual scenes, and may include analysis or insight into emotion and motivation beyond “I wish to have the sex now.” Moreover, with erotic romance and erotica, the sexuality is integral to the development of the story; it’s not just embellishment to the sex scenes.

So erotica and erotic romance have more in common with one another than they do with pornography, gravity-defying sex notwithstanding. That is not surprising.

And I want to make something clear here: Porn is not inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with pornography. I’m not talking about child pornography or situations wherein there is not consent. I’m talking about all the various depictions of consensual sex between adults.

Romance isn’t pornography, but defining the difference does not mean elevating one above the other.

Moreover, some people read explicit romances to be turned on, because the explicitness arouses them physically. Are they employing romance in a manner similar to someone who watches films depicting sexual acts? Are they using romance the way others use porn? Maybe. And it’s their right to do so. But everyone’s arousal is different. Some people might find dryer sheets or women’s shoes or David Beckham in his undergarments similarly arousing, and those things not freely labeled with the word “porn.”

Why is this important at all? Well, aside from the ever-enraging political climate, Paypal thought this distinction was of the utmost importance – or they did until recently when they backed waaaay up on their decision to censor explicit ebooks. Paypal had tried to blame their new policy on credit card issuers as Visa and Mastercard, but when Visa and MC issued statements that they had no policies about the content of ebooks that did not include explicit images, Paypal had to back up.

As long as romances have sexual scenes in them – and as long as those scenes become more and more explicit as has been the trend for awhile now – the equation with pornography will continue. It’s not accurate, and even though there is nothing wrong with the existence of pornography, it’s still used as a demeaning insult.

Romances are not about sex; romances are about courtship. Sometimes there’s sexuality in them. It’s an important difference.

But the way in which romances are used by readers is still subject to demeaning coverage, especially when that coverage includes the frank admission of female readers that the material they are enjoying turns them on. Some women are sexually excited by reading some erotic romances. They are employing those novels, deliberately or accidentally, in a manner conducive to arousal.

It is their choice to do so, and no woman should be shamed for it. But it’s also unfair to presume that anyone who picks up a romance is only after physical arousal and titillation.

I wish things were very different, especially the way folks talk about sexuality in books predominantly written by and read by women. I wish that female arousal wasn’t mocked, laughable, or demeaned. I wish it were as acceptable for a woman to say, “Hot damn, that turned me on,” as it is for a man to say the same. I wish that a desire for reading privacy wasn’t instantly equated with personal shame. And more than anything, I wish it were possible to examine the ways that some romance novels have become more erotic, more explicit, and more determined to arouse without engaging comparisons meant to be insulting and demeaning to the genre as a whole. I wish it were possible to talk about all of these things without it leading to shades of shame or embarrassment.

The Time article by Erika Christakis echoes many of the reactions I’ve seen online, and said out loud:

The buzz about this book seems to be that women, apparently, have unregulated fantasy lives. Big deal. Women have been reading erotic fiction for eons. Is there something “phenomenal” about women enjoying sex, or just the possibility of it? Today’s cultural narrative about female sexuality has no shades of grey: young women are being portrayed as louche sluts who need government interventions to control their badly behaving bodies yet, by age 40, turn into spayed harpies with libidos in the dumpster who would happily sacrifice their sex drives for a man who does laundry.

 

…we still act shocked that women have grown-up desires. After decades of advocacy and progress, it’s hard to believe the staying power of some of these one-dimensional portraits of women. The hype around 50 Shades of Grey feels more like 50 shades of condescension.

Yesterday I was corresponding with some folks in a publicity department of a publisher, and one of them said, “The fight against mainstream condescension never ends.”

In this case, the condescension isn’t just about a specific book, or a specific genre. The condescension is also focused on female arousal, that females with hornypants are something to be controlled or laughed at, depending on whom you’re asking.

This is amazing to me, especially since so much of the romance genre, going back to old skool Woodiwiss and Rogers, is about the exploration of female arousal and autonomy.

On Good Morning America, if you watched, after the segment on 50 Shades aired, the anchors were trying to playfully get their hands on the book to see what was in it. Why? I do not think it’s merely because there’s sex in the book. Good Morning America is filmed in midtown Manhattan, for God’s sake. If anyone in that room wanted depictions of sex, real or simulated, it was not that far away – a subway stop at the most.

I think the real temptation and curiosity for those people and many, many others was that many women were saying “This is great for my sex life. This is great for my marriage.” Better sex? Who is saying no to that?!

I certainly wouldn’t, though 50 Shades did not crank my engine the way it has for so many other women. But I remain stunned by the fact that yet again we’re repeating the same assumptions, and answering with the same assertions. We cannot examine female arousal without demeaning condescension. And that is a shame. I wish it were possible to speak candidly about what books turned women on, and why. It would be fascinating to see what those books have in common, and why some work and some don’t.

So one more time, with feeling:

Romance is not porn for women.

 

Porn is porn for women.

Women have active sex lives and sexual desires.

 

All of these things are ok.

Categorized:

Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Aidaalberto66 says:

    I read erotica and I’m not ashamed of it.  What does bother me is when I go to the bookstore to pick up what I’m looking for and I get sly giggly looks.  Erotica is a romance story with the sex ramped up.  But erotica to me is only one version of romance because there are so many.  Megan Hart writes a beautiful story that yes at it’s core is a romance with the sex ramped up.  That’s it.  I read many erotica authors as I call them.  I mean them no disrepect whatsoever because I find the books so well written, they have wonderful plots and a terrific storyline.  Real women read erotica.

  2. 2
    Rima Jean says:

    Thank you, Sarah! I’m dumbfounded that, in 2012, not only are we criticizing women’s sexuality, but we’re still fighting for our right to birth control. Really, people? Really?

  3. 3
    Diane Dooley says:

    I got into a discussion of erotica vs porn with a writer friend a few years ago. His definition still works for me. Porn is aimed straight at the genitals. Erotica is aimed at a much larger erogenous zone – the brain.

  4. 4
    Liz says:

    Great post!

  5. 5

    The reasons I’ve heard romance novels called “porn for women” because A) the stereotype is that men are turned on by visual displays of sexuality, while women are turned on in a more cerebral fashion, and B) pornography is mostly consumed by men, while romance novels are mostly read by women. (I read one study that 70% of men look at porn online, while only 30% of women do the same, for instance.)

    Of course, “Penthouse Letters” is still going strong after thirty years and men are likely reading more erotica now than ever before, so could men (gasp!) be turned on cerebrally? And the 30% of women who look at online porn are doing so for some reason…but this would just blow our preconceived notions of “male vs female” sexuality away, so it’s best to not think too hard about it. ;)

  6. 6
  7. 7
    Cheryl Smith says:

    I read erotica. I also read historical non-fiction, Sports Illustrated and the Bible. I’m angry because my favorite erotic romances I’ve loaned to a friend have never made it back to my bookshelf. Funny how they keep getting passed from person to person. Did I mention I live in the heart of the Bible Belt? LOL

  8. 8
    Clau says:

    Thank you Sarah great editorial!

    OMG!!! I couldn’t believe it, so I went and read the article on the WSJ, what bothered me most were the stupid comments to the article, most by men of course who criticize but never in their life read one, so they give their opinion just because they can……
    “Aidaalberto66” I agree with you what bothers me the most is the looks I get in the bookstore even if it’s just historical romance I’m browsing (my favorite!).

    Why it’s so important what we read? if we don’t bother anyone with it, and I certainly don’t force anyone else to read it either, just narrow minded people I guess, I pity them they are missing a lot.

     

  9. 9
    MaddBookish says:

    Unless it’s really well done erotica, I just can’t hang. I’ve been reading romance since before I hit puberty, although the sexual content of the earlier ones was minimal to none, and after a while it feels like you’ve read every possible variation of description. I often find myself skimming over the sex for dialog in romances. Once in a while a scene will be particularly emotional, funny or in some other way attention getting and I’ll really read it, but it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.

    For me romance is about the happy ending and the struggle the protagonists go through to get there.

    I don’t hide my romance books, but I do understand why some women hide it. Not the sex/porn thing precisely, but the general condescending attitude that people have about romance and their perception of the sort of person who reads it. It’s just annoying and aggravating.

  10. 10
    Yulie29 says:

    Fantastic post. Thank you.

  11. 11
    Dahlingdahling says:

    Brava. I wish this piece would be published in a larger forum. I think most here would agree with you. In the last ten years, I have come out of the closet as a romance reader who loves all the variations of the genre from G to XXX. I have started a production company to make filmed adaptations of romance novels for the internet and the tag line echos your sentiment:
    Reel Romance: Pleasure is never guilty.

  12. 12
    Avery Flynn says:

    Point of clarification the Virginia law signed requires abdominal ultrasound not transvaginal. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireS…

    This is no less rage inducing, but it is different than stated above.

    Also, I read erotica, erotic romance, sort of dirty romance and lilly clean romance. Mostly it’s on my iPad because of the covers. I have three small ones and if I don’t think some of the covers are appropriate for them.

  13. 13
    ElaineSay says:

    Wow! Thats awesome!! I love this!! I read romance and erotica and I dont care to show it! ;) Seriously I read all types of books but enjoy romance the most. I think its very offensive how this book has been portrayed recently in the media!

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    Thank you for the correction Avery – duly noted!

  15. 15
    Lynda Ryba says:

    You know, I thought long and hard (heh heh heh) about why I prefer to read my erotica on my e-reader. I don’t want to use the word “shame,” because I’m not ashamed. I have a number of erotica books I bought in TPB, and when I had the space, they were displayed with all the rest of my more traditional romance novels, and I freely admit reading these books.

    Would I read them on a subway*? Not a chance. At work? Absolutely not. And your post got me thinking to why those were my instinctive reactions. I realized it was avoidance. I don’t want the hassle. I don’t want the funny looks from strangers. My work place gave me enough guff about being a *gasp* KNITTER!!!! that there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d bring a book with an explicit cover to read openly. Then all I’d hear about is the “smut” I was reading. Or “those trashy books.” And I’ll be the first to admit, I read some REAL trash erotica. Books that I would equate more with porn than with romance, but I have been fighting the good fight for respectability for romance for so long, that I’m just tired. I’m tried of having to defend my reading choices, and KNOWING I’d ABSOLUTELY have to defend this choice? *sigh* I’ll keep my Kindle fully-stocked, thanks.

    But if you come to my home and look at my bookshelves? All bets are off. You judge, you leave.

    *Yeah, okay, so while LA DOES have a subway system, I’m always convinced I’m going to die on it, so I never take it. But it’s still my “would you do this HERE” standard.

  16. 16
    damngoodagent says:

    I’ve been married for-ever. So that being said, if it wasn’t for books like the “fifty series” I may have offed the old man by now. Erotica is fab-u-lous, I mean like we can’t pick up a pointer or 10 from time to time? I’m all for education. I’m married, not dead. I love books that make me “squirm” if I want dull and predictable I’d pick up my cookbook instead. I like it dirty. And I like that others like it dirty. Us filthy minded individuals need to stick together!

  17. 17

    Fabulous.  I hope GMA invites you back to discuss this in depth.

  18. 18
    cheryl.mcinnis58 says:

    I think I love Erika Christakis…what a terrific article :)

  19. 19
    Avery Flynn says:

    I’ll be happy when they correct it in the legislature to remove crap like that – but that’s just flaming liberal me.

  20. 20
    Writebrained08 says:

    I write erotica.  I have a website (personalizedpassion.com) where people can order custom erotic stories that I will write to their specs.  As far as orders I’ve received, women have been very straight forward with their story requests while men, in general, have been more secretive.  I’m proud of my work and I’m proud of my vagina, uterus and sexuality.

    Sex and sexuality is powerful.  I believe some men are terrified of women having that kind of power because it magnifies these men’s inadequacies.

  21. 21
    Debra Hyde says:

    “Real women read erotica.” That deserves a t-shirt.

  22. 22
    Minnie Lahongrais says:

    Thank you for a great post! Brava!!

    IMHO, I believe there is nothing wrong with women reading erotica. The double standards imposed and perpetuated the world over by men (mostly) are so asnine! Wasn’t the ERA movement over 40 years ago? We mustn’t hide.

  23. 23
    Chris says:

    I think perhaps you’re missing one reason why romance novels might be derided, and by people who are pro-female arousal—the horrible writing quality. Though there are certainly exceptions to the general standard, there’s a long and storied history of hilariously bad writing in romance novels (actually, it tends to be about as good as the dialogue in your average porn-with-plot flick). I have no problem with women’s sexuality, arousal, etc—but I’m going to keep on teasing readers of romance novels because the covers are ridiculous and the writing is even worse.

  24. 24
    damngoodagent says:

    I’ll be sending a request your way shortly, what an amazing concept!

  25. 25
    Lynne Connolly says:

    Right on.
    Unfortunately, on this side of the pond, we’re getting a similar reaction to “50 Shades.” It’s less morality at issue here, than schoolchildren giggling behind their hands. The juvenile effect.
    It was discussed on the “Today” programme. This radio programme has more listeners than all the morning breakfast programmes combined. It’s required listening. At ten past eight in the morning, they have the big interview, and they have no problem getting whoever they want.
    This interview was sandwiched between the big interview and the 8.30 sports report, and I think it’s shameful:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/e…
    Move the slider to 2.24 to hear the discussion. I’ve emailed them, but I don’t expect a reply, other than the automated one.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi… has a summary.
    The people interviewed hadn’t even read the book.

    You think you get sneered at being a romance writer? Try being an erotic romance writer. Not that it’s going to stop me writing it.

  26. 26
    AHBrowne says:

    You know something, I have to explain this to my mom all the time. I tell her even erotic and erotica are two different things, but she’s old school and tells me (and everyone you listens) that I am naive because I don’t get that they’re the same thing. You tell someone you write “erotica” and they hear “porn.” Shows how some still just don’t understand.

  27. 27
    Missyj6342 says:

    Love this article!

  28. 28
    SB Sarah says:

    I can see your point on some of the covers, but you’re flat out wrong about the writing quality in all romance novels.

  29. 29
    Jami Gold says:

    Great post!  I’ve heard some argue that porn (often) relies on demeaning one or more of the participants or making them look bad (the ditzy blonde falling on a guy’s d*ck, etc.).  In contrast, romance of all stripes—up to and including erotic romance and erotica—treats the characters with respect.

    That explanation might explain why one feels “worse” than the other to many people, along the lines of laughing at someone else’s expense.

    That said, as long as no one gets hurt, I agree that what arouses someone shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

  30. 30
    Ruthie Knox says:

    Awesome post. I love this site so much.

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