Tue
Jul 12 2011 3:00pm

Eff You!: Romance Novels are NOT Porn for Women!

Rabbit image courtesy of picto:graphic via FlickrMost of the jabs directed at the romance genre by non-romance readers have to do with sex—romance writers are frustrated housewives, romance readers are sex-crazed, the books create unrealistic expectations, et cetera et cetera. In turn, most of us have been largely conditioned to hide our clinch covers, splay our fingers across such titles as Bedded by the Sheikh or The Prince’s Virgin Seduction, and passionately argue that the blurb focusing on the hero’s lusty ways and the heroine’s quivering loins are not the sole focus of the book—we’re reading them for, well, the romance!

The main joke at our—and the genre’s—expense is that romance novels are “porn for women,” and at that I call foul.

Everywhere we turn, sex and women’s bodies are displayed for the gratification of the male gaze. Playboy and its various entities have become embedded in pop culture, magazines like Cosmo recycle countless articles on how to become a sex goddess for your man, and visiting a strip club with your man or your girlfriends is seen as the height of sophistication.

Ultimately, the glaring, blatant message society sends is that male sexual desire, and the satisfaction of it, is supposed to be the main focus of “love and other indoor sports” (© Judy Blume).

No wonder romance novels are so mocked, derided, and jeered at!

Thrill by Jackie CollinsWhen I first discovered romance novels at the tender age of 17, I was shocked that this funny, entertaining book I was reading actually had sex written in its pages! Color me naive (my onetime experience with Jackie Collins at 10 notwithstanding), but I sailed along blissfully in the waves of kisses only or maybe even just smoldering looks and touches in the books of Ann Rinaldi and Frances Temple. To see such graphic descriptions in the printed word was jaw-dropping...titillating...freaking awesome...and I grabbed for more.

Sure, the sex in Catherine Coulter’s novels can be of a questionable quality, but I cherish the hilarious eroticism of The Courtship, which opens with the hero, Spenser, stumbling upon the heroine, Helen, giving Alexandra Sherbrooke a lecture in discipline. Even better was the fact that Helen was a very tall, Rubenesque woman, and not only was she proud of her stature (and she was very intelligent), but Spenser loved that about her. The combination of an intelligent heroine, a humorous, if anachronistic take on BSDM in the Regency, and funny sex was eye-opening for my teenage incarnation. I received the sex talk from my parents early on, read any article or book on sexuality from cover to cover, and of course, discussed things with my friends, but in the pages of a romance novel I could explore the sensations aroused by my tumultuous and admittedly confusing hormones in a safe space.

The Courtship by Catherine CoulterFrom there I browsed my library stacks, pulling out the books with interesting spines (and titles—I quickly cracked the romance novel title code), experiencing a variety of sexual positions, a variety of kisses, and a variety of sensual touches, in the bodies, so to speak, of a variety of women. In these pages I saw short women, tall women, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, boyish bodies, curvy bodies, brown women, white women, black women, brunettes, red-heads, brown-eyed, green-eyed—just women who had bodies and experiences and personalities like normal, everyday women, who got to enjoy sex in a powerful and affirming way.

Now that I’m ten years older and a trifle more experienced, I still find the sex in romance novels, in all their fantastical, outrageous, virgin-orgasms-her-first-time way, continues to be a safe and private space. While I do read romances for a number of reasons, and sometimes roll my eyes when I see yet another clinch cover on a story that is so much more than its sensuality level, I appreciate the sex in romance novels and what it means for its writers and readers. So if romance novels are “porn for women,” I feel we have the right to own, explore, and cherish our sexuality (and the HEA is the cherry on top!).

Rabbit image courtesy of picto:graphic via Flickr


 

Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.

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31 comments
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
Hear, hear! I learned long ago not to apologize for my reading choices, but it did take a while and some years under my belt. Now, whenever somebody flings an insulting descriptive at my preferred genre, I just shrug it off and continue enjoying my romance du jour. After all, insults have to be weighed according to their source.
Megan Frampton
3. MFrampton
You know, almost every day I run across some romance novel disparaging item, and I have yet to get my BP under control. It so incenses me that ppl feel as though they know something because of the cover. I should get over it, but I haven't yet--but it's rational pieces like these that confirm that my choice of reading material is okay. Thanks, Evangeline.
Donna Cummings
4. Donna Cummings
I worked during the holidays at a bookstore, and it never would have occurred to me to comment on anyone's choice of reading material. Some guy bought a stack of gun magazines one day -- did I ask, "Gonna shoot somebody today?" Of course not! But somehow when women buy and read romance, the fall of civilization is fast approaching, and we can be blamed for it. LOL
Nicole Noffsinger
5. nikkitrueblue@hotmail.com
I hate it when people say this just because their genre isn't the "most popular". I read historical as well as paranormal romance because often times they're better than what's on television and are better written than other genres. There is more details in the plots and settings and you get a clear picture in your mind where the story is going. I'm not putting down other authors but that's one reason why I love the genres I love and write.
Line_J
6. para
How is a line like this supposed to convince me that romance novels are not porn for women?

"in the pages of a romance novel I could explore the sensations aroused by my tumultuous and admittedly confusing hormones in a safe space."

Try this on: "In the pages of a porn magazine I could explore the sensations aroused by my tumultuous and admittedly confusing hormones in a safe space."

Now, if you'd written an article about PORN being porn for women, as opposed to romance novels, I'd get it. If you'd written about the differences in male/female sexuality in an intelligent and ungrudging way, then you might be able to support the premise that romance novels should be thought of with more respect. But you didn't; instead, you rant about being dissed by the man in infuriating statements like this:

"Ultimately, the glaring, blatant message society sends is that male sexual desire, and the satisfaction of it, is supposed to be the main focus of “love and other indoor sports”"

Uh huh. Also, this:

"Everywhere we turn, sex and women’s bodies are displayed for the gratification of the male gaze."

...Men are not the primary purchasers of Cosmopolitan magazine. Or Star. Or Redbook. Or O. They don't buy the most perfume, nor do they buy the most women's underwear or the most Britney Spears CDs.

These advertisers and media present what sells to WOMEN the best. Not men; they don't give a crap about men, since men aren't spending money on them. Therefore, in these instances and many more women's bodies are being displayed for the gratification of the FEMALE gaze.

If you're pissed off about some sort of inequity, some kind of 'man conspiracy' that's objectifying you and making your preferred genre of reading a laughingstock, then you need to have your head doused in some cold water so you can take a good, clear look at what's *really* happening. Women and their turn-ons are not the victims here.
Laura K. Curtis
7. LauraKCurtis
I have always liked the "Porn for Women" books, which feature *real* female fantasies--good looking men doing housework.
Line_J
8. torifl
I used to get upset when someone would look over my shoulder and say, "Oh, your reading THAT. Why not pick up a real book."
I don't anymore. I read over 500 books a year. Everything from The Billionaire's Pregnant Secratary's Sister to the Matt bai's book on bloggers and the Democratic party. I learned along ago that I don't have to explain or justify what I'm reading to anyone.
Nicole Noffsinger
9. nikkitrueblue@hotmail.com
If romance novels are porn for women, then check in the King James Bible in Song of Solomon when he describes his love's body. Not to get all religeous here but even a holy book has romantic sexual overtones to it. For me Porno, isn't about fantasy it's about two people having sex and that is putting it in PG terms. What is found in most romance novels as well as erotica is fantasy-pretty much the same level as you would find in most Rated R movies and even some PG-13 movies. IF a man writes it-it's okay but a woman writes it and it's written off as useless fluff and not to be taken for anything other than "porn". They're disillusioned I think
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
The line about romance novels being "porn for women" is a piece of social propaganda that's being spread by associates and employees of James Dobson's hyper-right-wing "Focus on the Family" organizations.

It's interesting to sift through articles like Kimberly Sayer-Giles's Romance Novels Can Be as Addictive as Pornography. When you check all the assertions she makes, there's very little substance to any of them, and no substance to the structure she builds out of them.

More to the point, if you check out the credentials, history, and associations of the people she quotes, way too many of them work for the same little cluster of James Dobson-funded organizations, and their credentials don't match the subjects on which they're being quoted.

"Romance = porn for women" isn't a misapprehension. It's a strategic campaign being mounted in support of a social and political agenda.
julie
11. me.a.name.i.call.myself
I have been reading Romance since I was 14. I loved historical and funny romances. In high school, I started looking for a boy to date who would treat me with the respect that my romance heros did. When I was ready to have sex in college I already knew what turned me on and even though I was a novice at the age of 19 I had the knowledge of a courtesian. I made it through many lonely nights as a military wife reading Karen Monning and Lisa Kleypas. (Some of my husbands fav. love letters had passages inspired by hot steamy romances.)
I am a 28 year old mom of two amazing children and am very happily married to a man as alpha as Lora Leighs leading men. My husband and close girlfriends are the only ones who know about my love for the romance genre. Since becoming an adult I haven't felt the desire to hide my book at the check out. In fact, last week I checked out a pile of romances that ranged from funny to erotic and the librarian; who I had been talking to for quite some time about gardening, turned her nose up at me and went from very friendly to completly silent with no eye contact. So I shrugged and said, well my husband has to go away for the week so what's a healthy young wife to do after the kiddos are in bed? I tell you I felt great. After all those years of my parents and family calling it sinful and smutty I don't feel like hidding it away anymore.
Line_J
12. Anette
I joke around about the romance books because thats what ppl expect me to, since the genre is kinda the black sheep in my culture. We have to be oh-so-serious-and-fancy in our reading material, it can't be too upscale - and then came paranormal romance and suddenly it was OK to read about angel sex. I looove my romance books, wouldn't trade them for anything else - but even romance titles does have A- and B books - books that have more than the story but also includes several interesting B- and C characters in the manus and who's story you follow along the main story. I like.

High rated authers such as Sherrilyn Kenyon (oh yes, she has explicit sex scenes too), Eloisa James, Catherine Feehan, Kresley Cole (hot-hot-hot!) and many others are high rated authors . Two of the abovementioned are actually English professors. They decided long ago that they would bring juice to the people - aka love stories for women with a penchant for romance. Why shouldn't they gain a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T. from being on the New York Times' bestselling list?!
Jonetta Allen
13. Jonetta/Ejaygirl
For those who publicly show you their disdain of your romance reading choices, you might find an opportunity to impact his OR HER point of view. The genre has changed immeasurably since I started reading them in the late 70s. They really lacked good stories back then and I abandoned the genre after a couple of years. While I didn't ridicule anyone for reading romance books, I silently formed an uninformed opinion about the individual's reading interests.

Last year, a number of people who I really respected made clear their fondness for this genre and I started asking more questions. They gave me a couple of titles to try and I was stunned at the quality of the writing, the superb story lines and character development. I hadn't read anything but contemporary and literary fiction for the past 16 years and couldn't believe the change in the romance genre...so much so that about 90% of what I read in the past 12 months includes romance at least as a sub genre.

The point...don't get angry, educate the people around you. If they haven't read anything in the genre, they don't get to judge and invite them to try a good title (be prepared to offer some) and follow up. Most people back up on uninformed opinions if you call them on it. There's a real opportunity to reshape the thinking and we should be prepared to be part of that change.

I'm glad my friends and acquaintances challenged me AND gave me great titles to sample. I've got a lot to catch up on so I'm off to finish my latest romance novel.
Janet Mullany
14. Janet_Mullany
Actually I do read romance for the sex.

I also believe that women can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
Line_J
15. Ruth Woolsey
Having been an avid reader since I first began at age 4, I have read everything from classics to contemporary and have to admit that romance novels lost a lot of attraction for me because they didn't portray real life as it truly is..... now I read a lot of it and don't restrict my genres in any way. Being almost 60 I can appreciate the relief in reading of the opportunities abounding in a lot of the novels today.

Having found myself as entranced by Kenyon and Feehan as I am by King,it's not so much about the sex (though a well-written scene can steam up the glasses and act as an aphrodisiac),but a truly good,sometimes great story with "benefits". Besides I know a lot of men who enjoy those "mass-trash" books even more than women. It might help to educate men into what women might be open to in the privacy of their bedrooms and keep a marriage a lot healthier than they are with the stresses of life constantly pillaging emotions. Do I consider them porn? Nope,not a bit because a lot of those things occur in "real life" but are condemned as abominations by the fanatically superior idiots afraid of their own sexuality,so are not spoken about in public except through the works of people brave enough to endure the ridicule by writing of them.

Will I continue to read these novels? You betcha! As long as the story enthralls,sex is written believably and the editing is correct I'll read whatever I want and the rest of the world can go hang. And by the way-what's wrong with a bit of well-written porn? If it's stimulating to a couple in the privacy of their home (after all the men benefit as well as the women) people need to stop putting down things they haven't read or want to understand and try it before condemning it. Just my opinion.
Line_J
16. Amelia James
I'm with Janet Mullany on both counts. I read (and write) romance novels for the sex. Sex was forbidden to me when I should've been exploring it. Romance novels were my escape and the only sex education I had. I've always preferred written porn to visual. When I read Playgirl magazine, I read it for the stories. Call them porn for women, trashy books, whatever you want. Makes no difference to me. I like a hot steamy story and I always will.
Evangeline Holland
17. EvangelineHolland
Wow, what an amazing response! It took me a while to get up the nerve to blog about this intensely personal topic, but I'm so glad to see that romance novels have touched many of you () as they have me!
S Tieh
18. infinitieh
As someone who didn't read any romance until recently (I was very much into mysteries and sci-fi/fantasy in my teens), I'm late to this "porn for women" debate. However, since I'm used to reading mysteries and sci-fi/fantasy, I guess I'm used ot having my literary taste belittled. To that, I've always been "I don't read FICTION; I only read GENRE fiction." Plus, what would raise someone's eyebrow more: the romance novel I'm reading or the YA/children's book? (okay, waylaying a 10-year-old for his take on the latest Artemis Fowl probably was a bit presumptuous on my part but he WAS reading it in a restaurant with his parents)

I was a bit embarrassed with romances and their covers until I realized that it was part of my new "obsession". I buy books strictly for the covers! Once a man asked me about the romances I had in my hands and I proceeded to basically give a lecture on the various cover models and artists. It's not just a mass market paperback of a story but a very affordable piece of artwork. Whereas I probably wouldn't pay $100 for a painting, that same amount can buy an awful lot of books with beautiful covers of Paul Marron, Jed Hill, Ewa da Cruz, et al. by Chris McGrath, Jon Paul, Don Sipley, Aleta Rafton, Craig White, et al..
Line_J
19. nikkitrueblue
Hey you can't have a great romance without great sex. I will say that covers do perk my interest when it comes to selecting an unknown series or author. If there's a bland cover or something that looks "cheap" then I'm more often likely going to pass it over. Back to Romance novels being "porn" all I can say is either these people have not ever really read a great romance novel, have no sense of humor(cause hey-they're some great comedic lines that will make your sides split), they're men, or they wouldn't know the first thing about having sex let alone what would happen if they actually got caught watching HBO Afterdark. If you don't like romance-then use something more than "Oh it's porn for women" and what if it were-I mean women are sexual beings as well as men.
Line_J
21. rdsangel127117
What's new about the terms used to describe romance novels? As long as I've been reading them they've been described in varying ways. Even the sweet romances were trashy. That was ridiculous. Now that today's authors have upped the ante and gotten more descriptive, it's porn. It's still a no win situation for those who don't like our genre. It's considered porn, because it's written by women in romance novels, but not porn when it's written by men in mainstream novels? Nonsense! It's purely sexist that's all. I'm not going to stop reading them and long ago I lost the embarrassment of hiding the covers when I buy them. From the sweet ones to the erotic ones, I read them all as long as their well written and pique my interest. The rant will go on and on, I'm sure, but so will my love of romance novels. Long live my favorite genre!
Line_J
22. DelightsInBooks
I must confess I haven't thought about hiding the covers. Nor do I choose by the cover as most covers lie, i.e., the cover artist never read the book and is just doing something at random.

On a more important note, I agree with Ruth Woolsey. I think Sex Education classes should use some of these books to educate young men and women on good sex. It's not enough to just prevent STDs or pregnancy. Give 'em somewhere to go for pointers on what either sex is hoping for or expecting in bed (or up against the wall). I was brought up to not say anything to not expect or ask for anything in my life. I certainly never thought about asking for something in bed. But reading erotica is making it clear to me what it is I want in bed and I feel much more comfortable in directing bedplay. So keep on writing...please!!
Line_J
23. tiago5
First of all,there is absolutely NOTHING to be explained if you love romance novels. Hell life is stressful,and if you enjoying reading something that makes you happy and keeps you in good spirits SO BE IT. I totally co-sign to what Ruth Woolsey stated earlier, go with it. Besides to me porn is porn and a good sexually intense read is just that. They aren't married but they sure are lovers. Besides you want some freaking hot ass authors to read.... Kate Pearce's" Simply Series." I just finished reading her latest "Simply Forbidden". GET THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Lusty,sexual and everthing in between. (hint) the lead male character is a SUBMISSIVE!!!!!!! That alone should get you to read this. Also try Kate Douglas. YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED!
Line_J
24. Lorraine, CA
It's clear that the people who equate romance novels with porn have never picked up a copy of Penthouse Letters. I read mostly historical and paranormal and love a steamy, hot love scene. But even the most explicit scenes I've read in a romance novel don't come close to anything in Penthouse, (I don't read a lot of erotica, although I do love a good Lora Leigh book).

The difference...romance sex scenes describe the emotions and the connection the H/h are having during the act, whereas Penthouse, ie, porn, simply describe the act sans emotion. Big difference.

tiago5 is right, we should all enjoy reading whatever makes us happy.
Line_J
25. Riley Ellis
I'm with Para. While the quality of writing has changed since the 70's, the increase in explicit sex has also increased along with bookcovers telling you exactly what you can expect-Hot! Hot! Hot! I recently read a RS and was astounded at how quickly the hero(FBI agent) and the victim were able to get it on -within three paragraphs of meeting each other and twice in every chapter after that. It was raw, rough sex and language, in every location virtually possible. The book's promise was suspense,and could have been good but the sex became so intrusive that I won't be purchasing any more of that author's books. I am no prude, but if I purchase a mystery or suspense, that's what I want, not two people acting like animals with bullets flying over. There are authors writing menage novels who say they aren't writing porn, but romance erotica, but if sex is the primary reason for the novel and the page cover shows m/m/f, f/f/m, m/m, f/f on the cover in sexual positions, how much "story" can one expect? I think it's time the romance industry looks at what they are writing and publishing. Right now, there's a whole lot of trash out there.
Line_J
26. Carram
When ever someone gives me a dirty look or says something, i just say to them, "Honey, I work at a book store, if you think this is 'dirty' believe me, this is like a childrens book compaired to some of the stuff we've got. There is a whole section devoted to 'Adult magazines' and we have a whole shelf devoted to erotica...this doesn't even compair"
Line_J
27. Rhio2k
It MUST be for women, because us male paranormal fans only action, epic fights, adventure, and kick-ass tough male and female characters, not some "instantly know we're mates for life", "I barely know you so/but let's have sex crap" that pops up EVERY time a woman writes anything about werewolves or shapeshifters in general. WOMEN readers are the ones who want this sleaze infesting paranormal books*. The old Werewolf: The Apocalypse novels were sometimes written poorly, but at least they were about fights and adventure, and you could read them without finding out about someone's vagina/penis within a page of them being introduced to the story. I wish there were more writers like Kim Harrison, who has the strange ability to be a female writer who doesn't focus on smut, and writes books both genders can enjoy, and not just women like to read while letting their fingers do the walking. Just because us guys think a lot about sex doesn't mean we want to read about it every couple chapters when we pick up a book. The Riley Jensen series could have been great if not for all the non-stop sex ("I'm half werewolf and half vampire, so I pretty much have to get laid nearly constantly", paraphrased from one of the first 2 novels when the character is doing internal monologue). The action is great but all the sex, no pun intended, kills the mood. L.K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series...that turned into hardcore porn and lost TONS of male and even female readers. Mostly only the smut-cravers still follow that series.

*Meant no offense/chauvanism there, but I'm becoming increasingly frustrated at finding that women writers are trying to turn "general paranormal" (non-explicit sex scene, supernatural characters and events) into "paranormal romance" (smut-a-palooza, with supernatural characters and events) when the 2 are supposed to be separate categories of the same section. Pretty soon we'll need a separate category for supernatural adventure novels...and then THAT category will become supernatural bodice-rippers as well.
Christopher Morgan
28. cmorgan
Rhio2k, being a man that works on this here Romance site, and is a very big sci-fi/fantasy fan, be it any flavor, I feel that you are prejudging the genre a bit.

As part of a running series on the site I read Meljean's Brooks Demon Moon. Yes it had sex. BUT the action was as good as anything in Dresden and the world building was good enough to rival any mid-list fantasy out there. Is it Robert Jordan? No, but its UF so you shouldn't be expecting that kind of detail. You mention Anita Blake, I once read her stuff as well, and besides Anita's knack for developing just the right power for a situation, it got old. I'm pretty sure a lot of our users will agree that Hamilton's writing has gone downhill fast.

I can't emphasize enough that the covers are misleading. They are books targeted towards women, so there are going to be shirtless guys on them. But that is not what the book is about. You can check out the comments in my articles. The folks around these parts love their genre and are eager to help us guys out.
Line_J
29. Ava
Stumbled upon this post. Excellent. The covers often do give them a bad first impression. The problem is that most men don't understand the importance of the content that is not involving sex, so therefore they're sex books.
Shelly Raines
30. Thili
One of your newer articles pointed me here. I have to say that while I don't consider some romance novels to be porn for women, as para above states, this article does nothing to support that idea or the title it gave itself. It starts off with that premise, then the author proceeds to tell us exactly why romance novels *are* porn for her.

And, I have to say that a good number of romance novels these days are porn for women. There's nothing wrong with that. Own it. Make them aware of *our* gaze.
Line_J
31. pascal
I'm sorry, just because men like to stare at naked women does not mean that pornographic literature (well or badly portrayed) is not porn --and the author's target is definitely for women. Sure women like the relationship aspect of "romance," whereas men are more into the act of nature. Again, nature of men is to cut to the chase, women are more into the relationship and therefore want their sex to be more fulfilling. It is really more than just pornography; it is a romantic fantasy that is just as unreal as the airbrushed centerfolds. Words seduce a woman, while visions capture a man’s soul. Don't be so simple on either side of this simplistic proposition. We are after two different things, neither nobler nor less palatable than the other.
Any offense taken by this elaboration may reveal the indignation associated with manly desires; as opposed to the more hospitable and socially acceptable “stage setting,” where the desert platter appears alongside the meal. Chow down on that for a minute, then build up the teasing and tempting, the wonder and satiation of the female cat and poor delicious mouse. Oh so special it is when it all falls together. The crescendo and climax all tied together from initial seating to the bill. Ah, what a good novel that was. But please don’t disrespect my enjoyment by lowering my sophisticated enchantment to the thralls of a mere mans lust. We are more than they, we are lovers of lust but only when we can taste the fullness of the script and the rhythms of our hearts. We are more than lust, ours is insatiable and enchanting. The story is best the further it spreads, and gossip will be welcomed and up for the task.
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