Is "Chick Lit" Just Emotional Porn?

A look at the darker side of romance novels.

On the nightstand of a woman you know, there’s a Christian romance novel and a Bible. Does that matter? On the Kindle of a one of your female friends, there’s a “young adult” fiction bestseller.

Does that matter?

A new book by Boston University researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, offers a disturbing look at how Internet search engines reveal much about the sexual and emotional desires of men and women, and how they differ. The research confirms in some ways what almost everyone knows: men are visually engaged, attracted to youth and sexual novelty, and are thus vulnerable to visual pornography.

The research explores further what the commercialized romance industry tells us about what it means to be a woman (at least in a fallen world). Women are much less likely to be drawn to visual pornography (although more do so than one might think), but are quite likely to be involved in such media as Internet romantic fiction or the old-fashioned romance novel.

The romance novel follows, the researchers argue, a typical pattern. The hero is almost never, they say, a blue collar worker, a bureaucrat, or someone in the traditionally feminine occupations (hairdresser, kindergarten teacher, etc.). He is competent, confident and usually wealthy. He is, in short, an alpha male.

But, they argue, this alpha male is typically a rough character who learns to be tamed into kindness—kindness to her. Thus, you wind up with not only the strong silent cowboys with the soft interior life, but also vampires and werewolves and Vikings.

And all of this is moving toward the climax of the romance story: the “happily-ever-after.”

“Romance novels rarely have a sequel,” the book concludes. “Once the hero and heroine are joined in love or matrimony, they get their Happily-Ever-After, presumably with a bevy of children and domestic bliss. Further adventures would violate the female fantasy of true, committed, eternal love.”

“Though there are many series of modern romance novels, once a couple gets their Happily-Ever-After in one book, they only resurface as beloved supporting characters in future books, with each subsequent book’s focus on a new hero or heroine.”

As they do with pornography, these scholars explain all of these archetypal female desires in a Darwinian need for the woman to seek out a mate who can be simultaneously monogamous and protective of the offspring. This evolutionary desire is seen in the strong male who pours out his feelings of devotion, and whose lifelong commitment is frozen in time and certainty in the Happily-Ever-After moment.

While I don’t share all the presuppositions of these scholars, I think they’re on to something about the allure of the commercialized romance story. Pornography and romance novels aren’t (or at least aren’t always) morally equivalent, but they “work” the same way.

Both are based on an illusion. Pornography is based on the illusion of a perfectly willing, always aroused partner without the “work” of relational intimacy. Often romance novels or their film equivalents do the same thing for the emotional needs of women that pornography offers for the erotic urges of men.

And in both cases, what the “market” wants is sameness. Men want the illusion of women who look just like women but are, in terms of sexual response, just like men. Women want the illusion of men who are “real” men, but, in terms of a concept of romance, are just like women. In both artificial eros and artificial romance, there is the love of the self, not the mystery of the other.

Thankfully, we do not yet have a market for “Christian” pornography (but just wait, someone will find a way). But we do have a market for “Christian” romance novels. Now some of those classified as such aren’t really “romance novels” at all. They’re complicated looks at the human condition, especially male/female relationships, from a Christian vantage point.

A lot of this genre, though, is simply a Christianization of a form not intended to enhance intimacy but to escape to an artificial illusion of it. Granted, there’s no graphic sexuality here. The hero and heroine don’t sleep together; they pray together. But that’s just the point.

How many disappointed middle-aged women in our congregations are reading these novels as a means of comparing the “strong spiritual leaders” depicted there with what by comparison must seem to be underachieving lumps lying next to them on the couch?

This is not to equate morally “romance novels” with the grave soul destruction of pornography. But it is worth asking, “Is what I’m consuming leading me toward contentment with my spouse (or future spouse) or away from it? Is it pointing me to the other in one-flesh union or to an eroticized embodiment of my own desires? Is this the mystery or a mirage?”

Dr. Russell D. Moore is an author and Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared on his blog. Used by permission.

90 Comments

Andrea

16

Andrea commented…

Every genre's got its garbage, yeah. There are plenty of books written solely to ignore the way the world actually works. (I don't mean speculative fiction, since the best of that genre takes impossible situations and wonders how real, believable people would deal with them.)

I think the problem is that the whole reason the average romance novel exists is to present an idealized (and misleading) version of the male/female relationship. They're read *because* of that. It's possible to argue that the human form is beautiful (well, it is), and to make art that celebrates that fact, but that's not why people watch porn.

People are writing fiction centered on romantic relationships that deals with them truthfully. But I don't think they usually end up in the "Romance" shelves.

85,398

Crystal commented…

what exactly, is emotional pornography? This seems like a stretch. If men are threatened by the fictional characters in their wives Christian novels, maybe the problem is not with the novel.

chris

5

chris commented…

I would define "emotional pornography" as any artificial source that feeds into a woman's emotional desires in the same way that visual (traditional) pornography artificially feeds a man's physical desires. Research shows time and time again that, in the same way that men are often driven by physical lust, women are typically driven by a desire for emotional intimacy. This shows up most clearly in secular culture; in many relationships, the man will appear to offer emotional intimacy with the goal of physical intimacy. The woman will offer sex in the hope of receiving emotional intimacy, but sadly, many men are not interested in this and, upon receiving the sex, will shy away from true emotional intimacy and will only dangle the possibility of such attachment to earn more sex. This is why concepts such as the "friendzone" exist - women whose emotional needs are not being met in their romantic relationships will often seek platonic relationships on the side with other men who are more capable of fulfilling their needs. But I digress.

When one turns your statement around to say if women are threatened by the fictional characters in the pornos their husbands might be sneaking off to watch, maybe the problem is not with the porn, it becomes easy to see the issue. Obviously, it's the husband's fault for looking at porn, right? The issue, at first glance, is that his physical needs are not being satisfied by his wife. But is this issue caused by his wife's unwillingness to satisfy his needs, or is it driven by his own unwillingness to continue earning his wife's affection? The same question applies to your statement. If a man is threatened by his wife reading romance novels, is it his fault for not providing the emotional intimacy his wife desires, or is the wife herself to blame for being distant and not responding to his attempts?

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Evgmontalvo commented…

Whether visual or emotional fantasy, the true issue isn't the fantasy. It is possible the fantasies could be reality, and if they are fulfilled in a Godly fashion, then there is nothing wrong with the fantasies. Expectation based on these fantasies are not problems either, because if we take for granted that they are fulfilled or take for granted they cannot be fulfilled, it is not possible to draw any direct spiritually negative consequence from the lack of a natural fulfillment. The only spiritually negative consequence that can be drawn from such scenarios are those which result from fulfilling x expectation or desire through the entertainment of y sinful behavior as described by Scripture. For a Christian man or woman to have a spouse who satisfies or fails to satisfy their natural needs has little to do with the core issue. The only true issue is the sinful consequences of desiring something which is outside of God's moral boundaries, which both physical and emotional forms of pornography can evoke.

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Matt commented…

You mention it twice, so I've got to ask, what's your basis for stating a moral inequality between literary and visual pornography?

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