The first part of this article was a very small glance at the experiences women face everyday, and how romance novels are way to escape those realities. Part II will delve more into the damaging effects of monitoring, not simply what women do or don’t do, but what kind of information they consume and how that directly influences their agency and freedoms.
The inspiring article for this post was a piece titled, Is It Wrong for Women to Be Addicted to Sexually Explicit Romance Novels? by an organization obviously dedicated to the more conservative values of Christianity. ( I didn’t link to it, because I don’t want this article to be a witch hunt.) Admittedly, those values do not play a large role in my personal life. I am the product of a reformed altar boy and a Jew who converted to druidism. My relationship with most major religions has been passed down through art history and world history courses, and what I have gleaned from the effects of many antiquated ideals on the progress of the women’s rights movement. Is that all there is to religion? Of course not. But in this specific article? Perhaps.
If you’re an avid romance novelist, find the article at your own discretion. This is the kind of outdated ideology that romance writers and readers are working so diligently to combat. With phrases such as:
“…other [romance novels] are absolutely teeming with lust and perversion.”
“In America today, 64 percent of all Christian men and 15 percent of all Christian women admit that they have viewed pornography within the last month, and we correctly label this as a national moral crisis.”
….Etcetera, onward and upward. The article goes on to discuss how men viewing pornography is fundamentally the same to women reading romance novels, particularly the sexually explicit ones. While I take great umbrage with much of the pornography industry as a whole, it is due to the unfair treatment of many adult film actress, the potential for abuse, and the misogynistic messages perpetuated by the continuous sexualizing of young women in this country, not because of the eternal damnation of my soul for viewing it. The industry is making strides toward ‘feminist porn’ and I do believe that pornography as a whole is veering in the right direction. That, of course, is a conversation for another time.
But by equating romance novels to porn, you are undermining the art and storytelling of the romance novel and, far more damaging, taking the female agency out of the question.
Most porn is not for women. I’m not saying women can’t/shouldn’t/don’t view it. I’m saying that is not created for the female gaze or the female enjoyment. Romance novels are. Always. While there are many great feminist values to be found in the romance novel industry, one of the most important is the highlighting of female sexual agency as a powerful and special thing. In romance novels, the woman’s pleasure, comfort and happiness reign supreme. In porn, they do not. By equating one with the other, the author is essentially saying that anything at all with nude women is inherently evil, regardless of the definitive difference in safety and pleasure level between porn and romance. We are back to square one in The Garden of Eden, folks.
He goes on to pass judgement on the kind of romance novels that are appropriate for the Christian reader – the inspirational, Christian romance novels that “are as clean and innocent as a typical Hallmark movie”.
To that I say, Michael what right do you have? If a Christian (or otherwise) reader decides that the kind of books they want to reader are the Christian or inspirational genre of romance, then by all means, they should go ahead and do that. If they decide that they’re a little curious about the BDSM or polyamorous cultures, and would be interested in exploring the literary depictions of a healthy BDSM or polyamorous relationships, then what right do you have to pass judgement on their choices? And if these novels arouse or inspire them, then so what? Most romance novels do not promote cheating or abuse. They are fundamentally about the happily ever after ending, which seems like pretty much what we’re all after, regardless of our religion or lack thereof.
If you read the article, you’ll find more details on the encroaching, hedonistic crisis brought on by one of the top selling genres in America, (gee, could it be that women are buying books where they feel they are represented?) but I’m going to stop picking on this article for a moment and turn my attention to the larger issues of his commentary on romance novels. (It is just one voice in the ocean, a good example of these themes, but by no means the only example. I have no intent to bully, only to use his content as a starting point for discussing a common mentality.)
Show of hands – have you ever felt embarrassed or judged for reading romance? Do you ever hide your covers or say the name of a different book, when a coworker or friend asks what you’re reading? I’ve done it. I don’t anymore.
Romance novels are the only genre where women are the primary speakers. I mean across industries. Most television programs, movies and books are centrally focused on male protagonists, with female characters as their foils for progression and evolution. Not all, but certainly most. Romance novels are the safest, the only place, where a woman’s perspective is heard all the time – the boardroom, the home, the bedroom. Her thoughts are listened to, considered, and appreciated. She is not spoken over or ignored, and if she is, then something is done about it.
By saying that romance novels are filth, as the author does in his article, you are saying that books promoting healthy female friendships, happy relationships with equal representation, and comfortable and exciting sexual agency for women, are fundamentally wrong. In his article, the author writes, “We need to be very careful about what we feed our minds, because it determines the kind of people that we are going to become.” I’m curious as to how romance novels – with their supportive female friends, powerful women in powerful jobs, and a comfortable and open sexual discourse, are something to fear.
He’s absolutely right, we do need to be careful about what we feed our minds. For instance, if we continue to harp on the belief that women’s sexuality is fundamentally evil, and that anything to do with female agency is something to be feared, we perpetuate an environment where women continue to be second class citizens without opinions, missions or dreams, despite all evidence disproving that particular truth.
It is a phenomenon that exists outside of the extreme religious beliefs, of course. By relegating romance novels or chick-lit or women’s fiction to some sort of fringe genre that no one ever discusses, society automatically undermines their readers, making anyone who might come away from a romance novel feeling confident and empowered, someone to be taken less seriously. Romance novels may outsell nearly every other genre, but they have yet to reach even a modicum of the respect that should come along with that, simply because they promote the lives of women in a way no other genre or medium does.
Certainly, there has been a shifting mentality away from pretending that these novels don’t exist. More and more cheerleaders for the industry are putting away the e-reader they bought to hide their covers, and reading without fear on public transit and in the break room. We are discussing what these novels mean, garnering attention, and not shying away from conversation. We must continue to do so. In a world where history and media continue to portray women (and anyone not specifically a cis-gendered hetero white man of means,) as not really being part of the world, we must hold tight to what represents us and use it to spread the message as far as we can.
Women hold buying power in this country, with more than 85% of purchases to their name. By continuing to support the genre, and not being afraid to talk about, we push all of those major important matters in the mainstream. We may never be able to talk the these folks out of their beliefs, but we will prove that romance novels in all genres, and their readers, are not going to be felled by the pressures and judgement of a society still so-often refusing to share women’s stories. Romance readers have been around a long time, and they’re here to stay. Just try and stop us.
Young Girl Reading, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1868 – Selected from Wikipedia
Couple Smiling Behind Books – Selected from Pexel