Thursday, July 5, 2012

Romance: Porn for Women?

I have a problem -- in fact, multiple problems -- with the way romance novels are viewed by both the general public and academia, something an alert reader may have gathered from the long rant in the last review I posted. The most basic misconception about romance is that it's all trash. I covered half of that issue in my last post, but the word "trash," in this context, can have two meanings. Meaning one: bad writing. Covered that.

Meaning two: pornography, and two main groups of people take delight in condescendingly or disgustedly dismissing romance as "porn for women." This label is interesting to me in a couple of ways. First of all, there's already "porn for women"; it's called "erotica," and sex is the primary focus of that genre. In a romance, love is the primary focus, and there's (almost) no sex without either a) pre-existing love, b) commitment, or c) overwhelming attraction that inevitably leads to love. There are also romances that contain no sex at all: inspirationals, older Harlequin Romances, and classic Regency romances, to name a few.

But all romances (as opposed to erotica), with or without sex, take the following as a given: you can certainly have love without sex, and you can have sex without love, but most well-adjusted adults combine the two and enjoy them more that way. Women, it turns out, really like to read about people in love who have healthy sex lives.* Hence, romance novels.

So, since it's demonstrably true that romance novels are not the same as either erotica or porn, who would want to dismiss them that way? Feminist scholars** would argue that society almost always devalues the feminine in every sphere: housework is considered less valuable than paid employment, female-dominated professions are less important than male-dominated professions, and books read almost exclusively by women are lower-quality than books read by men. Feminist scholars say a lot of things.

My view is simple: there are always those who dislike sexually explicit anything, be that magazines or websites consumed primarily by men or novels consumed primarily by women. Those people may or may not have valid reasons for their points of view; that depends on the person, and it's not relevant here. What is relevant is that those people will disapprove of anything sexually explicit, no matter what medium it's in, who sees it, how much it costs, or how it's dressed up with plot or scenery.***

The other group that loves the "porn for women" label is, predictably, men. For what feminist scholars would say about men's view of the value of the feminine, see above. But my theory is that the real truth is much simpler than that, and it involves one of men's, as a group's, highest and dearest goals: not being frickin' nagged when they're just trying to have a beer and zone out for an hour. Because the fact is, a large number of men consume some form of porn. They may or may not admit it, and they may or may not approve of porn in the abstract, but they do it anyway.

All of those men have one thing in common: they don't want to be nagged about their porn consumption by women. If they're married, they don't want to hear it from their wives; if they're gay, they don't want to hear it from their moms; and if they're single, they don't want to hear it from either their moms or from attractive girls. So what could be better than proof that those women are all consuming porn themselves? That would sure spike their guns, wouldn't it? In my admittedly unscientific opinion, that's why men like to fondly believe that romance novels are porn for women.**** And as for women who don't object to sexually explicit material, and who still dismiss romance novels as trash -- well, ladies, you don't know what you're missing.

Since romance need not be either chock-full of purple-prose groaners or pornographic, my next romance review's going to be about a well written Regency that contains no sex at all. Like much of the romance genre, it inhabits that vast middle ground between literature and trash. There should be a name for that. Wait, there is! Fiction! Someday, perhaps both the general public and academia will learn to apply that term appropriately. Until then, I will be a proud reader and reviewer of trash.

* Not all women, of course, but if you look at the sales figures for romance novels, a set of statistics I've looked at before and am not going to bother to find at the moment (try the Harlequin website if you're really dying to know), you'll see that it's an excellent generalization. And men like to read about this subject too. They just have to have something else going on in the book as well, so they can pretend they don't enjoy that part of it.

** Tania Modleski, Janice Radway, etc., ad infinitum.

*** Feminist scholars would then say to me: but they're probably extra disapproving of those explicit materials being consumed by women, because the patriarchy doesn't want women to have orgasms. To which I would reply: 1) if you find the seven craziest people in the world and spend your entire career arguing with them, you need to buy some better cable channels and 2) if a tree fell in the forest and hit a feminist scholar, would five hundred feminist proto-scholars write their dissertations about the phallic symbolism of vegetation and its resulting inherent hostility toward women?

**** Sorry, fellas. But you have my blessing to say, "Hah! You do it too!" if your wife is reading Fifty Shades of Grey. And if you're reading Playboy at the same time, you have my blessing to argue that your reading material is both less pornographic and much more sophisticated.

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