Romance Novels Vs. Pornography

For some years now, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that in nearly every ward I’ve lived in, there is a group of women who regularly read romance novels. Not the Deseret Books type of romance novel — I’m talking the real thing. The true bodice-rippers. These are women who often hold visible positions in the ward, and cleave to Mormon culture in other ways. But they do love their romance novels.

This fascinated me because Church leaders have been fairly clear about viewing romance novels as a form of pornography. They say that porn (including romance novels) leads to abnormal, illegal, or inappropriate desires. They warn that such material might lead to adultery and that it might irreparably harm your connection with God. Some likewise warn that porn might lead you to treat your spouse badly because he/she just can’t measure up to the fantasy projected on the screen or page.

However, such warnings don’t seem to worry these romance reading Church ladies, who continue swapping their books. I wonder why. Why do they not see these books as dangerous? Do these dire predictions just not apply, in these women’s minds, to the reading of these novels? I’ve been toying with the idea that indeed these predictions do not apply as often to these romance reading women. Let me throw out a couple reasons why perhaps romance novels are not leading to the breakdown of relationships:

  • romance novels are ultimately extremely affirming of marriage/wifehood/motherhood. Thus rather than turning women away from their mates, they might encourage women to nurture the relationship.
  • romance novels might make women more sexually interested in their husbands.
  • romance novels affirm female desire in all aspects of life. They affirm a woman achieving her dreams about a fulfilling relationship, but they also often (at least the more recent ones) affirm other dreams about how she wants to contribute to her world.

That said, there are reasons to worry about the messages that are projected in romance novels. That fulfillment is always found in marriage, that men are sexually aggressive and controlling, that the sexes seem incapable of good communication, etc. are all things to question. However, I don’t see these negative messages necessarily leading to damage in the marital relationship for the reader, at least not the kind of damage that the GA’s talk about.

What are the pros and cons of romance novel reading in your mind? Can one be feminist and a romance novel reader at the same time? Are they porn?

I intend to write a paper about Mormon women,romance novels, and how they affect relationships, and I would love your help. If you are/have been a romance novel reader, would you please take my brief survey? It’s mostly multiple choice. Also, if you are willing to be interviewed by phone or email about your romance novel reading, please contact me at carolinekline1 at gmail dot com.




Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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73 Responses

  1. Isidra says:

    Porn has been shown, but various researchers to have the following effect on it’s consumers: (I can give you the sites for that research if you like.)
    • increases aggressive behavior,
    • degrades, debases, and dehumanizes women,
    • encourages men to view women as sexually receptive,
    • depicts sex as commitment-free,
    • leads to greater acceptance of rape and interpersonal violence,
    • creates apathy toward the victims of violent, sexual crimes,
    • decreases female self-esteem,
    • reduces the desire to have children,
    • increases tolerance of child abuse,
    • promotes the acceptance of male dominance and
    • decreases marital satisfaction, optimism, and intimacy

    So it might be interesting to compare the effects of porn with the effects of romance novel reading. I’m not a bodice-ripping-romance reader. I don’t like them. So I won’t do as a contributor to your survey. But I have encountered some in my reading history. So going through the above list I would say that reading bodice ripping romance novels
    1. increases passive behavior in women. (a huge percentage of the main characters are victims of social restriction or aggression)
    2. doesn’t dehumanize women. May reduce one’s vision of a man to the sum of his physical parts and his ability to sexually arouse, depending on the author
    3. encourages women to see men as sexually demanding or sexually driven or constantly striving to control sexual urges
    4. depicts sex as an expression of excitement and commitment sometime, other times as a form of S & M and desirable as such
    5. often depicts rape as something one recovers from without lasting psychological damage
    6. I’m not sure on this one.
    7. depending on the genre, either encourages a woman to play up her helplessness or her petulance in order to attract a man
    8. rarely mentions children unless the romance is about a single parent
    9. doesn’t deal much with child abuse unless it’s in the background of one of the main characters, in which case it is condemned and sometimes used as an explanation for bad behavior.
    10. Often portrays male dominance as a positive thing.
    11. Can reduce marital intimacy and optimism as a reader’s husband rarely is anything like the hero in the book. On the other hand, sexual fantasies introduced by a romance novel can arouse a woman so that she’s more open to sexual intimacy, but whether that fantasy increases her connection by making her more open to sex or decreases her connection with her husband due to the fact that she’s got the hero of the novel, not her husband, in her mind is up for debate.

    Interesting to compare the lists.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      I’m not a bodice-ripping-romance reader. I don’t like them.

      And so…your basis for comparison is…?

      • Isidra says:

        The half dozen or so that I got part way into before I realized what they were and threw them against the wall. 🙂

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        The half dozen or so that I got part way into before I realized what they were and threw them against the wall.

        Ah, okay. Please allow me to enumerate what *I* got out of them:

        1. That women are capable of great feats of derring-do and adventure.

        2. That women are strong, fearless, and so actually bad-ass there was only one man who could match her.

        3. That women who are in positions of oppression can AND OUGHT to do whatever they have to do to survive. (This was particularly a particularly useful bit of conditioning when dealing with “death is better than having been raped” (TM Kimball).)

        4. That women need not be ashamed of their sexual desires.

        5. That virginity is not the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence or worth, and that there were other things that made her valuable to society.

        Well, it really all boils down to a woman’s general bad-assery. See, I was a misfit because I was pretty generally a bad-ass. Bad-ass women just don’t do well in polite society. These novels taught me that a) I wasn’t alone in my bad-assery and b) it wasn’t bad and c) if there were so many novels with bad-ass women in them, I was actually in a lot of good company.

        I have always felt really sorry for women who read bodice-rippers as some form of reinforcement for the promulgation of female repression, instead of seeing them as a source of female self-empowerment.

        But that’s kind of the way I read things anyway.

      • Caroline says:

        I love your comments, and I’d like to know what kinds of romance you typically read. Do you focus on contemporary? That could be one reason why your impression centers around very empowered women. I wonder if it’s possible to get heroines that are that empowered in the historicals, in which they are so often trapped in a social context which limits their options.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Caroline, bodice-rippers are always historicals written between 1970 and mid 80s. The contemporaries that could be considered analogous re content went under “women’s fiction” or just “fiction.”

        I read them when I was a tween/teen amidst other kinds of fiction. I was pretty egalitarian about my reading back then. The romances I read were all historicals. My first REAL bodice-ripper was SHANNA by Kathleen Woodiwiss.

        In the historicals, the women were always oppressed, and the heroine broke out somehow, by hook or by crook.

        One thing I will say is that as the rape quotient went down in historicals, so did the bad-assery of the heroines. I haven’t read a kick-ass historical heroine in years. I apparently missed what my compadres think of as the golde age of historical romance, which was mid 90s, because there was a lot of variety of character and real depth to the stories. I’m just catching up with those, particularly Judith Ivory (who wrote contemporaries under the name Judy Cuevas). Laura Kinsale is another author I think is utterly brilliant.

        Anyway, I was in school and reading Tom Wolfe and Umberto Eco and Neal Stephenson (when I had time) throughout the 90s.

        Contemporary now is harder for me to pin down. Way back when, you had the doorstopper women’s fiction (and I LOVE doorstopper books). BUTTERFLY by Kathryn Harvey is still unbeatable. The best contemporary writer (that I have read) is/was Susan Elizabeth Phillips, whom I actually followed from women’s fiction. (I say was because her last few books have been derivative of her earlier work, and I don’t like that.)

        Also, I really love gothics. Victoria Holt and Madeline Brent.

        The first book in my series was an homage to every romance novel trope I ever loved. I consider it a true genre romance novel. Which is only to say that pickings for any kind of romance seem to be slim for me these days (which was one reason I got back on the writing horse). I just don’t find many that really blow me away anymore and the ones that do were written 10 years ago.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I wonder if it’s possible to get heroines that are that empowered in the historicals, in which they are so often trapped in a social context which limits their options.

        Please forgive my disjointedness. I’m on my iPad and I don’t seem to be able to organize my thoughts very well when I’m typing on it.

        In answer to your question, the heroines were SELF-empowered because they were ahead of their time in some way (usually intellectually), and completely uncontrollable in their culture, especially by the men. But they pretty much threw that back in the face of their society and took the (many times very serious) consequences. They had big cojones.

      • Caroline says:

        Moriah, I cut my romance reading teeth on Victoria Holt and Madeline Brent. Loved them! And thanks for all these authors — now I have some more reading to do.

        I hadn’t realized that “bodice rippers” were only historicals from a certain time period. Good to know. 🙂

      • amelia says:

        hmm… I didn’t realize there was a more technical definition of “bodice ripper” that was specific to when books were written. I just associate them with the larger genre of sexually explicit romance novels, though I can see that it’s not a very accurate term for most of those sexually explicit novels. I’m still new to the more rigorous study of the genre. Thanks for the tip, Moriah!

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks so much for your comment. You bring up some very interesting points.

      “increases passive behavior in women. (a huge percentage of the main characters are victims of social restriction or aggression)”

      I think that in older romance novels did often portray women as more passive and often as victims in some sense. The Flame and the Flower was a huge hit in the 80’s, I believe, and that’s a romance novel that starts off with a rape scene. And in terms of non-bodice rippers, I just read a Deseret books romance novel, and the main character was a physically abused, quiet, shy woman who falls for a powerful lord. A huge power differential between the two main characters that is questionable.

      “May reduce one’s vision of a man to the sum of his physical parts and his ability to sexually arouse”

      I’d say that this one is less common, at least in the books I’ve read. Romance readers and writers are usually more interested in the emotional connection that forms between the two main characters, rather than the physical (though the sex scenes are inserted into that emotional journey).

      Your point about rape is well taken. As I mentioned, in some romance novels — my impression is novels of an earlier generation in particular — the relationship begins with a rape, and it is problematic to me for a woman to end up madly in love with her rapist.

      And you make so many other interesting points as well, but kids are screaming…

    • Caroline says:

      Your last point about a woman having the hero of the novel in mind as she engages is sex with her husband is one I’ve wondered about. I wonder if that would bother the husband much — or is he just happy that she’s excited to have sex? Any men out there that can answer that question?

    • amelia says:

      I’m replying as someone who reads bodice rippers on a regular basis–they’re some of my favorite entertainment. I have to say, Isidra, that I find most of your points off. Obviously, as with all genres, there is huge variety in Romance, but we are working in generalizations here so I’m responding in kind.

      1. Porn: increases aggressive behavior,
      1. Isidra on Romance: increases passive behavior in women. (a huge percentage of the main characters are victims of social restriction or aggression)
      1. Amelia on Romance: while it’s true that many of the female main characters of romance novels are victims of social restriction or aggression, that also holds true for many of the male heroes of romance; more importantly, these wounded characters are almost always empowered in some fashion to throw off those restrictions in ways that help them grow.

      2. Porn: degrades, debases, and dehumanizes women
      2. Isidra: doesn’t dehumanize women. May reduce one’s vision of a man to the sum of his physical parts and his ability to sexually arouse, depending on the author
      2. Amelia: Agreed that romance does not necessarily dehumanize women, but I disagree that romance is inherently reductive in its treatment of men. Sure, there are some authors who reduce men to nothing but sexual studs, but your lack of experience in reading romance novels is showing itself here. While there are plenty of badly written romance novels that don’t develop their characters, and there are those that focus mostly on the sex, I think there are far more that allow their characters interesting developmental arcs and that applies to both male and female characters.

      3. Porn: encourages men to view women as sexually receptive
      3. Isidra: encourages women to see men as sexually demanding or sexually driven or constantly striving to control sexual urges
      3. Amelia: yeah. Sex is a big part of romance novels of the bodice-ripping variety. But it is not quite as reductive as you’re painting it here. Sex in romance novels is much more complex than just “aggressive male sex animal arouses more innocent female.” There’s usually a give-and-take component to it. It’s almost always a mutual thing. It’s usually intertwined with more complex emotional lives. In other words, I would again argue that romance novels don’t necessarily reduce men to their raging sex drives and the bodies they use to express those drives.

      4. Porn: depicts sex as commitment-free
      4. Isidra: depicts sex as an expression of excitement and commitment sometime, other times as a form of S & M and desirable as such
      4. Amelia: Again both of these are too reductive when applied to romance. Often the S&M appeal of some romance novel sex is intertwined with both excitement and commitment. And S&M is by no means a universal element of the sexual aspect of romance novels, though many do explore themes of power and control as they relate to sex which people sometimes associate only with S&M sex (I would argue that all sex is in some fashion concerned with questions of power, control, submission, vulnerability, etc., no matter what kinds of actual sex acts it involves).

      5. Porn: leads to greater acceptance of rape and interpersonal violence
      5. Isidra: often depicts rape as something one recovers from without lasting psychological damage
      5. Amelia: Rape plots in romances are an interesting beast. First, it’s important to recognize that there are plenty of people who indulge in rape fantasies and act them out and there’s nothing wrong with that. In light of that, rape-plot romances are in some ways simply an extension of that fantasy and not inherently wrong. Second, it’s important to remember that while romance, like all forms of entertainment and art, does comment on cultural mores and lived experience, it is problematic to expect something that is often turned to for rather lighthearted entertainment always to deal with weighty issues in complex and realistic ways. To expect that of romance would be like expecting that even shows that take on serious issues on TV will throw over the convention of writing an episode that works in 45 minutes to deal with weighty issues in a completely realistic and unproblematic fashion. There are certainly shows I don’t love because they don’t engage in a realistic enough fashion with issues, but there are plenty that I love that also don’t do so but which compensate for that fact in some fashion. Why should romance be faulted for doing the same thing? Also, there actually are romance novels that realistically deal with these weighty issues, even if they frequently do so on an accelerated time line which is unrealistic (I would point out that lots of romance novels employ unrealistically accelerated timelines for all aspects of their plots and character development, just as most television shows do; again this isn’t something I think it’s fair to criticize a genre for when it’s simply one of the common conventions of that genre).

      6. Porn: creates apathy toward the victims of violent, sexual crimes
      6. Isidra: I’m not sure on this one
      6. Amelia: I don’t think this translates as a general rule to romance novels, though I don’t think most advocates of the “romance novels are porn that will do harm” would make this argument. I think they’d likely make an argument more along the line of romance creating apathy towards the violation of the law of chastity or the sanctity of sexual relationships.

      7. Porn: decreases female self-esteem
      7. Isidra: depending on the genre, either encourages a woman to play up her helplessness or her petulance in order to attract a man
      7. Amelia: Again, I find both of these inaccurate re: romance and I find Isidra’s statement not at all representative of most female main characters in romance novels. In fact, to the contrary, most of the female main characters I have read in romance novels eschew such behavior as disgusting and manipulative. Most of the female main characters I have read (and I do read far more novels written recently than written in the 70s and 80s, so maybe I’m wrong about heroines in those earlier books; not sure) are strong and confident. They either begin in a place of openness that does not allow for such manipulations or they reach that point and are encouraged in doing so by the men they love.

      8. Porn: reduces the desire to have children
      8. Isidra: rarely mentions children unless the romance is about a single parent
      8. Amelia: This just is not true of romance across the board. There are plenty that don’t feature children, but how can that be a criticism of a genre that is focused on the period of courtship and falling in love? Do we fault Jane Austen for not dealing with children or _Jane Eyre_ for portraying Adele as a spoiled, snotty little brat who wants presents? Of course not; children are not the focus of those narratives and they are not the focus of romance novels. That said, many of the romance novels I have read have ended with prologues in which the main characters are happily married and have children or expect children. Those children are frequently presented as the beautiful promise of future peace and contentment. I have also read many novels that involve characters that are children. When novels are part of family oriented series, they often include children (the younger siblings in early volumes; the children of older siblings in later volumes). It’s just inaccurate to say that romance novels rarely mention children. And I think it’s inaccurate to say that they discourage the desire to have children. Many actually encourage that desire.

      9. Porn: increases tolerance of child abuse
      9. Isidra: doesn’t deal much with child abuse unless it’s in the background of one of the main characters, in which case it is condemned and sometimes used as an explanation for bad behavior
      9. Amelia: Romances certainly do not increase the tolerance of child abuse. It’s fairly accurate to say the issue isn’t a main theme of romance novels and that when it is present it is condemned. I think to say it’s used as an explanation for bad behavior is a clumsy explanation of how it is used. I would say when child abuse is present, it’s often in the back story of a main character and is presented as a major contributing factor to psychological damage the character is dealing with (which damage sometimes but not always manifests in “bad behavior”).

      10. Porn: promotes the acceptance of male dominance
      10. Isidra: Often portrays male dominance as a positive thing
      10. Amelia: Romance does often portray male strength as a positive thing, and that strength does sometimes manifest as dominance. That said, romance also portrays female strength as a positive thing and the male and female main characters are almost always matched in terms of their strength, with neither accepting of an exclusively dominant or submissive role. In fact, the plot device that drives many romance novels is the struggle to find the appropriate relationship between strength (which can sometimes be read as dominance) and vulnerability.

      11. Porn: decreases marital satisfaction, optimism, and intimacy
      11. Isidra: Can reduce marital intimacy and optimism as a reader’s husband rarely is anything like the hero in the book. On the other hand, sexual fantasies introduced by a romance novel can arouse a woman so that she’s more open to sexual intimacy, but whether that fantasy increases her connection by making her more open to sex or decreases her connection with her husband due to the fact that she’s got the hero of the novel, not her husband, in her mind is up for debate
      11. Amelia: I would argue that television, books, movies, art, conversation, eating, exercising–pretty much any activity could potentially harm a marriage depending on how one engages in that activity. I don’t think reading a certain kind of book or consuming a certain kind of film can automatically generate marital dissatisfaction and destroy intimacy unless the dissatisfaction and broken intimacy are already present in that relationship. Of course, I’m not married, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I’ve been in serious committed relationships and read romance novels while in those relationships and I have never seen any negative consequences of reading romance novels.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Amelia, people who are both uninformed and dismissive use the term promiscuously as if they know what they’re talking about, so it becomes the definition by the default. Newer readers to the genre who don’t have the history usually just call romance novels bodice rippers because that’s what they think they are.

      IMO, the ghettoization problem with romance novels is the covers. A.S. Byatt writes a pure genre romance, gets a brilliant non-mantitty, non-prom-dress cover and it’s called literature.

      • amelia says:

        The packaging of novels is certainly a fascinating question. There are plenty of “literary” novels that are genre romance novels but have the right look and publicity and marketing to brand them “literary” rather than “romance” (it’s also interesting to see where different bookstores shelves books). And I’ve read my share of “romance” novels that deserve more respect and examination than some of the “literary” fiction out there but don’t get it due to packaging. And that’s not even to engage in the question of how the long historical view on a work of fiction changes how it’s seen. All those 18th and 19th century novels that we now revere as Great Works weren’t always accepted as such great work.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        All those 18th and 19th century novels that we now revere as Great Works weren’t always accepted as such great work.

        Hawthorne on Austen et al: “Damned scribbling women.”

        Laura Kinsale (who is simply brilliant–have I said that before? yes I have) claims she is proud of her Fabio covers, but they are, in my opinion, a real distraction from her genius. (The new soft landscape covers are equally bad in the other direction.) The thing about her that I want to emulate is that she does something entirely different with each novel and some you’ll hate and some you’ll love and some you’ll be “meh.” Her versatility is incredible. If you want something seriously different, start with FOR MY LADY’S HEART.

        Judith Ivory’s BEAST was sublime.

        The most recent romance novel I read that really tore me up was THE PORTRAIT by Megan Chance.

        Some of these were/are masterpieces of writing. They explored things, philosophized, had something more than wallpaper history, exquisite prose.

        We moved into our house almost six years ago. A couple of years later, I found a box of romance novels by the then-current It Girls of romance and I didn’t remember having read any of them. I mean, I knew I had, but there was nothing distinguishing about them to make them stand out.

        I haven’t read anything that was published in the last several years that knocked my socks off like BEAST and THE PORTRAIT, but then I can’t read every book and I am often in a minority as to what is “good” and what’s not.

      • amelia says:

        I like some of what I’ve read from Laura Kinsale, but not all. I’ll have to pick up For My Lady’s Heart. I don’t think I’ve read that one.

    • Caroline says:

      Thank you for your response to Isidra! I was wanting to go through those points one by one, but didn’t have the stamina. I’m so glad you did. 🙂 I love reading your take on this stuff.

  2. Isidra says:

    I’m a pretty avid reader and pick up a wide variety of books to read. Unfortunately for me, not all books have covers or blurbs that immediately reveal what they contain, which means I usually read a good chunk of a book before I chuck it.

  3. Macha says:

    There is a problem that you might mistreat your spouse for not measuring up. But that’s only if you believe that they should measure up. Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to read/view a lot of romance novels/porn while fully aware that it’s fantasy, and that it’s unreasonable to expect a fantasy in your real life.

    There has also been at least one study which demonstrated that people who watch more pornography are less likely to act out sexually in real life. (I believe it was mentioned in an episode of Mormon Stories – 245: Pornography, Masturbation, Sex and Marriage in Mormonism)

    I think that it all depends on the person, whether we’re talking about porn or romance novels. Some people will read a romance novel and it’ll have a negative effect on their romantic relationships; others won’t. Some people will watch porn and it’ll be bad; for some it will enhance their relationship. It all depends on perspective and personality; the circumstances matter.

    • Caroline says:

      Macha, great point about recognizing that romance novels are fantasy, and that it is possible to not impose those kinds of expectations on reality. I think that applies to me as I read romance. I find them fun and entertaining, but i don’t want my husband to be like those men. There’s usually a level of violence that these men embody that I’m not comfortable with (I read a lot of historicals.) And thanks for the Mormon Stories reference!

      • BethSmash says:

        It really frustrates me that often it’s only romance readers who get stuck with the label of not understanding fantasy versus reality. No one EVER writes articles about how crime fiction readers are more apt to 1) commit crimes or 2) solve crimes, because reading crime fiction doesn’t mean you’ll do either. So why do people say that romance readers will confuse reality with fiction? I personally think it’s because it’s a genre mainly written by women for women filled with strong, independent female characters who go after what they want and get it.

      • Moriah Jovan says:


        I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a matter of “We must protect the wimminz from themselves!”

      • amelia says:

        Absolutely, BethSmash. It’s ridiculous to suggest that somehow romance novels can have these kinds of detrimental real-life consequences without making the same assertions about novels that focus on violence and crime or war, etc. Of course, there’s a very long history of arguing about the potential for literary art to influence the real-life actions of its consumers and certain kinds of literary efforts have usually been targeted more than others, so it’s not surprising that it still happens.

        And I agree with you and Moriah that this has something to do with the fact that romance is a genre largely written by women for women and it’s threatening insofar as it bypasses some of the traditional power structures which keep women in their place. One of the things that fascinates me the most about the genre is that it does so even while it reiterates the desirability of very traditional social structures like marriage and marriage w/children.

      • Sarah L says:

        these are brilliant insights. for women, by women = instantly dismissed. thank you bethsmash

        also, I adore moriah jovan. so glad she’s in this community.

  4. G says:

    oh this is interesting and timely: that new LDS sex blog just posted about sexual fantasies of the “coercive” nature, something that ties strongly into the Bodice Ripper genre of literature. The Psychology Today link is may be of some interest to you, Caroline? (Romance, Porn, Sexual fantasies vs Real Life, etc)

    It was eye-opening now common and *normal* (and not a sign of anything wrong) such fantasies are.

    I don’t usually read romance novels, so I ‘m not the best person to comment and/or take the survey , but I am quite enjoying MoJo’s (which I jumped into after reading Amiela’s review of one of her books.)

    • Caroline says:

      G, thanks for that link! Very timely — I’m going to go check it out right now.

    • amelia says:

      Take anything you find at Psychology Today with a bit of a grain of salt. It has a patina of expertise, but it’s often a problematic publication (and it often publishes articles that are pretty sexist).

  5. Isidra says:

    Moriah’s comments do shed light on the fact that there are many variations in the genre of romance literature being published today. I just did a search of a Goodreads romance reader group to collect authors’ names. Can one lump Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Lynn Kurland, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Hoyt, Nora Roberts, Rachel Ann Nunes, Anne Radcliffe, Ilona Andrews, Kathleen Woodiwiss (Flame/Flower author who is *still* publishing) Jeaniene Frost, Stephanie Meyer and Meg Cabot all together in one group in order to do research on the genre as a whole? Are there sub-groups of Mormon romance readers that would produce different results depending on the sub-genre or authors of the literature consumed? It might be really interesting to do a poll to see which authors are being read by which readers and then compare their responses to your survey.
    I’ll be interested in the paper you produce, Caroline.

    • Caroline says:

      Good points, Isidra,

      In my survey I tried to get into those variations a bit by asking if people read a) Mormon/Christian romance novels with no explicit sex b) romance novels for wider market with explicit sex c)) romance novels for wider market without explicit sex (Georgette Heyer, etc.)

      You’re right — what kind people read do make a difference. I am most interested in the women who read the kind with explicit sex.

    • amelia says:

      Can one lump Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Lynn Kurland, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Hoyt, Nora Roberts, Rachel Ann Nunes, Anne Radcliffe, Ilona Andrews, Kathleen Woodiwiss (Flame/Flower author who is *still* publishing) Jeaniene Frost, Stephanie Meyer and Meg Cabot all together in one group in order to do research on the genre as a whole?

      Depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. There are commonalities to all of those authors’ works, so whether you want to include them all in a study depends on how tightly you want to drill into specific aspects of romance.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    Kathleen Woodiwiss (Flame/Flower author who is *still* publishing)

    No. She died in 2007 and her last work was published that year. I highly doubt her name will live on in franchise via ghostwriters a la VC Andrews.

  7. Corrie says:

    When I was about 12 or 13, I was at my grandmother’s house and found a few Harlequin romances. I read them, in hiding, and definitely found them arousing and, um….educational. 😀 Haven’t read any since.
    When I was in my late 20s I tried a bit of erotica, written by women, but just felt like I was looking at porn.
    There are so many really fabulous books to read, and I’m not talking about Deseret books, that I feel guilty ‘wasting’ time reading stuff that is pulp.

    • Caroline says:

      I also found a couple of Harlequins when I was about in 7th grade. I remember being fascinated, but I never picked up any after that. From what I hear Harlequins tend to have particularly passive heroines. I’ve never tried women’s erotica (other than romance novels)…

  8. Bones says:

    Moriah, I love your books! My husband loves their “fringe” benefits!!!

  9. Two of Three says:

    Going to look up Moriah’s authors as well. I like romance novels in which the romance is secondary to a good story. There are a few gals at church who trade trashy novels. We call ourselves “the brown bag book club”, b/c we have actually passed them back and forth in brown bags!! Heaven forbid anyone think we read such trash!! As for explicit sex, I have no problems with well written passages.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      My Relief Society president seems to think I’m pretty okay, so she decided to pick up one of my books. I told her what was in them. She blushed a little and said, “That’s okay.” Now I don’t know whether I’ll find a kindred spirit or if she’ll decide to politely keep her distance.

      (On the other hand, she and I are kind of matching Prissys.)

      I honestly never met another LDS woman who reads romance novels, but then, I never asked, either.

    • Caroline says:

      Two of Three,
      “the brown bag book club” — that’s exactly what I’m talking about! 🙂 I think almost every ward must have them.

  10. Madame Curie says:

    I gave a really long response at the survey site, Caroline.

    I’ve read all ends of the spectrum when it comes to romances – everything from Harlequin bodice-rippers to “Regency historical romances” (a.k.a. Jane Austen wannabes or sequels with no explicit sex) to explicit historical romances to modern male-male gay romance.

    As a teenager and undergrad, I read a lot of romances with explicit sex. V.C. Andrews (aka “Flowers in the Attic) was one of my favorite authors as a teen (though I didn’t like her as much as I got older) and I really enjoyed Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series (which is extremely explicit in some of the novels). Usually, I kept a few stashed away under my mattress so no one would know (shhh…) I read them because I found them titillating and sexually arousing.

    After I went through the temple and before I was married, I tried to cut down on my consumption, but would occasionally indulge (once a year or so – but I didn’t keep them in my ownership).

    Once I got married, I found the sex described in the books to be ridiculous compared to actual sex, and just tossed them. I think much of what made them so sexy was that they were “forbidden”. My husband and I sometimes read gay (male-male) explicit romances together, aloud, as foreplay 🙂 Again, it is the forbidden aspect that makes it so arousing. But if he goes along with it, then I say it’s fair game.

    For pleasure reading, I go through non-explicit historical romances now at a rate of about one a week. I love my Regency drawing-room, Jane Austen-esque romances! They hint at just enough to leave you wanting to know what happens, but nothing ever gets past a kiss.

    I like them them as an escape – I would never really want to live in 1809 Britain (hello, no electricity, running water, or penicillin!) or be married to Mr. Darcy, or have so little space for my ambitions. But when I read them, I feel like Jane or Lizzy or whomever and actually want to dance all night or exchange witty social banter with men of good fortune. I’d be bored stiff if that is what my life was really like – but it isn’t, so it is like fantasy to me.

    • Caroline says:

      Madame Curie,
      Thank you for filling out my survey! I’m so glad that you did. I am actually reading the last of the Clan of Cave Bear books right now. I discovered the series a few years ago.

      I also gave up on romance novels after I married. I stayed away for about 7 years, then I started up again a few years ago. I find them great to read when I’m walking on the treadmill — makes the time go by so much faster. They are escapist fantasy for me too.

  11. BethSmash says:

    I think that you should read the following article which came out on one of my favorite websites following the recent KSL news story on this article:

    I happen to agree with it. Good luck on your research.

  12. Mike H. says:

    Interesting that it’s pointed out that romance novels encourage women to behave in the way encouraged in the despised (in some circles) Fascinating Woman! My wife is heavy into these types of novels, and has been well before we were married. She says if the sex is too graphic in a novel, she skips over that part.

    Yet, I wonder if I’m being compared to those male fiction heroes on a subconscious level.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Mike, I can’t speak for your wife, but as a wife, I’ll say this:

      1. I would never put up with a romance novel hero. Not even the ones I write. ESPECIALLY not the ones I write. My husband knows this because he knows me.

      2. I read romance novels to fall in love:

    • amelia says:

      Mike H, if you mean that terrible book Fascinating Womanhood when you say: “Interesting that it’s pointed out that romance novels encourage women to behave in the way encouraged in the despised (in some circles) Fascinating Woman!” I’d say that whoever made the observation (Isidra?) was wrong. At least when talking about the female main characters of romance novels written in the recent past for a primarily female audience. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance novel in which the female main character could be accurately compared to the ideal woman presented in Fascinating Womanhood. I can’t even think of a courtship novel from the 18th or 19th centuries in which the female main characters could be compared accurately to that model of womanhood; at least not characters who remain that way without discovering that it’s a harmful way to interact with others.

  13. BethSmash says:

    Caroline, I am curious as to what type of romance novels you read. And how the heck can you do it while walking on the treadmill? I can walk while I read, and I can walk on a treadmill, but I can NOT walk on a treadmill and read at the same time.

    Moriah, Since you like Gothic romances have you read The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott? Also, you might want to check out the books by Deanna Raybourn, they’re mysteries, but they’ve definitely got a romantic element and tend to have some of the atmosphere of gothic novels. I’d also recommend (if you haven’t read it already) Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (which is my second favorite Austen) which makes fun of gothic novels and is great.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Beth actually yes, I did read THE INHERITANCE, but it didn’t stick with me. (Due to some other things going on in my life at the time, not because of the book.) I’ll have to pick it up again. I don’t care much for mysteries, actually, and I’m really not an Austen fan.

      Right now I’m reading LAMB by Christopher Moore and THE ROADSHOW by Braden Bell, neither of which are exactly romance. 😉

      • amelia says:

        Northanger Abbey is one of the least Austen-ish of Austen’s novels precisely because it’s a satiric look at not only gothic novels, but also at the ways people conceive of the relationship between fiction and reality (one of the most interesting ongoing debates about the nature of fiction). It’s also got a metafictional component that I find entertaining and which is not typical of Austen. I loved teaching that particular book.

    • Caroline says:

      Give reading romances and walking on a treadmill a try again! I can walk on one for an hour reading a novel and not even notice the time going by. My favorite novels are historical (both romance and general fiction). I loved Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

  14. Hydrangea says:

    I was reading a well written book the other day that had a erotically charged, artful, tastefully penned, and beautifully descriptive, 2 pages that made me blush, smile, and look behind my shoulder. It wasn’t crude but I honestly wasn’t sure if I should feel bad or not for reading it.
    On one hand sex is a beautiful part of life. I think to some extent it is okay to tastefully embrace it through an art medium, such as literature. On the other hand I have witnessed how internet pornography has come to replace genuine sexual relationships and foster deception in marriage. Maybe it’s just me, but I think romance novels, however sexual, are probably on the very mild end of the spectrum when compared to the degrading possibilities of porn.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Maybe it’s just me, but I think romance novels, however sexual, are probably on the very mild end of the spectrum when compared to the degrading possibilities of porn.

      Hydrangea, I agree.

      The sex may or may not be explicit, or in varying degrees of explicitness, but I believe that women read romance for the story. Some like the same story over and over and over again (comfort reads) and some like weighty “issue books” and some like gallons of angst (that’d be me) and some like quirky/funny characters. But I don’t imagine there are many critiques/reviews of porn that complain about lack of character development, thinness of plot, or careless worldbuilding. 😀

  15. amelia says:

    Just ran across this article at Christianity Today’s blog for women:

    Thought you might be interested in reading it, Caroline.

    • BethSmash says:

      Interesting article. How great of her to try something new and outside of her comfort zone. However, I noticed a one thing about it which is kind of bugging me. The author made VERY sure that she identified the romance she was reading as Christian Romance (including covers that plainly show the word inspirational across the top). In romance genres this is the readers clue that there will most likely be no sex. OR if sex does happen in the story, it happens behind the scenes, and often alluded to with blushing the next day, if at all – and usually to only married individuals. Now, I should also say, this is a generalization and their are ALWAYS exceptions – but in general that’s usually the case. I wonder if her arguments – many that I agree with – would stick with her if she moved into other branches of the romance genre. Or if she would see books that are slightly more explicit and then condemn them to the pornography pile.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Beth, I noticed that, too, but I excused it to myself as clarifying that romance was tagged “emotional porn” (which distinction has been made often enough by romance detractors that I think it bears some scrutiny). Twilight is very much what I’d call “emotional porn” in a sarcastic moment.

        I fully admit that I read romance novels to experience that rush of excitement that comes with falling in love. Inspirational romances are no different in that aspect. I (personally) can fall in love with or without the sex and, quite frankly, Twilight was hawt. It wasn’t good, but it was hawt.

      • amelia says:

        I wondered the same thing, BethSmash. Though I think Moriah has a very good point about the fact that if we’re talking about romance as emotional porn, then the absence of explicit sex does not exempt Christian or “inspirational” from qualifying as porn. That said, I suspect that some Christian defenders of inspirational romance would be less willing to defend explicitly sexual romance novels.

        And Moriah–agreed about Twilight. There’s something really heady and sexy about it, even though I think it’s not only not great writing, but also deeply, deeply problematic in terms of how it portrays women and the romantic relationships between men and women. Maybe one day I’ll re-read it in order to take a closer look at those tensions.

      • BethSmash says:

        I might be threadjacking a little bit. One of the good things about twilight, and yes I recognize they are few and far between, is that Bella is the one who wants to have sex, while Edward is the one who thinks it’s important to wait for marriage. I thought that was an interesting point of view for a YA novel to take. I read a lot of YA and rarely does the boy in those books want to wait.

        Anywho… back to the main point, I did note that she was mostly discussing emotional porn, its just that I found that I could use her arguments for other types of romance as well, and that made me wonder if she would branch out her argument.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        made me wonder if she would branch out her argument.

        Doubt it. She’d make the distinction between godly, chaste love and a carnal, worldly mockery of same.

        Twilight was problematic on several levels. What it did brilliantly, though, was ramp up the sexual tension. In fact, I was trying to mimic that in Magdalene. It was a challenge and something I’d never done in-organically before.

        I can think of a few romance novelists who could stand to learn that lesson.

      • BethSmash says:

        I really liked the dating scenes in Magdalen. They made me want to dance. 😀

      • BethSmash says:

        and ice skate.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        and ice skate


        I could feel my ankles collapsing in on themselves the entire time I was writing those scenes. It was painful… LOL

      • amelia says:

        The dating period in Magdalene is *fabulous*. It does an absolutely amazing job of building sexual tension, not only for the reader but also for the characters. And I totally agree that Twilight does that very well, which is one of the reasons it’s such a compelling read in spite of its problems. Though I have to say, Moriah, I think you did this better. 🙂 And, like BethSmash, Mitch and Cassandra’s Friday nights dancing made me want to get back into dancing again.

        BethSmash, I agree that it’s refreshing that Bella is permitted a sex drive and that the Twilight books invert the balance in who is pushing for sex and who is resisting. That freshness loses a little of its bloom when one remembers that the reason Edward doesn’t want to have sex with Bella is because doing so would kill her. Heavy-handed abstinence only message anyone?

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks for the link, Amy. What the Christian author says about romance, ““They can be entertained by the ideal of the story without turning it into some kind of impossible relational checklist,”” rings true for me. I don’t see most women who read romance demanding that their mates embody the characteristics and talents of the men in these novels.

      As for Twilight, I also thought it was a page turner. Lots of great sexual tension, I agree — and I kind of wonder if that sexual tension derives from the immense power differential between the two. He’s controlling and protective with crazy powers and able to save her continually. It seems to me that there is something immensely titillating about that (and I don’t know what to make of that as a feminist.)

      • amelia says:

        Caroline, I’m with you on the belief that most readers are smart enough to recognize the difference between the fantasy they read and their realities. Somehow the people concerned with fiction’s power to negatively shape behavior tend to raise the hue and cry about books that violate sexual mores more than anything else. It makes no sense to me. We read all kinds of fiction in which people do things that are a hell of a lot worse than having sex with someone you love, but those novels don’t scare people into believing their readers are going to become sinners.

        I think you’re right that the power differential between Edward and Bella in Twilight has something to do with how compelling the novel is. But even with the fact that he has so very much more power than she does, there is still give and take in the power dynamic between them. He is as enthralled by her as she is by him. And I think that, right there, is what often attracts some readers to some kinds of romance–this idea that a man who is so powerful and strong and wealthy or whatever could be captivated by an ordinary woman. It’s one of the oldest romance themes (think Jane and Rochester, for instance) and one that continues to manifest in a lot of romance novels (thought certainly not all). I also think it’s significant that the power women generally hold is emotional power. Think of every Stephanie Laurens novel you’ve ever read. Every last one of them hinges on a plot in which the hero must succumb to the emotional power of his relationship with the heroine. And that emotional power ultimately equals the physical or practical power of the hero.

        What it means for feminists? It’s a good question. feminism is inherently caught up in the question of how to navigate power differentials between men and women. It takes direct aim at what feminists consider unjust and arbitrary power differentials. This is sorta what I want to explore in my paper for Sunstone, though I’m still working through my ideas. I do see trends in romances written recently towards more equality between the power/dominance of the hero and heroine. Even in Laurens’ novels, in which the heroes are hypermasculine, the women are also physically powerful and accomplished; they are as assertive as their husbands. The whole idea is that they are their husbands’ equals. I see that happening a lot. I see it even more in contemporaries than in historicals. In the historicals, the equality is often not quite as overt as it is in the contemporaries I think largely because in the contemporaries power gets translated into realms like business or law enforcement, etc. (though the physical prowess usually remains; I’d love to read a romance with a pudgy hero just to see how it’s handled–does anyone know of one? I’ve read chubby heroines, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a physically sub-par hero).

    • BethSmash says:

      somewhere in the third one – and it’s been SO LONG since I’ve read them, so I’m not quite certain where, but SOMEWHERE in there Alice points out to Bella that it’s not just that he’s worried about hurting Bella, but also that he really does think that sex should come before marriage. It’s either something about how he was raised, or something about how he’s worried about the state of his soul (even though he’s not completely sure he has one).

      But as I’m not gonna read them again (because I dislike them – for a myriad of reasons) I can’t tell you exactly where in eclipse that is – although I’m pretty certain it’s before Bella imagines herself in an old timey wedding dress.

      Although, now that I’ve pointed that out, Twilight also teaches us that having sex causes babies and babies break your spine and kill you. So… yeah – abstinence message received. ;o)

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I didn’t read past the first one. I wasn’t invested enough in the characters. It read like a high-concept summer blockbuster.

      • amelia says:

        I’d forgotten that, BethSmash. But I haven’t picked the books up in almost four years, so it’s not surprising my memory is hazy.

        And yeah–that whole baby-will-kill-you thing is a little bizarre. Not sure what the psychology there is all about, other than the “don’t get pregnant until you’re in the right circumstances [which for Bella apparently means until you become undead] or else it will destroy your life” message. I’m pretty on board with helping teen girls understand that pregnancy will pretty much change everything about their lives and with helping them not romanticize having a baby, but I’m not a huge fan of using fear as a means of accomplishing the desirable goal of decreasing the teen pregnancy rate.

  16. I have loved reading this discussion, but I’m surprised to see so few comments on the arousing effects. I haven’t read many romance novels, but there was a period right after law school finals when all I wanted was total brain candy. And it took the form of the Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. It wasn’t great writing, but I loved revisiting favorite characters and their intimate lives.

    I read it mostly for the story, but I admit I was very aroused by the sex scenes. I *loved* the sex scenes. I loved watching Elizabeth’s sexual confidence grow. I loved peeking into their intimate life. I really, thoroughly enjoyed myself. I don’t know that watching porn would have the same effect on me. I need to get intellectually and emotionally aroused before I can get physically aroused.

    At the time, I was on the pill and it was really difficult for me to get aroused. Even though I could always enjoy sex once i got into it, it took a LOT of effort to get into it. Reading that book made so much of a difference. I could actually get aroused enough to initiate sex. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.

    I don’t think you can directly compare porn and romance novels. I also think that whether or not romance novels are bad depends on the novel and the person. When I read them, I had a greater desire for my husband. I had a greater appreciation for our intimacy. I also had a much needed mental break.

  17. Muzzy says:

    There is a great new historical romance ebook available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
    The storyline of “Captive Heart” tells the fascinating story of the clandestine practices of the early Mormon Church. It is a fast paced and a uniquely different read; with spine-tingling suspense, and sizzling romance.

  18. Seffi says:

    I will always admire the thoughts of Anais Nin.

  1. July 17, 2011

    […] pastors have appropriately compared romance fiction addiction for females as equivalent to pornography addiction for males. Although the delivery of the stimulus for male pornography is visual compared to the […]

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