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Is romance porn for women?

Naked woman reading and eating a peach

 

Where’s the line between romance, erotica, and porn? How is romance with many explicit sex scenes different than porn? Plot &feelings? What’s women’s perception of such romance books? What do we look for in them?

Now, here’s a burning topic I’m sure pretty much every romance reader has an opinion on ! 🙂

 

In which my husband doesn’t care about the feelings of female romance readers …

The start of this debate, for me anyway, came when discussing the surprising prevalence of a form of “rape culture” in romance books, with my husband. As I commented that sex in its most explicit form was becoming a given in most romance genres, and that consent seemed to be going out of style, these days, hubby casually dropped the following bomb:

“The truth is, it’s just porn for women. Women are gonna lash at men for watching porn, blush and say they never watch porn, and they’ll go read stuff like that.”

I found myself agreeing, and noted that the line between what used to be labelled as “erotica” and what now populates the shelves of “romance” seems to become increasingly thin (three word: oiled chest covers—and I’m aware that selecting New Adult or Military romance isn’t playing fair, since chest covers are a rule, there).

Anyway, hubby wasn’t done firing (no creepy metaphor to be found here). He added, for good measure, that porn was the only cinematic genre where there was a physiological need for the spectator to rest in-between scenes (well, male spectators, anyway) and this was the reason why, in most feature-length porn movies, you’d have some semblance of a plot, and in-between sex scenes, up to twenty minutes of what he described as “nothingness”. “They’ll be driving, having some inane conversation, hanging around, doing nothing,” he explained to me, “while the spectator rests until the next round of sex.”

Here again, I was troubled by the similarities that could be found with many romance books: I love to read reviews, especially on Amazon, and I’m often surprised to read reviews complaining that not much happened in the book between sex scenes, that little conflict seemed almost forced, ect.

Those of you who’ve read my books know I’m no stranger to such terrible reads and find the notion of tropes / clichés in romance fascinating. In my fake romance book quotes, I often poke fun at the strange mixture of flowery poetry and crude, direct mentions of sexual arousal / sexual activity. “She was a mysterious, sensual goddess, gliding across the ballroom with effortless grace. Upon seeing her, Ryker immediately felt his pants tent: he had been hopelessly bitten by the potent arrow of love.”

And maybe I’d have eventually forgotten about my SO’s brutally earnest analysis, but today, I was browsing the “people also bought section” of Spotless on Amazon, and stumbled on a romance book with the kind of title title I could have come up with, and the following line in the blurb: “[she] discovers just how good [he] is with the hockey stick in his pants.”

And now I feel this blog post needed to happen.

Romance isn’t porn. But romance often contains porn … And that’s okay.

If you go by the recent and broader definition of the word, which tends to label as porn any attempt to provide physical and emotional pleasure through the exaggerated, glorified and systematic representation of a given subject of interest, then my personal opinion is that, yes, indeed, a significant part of the romance market is a form of sexual and emotional porn for women. The same way those baking blogs are food porn.

Romance books tend to insist heavily on female desire, portray very attractive males that end up purely being objectified in the name of the aforementioned desire. (Which, by the way, is an excellent thing, because Women aren’t solely made of cotton candy and flowers, and they have a right to fantasize too). Sex scenes are idealized, explicit most of the time, wild, intense, largely focused on female pleasure, with lovers who know exactly what they’re doing and find all the right buttons at once. Also, for stage direction’s sake, the male character often goes commando. (Ladies, does you man do that? I’m genuinely curious).

When romance opens the doors porn won’t …

Then there’s the particular topic—I’ve grazed it above—of rape/domination fantasies, which are omnipresent in romance. Heroes are generally portrayed as alpha males, but in truth, all those bikers and billionaires push the envelope much further than a mere dominant behavior with some degree of cockiness. Many, many (many many many) of my kindle treasures depict behaviors that are rape, pure and simple. When the heroine says no, when she’s asleep, when she forcefully married you two hours ago, when it’s not you but your twin … It’s rape.

This, in my humble opinion, is where romance actually meets and perhaps even beats porn:

Porn depicts scenes of male domination and female submission, centers largely on male pleasure. You’d think (and often hear) that this is what sets apart romance scenarios from porn ones, but in truth romance tends to imitate porn more and more where sex is concerned: not so long ago, I remember blinking stupidly at a “love” scene where the hero brings the heroine to her knees, has her perform a blow job and rewards her with a facial. And we were in a bona fide, goody two shoes romance book. Also the heroine was delighted.

I’m sure explicit rape scenarios do exist in porn (Because … Japan), but in “traditional” occidental porn, there appears to be some degree of PC that forces porn to go down the “she likes it” road (the same road romance books race on)  and depicts female characters as wanting/needing to be degraded so, making the whole thing a consensual play. Explicit non-con, from what I’ve seen, exists on the darkest fringe of porn. Even the “fetish” categories actually correspond to consensual play (think Fifty Shades of Grey without the angst and adolescent mindfuck).

I suspect this is because such porn is done primarily by men for men, and producers don’t want to cross the line and have to deal with an angry female mob, should they mass market movies where girls are abducted in an underground garage and raped by their partner in spite of their tears and supplications. (Again, Japan doesn’t count. Japan is Japan.)

A new and popular sub-genre of romance, “Dark romance”, though, pulverizes this last wall. In these particular waters, we navigate from sequestration and sexual abuse from the hero, to actual, repeated, no-subtext rape. But the heroine will understand the hero’s wounds in the end and she’ll forgive and they’ll have a HEA. Because it’s still romance after all. I’ll admit that this sub-genre leaves me with more questions than answers, and that glorified rape is more or less where my lady boner stops.

But the feels! The words!

Now that I’ve played internet troll and dark romance readers are readying their flamethrowers, I’ll admit to have ommitted the huge, essential, in-quantifiable component which separates a romance from a gonzo (no, it’s not the lack of images). The feels. The strength of the written word.

Remember, above, when I risked the wrath of millions of angry females by calling romance emotional porn? It is. It’s the sweetest kind of porn. The kind where words are put on emotions instead of just slamming the door or going to Taco Bell with your dog when you’re angry. It’s HEA porn, where the hero saves the heroine from external dangers, from others, from herself. Where mistakes are understood and forgiven, and emotions translate seamlessly into blissful intimacy.

Of course, the enormous amount of books published everyday, thanks to the twin revolutions of self-pubs and e-books, makes it difficult to draw a clear line and say “It’s about his eleven inch love pole, that is definitively porn”, or “She wants to elope with him to escape her evil step-father: 100% love story!”.

This is especially true since bad, unedited writing can botch the genuine emotions that a story could stir, and greedy publishing strategies can kill a good, emotional story by inserting cringe-worthy sex scenes where large salamis are rammed into damp love pies, in-between actual meaningful dialogue between lovers.

And maybe romance and porn are part of the same galaxy, after all …

So, in the end, I feel that what remains is the need, for men and women, to build and feed their sexual fantasies, fantasies which are part of a larger scope that could be called, say, “life fantasies”, and that romance and porn form in fact an almost homogenous plane of entertainment, relying on various tools (words, cover images, videos), to satisfy that need for sexual/emotional thrill.

And in that plane, there’s just an inifinity of gradients, ranging from “Nailed By The Hunky Contractor” to “Love and Passion and Sex After Marriage”, which all contribute the same goal: providing us a safe zone to explore our fantasies, outside of the confines of moral or social boundaries.

So yes, Nailed By The Hunky Contractor, with a HEA in the end, kids and a white picket fence? Sounds like a good compromise to me.

Read more romance, gentlemen!


What’s your take on this?

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • A romance writer
    June 14, 2015 12:00 am

    Hi…I guess this post just threw me for a loop. I write dominant male heroes, I write about dukes, billionaires, romance, steamy scenes. And the way I write it? It’s not porn. I take my writing very seriously. I’ve been doing it since I was a child. I have taken over 100 workshops, am published with 3 houses, including a huge NY one and I write prose that’s lyrical, moving and with the intent to give readers a love story, an adventure and something full of passion. Romances are about showing readers a way to escape from the hum drum of their daily lives. When I see a bare chested man on a cover, I get excited! I think this will be a fun promising adventure for me to read! Why does it have to be something negative? Is love a bad thing? Should we chastise and punish and shame women readers because they like love stories? The whole mommy porn argument makes me sick to my stomach. I spend five months pouring my soul into writing a compelling story and someone who doesn’t understand romances, lashes out and trashes my billionaire hero? What purpose does that serve except to make the writer who’s lashing out look like a case of sour grapes.

    You might ask yourself what the fantasy genre has to offer in the way of rape fantasies, sexual domination fantasies and a myriad of other dark sexual taboos. Game of thrones is a perfect example. Everyone gets obsessed with a show that has rape, sexual violence, normal violence and it’s touted as the best show ever. It’s written by a man, so of course showing off rape in a positive life and demeaning females throughout the series is perfectly fine. No one dares to argue that it’s offensive or bad. And there’s not positive emotions in there whatsoever. It’s just rape and casual sex galore. Huzzah! Sounds like a great positive PR for the female gender right there. God forbid we have a storyline that involves love, positive sexual experiences and stories who develop empathy.

    I think voicing your opinion on romance and clearly how you don’t like it is your right. However, just remember, romance is the top selling genre in the industry, and readers love happy endings. Is that so deserving of your clear disgust? I just thought I’d point that out. Please don’t respond, I won’t be back to check because your post isn’t worth more than this single comment.

    Reply
    • Hi,

      I did respond (sorry), because I think you misread my post. There’s no disgust here, I’m actually curious of the genre, and part of my own books involve a romantic storyline. 🙂

      You raise valid points about the positive aspect of romance, versus the lack of significance of mere porn (I conclude on this as well in my post).
      What I want to do here is make readers think (it worked, 😉 ) and allow readers to scratch deeper into their motivations for reading romance, what they look in their books, what it fulfills for them and how it does so.

      You’re right bout the shock value of GOT, and I feel the same: I wonder if all the gore / rapey sex serves a purpose, when it’s so graphic. I wonder the same about many romance books, and that’s what I meant to explore here.

      Sure we have tons of positive books, which depict healthy relationships and transport the reader to other worlds. But in the same category, we have, whether we like it or not, plain rape and manhandling. And I think it’s worth wondering why romance ventures in such territories, what it means for the women who read it (and obviously enjoy it, given how well such books sell).

      Best,

      Camilla.

      Reply
  • I look at life as a story worth telling, but not in its entirety. Like any good movie, what counts are a few crucial scenes. You can focus on a spy’s entire espionage experience, including the strain on relationships and so on, or zoom in on a single mission, including his conquests. Zoom in further on a particular relationship, from the moment it starts to the day it ends. Or take a sliver of that and magnify the moment they meet to the moment they accept they’re meant to be together, snippets of fights and sex included. Or you could zoom in even further on the sex, with snippets of their relationship. For porn, let’s ignore the relationship altogether.

    Depending on where we put our focus, that’s what determines what genre it is. If you called romance porn, you might as well call your life porn (assuming you’ve ever had sex). You, the author decides what your focus is. And if you deal in relationships, sex is part of it, whereas if you concentrate on the bedroom, it is closer to porn.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

    Reply
    • That makes a lot of sense, and in the primary definition of the word porn, I agree with this. Here, I’m clearly playing with the definition a bit. In my opinion, romance is porn like cupcakes are food porn, meaning that it’s not necessarily about the sex, it’s about satisfying the reader emotionally, and to a degree titillating them.

      The thing is, as the lines between erotica and romance blur more and more, titillation becomes clear sexual intent toward the reader, and I think that such books are a safe place for women to explore their fantasies, in something that is richer than mere porn, because there’s a story / world building, layers of complexity. Also, since actual porn lacks this complexity, it creates a place where women can find what they want.

      In that regard, I totally agree with you when you say that sex is part of life but you wouldn’t call your life porn. I think that this is the gray zone, the "niche" of sorts that romance fills: it tells stories, which focus on love but can have a broader spectrum, and where there’s room for sex and sexual fantasies, just like in real life. 🙂

      Reply

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