I’d been saying it for a long time. A couple of years ago, I noticed others began to say the same thing, or something similar: many modern romance novels (even “clean” ones) are emotional pornography, and may do as much damage as visual pornography.
I don’t normally link to Mormon sources, but I appreciated this article addressing the addictive nature of these books: Romance Novels Can Become Addictive.
Psychologist Julia Slattery: “There is a neurochemical element with men and visual porn, but an emotional element with women and these novels.”
Women are more stimulated by romance than sex, so they read romantic stories (and they don’t have to be explicit to work) they can experience the same addicting chemical release as men do.
Women may find their standard for intimacy begins to change over time because they may not be able to get as satisfied with their partners as they can reading a book.
Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.
Then, there is this article, written about the same time, by Russell Moore: Can Romance Novels Hurt Your Heart? (Though I can’t give Moore a blanket endorsement, either, he’s much more sound than a Mormon source! And this article is excellent.)
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.
In both artificial eros and artificial romance, there is the love of the self, not the mystery of the other.
Voyeurism is watching the private lives of others. Whether it is peering into a picture of a physical body that should have been private, or peering into the intimate emotions of others, it is still voyeurism — and it is inherently selfish.
It’s not surprising, actually. The god of this world will use every resource at his disposal to attack a gift from God as good as marriage. If he can draw the eyes of men to women other than their spouses, he certainly will do so, even if it is fictional images of women that they will never meet. If he can draw the emotional eyes of women to other men, he will do it, even if it is fictional portrayals of emotional responses to fictional men they will never meet. Why would we think our adversary would only attack husbands? For though women can be drawn into pornography and men can be drawn into emotional pornography, it is most often the emotional pornography that is used to attack wives.
Both the pornographer and the modern romance novelist want you to vicariously enjoy something, with someone else, that God intended for your spouse. An artificial “person” becomes the object of your attention. In the romance novel, you emotionally identify with a character, sharing in the feelings described in the book.
But of course, your spouse may not stir those feelings in the exact same way. “Others have a spouse who behaves in that way, and that way.” Even if it is only subliminal, the books create expectations of certain kinds of feelings. “It’s supposed to feel that way when I look at my husband or when he talks to me” can even become, “My husband doesn’t love me like that man in the book loved her, he doesn’t make me feel the way he made her feel” — with all the danger to a marriage which that kind of thinking brings.
Ultimately, as Moore said, both emotional pornography and visual pornography do the same thing — they stir up relational feelings and responses that are focused on some other person, when that “other” is not in a relationship with us at all, is not even real — and so, it simply becomes about my feelings.
“Oh, that’s silly, Jon. You’re blowing this out of proportion. It’s only some Mormon and some seminary professor who had too much time on his hands saying this.”
A response (I don’t recommend the link [language], but I give it for completeness) in the Guardian was quite interesting. “Romance novelists and readers have come together to defend their chosen genre….” (Wait. This is news? Is anyone surprised that novelists and their readers would defend their work? 🙂 Ok, back to the post.)
What really caught my attention was the following quote from a defender of romance novels:
There is nothing wrong with you for exploring different worlds, different relationships, different emotions, different personal experiences through fiction, and if romances are your preferred way to be entertained, more power to you.
This is an advocate, not a critic (her website name includes “Trashy Books”). She says these books are a way to experience different relationships and emotions. Is that really what God wants? When we make our wedding vows, do we vow to be completely for our spouse? Should we involve ourselves in these kinds of emotional experiences?
As with many things in our corrupt culture, some people will read these books without taking any real harm. Not everyone reading a modern romance novel identifies vicariously with the characters (though that is what the authors usually seek to attain, even in many “Christian romance novels”). Not everyone becomes emotionally involved, and many do not become dissatisfied with their spouses. The subconscious effects may not be significant for many people.
But to the extent a viewer of pornography sets his/her desire on a picture or video, that person gives to a mirage the gift of intimacy and desire that should have been given to a spouse alone. And to the extent a romance novel reader identifies with the emotional attachment of one character to another, that person gives to a mirage the emotional gifts that should have been reserved for his/her spouse.
These “gifts” chip away at a marriage, especially when we receive (in exchange for these “gifts”) expectations of our spouse which God does not want us to have, and which our spouse may not (and perhaps should not) ever meet.