Women’s Pornography

Nora Roberts has sold 400 million copies of her 189 romance novels in print. “She regularly outsells Clancy, Grisham, and King combined,” according to the San Francisco Panorama, “Romance boasts $1.5 billion in sales; 55 percent of all paperbacks; one out of four books sold; 60 million readers in the U.S. alone.” Incredible statistics.

Think of the women reading these steamy novels. What kinds of notions about romance are they absorbing? Are they developing wildly unrealistic ideas about relationships? Should men be worried about how romance novels can hurt relationships just as women worry about how pornography hurts relationships (or doesn’t)?

Robin Hanson asks why there is “so much more effort to regulate porn than romance novels.”

Should men have the option to select “Does not read romance novels” as an option when searching for women on Match.com? Would women want the same for pornography consumption when searching for men?

39 Responses to Women’s Pornography

  1. chrisyeh says:

    Ha, this should be an exciting thread….

    Just as women shouldn’t worry that men are taking pornography seriously as a model for one’s relationships, men shouldn’t worry that women will mistake romance novels for real life.

    I think most men realize that the typical woman they meet is not two drinks away from participating in a bisexual orgy, and that women realize that ruggedly handsome cowboys with dark pasts are unlikely to make good husbands.

    If you meet a woman who lets romance novels provide a model for her romantic relationships, RUN!

  2. Jevons says:

    I think men should have the option to select “Does not enjoy Sex & the City ” as an option when searching for women on Match.com more than the one you suggest.

    That show has single-handedly ruined an entire generation of women by wildly removing their expectations from any semblance of reality when it comes to their responsibilities in the realm of dating and relationships.

  3. chrisyeh says:

    Sadly, the very women who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a romance novel will guzzle that atrocious tripe (Sex & The City) by the gallon.

    Worst of all, SATC masquerades as feminism, when it’s really worse than any romance novel.

  4. Kerry Kimble says:

    Ben, have you read a Nora Roberts novel?

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    I read 10 pages of one a couple weeks ago. I've also read plot summaries.
    I'm not intimately familiar with her work but I've read enough to get the
    gist.

  6. Great. Freaking. Point. Although I agree with chrisyeh – I’d like to believe most men and women aren’t affected in that way by what they watch/read.

  7. Kerry Kimble says:

    Is “steamy” really the word you’d use to describe what you read?

  8. Jackie says:

    The only women I’ve ever known who read romance novels were my late grandmother and a middle-aged aunt. I read their old ones when I was in the grips of puberty – but only the dirty parts.

    I think mainstream films, TV shows, and music have a lot to answer for when it comes to wrongheaded ideas about love and relationships. The only very reliable and easily accessible source of good information is one’s friends’ relationships. Sadly, what can be observed serves more often as a cautionary tale.

  9. Dan Owen says:

    There’s a particular way of looking at culture that resides behind arguments like this. It’s a way of trying to control the experience one has in one’s own life by controlling the cultural inputs other people have in theirs.

    The template for a satisfying romantic experience — or a satisfying sexual experience — that is crowd-sourced in the larger culture doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to the experiences we actually have in our lives. Our actual experiences tend to be long-tail events: very particular, highly contingent, difficult to reduce to a formula, and hard to hack, a la Tim Ferriss. Is that really a problem?

    If you offer your girlfriend a Nora Roberts experience, and she offers you a Linda Lovelace experience, will you both be satisfied? Does the popularity of those templates create the mean that behavior needs to converge to in order for people to be objectively happy? I’m not sure that’s really what’s valuable about art. As a consumer of art, it pays to think a little about this. If women’s shapes converged on the cultural ideal — Kate Moss — would men and women be happy? What does Kate say about that? (We may have to wait for her to emerge from rehab to answer.) Alternatively, if we regulate the image of Kate Moss as a potentially dangerous, controlled substance, do we solve a problem or create one?

    Years ago, I did some carpentry work in a house in which every flat surface was piled high with Harlequin romances. This followed a project a few weeks earlier, in which the recycling bins were overflowing with empty vodka bottles. Neither household, as you might imagine, was very happy, and I can still remember the relief I felt when I finished my work and drove away. That feeling — as though I could be infected by what they suffered from — suffuses discussions like this, even though it’s utterly and completely beside the point.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    Dan,

    Interesting comment.

    I'm not proposing we regulate or control the availability of Nora Roberts.
    (Robin Hanson asked the question why we look to regulate pornography but not
    romance novels.)

    To each his own, of course.

  11. Jonathan says:

    When the novels start to involve rape fantasies she has crossed the line.

  12. Martha Farag says:

    Who said it’s mostly women who buy those books and are absorbing false notions about romance? ;-)

  13. When I read that excerpt of Cathy Salmon’s book, I wondered if she’s ever had sex with a woman, since she so blithely asserts that “porn actresses exhibit a suspiciously male-like sexuality”.

    Most women could screw a man half to death if they chose to.

    Those crass magazines and tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter are more weapons of the patriarchy than heterosexual men’s pornography, and if this were a civilized country we’d see the sex magazines on open display and Comospolitan, the National Enquirer, and the romance novels hidden away– they’re far more dangerous to society.

    Far from being mere harmless entertainment, these pulp products are the real tools of oppression of women by male hegemony in media.

    Teenage girls are hooked on chick-mags to sell them products and to groom them for their roles as obedient consumers who will be charged outrageous markups over the price their male counterparts will pay for similar cosmetics and clothes.

    These magazines serve as gateway drugs to the pop pleasures of distorted body image, anorexia and bulimia, while the voyeuristic exercise of reading romance novels stokes a never-satisfied longing for that unobtainable apparition, The Perfect Man.

    This longing on the part of otherwise sane women inevitably leads to a general dissatisfaction with their lives and the men in them, and naturally this tends to have a deleterious effect on their sexual relations with those men.

    I’ll admit that I hypocritically would rather see women reading romance novels than murder mysteries, though– I wouldn’t want them getting any ideas.;-)

  14. Dan Owen says:

    Ben,

    I didn’t think you were suggesting that. But something’s bothering you about all this.

    Part of the subtext in your rhetorical questions conveys a concern that gender expectations which are veiled, unspoken, and mediated through culture and art ought to be made explicit — or at least people who want to know ought to have the option of knowing.

    Will a Nora Roberts fan be disappointed by a man who doesn’t grok her fantasy of romance? Will she be hurt? Discussions like this always make me uncomfortable, because they suggest that ideas are dangerous and that people have to be protected from them in some way.

    Porn: good or bad for society? The Koran: good or bad for society? Nora Roberts? World of Warcraft? Blogs?

    Where Match.com is concerned (I wish I knew less about this than I do), it’s a general rule that the more boxes get checked and filled in, the further from reality one’s impression of the other person will travel.

  15. Dan Owen says:

    Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter in The Tipping Point about a suicide fad on a South Sea island. A much-admired teenager killed himself, and soon dozens of other teenagers did the same, for no apparent reason. There may in fact be no limit whatsoever to the harm people will do themselves in an effort to conform to an idea they have about themselves.

    It seems that aligning oneself with an idea is a basic, perhaps genetic impulse in human beings. It’s tempting to divide up ideas into categories of dangerousness or foolishness or harmlessness and fence them off. That strikes me as being counter-productive, though. I like that my car can go 125 miles an hour, and I also like that it has a seatbelt.

  16. Justine Musk says:

    I don’t think there’s much difference between the ideas of love/romance in romance novels and the ideas of love/romance you see perpetuated within mainstream culture. In real life, stalking is creepy. In the movies, stalking is something your superhot vampire boyfriend does because he loves you so perfectly and totally even when you’re not having sex with him/letting him drink your blood.

    Your typical love song lyrics, authored by men as well as women, celebrate manic, obsessive, “can’t live without you” love.

    Infatuation releases some pretty powerful brain chemicals, to the point where we can literally get hooked on other people. In real life, this can result in co-dependent or dysfunctional relationships. In movies — and the love stories of old (Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde) which prove this is not a new thing — this is celebrated, even if the characters tend to die in the end (an annoying habit at best).

    In other words, I’m not so sure that romance novels create this urge for, or fantasies of, intense relationships. I suspect it’s the other way around (which is why the novels are so popular in the first place). The culture craves the ‘high’ of obsessive love — but without the consequences. Storytelling allows for that.

    And what strikes me as an irony of this discussion is that, if anything, men, on the whole, are more romantic than women. When men fall in love, it happens fast and hard. Biology — the potential of offspring and the question of how to provide for them — forces women to be pragmatic or suffer the consequences. Fiction provides a realm in which Mr Sexy can turn into Mr Stable, but in real life it’s generally understood that you have to choose one or the other.

    And really, what do women want in a man? A confident sexy dude who pays attention to her without smothering her, who is assertive and ‘alpha male’ without being dominating, insensitive and cruel (or if he is an asshole, reforms by the end of the book — otherwise known as a character arc –and treats *her* differently), who has her back and shows up when he’s supposed to. This is such an impossible ideal?

    It has struck me more than once that when men complain about women’s unrealistic expectations, they’re generally referring not to all women but a relatively small subgroup of highly attractive & desirable women. These women are in demand & consequently have their pick. Which means they do a lot of evaluating, sorting & rejecting. So is the problem one of ‘unrealistic expectations’? Or the realities of competition?

  17. Ben Casnocha says:

    Porn: good or bad for society? The Koran: good or bad for society? Nora Roberts? World of Warcraft? Blogs?

    There are answers to these questions, or at least valid opinions. If there are not, then you are arguing for a relativistic world where everything is equal.

    It’s possible to judge things without proposing to paternalisticly “protect” people from them.

  18. Ben Casnocha says:

    Justine,

    This is a wise comment that has left me much to ponder!

    This paragraph I found most convincing: In other words, I’m not so sure that romance novels create this urge for, or fantasies of, intense relationships. I suspect it’s the other way around (which is why the novels are so popular in the first place). The culture craves the ‘high’ of obsessive love — but without the consequences. Storytelling allows for that.

    Your last paragraph, however, I would question. I agree that men often invent reasons why it “didn’t work out” with a very desirable woman — when in reality she simply evaluated, sorted, and rejected — but this is separate from the expectation issue. When men complain about expectations, it’s usually after the relationship has been consummated, and when *they* have issues or problems or want to break up.

  19. Dan Owen says:

    My point exactly. What purpose do you want your button on Match.com to serve? By making these beliefs explicit instead of allowing them to remain mediated through art — as they are in romance novels and porn — you’re trying to tease something out of hiding. What is it? I’m asking you to talk about what thinking is behind the rhetorical questions you’re asking.

    With regard to “a relativistic world where everything is equal.” There’s an old saying: too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I think the values we associate with cultural ideas are moving targets to a much greater degree than we understand.

  20. Dan Owen says:

    I think it’s certainly true that romance novels reflect the culture (at any given moment), although art has a funny way of transgressing and undermining the culture also, and in that way causes it to change.

    I’m still curious about this big red panic button that Ben wants match.com subscribers to be able to punch, the one that says, “I don’t read romance novels!” Art has a way of reflecting culture back to itself, and this is not always comfortable.

    For what it’s worth, I was taught that romantic love is an invention of medieval Western artists (troubadours) at a time when the population was exploding after the Dark Ages. It serves a civilizing function that encouraged prosperity and stability by encouraging couples to mate for life. It does that by emphasizing the “specialness” of individuals and raising the implied cost of leaving your mate. You can think of a romance novel as being a kind of cultural instruction manual for successfully mating.

  21. Dan, I take your point, but I’m saying that our pseudo-libertarian society has made choices about what sorts of ‘drugs’ it will allow the ‘pushers’ of mass media to promote, and it has decided that children are fair game to be exploited by our ruthless laissez-faire capitalism.

    So we have McDonald’s marketing with movie tie-in campaigns on TV to lure children with cheap plastic toys into their ghoulish emporiums where the food is laden with saturated fat and the sodas are filled with high-fructose corn syrup.

    It’s bad enough that our society hasn’t outgrown its weird hypocritical and pathological fear of the naked human body– at the very same time we’ve allowed the amoral merchants of popular culture to use Pavlovian techniques in their marketing to children and to sexualize them at ever younger ages.

    I’m not saying we should outlaw or censor Cosmopolitan and the National Enquire.

    I’m saying our society should take a hard look at itself and ask why the lowest common denominator is always pushed to the top and thrust forward so that we can’t even escape being assaulted by the seductive and mesmerizing images foisted on us by Madison Avenue when we take our kids to get food.

    Admittedly, I’d be entertained if the Enquirer headlines said Eminem was castrated by cannibalistic lesbian vampire Mariah Carey clones, and it was true.

    See what this sick, sick society has done to me?

    Justine, you’re right when you say men are more romantic than women, but you falter when you say “the potential of offspring and the question of how to provide for them — forces women to be pragmatic or suffer the consequences.”

    This isn’t 1950. You talk as if the pill had never been invented. It wasn’t Trojans that ignited the sexual revolution and empowered women with more options in the politics of sexuality.

    It will be a great day when our society can admit to itself that the most “highly attractive & desirable” men are all bisexual or ‘gay’.

  22. Ben Casnocha says:

    Big red panic button? Are "I like museums" or "I enjoy listening to Bach" or
    "I don't like cooking" the same kinds of panic buttons when describing
    yourself and your tastes?

    "You can think of a romance novel as being a kind of cultural instruction
    manual for successfully mating." — It can certainly act as a manual, but I
    doubt it promotes successful mating; part of the point of this post.

  23. Ben Casnocha says:

    Vince,

    But evolution hasn't caught up with the birth control pill reality. Women
    were wired before 1950.

  24. Pondering says:

    I’ve read quite a few romance novels from many authors including Nora Roberts and while her work is sub par to most authors, especially amongst romance authors, she was one of the first to write genre, and have great success. To be honest, I don’t think it’s any different from romantic comedies films and tv shows. Has this created unrealistic standards? In my opinion, not really because its so easy separate and distinguish the differences between movies and real life. How can a books be any different?

  25. Johann says:

    After reading Ben’s post and learning how well romance novels sell, I wanted to find a good romance title to read. I am a man, and I feel more interested in learning how to meet the expectations of women rather than deride those expectations for being unreasonable. So I learned that I need to finally read some Jane Austen, and I learned that the award-winning romance novels of the past hundred years are generally so campy that I couldn’t stand spending five minutes reading one. Where are the good romance novels that can teach elitist, metrosexual men how to attract elitist, sexually-aware women?

  26. Dan Owen says:

    Admittedly, there’s an enormous amount of signifying that goes on on Match.com. A man saying “I like to cook” is just as coded as a woman saying, “I love Nora Roberts.” (The fact that these statements are inevitably poor predictors of anything important is another matter.)

    What I’m having trouble with is the idea, implicit in your rhetorical questions and statements like “I doubt it promotes successful mating” that there is art which, by virtue of liking it, renders you problematic as a person, or at least as a mate. Do unrealistic expectations undermine healthy relationships? Possibly. But that makes a great deal of art dangerous to relationships. I think we’re back to regulating Kate Moss as a controlled substance, and I think that misses the point.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss mating for life — with all the trimmings of romantic love — as a survival strategy, either. It served the purpose very effectively until pretty recently in Western history, and it’s a lot easier to dismiss it when you’re a member of the most prosperous segment of the most prosperous nation in the history of the planet than it was when your life span was 40 years and 7 out of 10 of your children died in childbirth.

  27. Xoch says:

    So romance teaches women how to behave or what to expect? In that case, does 24 teach men how to be like jack bauer? Does Esquire?

    As Chris Yeh said, most men realize life is not a girls gone wild video, and people (not just women) who read romance novels know they are just that, novels. It’s a way to unwind, same as watching tv.

    Also, romance as a genre is huge and authors and their archetypes vary wildly. Yes they do, Ben, before you start that they have the same premise. Not all books end in marriage. Not all characters want kids.

    Ten pages of a Nora Roberts books do not make you an expert on the subject. “The gist of it” sounds sketchy.

    What about people who enjoy romantic comedies (NOT Sex & the City, just romcoms)? Do they have unrealistic expectations?

    For Johann, I can suggest Jennifer Crusie, Stephanie Plum, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Rachel Gibson, Elizabeth Hoyt, Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Christina Dodd, Lisa Kleypas, Sabrina Jeffries, She Went All the Way by Meg Cabot. Most of these have humor, the first four are contemporary, while the rest are regency / historical (except cabot). You already have Austen but you might consider Georgette Heyer (I’ve never read her, though)

  28. Johann says:

    Thanks. I just read the blurb on Cabot’s book, and it’s not the kind of stuff I usually read, but maybe that’s all the more reason to read it. I just hope I learn something about women in the process. They are so mysterious.

  29. Scott Young says:

    Maybe people read romance novels for the same reason they read any novel?

    To experience human emotions, experiences, second-hand. Without the sometimes brutal truth of real life.

  30. Ben Casnocha says:

    I never said I was an expert….

    I think romantic comedies are in the same boat, yes.

    But people do not watch romantic comedies in the same way they read romance
    novels — romantic comedies do not dominate the box office like romance
    novels dominate publishing.

  31. Yes, Ben, but Justine used the word “forced”.

    I can’t see that the biological imperative forces women to do anything, anymore than being evolutionarily ‘wired’ to favor saturated fats and sweets forces us to buy a burger, fries and shake at McDonald’s.

    I imagine alpha males run more testosterone than lower-status males, but I wouldn’t say they’re “forced” by bio-imperatives to be “dominating, insensitive and cruel”, even though the extra hormone might incline them that way.

  32. Rebecca says:

    I agree completely. Porn is FANTASY. Romance novels are FANTASY.

    Some people take them too seriously, or start taking life cues from this material. But that’s an issue for the individuals to work out, and not a cross for the porn/romance industries to bear.

    I think/write a lot about porn, and my conclusion is that it’s fundamentally harmless. That’s not to say that people won’t find a way to mess up their lives or others’ lives, but that’s not a reason to regulate/censor/blame porn. It’s a reason why education and open discussion is important.

    Hope I didn’t co-opt your point and distort it, chrisyeh…

  33. Rebecca says:

    …not to mention the destruction of any sense of financial responsibility, which I’d argue is more detrimental than unrealistic romantic fantasies. $500 for a pair of shoes!

  34. Xoch says:

    I’ve thought about that too, and it might be because you read alone, and don’t need to take other peoples’ preferences into account? whereas you watch movies with friends, spouse, family etc so there’s more compromise? it would seem more women read fiction than men, but I haven’t looked that up.

  35. Daniel says:

    It is important to realize that what we read and watch will impact us in countless way even if we are aware that what we are shown is not reality. Many of those commenting above are adamant that everyone knows that pornography and romance novels are not an accurate description of real life but they fail to recognize the power of such presentations.

    In reference to the power of words and ideas to mold our thoughts please reference The Roots of Political Correctness or merely reread 1984.

    If we’re all so smart that we aren’t impacted by all this trash, why are there all these pathetic relationships?

  36. Shannon says:

    I’d be curious to see a demographic breakdown of the 60 million readers. I suspect the vast majority are older women who have been married and bored for years, and are looking for a vicarious thrill. The “steam” you refer to is nothing more than suggestion and euphemism… but for me, I do find that consumption of fantasy leads to disappointment in reality. I think it would be a good idea for all couples to put down the books, switch off the TV and computer, and check in with each other.

  37. VH says:

    You guys need to lighten up. People seek entertainment (i.e. fun, borderline fantasy, comedy) not a TV show that reproduces the bore of reality.

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