Last week, Foreplay and Fangs hosted romance author Kirsten Blacketer, who shared with us her 10 Things Never to Say to A Romance Author. Among these, Kirsten discussed the oft-repeated opinion that “Romance is just porn for women”.
This is not an uncommon opinion, but the more important question—brought up to me by a couple of colleagues on Twitter—really should be, “so what if it is?”
The implied assumption in this statement is that “porn” is an unworthy medium, and the genres of romance and erotica unworthy or less serious than other avenues of writing. Based on what? The exploration of graphic sexual elements or escapist romantic fantasy?
As fellow erotic writer, teacher, and student of creative arts Remittance Girl points out:
I absolutely think romance is porn for women. They need to get over it and own it with pride. https://t.co/CkBH3U02fC— Remittance Girl (@remittancegirl) February 27, 2016
That’s a good point to make. When confronted with the accusation that romance is “just porn for women”, perhaps we find ourselves on the defensive too quickly. After all, the statement is inherently geared to come out as a criticism. It’s intended to belittle writers and readers of the romance genre by implying our work to be at best crass and frivolous escapism, at worse something far more subversive and deviant.
But the insult relies on the premise that pornography itself is a shameful subject and one to enjoy only under a heavier banner of embarrassment and shame.
Let’s do away with that idea altogether, shall we?
First and foremost, there are literally hundreds of “guilty pleasures” out there, and everyone has their own collection of them. Why do we feel the need to label these pleasures as “guilty”, though? I’m consistently reminding myself every day that I don’t have to justify my likes or dislikes to anyone; that is a socially constructed expectation which I don’t have to accept. If I enjoy a particular author, subject, movie, television show, hobby, etc., I don’t need anyone’s permission or even understanding to continue to enjoy it, do I?
Secondly, why should any type of literature—be it escapist, transgressive, erotic, romantic, or otherwise—be expected to meet the approval of anyone other than the reader themselves? Why should women feel the need to justify an interest in a subject which they enjoy? As Remittance Girl also pointed out:
@Brantwijn @adrea_kore Men don’t feel the need to justify their addiction to team sports. Fuck, it’s enshrined into masculinity as a virtue— Remittance Girl (@remittancegirl) February 27, 2016
Beyond societal expectations one must justify those interests which don’t conform to the views of some imagined majority, however, is a more subversive implication. An idea that women can’t, or shouldn’t, enjoy the realm of fantasy, especially if it edges in to the realm of the pornographic.
A couple of things wrong with this premise. First, it’s erroneous to believe “porn” is only the graphic representation of sexual acts.
Historically, pornography has served many purposes in society. Erotic depictions have been unearthed from even our earliest civilizations, very often artistic representations meant to honor and celebrate fertility. It wasn’t until more recently in history—after more restrictive social mores were introduced as means to delineate stronger contrasts between certain classes of people—that pornography became a more ‘low-brow’ form of art. It’s also quite often forgotten that pornographic representation played many strong roles in political and social commentary and satire. Alas, what appears to be more and more a recognized effort by patriarchal and moralist interests has historically reduced pornography to the lowest of art forms (and ‘art’ is a kind word indeed).
However, distinction between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’ becomes difficult to follow when one is faced with any particular example the moral majority wishes to adopt for their more ‘worthy’ enjoyment. If the piece is considered to have an undeniably more ‘lofty’ appeal, it’s deemed art; if the subject is not favored by the ruling moralist opinion, it’s ‘porn’.
Consider a contrast drawn in the film documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.
The documentary filmmakers explore the standards by which sexual content is rated, finding that consistently certain types of sexual content (read: homosexual content) are rated more harshly and treated with more hostility than others (read: heterosexual content). Kimberly Pierce points out the elements in her film, Boys Don’t Cry, cited by the MPAA as pornographic and earning the film an NC-17 rating, among which is a shot where Hillary Swank wipes her mouth after oral sex (involving no nudity). Later on, a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha is described in one MPAA reviewer’s notes in which one character thrusts her hands under a geisha’s robe, withdrawing wet fingers to indicate the geisha has just had sex. Memoirs of a Geisha is rated PG13.
This being the case, social expectations of what is or isn’t “pornographic” appear to be highly subjective, dominated by the moralist majority without much in the way of clear reasoning. And we seem to just go along with these moralist opinions so we don’t appear shameful, ignorant, immoral, or foolish.
And so we women who read and enjoy romance novels or—le gasp!—erotic material are shamed into the closet for enjoying “porn”.
I’m not going to try and justify why the things I read and write are not porn. I’m going to do as Remittance Girl suggests, and embrace it.
Yes, I read and watch pornography. I read everything from Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series to Sarah Waters Affinity and Tipping the Velvet, Cleis Press anthologies and The Story of O, The Great Gastby and The Handmaid’s Tale. All of these are guilty of eroticism, romance, escapism and dirty language, and they’re all wonderful to read.
I watch pornography. I watch streaming pornographic videos, Nina Hartley’s instructional videos, R-rated movies with graphic sex scenes, PG-13 rated movies with high levels of sensual content, romantic films, and I’ve even watched both Sex and the City movies. I’ve seen nudity in Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, too, so I suppose that counts.
I draw pornographic material and I enjoy pornographic art.
And what I write, I write for a reason. Sometimes that reason is to make you think, introduce you to deeper sexual themes, open your mind to issues within the realms of sexuality and sexual identity that will entertain, titillate, and engage your mind. Sometimes it’s to draw you into a story about true love or self-love or high adventure filled with passionate kisses and dramatic rebuffs. And sometimes I just want you to touch yourself.
Porn, whatever you think it is, is part of pleasure for the mind and the spirit as well as the body. Your indulgence may include nudity or just pages worth of sugary prose, it may be a scene with multiple partners having their way with one submissive slave or it might be a titillating conversational back-and-forth filled with cutting subtext and witty repartee (no nudity necessary). Pornography has always been a deeper subject than simply the presence or absence of graphic sexual content. It’s been used as the staging ground for subversive political movements and incredible, soulful art. If it is also among the bodice rippers and Judith Krantz novels on my bookshelf, so be it.
I often think those of us who see past the surface of a disdainful label see far deeper into the layers of art and substance in pornography and erotic depiction. It’s assumed that if romance novels are soft-core porn, than erotica is the hard-core, triple-X version full of nothing but raunchy sex and no deeper meaning. This could not be farther from the truth. Erotic material, even that which exists solely to arouse, requires far more than the verbal equivalent of a Penthouse spread. The best erotica is the most creative and the most penetrative, delving into deeper truths about characters, writers, and readers.
Ultimately, it’s a very outdated position to still believe erotic art, whether written or visual, is something to shame and hide away and look down upon. Pornography can be many things, and it can damn well be intelligent, probing, curious, revealing, artistic, moving, poignant, and momentous. In fact, in many cases, that which society labels so casually as pornographic and low-brow contains a level of intelligence much loftier than that society understands. Hence, we shame it and try to hide it away in the dark, like Boys Don’t Cry, and pretend that pornography we do understand is not actually pornographic.
So what if romance is porn for women? So what if women enjoy porn? Why don’t we ask the better question: what is so damn threatening about women enjoying porn?