In her last post, Sarah was looking at the distinction between 'erotica' and 'porn'. Her conclusions are very similar to the definitions given by Passionate Ink (the erotic romance special interest chapter of Romance Writers Of America):
Porn: stories written for the express purpose of causing sexual titillation. Plot, character development, and romance are NOT primary to these stories. They are designed to sexually arouse the reader and nothing else.According to Passionate Ink, erotica is about 'the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals', whereas erotic romance is about 'the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction'. That might be clear, but it's certainly not the only definition of porn. Joseph W. Slade observes that
For most Americans, pornography means peep shows, striptease, live sex acts, hardcore videos, adult cable programming, sexual aids and devices, explicit telephone and computer messages, adult magazines, and raunchy fiction. Conservatives might add prime-time television programming, soap operas, Music Television (MTV) and rock music, romance novels, fashion magazines, and all R-rated movies. Conflating sexuality and violence leads some critics to think of sexual representations as inherently aggressive. Others, noticing that most sexual representations contain no violence, condemn only those examples that mix the two. (excerpt from Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook, via PBS, my emphasis)The entry on pornography in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that different people choose different criteria when defining what constitutes 'porn' and some of these critera, which may be used singly or in combination, are:
- sexually explicit material
- material which is obscene
- material which includes the depiction of degrading and/or violent acts
- material designed to create arousal in the viewer/reader
- material which damages the viewer/reader and/or encourages the viewer/reader to harm others and/or harms those involved in the creation of the material
- material lacking in artistic, literary, or political merit
Sexually explicit material
Many romances, including the inspirational romance sub-genre and the novels of authors such as Georgette Heyer and Betty Neels, contain no sexually explicit material, at least, not by contemporary Western standards, though as the Stanford Encyclopedia notes,
Displays of women's uncovered ankles count as sexually explicit in some cultures, but not in most western cultures nowadays (although they once did: the display of a female ankle in Victorian times was regarded as most risqué)Nonetheless, derrogatory comments about the genre often focus on its depiction of sexuality. I've read of a comparison being made between reading romances and using prostitutes, for example, and in the 2006 Texas elections for State Comptroller, one candidate, Fred Head, described his opponent as 'the author of the pornographic book' and provided extracts of the sex scenes to prove his point. The book in question was a romance, and there were swift responses from many in the romance-reading community, including the Smart Bitches and All About Romance's Robin Uncapher. Anne Gracie listed this as the third of ten myths about the genre:
Myth #3* they're soft porn for womenSome romances contain sex scenes which would be difficult to mock even when taken out of context. Two sex scenes chosen for analysis by Rosina Lippi, Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation and Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart, fall into this category. Crusie's novel in fact includes characters who are involved in the making and viewing of pornography but as Lippi observes, although 'The passage sure comes across as explicit', 'there's no explicit vocabulary here, no naming of anatomy being engaged beyond breast'. Welcome to Temptation may be read as an exploration of the differences between porn and romance novels, but it isn't itself pornographic, at least not in my opinion.
I don't know how many times I've heard critics of romance read out salacious passages from a sexy M&B. I dare say I could pick out passages from almost any novel and mock it out of context. Cheap laughs.
Material designed to create arousal in the reader
Clearly some of the people who call romance 'pornography' do so because of the explicit sexual content in many romances. I don't, however, believe that this is the only criteria on which some people judge romances to be pornographic. Ann Barr Snitow, for example, in her essay 'Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different' was of the opinion that they are pornographic because they create arousal in the reader, they 'are written to elicit sexual excitation' (1983: 257), but not because they are obscene or explicit:
The Harlequin formula glorifies the distance between the sexes. Distance becomes titillating. [Note that this is the word central to the Passionate Ink chapter's definition of 'porn'] The heroine's sexual inexperience adds to this excitement. What is this thing that awaits her on the other side of distance and mystery? Not knowing may be more sexy than finding out. [...] In romanticized sexuality the pleasure lies in the distance itself. Waiting, anticipation, anxiety - these represent the high point of sexual experience. (1983: 250)Snitow's essay was first published in 1979, so she was writing about Harlequins published before category romances became sexually explicit:
By 1981 [...] the romance market was poised for more sweeping changes. American writers of sexy historical romances had demonstrated that the market was growing and evolving. Recognizing this alteration in their traditional market, Mills and Boon/Harlequin had responded to that challenge by featuring slightly more overt sexual content, especially in the Harlequin Presents series. But the new and more open sexuality of these novels fell far short of the explicit sexual description that had proved so popular in the “bodice-rippers.” (Mussell 1999: 4)The 'romance wars' of the early 1980s ended in 1984 when 'Harlequin bought Silhouette Books from Simon and Schuster' (Mussell 1999: 5) and after this 'Almost all romances, with the exception of the few remaining “sweet” romances and the romances published for Christian readers, featured not only sexual relations before marriage but moderate to explicit detail about the sexual act itself' (1999: 6).
But while works can arouse without being explicit, others may be explicit and arousing yet still not be written with the sole or primary aim of arousing the reader. Even the authors of the most explicit romances, the erotic romances, state that their aim is not titillation but the depiction of relationships. Clearly some readers do read romance in order to be titillated, and some authors may wish to titillate their readers, but this is certainly not the stated primary intention of any romance author that I know of, and I would assume that many readers share Sarah's preference for characterisation and relationship development even when reading erotica: 'whether that romance has its foundation in a short, sweet, pure romance or in a hot, gay male menage, I'm not interested in reading either unless the story is based on character and relationship development'. Erotica is, of course, a different genre from romance, but if erotica authors can state, as Keziah Hill does, that their work is 'for the body, mind and soul' it becomes very difficult to sustain a claim that authors of romance write primarily in order to sexually arouse their readers.
Material which damages the reader
Ann Douglas, in her essay 'Soft-Porn Culture' also describes romances as porn, but she does so at least in part on the grounds that they are damaging to the readers:
in the soft-porn fantasies of the Harlequins, woman's independence is made horrifically unattractive and unrewarding, her dependence presented as synonymous with excitement.Similar concerns about the effects of reading romances have been expressed by other critics of the genre:
Admittedly incomplete surveys of readers suggest that Harlequins [...] are consumed not only by schoolgirls but by "normal," active women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. If true, this statistic hardly assures us that the Harlequins are harmless [...] but provokes instead serious concern for their women readers. (1980: 28)
The stereotypical, gender-based roles encouraged by this genre, along with its pathogenic communication model and naturalized violence are not only and by default a poor preparation for egalitarian, mature spousal relationships, they actively propagate a dysfunctional family model. (Kramer & Moore, 2001)and the authors of another study, this time of romance readers, stated that 'The participants in the three focus groups held romance novels in great regard. This is unfortunate, as it appears that not only do readers establish parasocial relationships with the characters, but the novels influence their "real life" relationships' (Burnett & Beto, 2000).*
It's worth noting that there are many different types of relationships portrayed in romances: for example, an 'alpha' hero won't treat a heroine the same way as a 'beta' hero will. I've read plenty of comments from romance readers who prefer some of the more extreme alpha heroes but who make it quite clear that they can distinguish between fantasy and reality and there is therefore no risk that they would expect or tolerate the behaviour of, say, a Carpathian hero in their own real-life relationships. It's also worth pointing out that romance as a genre has not remained static. Kay Mussell observed that nowadays
Heroes and heroines meet each other on a much more equal playing field. Heroes don't always dominate and heroines are frequently right. Heroines have expertise and aren't afraid to show it. Heroes aren't the fount of all wisdom and they actually have things to learn from heroines. This is true of both contemporary and historical romances. I'm not trying to argue that all romances before the 1990s featured unequal relationships or that all romances today are based on equality. That's clearly not the case. But in general heroines today have a lot more independence and authority than their counterparts did in earlier romances.Material lacking in artistic, literary, or political merit
I suspect that when romance is classified as pornography there's probably often some judgement being made which is related to what Anne Gracie lists as 'Myth #4', namely that romances are considered to be 'full of cardboard characters, clichés and bad writing'. As she points out, 'In every genre, there are novels that are clichéd and poorly written, and some books that are wonderfully written with unforgettable characters and prose that sings'. But, of course, people don't expect to find 'prose that sings' in a work of 'porn'.
Legally, not all pornography is 'obscene' and literary merit may be a determining factor in whether or not a work is judged to be obscene:
The Miller test is the United States Supreme Court's test for determining whether speech or expression can be labeled obscene, in which case it is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and can be prohibited.To quote from the full text of the judgement:
The Miller test was developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California. It has three parts (from Wikipedia)
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. [...] A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (my emphasis)In the UK the Obscene Publications Acts was amended in 1954 so that
Convictions would not occur if the publication could be proved to be 'in the interests of science, literature, art or learning'. Expert evidence would be allowed if it were literary, artistic, scientific or meritorious, the publication must now be examined as a whole. (BBC)Clearly not every romance is a work of literary genius. Literary geniuses are rare. But I do think that the literary merit of romance novels is often severely underestimated.
Given the criticisms levelled at Harlequins by both Snitow and Douglas, I think it's fitting to end this post with a quotation from a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance. There's one section of Sandra Marton's Naked in His Arms which I can't help but read as a subtle, metafictional defence of the genre's literary merit. Here's the heroine, Cara, having some of her assumptions challenged:
"Iron bars do not a prison make," she said coldly.Clearly Cara's misjudged Alexander, but it seems to me that this passage could also be read as being about romance novels and romance readers (as represented by Alex) and the people who, without knowing the genre well, 'write off' romances as lacking in literary merit. I can't imagine many of them would expect to find a quotation from Richard Lovelace in a Harlequin Presents.**
"It's stone walls. 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.' " His smile thinned. "Gotta get it right, if you really want to impress the peasants."
She knew her mouth had dropped open. She couldn't help it. Alexander Knight, quoting an obscure seventeenth-century poet?
"Unpleasant, isn't it?"
His voice had gone low, his smile dangerous and very male. Cara told herself to hold her ground.
"Being labeled. [...] You've written me off as something a lady like you wouldn't want anywhere near her." (2006: 86-87)
- Burnett, Ann, & Rhea Reinhardt Beto, 2000. ‘Reading Romance Novels: An Application of Parasocial Relationship Theory’, North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 13.
- Douglas, Ann, 1980. 'Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman', The New Republic, August 30, 1980, vol. 183: 25-29.
- Kramer, Daniela & Moore, Michael, 2001. ‘Gender Roles, Romantic Fiction and Family Therapy’, Psycoloquy 12,#24.
- Marton, Sandra, 2006. Naked in His Arms (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
- Mussell, Kay, 1999. 'Introduction' in North American Romance Writers, ed. Kay Mussell & Johanna Tuñón (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press), pp. 1-9.
- Snitow, Ann Barr, 1983. ‘Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different’, in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 245-263. First published in Radical History Review, 20 (Spring/Summer 1979): 141-61.
* Neither Kramer & Moore, nor Burnett & Beto discuss whether the damaging content makes the romances 'pornographic'.
* The full text of the poem, 'To Althea from Prison', can be found here and you can read a bit more about Richard Lovelace here.
Another of Alex's comments, made just a few pages after his reference to Lovelace, might also be read as having a metafictional dimension:
"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life, Ms. Prescott," he said in a tone she knew she'd always remember, "but rape isn't one of them, not even when it's meant to accommodate a woman who'd rather be forced than admit she wants to get laid." (2006: 90)Modern romance heroes in general don't rape heroines, and even 'forced seductions' are rare:
Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (Candy, at the Smart Bitches)
P.S. While I was doing research for this post I came across an article about universities which offer courses on pornography:
Undergraduates taking Cyberporn and Society at the State University of New York at Buffalo survey Internet porn sites. At New York University, assignments for Anthropology of the Unconscious include discussing X-rated Japanese comic books. And in Cinema and the Sex Act at the University of California, Berkeley, undergrads are required to view clips from Hollywood NC-17 releases like Showgirls and underground stag reels.
It's called the porn curriculum, and it's quietly taking root in the ivory tower. A small but growing number of scholars are probing the aesthetic, societal and philosophical properties of smut in academic departments ranging from literature to film, law to technology, anthropology to women's studies. Those specialists argue that graphic sexual imagery has become ubiquitous in society, so it's almost irresponsible not to teach young people how to deal with it. (Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, 2006).