Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Sex Lives of Romance Readers


Laura Clawson, in her recent post about the genre, attempted to refute the "myth" that "Romance novels are just porn for women":
romance has not become a $1.37 billion business on the basis of people too embarrassed to admit that they want porn buying 400-page books for the 3-4 sex scenes within. See, they also contain characters and stories, and some people like those. In fact, and I realize this is going to sound as ridiculous as claiming to smoke a lot of pot without inhaling, I mostly skip the sex scenes. I read the books for the stories, and I doubt I'm unique in that.
Since various other romance readers commented in response that they, too, mostly skip the sex scenes, Clawson is clearly not alone in this particular reading behaviour. Still, there's obviously a perception that romances are "porn for women" and the question of how romances affect their readers' sex lives is one that seems to have intrigued many, including a few academics. What follows is a short summary of the existing research (that I'm aware of) into the sex lives of romance readers.

Coles and Shamp (1984) - In their “Some Sexual, Personality, and Demographic Characteristics of Women Readers of Erotic Romances” Coles and Shamp begin by describing the novels under discussion and they state that
Given their tremendous sales, the reading of these books must be a significant behavior for the 20 million loyal readers [...] who buy them. Since these stories are neither well written "literature" nor informative, in the sense of being original or historically accurate, their appeal can only result from some emotionally compelling quality in plots or settings. (188)
Bearing in mind that in the court case over Lady Chatterley's Lover "Penguin won their case, on the new legal grounds of ‘literary merit’ as a justification for explicit sexual content. The mere presence of sexual incidents in a book no longer defined it automatically as pornographic, obscene and illegal" (AgTigress), one might suppose that a work with "explicit sexual content" which is deemed to have no "literary merit" is likely to be labelled as pornography or erotica. Certainly Coles and Shamp write: "it can be suggested that erotic romances are so popular among their readers because they represent a socially acceptable form of mild pornography that is not recognized as such either by those who read them or by the rest of society" (207-8). I do wonder if, however, their article subsequently helped at least some sections of "the rest of society" feel secure in describing romances as "pornography."

If we turn to what Coles and Shamp have to say about readers, we find that they first surveyed "college women" and,
In support of the hypothesis that reading erotic romances is related to sexual deprivation, readers in this group who are more often married or cohabiting, report a mean frequency of 1.45 sexual acts per week, while nonreaders report 2.50 acts per week. (196)
However, the picture of romance readers changed when they surveyed older women:
Older readers reported having sexual intercourse twice as much as did nonreaders and, indeed, more frequently than the national average for all women [...]. In addition, housewife readers reported being more satisfied with sex than nonreaders. These data do not support the simplistic idea, which might have been suggested by the college sample, that lack of sex is forcing women to find other outlets through erotica. (206)
Thurston comments on this to the effect that
While the Coles and Shamp (1984) study, which was conducted in 1978 and focused on the bodice rippers of that period, does not say that erotic romance readers make love twice as frequently as non-readers because they read romances, it does establish a correlation between frequency of intercourse and reading erotic romances, and between reading erotic romances and use of sexual fantasy. (158)
It should be noted that when Coles and Shamp refer to "erotic romances" they are referring to novels which are rather different from those in the sub-genre known by that label today, and they are also different from the novels focussed on by Thurston.

Thurston (1987) - Thurston also refers to "erotic romances" but in her book, The Romance Revolution, she was using the term to refer to both "The erotic contemporary series romances which began appearing in 1981" (Thurston 92) and the "erotic historical romance [which] as an identifiable entity is widely considered to have appeared on the American scene with the 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. Two years later Avon again struck gold with Rosemary Rogers's Sweet Savage Love [...], setting off an avalanche of feisty heroines, high adventure, and sex that sounded the death knell for the suddenly tame gothic and regency romances" (Thurston 67). Thurston, whose The Romance Revolution was published in 1987, states that "the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types - the sweet romance and the erotic romance - with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities" (7).

In Thurston's view, "Other story characteristics (contemporary or historical settings, for instance) create secondary divisions in the two subgenres, but it was a specific kind of sexual activity, more and more explicitly described as the 1970s progressed, that created the first and most significant division within the genre" (8). Thurston states, however, that "Sexual content is the most important classifying characteristic [...] because of the kind of sex-role portrayal that came to be associated with it" (7) and that
More and more explicitly articulated after 1972, female sexuality became increasingly complex in the most evolved erotic romances (heterosexual in the genre examined here), and by 1982 it was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy, and ultimately with a joyously feminine sense of self. (141)
In other words, Thurston seems to be suggesting that in the romances under discussion, sexual freedom and freedom from particular gender ("sex-role") norms have become inseparable.1 Thurston also notes that there are many reasons why people would choose to read romances:
For almost all of the readers surveyed [...] reading romance novels is primarily entertainment-seeking behavior that provides pleasure, escape, relaxation, and renewal because it stimulates and challenges the imagination. Thus the romance as a form of entertainment and escape encompasses a web of complex motivations and gratifications, serving as a means of exploring new ideas about the changing role and status of women in society - a kind of test run or sounding board for a variety of ideas, attitudes, and behavior - at the same time that it provides the security of the familiar. It is the formulaic nature of genre fiction that opens the door to the unfamiliar, and through time and repeated exposure converts unusual or new elements into the ordinary and familiar. (131-32)
Thurston also has something to say about the sex lives of romance readers. She found that "about half of the readers surveyed in 1985 said they use erotic romance novels as sexual fantasy" (134) and that
Seventy-seven percent of the romance readers surveyed in 1985 agreed with the statement "Many of the love scenes depicted in romance novels are sexually stimulating," attesting to the fact that erotic romances contain fantasies that many women can and do relate to sexually. Furthermore, most readers consciously perceived these novels as erotica and said they use them for sexual information and ideas, to create a receptive-to-sex frame of mind, and even to achieve arousal. (10)
Thurston believed that in romances sex "was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy" (141), perhaps at least in part because at the time she was writing, during the 1980s, many of the novels contained
The New Heroine [who] generally is experienced, confident, self-sufficient, assertive, and even daring - all traits traditionally assigned to men - which means she no longer needs the male guardian, the rake, or the sugar daddy. What does she require in a man? Still a strong-willed character (he must be if he is to be her equal), the New Hero also exhibits many traits traditionally assigned to females - openness, flexibility, sensitivity, softness, and vulnerability - transforming him from invincible superman into fallible human being. Thus androgyny has burst into full bloom. (Thurston 98)
Not everyone saw this as a positive move, however. Jayne Ann Krentz, in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992) discussed the
pressure exerted to make romance writers and romance fiction more politically correct. During the past few years, even as romance novels have commanded a spectacular share of the publishing market there has been an unrelenting effort to change them.
Much of this effort was exerted by a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing [...]. The first target of these reforming editors was what has come to be known in the trade as the alpha male. These males are the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels. (107)
It is not difficult to see the "New Hero," so pleasing to Thurston, under attack in this scathing comment by Krentz:
you don't get much of a challenge for a heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. You don't get much of a challenge for her from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel. (109)
According to Krentz "The second target of those who attempted to change romance novels was another familiar convention in the books: the aggressive seduction of the heroine by the hero" (109) and she concludes that
The effort to make romance novels respectable has been a resounding failure. The books that exemplify the "new breed" of politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right-thinking heroines in "modern" stories dealing with trendy issues, have never become the most popular books in the genre. (113)
Wu (2006) - Perhaps it is at least in part because of this "resounding failure" that some, including Wu, believe that "Most romance novels promote deeply constraining patriarchal values" (131). Wu's
results reveal that female readers self-reported greater sex addiction, greater sex drive and greater number of orgasms required for sexual satisfaction than female non-readers. [...] Contrary to expectations, readers of romance novels had fewer sex partners, a lower level of self-assessed femininity than non-readers, and were older when they had their first thoughts about sex and had their first sexual intercourse. [...] The overall results of this study suggest that the general attitude-behavior pattern of readers of romance novels fits the Harlequin stereotype of nourishing a satisfying sex life in the context of romantic monogamous fidelity, while at the same time vicariously fulfilling sexual desires through fictitious characters in romance novels. (131)
Wu's essay is available online in full and for free.

Anderton
(2009) - Widener University's Center for Education announced that Gretchen E. Anderton had successfully defended her Ed.D. dissertation on "Excitement, Adventure, Indifference: Romance Readers' Perceptions of How Romance Reading Impacts their Sex Lives." Some details about it are now available from ProQuest. Unfortunately you need to have a subscription to the database in order to read them, and a copy of the whole dissertation can only be ordered from ProQuest for a fee.

The dissertation is based on information provided by "Fifty-three women romance readers over the age of 18 [who] completed an online survey composed of multiple choice and open-ended essay questions." That's really not a lot of romance readers, so it's possible the results are unrepresentative of the genre's readers as a whole. In addition, if the online survey is the same one discussed on the romance scholar listserv in August of 2008, and which was titled "Opium or Viagra: The effects of reading romance novels on women's sex lives," then it should be noted that various members of the list who attempted to answer the questionnaire had their responses automatically rejected, and at least one of these rejections was due to the person living outside the US. It's perhaps no coincidence, then, that the introduction of Anderton's dissertation opens with statement that "Since the first modem romance novel was published in 1972, romance novels have contained sex" (1). Since this seems to be a reference to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower it perhaps indicates that Anderton is following Thurston in taking an American-centred view of the genre's readers.

Since I haven't been able to read the whole dissertation, many of my questions about it remain unanswered but its main findings seem to be included in the abstract and are as follows:
  • In this study, it was found that participants use romance novels primarily to relax and escape the pressures of everyday life and only secondarily to produce sexual arousal.

  • Most of the study participants (75.5%) reported that reading romance novels has had an impact on their sex lives. This occurred in several ways, including making participants more likely to engage in sexual activity and by making them more likely to try new sexual activities.

  • A smaller number of participants (24.5%) stated that reading romance novels has not had any impact on their sex lives, sexual behavior or knowledge about sexuality. These participants emphasized the fictional nature of romance novels and stated that they read strictly for pleasure and do not learn anything or make any behavioral changes based on what they read.

  • With regard to safer sex practices, participants said that romance novels present incorrect or misleading information about safer sex and that they regard them as unreliable in this area.

  • Most participants (85%) reported that reading romance novels has not had an impact on their feelings about their sex partners or has had a positive impact on their feelings about their sex partners.

  • Another major finding of this study was that women who read romance novels and who are satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that there is no basis for comparison between their sex partners and the male protagonist or hero in a romance novel, or that their sex partners compare favorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels. In contrast, women who read romance novels and who are not satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that their sex partners compare unfavorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels.
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1 Specifically with regard to romances, Thurston acknowledges that "Traditional attitudes or viewpoints are still present in a number of stories" (104) and she found that "It is in the area of childbearing and how it functions in the context of sexual and social relationships that the contemporary romance most often is murky" (107). Thurston also notes that
Feminists early on rejected the simplistic assumption that sexual liberation equals women's liberation (a familiar cry being "the sexual revolution is not our revolution"), asserting that it increased the availability of pornography and in general made women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They also realized, as Edwin Shur (1983, 118) warned in his comprehensive work on the social control of women, that "when women's active sexuality is acknowledged, it may be misleading presented as the main path to full female liberation," ultimately distracting women from the pursuit of real social change. But while a fully developed sexuality does not predict a conscious sense of self, it is difficult to imagine that such a self could be achieved without it. (140)
The danger warned of by Shur has been explored more recently by Ariel Levy:
Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were "burning their bras" and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?

What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and -- often -- women who edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild. This new raunch culture didn't mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We'd earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. [...]

There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn't work that way. "Raunchy" and "liberated" are not synonyms.
Janet/Robin, of Dear Author suggests that in the romance genre, however, traditional versions of female sexuality still predominate: "So-called Dukes of Slut can be heroic, but not Duchesses of Sexual Liberation." She does, however, note that there are more
heroines who have been damaged by sexual promiscuity. [...] In one sense I appreciate the willingness to investigate the darker connections between self-esteem and sexuality in Romance heroines. But I also think it’s interesting that the sexually promiscuous woman written within a construction of romantic love often endures a great deal of shame or punishment (inflicted by others or by herself) before she receives the gift of romantic happiness. Those heroines who are unashamed of their sexual polyamory may, more often than not, be pushed into erotica, where there is no expectation of a romantic happy ending.
Of course, not all romances contain heroines, and the sexuality of the characters in romances featuring gay men has also come under scrutiny recently. Spark in Darkness has summarised some of the issues as he sees them:
M/m fiction as I see it, is literature centring around a male/male relationship. It is also primarily written by straight women.
And I know some gay men loathe it with a fiery passion. And I don’t blame them - because most of it is bloody awful.
No, really. It’s full of gross (and often insulting) stereotypes, focused entirely on the sexing [...] I have read good m/m. But the majority I’ve read doesn’t come close - in fact it goes a long damn way from coming close. In fact, let’s be frank, most of it is porn. The m/m characters have as much relation with actual gay men as the nigh obligatory “lesbian” sex scene in porn aimed at heterosexual men. And, naturally, that has strong implications of appropriation, exploitation and voyeurism to say the least and potential consequences for young gays looking for something about them come across a stereotypical, angst filled, sex obsessed one-hand-reading piece of m/m fiction.

24 comments:

  1. If you're interested in the subject of "why do women write m/m romance? Is it just porn for women?" I have a post on my LJ which examines it from the POV of the (mostly) female writers and readers and allows them to give their own reactions and reasons in the comments:

    http://alex-beecroft.livejournal.com/72155.html

    I probably won't be answering any more comments on it for the moment, though, as I'm having a rest from considering why I write in order to get some actual writing done.

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  2. Thanks, Alex. I don't want to distract you any further from your work, but in the context of the post here at TMT about the sex lives of romance readers, I wanted to comment on a few of the points you make in your post. You mention that

    "Men have put women in chastity belts and insane asylums in the past because they were uncomfortable with the fact that we too are sexual beings. Stifling our writing is likely to be taken as one more attempt along the same lines."

    In my look at the research into the sex lives of romance readers, I've only found pieces written by women. However, the idea that romances are sexy books, and that women read them for titillation is very much more widespread. For example, one 2003 report on the RWA conference described the genre as "saccharine and sentimental softcore pornography."

    As far as romance as a whole is concerned, when the genre is depicted as "porn/erotica for women" that's not necessarily stifling women writers or women readers. It may, as in Thurston's case, be an acknowledgement of something that she feels is positive about the genre, and clearly many romances are at least in part about female sexuality and are read at least partly for that kind of content, and that can be seen as a sign of women's empowerment and liberation and therefore a good thing.

    On the other hand, saying that romances are "porn/erotica for women" can be a way of dismissing the genre as badly written non-literature.

    I'd also speculate that when romances are described as porn there may, at times, be an element of sexual pleasure involved for those who're themselves titillated by the idea of women readers reading porn. I'm prompted to think that by something that Helen Hackett wrote about Renaissance English romances (which, obviously, are very different from modern romances):

    in so far as women embodied sexual attractions for men, romance was identified with women as itself a form of eroticised pleasure; yet in so far as women's own sexuality was regarded as wayward and in need of restraint, romance was regarded as something to be kept from women. [...]

    for an author to declare that his book was designed for the pleasure of women was in effect for him to advertise his wares to readers of both sexes as racy, lightweight and fun. [...] In the cases of Lyly, Rich and Greene, intrinsic to their dedications to women readers is the presentation of their works as toys and playthings to be enjoyed in hours of delinquency from duty. Significantly, all of them set these epistles to women alongside dedicatory epistles to male readers; they clearly expected to have male readers to whom a flirtatious address to women readers would announce that titillating reading pleasures were to follow.
    This may include a suggestion of voyeuristic pleasures: to read a book of courtship narratives which would 'normally' be read by a woman is at once to read about women's erotic secrets, to spy upon the imagined woman reader's private communion with her erotic book and to penetrate the private space of a woman's bedchamber or closet where she is supposed to indulge such reading. (11)


    Compare that last paragraph of Hackett's to the introduction to a 2002 article on romance at Fox News: "In North America alone, some 50 million women are letting long, lean strangers into their bedrooms. And more women are being seduced every day."

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    Hackett, Helen. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

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  3. So, on to m/m. I don't know much about it, but having read some of the posts about it recently I wonder if some people see "blatant disinterest or even hostility towards the problems of real gay men" where other people don't.

    Spark in Darkness, for example, has written that:

    the fetishisation is rampant. Gay men having sex is hawt. [...] More in a bed, yes moar moar! [...] Gay sex and shapeshifter sex? And who cares that we’re evoking the whole “gay sex is on par with bestiality” trope?

    and Paul G. Bens cautions that

    Gays are interested only in sex is a stereotype used today to promote and empower the anti-gay marriage movement. [...]

    The practice of assigning gay men gender roles (i.e., one plays the traditionally "female role" and the other plays the traditionally "male" role -- either sexually or domestically) also is over used and one which is often perpetuated in popular media.


    Although the depiction of gay protagonists is a very different issue from that of rape in romance, there seems to be a similar underlying tension over something which one group of readers find sexually exciting and good to have in the genre, but which other readers find deeply troubling.

    Some women found/find those rape scenes empowering, and a turn on. There's also the argument that some of these scenes aren't really of rapes, though they may "be read by the uninitiated romance fiction reader as flat-out rape" (from Michelle Buonfiglio). Those who find rape scenes "triggering" may be upset and/or angered by comments which suggest that they're just being overly sensitive and should learn to distinguish between fantasy/fiction and reality.

    Then there are differences of opinion about virgins in the genre. Among the range of opinions one can find one reader writing that "I generally don’t find virgins at all believable in my Romances unless it’s a historical setting and another responding that

    If I was a character in a book you would not believe in me. You would think I couldn’t possibly exist in contemporary American culture because my lack of partners somehow negates the versimilitude. I, apparently, do not exist.

    And, to get back to where I started my post, those romance readers who skip sex scenes or prefer to read less explicit romances may be upset by the "romance is porn" label because it doesn't describe their experience, and they worry that it's being used to downplay the literary worth of the genre, whereas someone who does use romances as erotica/porn may feel that the label is accurate, and that the only problem is social disapproval of women reading porn.

    I'm sure I'm simplifying things here, but it seems to me that these are such difficult areas to negotiate because something which validates one person may be felt by another person as denigrating or oppressing, and since all the individuals involved have at some point felt denigrated or oppressed it seems difficult to see a way in which everyone could be validated without a wider social change which allowed a much larger range of sexualities to be considered truly acceptable.

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  4. I had to print this one off so I could read it more carefully.

    I have been told (by a male relative) that my reading of Romance novels is, indeed, the women's version of porn.

    Of course, I was reading a Regency Romance at the time. When I explained that the book had no sex in it and perhaps one kiss, my male relative went on to tell me that it's the emotional aspect of the book that makes it porn because women are sexually aroused by the emotional content rather than any overt sexual content. (Evidently, he beleives that males are stimulated by overt sexual content, but females are not.)

    That was the first time I'd ever heard such an idea, which honestly raises all Soap Operas, all movies in the Romantic Comedy genre, and Jane Austen to the level of porn.

    But that idea is out there, in multiple nonsensical variations. It's interesting to me to see that research has been done to verify/refute it. ;o)

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  5. "my male relative went on to tell me that it's the emotional aspect of the book that makes it porn because women are sexually aroused by the emotional content rather than any overt sexual content. (Evidently, he beleives that males are stimulated by overt sexual content, but females are not.)"

    Although "As in many areas of sexuality, research on women's sexual arousal patterns has lagged far behind men's," there's plenty of evidence that many women are stimulated by overt sexual content (including visual content - and some researchers in fact suggest that women are stimulated by a wider variety of visual content than men are).

    It does seem extremely presumptuous of him to be telling you about female sexuality. Is he working on the assumption that just by virtue of being a man he knows more about women's sexuality than women do? And specifically that he knows more about what arouses you than you do?

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  6. Hmmm.

    Thanks for this. Will peruse it again later.

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  7. I work cryptic crosswords because I like words and the way they work. Sometimes words having to do with sex appear therein. I read mysteries, because I like puzzling stories told in words. That those mysteries sometimes have sex scenes sometimes adds and sometimes detracts. I read lit fic, because I like stories that satisfy curiosity about how others look at things and again they're in words. That lit fic sometimes has sex scenes sometimes adds and sometimes detracts. And I read romance because they're another kind of story. That those stories happen to have sex scenes at times adds, at times detracts. But in romance fiction, sex scenes, it seems to me have a more integral function than they do in the other kinds of stories. After all, they're stories of relationships between a man and a woman. Sometimes, after the first one, I too skip them, because, although the story itself is OK, the author just didn't get the sex right.
    Despite the oft-repeated dictum that men are turned on visually and women are turned on verbally, that ain't true in my case. And I must admit that sometimes, if the author gets it right, sex scenes in romance fiction turn me on. I'm made of flesh after all. But they do in other kinds of stories too, if they're done right.
    Has reading romance fiction affected my sex life? I suppose at some moments it has, for the simple reason that reading the sex scene, if it was well-done, set me on my way. I don't think though, that frequency has been affected at all.

    I'm puzzled though, why reading romance fiction and the effects of reading romance fiction, especially the effects on women, causes so much interest. Why not ask why women read mysteries and the effects of that? Or, so as not to be sexist, why not ask why men read romance fiction or mysteries or action/adventure or westerns?

    I'm the Dick from AAR, Laura. For some reason, the only way I can post on this site is as anon.






    But has it increased frequency? I don't think so.

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  8. I'm puzzled though, why reading romance fiction and the effects of reading romance fiction, especially the effects on women, causes so much interest. Why not ask why women read mysteries and the effects of that? Or, so as not to be sexist, why not ask why men read romance fiction or mysteries or action/adventure or westerns?

    Those are very good questions, and ones to which I'd very much like to know the answers. While I was writing this post I did run a few searches to find out if there had been studies done into the sexual responses of readers of other genres. I didn't find anything, but it may be that there has been some research done on female mystery readers or male readers of westerns and I just failed to track it down. In my searches, though, I did notice that some science fiction covers did seem to be designed to make readers think about sex (here's an example and the covers of the "pulp-noir" recently reprinted by Harlequin have some very sexualised images of women).

    I do wonder if there's been particular interest in the sex lives of romance readers because this is a genre which is thought of as being "by women for women" and is about relationships, so the assumption is perhaps made by many people that women read romance because it depicts what we would like to have in our own relationships and/or what we fantasize about.

    Another possibility/contributory factor is that it's due to the worries about women's reading that have been around for centuries. A while ago I posted about that and I mentioned there that, according to Kate Flint

    Renaissance prescriptive remarks concerning woman's reading were remarkably close, in outline, to ones which were repeated during the next three centuries [...]. Whilst too great an acquaintance with light reading might lead her sexually astray, either in imagination or reality, it would also distract her from developing intellectually and spiritually.

    In other words, it could be the fact that romance is a genre that lots of women choose to read which makes it a genre that there's anxiety about, because there's always been anxiety about women's reading. Are we reading the right things? Will we be lead astray by our reading? Perhaps if more women suddenly started reading some other genre, there would be concerns raised about that too.

    And once the anxiety about women readers exists, stereotypes come into existence (such as those about romance readers being sexually frustrated spinsters, or about romance being porn), and then it's not too surprising that some academics would want to see if those stereotypes are accurate, particularly if they've got an interest in women's sexuality, which I think might explain these researchers chose to carry out their studies of romance readers.

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  9. "Despite the oft-repeated dictum that men are turned on visually and women are turned on verbally, that ain't true in my case."

    This does make me wonder if assumptions about male sexuality also shape the ways in which readers have (or haven't) been studied. If the assumption is that men are "turned on visually," then perhaps when male sexuality is studied, the focus will have been on men's responses to visual media, including film and visual pornography, rather than on the books men read.

    "For some reason, the only way I can post on this site is as anon."

    I'm sorry about that. I'd tend to assume it's a problem between you and Blogger, but I have no idea why you're having problems when other people aren't.

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  10. It does seem extremely presumptuous of him to be telling you about female sexuality.

    I agree ;o) I suppose he used the 'I'm older than you and wiser' model for the basis of his superior knowledge. ::sighs::

    I've also read about that study that found women's lack of specificity in their reactions to visual sexual imagery--which at the time made me wonder if that's partially behind why so much of the m/m slash fiction is written by women. (Which may contribute to the trends that Spark in Darkness mentioned.)


    (Changed ID here because the LJ one leaves out 'Kathleen')

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  11. I've also read about that study that found women's lack of specificity in their reactions to visual sexual imagery--which at the time made me wonder if that's partially behind why so much of the m/m slash fiction is written by women.

    I don't know enough about the subject to know if arousal caused via reading is similar in this respect to arousal caused by visual stimuli, but if it is, I'd have thought that women's "lack of specificity" would lead one to expect f/f to be just as popular with women as m/m and f/m, and that doesn't seem to be the case.

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  12. This is such an enormous subject (and a fascinating one) that it's hard to comment without writing two or three more long blog posts. So in the interest of not driving the TMT readers crazy, I'd like to think or ask about the "porn" question. The original meaning of "pornography," as I understand it, was "writing about prostitutes." That means, to me, that the writing so defined was necessarily focused on people--the prostitute and her client--who are having sex, but are not necessarily involved in a relationship, either of love or marriage.

    Today, most romance novels of any kind are about people in a relationship or in the process of forming one. The sexually explicit scenes are often between two characters who love each other, or who will come to love each other; who will marry or who are already married to each other; or who will form a committed, often monogamous relationship.

    This is one reason why I think "porn" is not a useful description of romance, no matter how sexually explicit. "Erotica" might be better. But I'm not a researcher, so am only basing this idea on my own interpretation of the word "pornography." I would be curious to know what Laura and others think of this idea.

    Of course, when people say romance fiction is "porn," if they mean it in a negative way it is more often, as you say, a comment on the perceived (lack of) quality in the writing, than it is about the sexual content.

    As a reader, I sometimes choose to read sexually explicit stories because I do find it empowering, as a woman, to read about sex and to be aroused by it. I like erotic romance because most of it written today treats the female characters with respect as full human beings with flaws (not perfect) and with sexual desires. I feel offended by the idea that this choice of reading says something about my sex life or my personal life. Or, perhaps I mean, yes, it does say something about me, but it's nobody else's business unless I wish to discuss it.

    In the same way, as a writer, I like writing about the m/m/f menage. I resent the assumptions that are sometimes made about why I choose this subject, that it "means" something about me or my life other than that it interests me enough to write about it. Of course I recognize that a writer can't help being identified with her "theme" (as I think Jennifer Crusie calls it).

    Ultimately though, I think on one level it's actually a good thing that we take written stories seriously enough to ask why people read or write them.

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  13. "This is such an enormous subject (and a fascinating one) that it's hard to comment without writing two or three more long blog posts."

    I know! And I wrote what seemed like a rather long post, even though I deliberately tried to keep my comments on each of the articles/book/dissertation short. I'm really enjoying discussing some of the complexities of all this in the comments.

    So in the interest of not driving the TMT readers crazy, I'd like to think or ask about the "porn" question. The original meaning of "pornography," as I understand it, was "writing about prostitutes."

    That's what AgTigress said, too, when she kindly wrote a guestpost for TMT a while ago about "Classifying Works Containing Sexual Content" and I believe both of you! ;-)

    She was trying to distinguish between "erotica" and "pornography." Sarah Frantz has also written about her criteria for distinguishing between porn and erotica.

    Of course, when people say romance fiction is "porn," if they mean it in a negative way it is more often, as you say, a comment on the perceived (lack of) quality in the writing, than it is about the sexual content.

    I've found that the word "pornography" can be used in lots of different ways. A while ago I wrote a post in which I listed and discussed the ones I'd come across. It can get very confusing, because someone like J. Kathleen Cheney's cousin can call romances with no explicit sex in them "porn" and mean "they're porn because even without explicit sex they're still a turn-on to women" or the same word used to describe the same books could mean "they're badly written trash" or (particularly if someone uses the phrase "emotional porn") it could mean "you get an emotional (but non-sexual) thrill from the story." And that's before you even start trying to work out what someone might be meaning when they use the term "porn" to refer to romances with varying degrees of explicit content!

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  14. I feel offended by the idea that this choice of reading says something about my sex life or my personal life. Or, perhaps I mean, yes, it does say something about me, but it's nobody else's business unless I wish to discuss it.

    That very neatly encapsulates why I felt a bit awkward about writing this post. I hadn't been able to express in any concise way why I was a bit uncomfortable with it. So thank you very much for that.

    Having had lots of help, via this comments thread, in thinking things through, my longer, less concise, and slightly more impersonal version is probably that as an academic I felt like I was juggling the following:

    (1) I don't think romance readers should be made to feel ashamed of their/our reading choices, their/our sexualities, or of elements of the genre which celebrate sexuality.

    (2) I don't want to silence the views of romance readers who have chosen to speak to academics and reveal details about why and how they read.

    (3) If sex is a legitimate area of research, then shouldn't I discuss this research in the same way as I've summarised and discussed other items of research into the genre?

    (4) As I mentioned above, I wondered if some of the non-romance-reading public's interest in romance readers' sex lives might be a bit prurient.

    (5) I wondered if this kind of discussion might be used against the genre by those who like to dismiss it as "porn."

    (6) I wondered if this kind of discussion might perpetuate or create some stereotypes about romance readers which would lead to "the idea that this choice of reading says something about my sex life or my personal life."

    (7) I also wondered if a discussion of this kind of research, which focuses on sexuality, tends to obscure the presence of the significant proportion of readers who prefer less explicit, "sweet" romances (e.g. Georgette Heyer) or who prefer to skim or skip sex scenes.

    And then I could circle all the way back to the beginning of my list.

    In the end I decided it was something that I should blog about, but it wasn't an uncomplicated decision.

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  15. Two things: people writing about M/M romance and slash fiction really should read Joanna Russ's far-too-seldom read piece on it in her unfortunately OOP collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985). Very insightful about how readers tend to use these M/M pairings in fan fic.

    I also wanted to let you know that I referred to your piece in my column for BitchBuzz this week; hope it brings some traffic your way and more discussion.

    I read (and write) both porn and romance; there are always some people who disparage me for both. Then again my academic colleagues disparage me for writing genre fiction, too. There are all kinds of hierarchies of scorn, LOL.

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  16. Do we really have difficulty recognizing and separating pornography from other written works? I don't think we do. For one thing, pornography has a singleness of purpose that comes through in tone, diction, event. Further, it's sole purpose is to elicit not mere sexual arousal but prurient arousal. Erotica's purpose is similar, the primary difference being the overlay of amorousness. Whether that overlay removes the prurience is questionable in most of the erotica I've read.

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  17. "I also wanted to let you know that I referred to your piece in my column for BitchBuzz this week; hope it brings some traffic your way and more discussion."

    Thanks, Kathryn!

    "people writing about M/M romance and slash fiction really should read Joanna Russ's far-too-seldom read piece on it in her unfortunately OOP collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985). Very insightful about how readers tend to use these M/M pairings in fan fic."

    I've only ever come across her “Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband: The Modern Gothic.” Journal of Popular Culture 6.4 (1973): 666-91.

    Anyway, I went off to look for more information about Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts and for those of us who haven't read it, there's a review of it here, written by Marilyn Frye (unfortunately only page 5 is visible unless you can log in to JSTOR).

    Susanna J. Sturgis also has a summary, of

    My favorite among the essays in Joanna Russ's wonderful collection [...] "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love." "Pornography by Women" is an exuberant, entrancingly red-faced examination of the "Kirk/Spock" (or "K/S") stories that are a thriving subgenre of Star Trek fandom.

    To summarize very briefly (while urging you to read Russ if you haven't already): K/S stories focus, in varying degrees of explicitness, on the sexual and emotional relationship between the (male) characters Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of the starship Enterprise. The avid writers, publishers, and readers of K/S stories are virtually all women.

    Drawing on the work of Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith, and of Camilla Decarnin, Russ disposes persuasively of the facile notions that K/S aficionadas want to be men and that K/S sex can be read as literally gay male. She says that the characters are essentially androgynous. One K/S writer whom Russ quotes believes that many women "can't see themselves saving the universe once a week, they can't let their own sexuality out without becoming dependents or victims. So Kirk and Spock do it for them."


    Sturgis adds that

    In her essay on K/S, Russ suggests that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value," and that "only those for whom a sexual fantasy 'works,' that is who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works, and for whom."

    The second point in particular resonated with me because I don't read romances for, or as, sexual fantasies, and in that sense they don't "work" for me. So I don't really feel competent to comment on why or how the various fantasies in romance "work" for other people. However, I do feel that inasmuch as aspects of them might shock, upset or trouble me (as is the case with rape in romance), I don't think it would be fair if the rights of "those for whom a sexual fantasy 'works'" were given priority, and I was therefore obliged to sit patiently and quietly until they felt able to tell me more about it. I do think, however, that I should refrain from making judgements on them because they enjoy it, and it would probably not be wise for me to speculate on why they enjoy it.

    There are all kinds of hierarchies of scorn, LOL.

    Indeed. I don't know how many porn readers scorn romance, but I think some defences of romance might come across as scorning written porn, both porn and romance may be scorned by readers of literary fiction, and I've certainly seen literary fiction coming in for some scorn from romance readers.

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  18. Do we really have difficulty recognizing and separating pornography from other written works? I don't think we do.

    As I said, when I started looking for definitions of "pornography" I did find rather a lot of them, and they were very varied in nature. Some people do genuinely think that romances, even kisses-only romances, are "porn" so I'd have to assume that their definition of "porn" is not the same as yours or mine.

    "it's sole purpose is to elicit not mere sexual arousal but prurient arousal"

    But how do you define/categorise what's "prurient"? According to the online OED, it means "having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters" but opinions will vary as to what constitutes "excessive interest."

    [I'm aware that I used the word "prurient" earlier in the thread: "I wondered if some of the non-romance-reading public's interest in romance readers' sex lives might be a bit prurient." So perhaps I should clarify that in that context "prurient" means excessive inasmuch as it seems to intrude on the privacy of romance readers and, as Ann said, "it's nobody else's business unless I wish to discuss it."]

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  19. I've just come across another article which might be about sexual responses to romances. It's:

    Lawrence, Kelli-an and Edward S. Herold, 1988. "Women's Attitudes toward and Experience with Sexually Explicit Materials." Journal of Sex Research 24: 161-169.

    The reason I'm not sure if it's relevant is that the survey, carried out in 1986, asked respondents (198 women responded out of 600 members of a Canadian fitness club who were told about the survey), about their use of "erotic novels, Playboy-type magazines, Playgirl-type magazines, and x-rated videos/films" (163). The term "erotic novels" might refer to romances, but it could also refer to a much wider range of materials. When they mentioned Coles and Shamp's study, they described it as being about the use of "erotic romance novels" (161), which is a much more specific label, so it may be that Lawrence and Herold (and/or the women who responded to their survey) were using "erotic novels" to refer to a broader range of novels.

    They found that "The most common reason for reading erotic novels, given by 75% of the subjects, was entertainment." (166) In the discussion section of the article they state that "we do not know if the inclusion of detailed sexual depictions plays an important role in the decision of women to read erotic novels or whether they would purchase similar novels that lacked this erotic content." (169)

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  20. In so far as I read romances (and I've hardly read any except Heyer)I certainly prefer those without sex scenes. I don't think this is because I'm prudish - it's more because I think such scenes are so hard to do well and end up being dull or embarrassing. I find the very idea of reading about what Arabella and Mr Beaumaris (say) got up to on their honeymoon quite distressing! Generally I enjoy the 'will they, won't they' game in eg The X Files and I also enjoy the dynamic of Heyer or Austen where two people gradually move together, usually following some initial conflict. But I resist this idea of 'emotional porn' because I think my enjoyment of this pattern is far more akin to the enjoyment I derive from other sources of narrative drive - reading a detective story knowing you are going to find out the murderer or finishing one of Dickens' jollier novels knowing that all the nasty people will get punished and the nice people will be rewarded. Also the pleasure of reaching the punch line of a horror film (such as Rosemary's Baby) or sf film (such as Soylent Green). All such narratives are characterised by the pleasurable anticipation of a climax which you may or may not know the precise nature of in advance - so in a sense it *is* all about desire and gratification but these things aren't always sexual.

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  21. I define "prurient" as an "itch" for the lascivious and lewd, an itch that one recognizes might embarrass, the reason teenagers hide Playboy and Playgirl under the mattress--or at least they used to. With that definition in mind, I would have to admit that many covers of romance novels slide toward pornography while at the same time recognizing that those covers are rarely indicative of what's inside. Erotica often takes the same slide. Most romance fiction, on the other hand, at least the contents of the books, ultimately place what might be otherwise pornographic in the context of progeneration--marriage and children. Of course, if a reader chose to read only the sex scenes in a romance and ignore what surrounds them, the sex scenes easily fall into pornography, the only purpose of which is prurient.

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  22. Laura, I wanted to write you and let you know that based on your extremely helpful blog post about the Anderton dissertation I managed to get said dissertation through ILL at my university, which helped me a lot with the paper I was writing. If you still have unanswered questions about this work I'd be happy to try to address them for you. I will have the dissertation through August 24th. Thanks for your helpful comments.

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    1. Thanks very much, Lady Anemone. I'm not working in this area myself, so I don't have any pressing questions about the Anderton but I appreciate the offer. Is your paper going to be published sometime?

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  23. So what if we get off on reading romance? In fact, I enjoy a bedroom encounter even more after I write a heated scene and my husband certainly appreciates it. People need to stop projecting their issues onto others and get with it or keep quiet.

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