Porn is unrealistic? What about romance novels!

An anti-porn polemic inspires a debate over whether male or female fantasy is more harmful to relationships

Topics: Pornography, Sex, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Porn is unrealistic? What about romance novels!

An anonymous woman argues in the National Review Online that pornography destroyed her family. After 13 years of marriage, her husband had an affair with a woman who had “all the physical qualities of a porn star — bleached blond hair, heavy makeup, provocative clothing, and large breasts.” Ultimately, she says, “he succumbed to the allure of the secret fantasy life he had been indulging since his adolescence” and moved out of their house, leaving her to take care of their five kids. Against this backdrop of domestic devastation, she sees the dark, X-rated corners of the Internet  as providing “a drug so powerful it can destroy a family simply by distorting a man’s perception of his wife” and fueling an “addiction so lethal it has the potential to render an entire generation incapable of forming lasting marriages.”

This is the familiar argument against porn and, per the usual, it’s predictably sparked debate. In a blog post for Pajamas Media, psychologist Helen Smith raises the question of whether “control over porn” is “really about control over men’s sexuality.” She goes on to say: “I think there are many reasons that marriages are not working out, but porn seems to be the least of the problems. And I wonder — does porn distort men’s attitudes as much as romance novels and Lifetime TV distort women’s?” Well, that’s provocative, ain’t it! In all the time I’ve spent reading about and taking part in feminist debates about pornography, I’ve never heard that question raised. Essentially, Smith is asking whose vice is more unrealistic and harmful to real-life relationships.

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Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte responded to the article on Twitter: “Shorter Dr. Helen: Only men get to have high standards set by the media they consume. Also, women shut up.” She later elaborated: “I do agree that controlling a man’s porn is a bad idea. But it’s hypocritical to say ‘fantasies 4 men, but none 4 women!’” I interpret Smith’s post much differently: It seems an attempt to point out that men and women are mutually deluded in their fantasies. (Which should come as no surprise, fantasies being fantasies and not reality.) Her point is that if we’re to criticize the stereotypical male ideal of a sex pot with fake breasts and bleached blond hair, we ought to also consider a critique of equally clichéd female fantasy. Seems reasonable enough.

That is, if you’re into talking in stereotypical, he-versus-she terms (men like smut, women like romance novels) or have a vested interest in performing a moral and political exegesis on people’s fantasy lives — and I don’t. I would much prefer to sit here and fantasize about finding a knight in shining armor who will sweep me off my feet and do the dishes. 

I kid.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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