So what if romance novels are porn?

An article conflating the two genres inspires backlash -- but the truth is, both deserve defending

Published June 5, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Hardcore pornography has long been the target of religious opprobrium -- but this week the criticism shifted to another realm of personal fantasy: romance novels. An article on Utah's warned that just as with smut, bodice-rippers can be highly "addictive" and destroy marriages. The article was written by a Latter-day Saints life coach -- for serious -- and was a riotous example of conservative paranoia. It soon went viral with the help of the cheeky Twitter hashtag #romancekills (e.g. "Fleas carrying black death were imported into Europe in romance novels"). I'm more than comfortable with outright dismissing the piece itself, but it's worth comparing the two fantasy-fulfilling genres, especially because they act as caricatures of male and female desire.

Now, a disclaimer first: These generalities are always problematic, because far more men and women represent unique variations on these stereotypes than perfectly adhere to the sexual mold. It's also true that romance novels do not all include sex, whereas porn does by definition. As Sarah Wendell wrote on her website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, "Anyone who picks up [romance novelist] Georgette Heyer looking for Jenna Jameson is going to be woefully and comically disappointed." A much more direct comparison can be made between smut and the hot-and-heavy action of X-rated fan fiction, but romance novels represent a larger, more mainstream audience. That's why researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam used the two genres -- as well as billions of Internet search terms -- as a way to plumb the depths of the male and female sexual psyches in their book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire," and it's a gold mine for a discussion like this one.

The major plot difference in romance novels -- aside from having a substantial story line in the first place -- is the fantasy of true love. Instead of relying on tight shots of penetration, these books get their sexual spark from extreme emotional close-ups, if you will. The hero is brooding and tough -- often because of a traumatic past, which makes him a sympathetic brute. (Cue belated moment of self-realization: Shit. I go after real-life romantic heroes.) As sex researchers frequently point out, women typically require multiple sexual cues to become aroused, so often the hero isn't just an alluring bad boy but also successful and powerful.

The "money shot" in these novels typically isn't a geyser of bodily fluids but rather a declaration of love, or a man on bended knee. "In the world of male fantasy -- and male desire -- the goal is orgasm," write Ogas and Gaddam. "The story ends with a man's climax, what masseuses call a 'happy ending.' In romance, the happy ending (known as an HEA or Happily-Ever-After) is always a long-term monogamous relationship, usually marriage." It isn't that orgasm is irrelevant in these books, but "it's never the final scene." The female conquest here is for the heart of the alpha male.

That's not to say that porn never gets romantic -- attempts at "porn for women" often attempt it -- but the X-rated norm is wham-bam-thank-you-whatever-your-name-is sex. Smut relies on the ideal of no-strings sex and available female bodies. "In porn, the mind of a woman is usually empty of all thought and feeling -- except for an overwhelming urge to have sex with plumbers, pizza boys, and her BFF," the authors write. "Their bodies, on the other hand, are depicted in lavish, graphic detail." Interestingly, though, the male is also objectified in porn. He isn't a character with a complex interior world; he's just a "dick for hire." As "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" explains, "His personality consists exclusively of the desire to elicit female pleasure through the paradoxical process of attaining his own orgasm."

There is attention to superficial aesthetics in romance novels too, of course. The men are tall with broad shoulders, rippling muscles, strong cheekbones and heavy brows. Interestingly, though, little attention is paid to the size of their member, unlike in porn. But they have all the other extreme signifiers of masculinity, just as many stereotypical female porn actresses have inflated lips, breasts and sometimes butts.

Ogas and Gaddam perfectly summarize what romance novels share with pornography: "There's a fascinating parallel between what may be the greatest sexual self-delusion in men, and the greatest sexual self-delusion in women. Men are quite prone to believing they are inducing feelings of erotic ecstasy in their partner through their own sexual prowess," they write. "Women, on the other hand, are more easily manipulated by expressions of love." In Pornland, women have operatic orgasms easily, quickly and repeatedly; their greatest turn-on is fulfilling male desires. In Romanceland, unapologetic rakes are reformed when they meet the protagonist; she tames the beast, domesticates him.

In the real world, high-sensation-seeking males do not magically turn monogamous; obsessive lovers are usually emotionally unstable; and overly protective dudes are controlling and abusive. Similarly, most women require a little attention to a particular bundle of nerves in order to reach such operatic levels of ecstasy. "In the same way that women often find the breathless gasping and moaning of female porn stars to be absurdly inauthentic," write Ogas and Gaddam, "male readers of romances might find the emotional confessions of romance heroes to be strangely unfamiliar."

As the article points out -- albeit in hyperbolic terms -- it can be problematic when people adopt these unrealistic ideals. A bibliophile friend who has researched the genre told me, "The characters themselves may be complex and diverse, but the nature of love itself is always the same and always strikes me as women trying to reassure themselves and each other that relationships work in a way that they actually almost never do." In other words, that it's possible to land an alpha male who is not in the least bit concerned with spreading his grade-A seed -- at least, not after falling head over heels in love with The One. Men who actually buy into the porno norm may be greatly disappointed when they encounter real women who do not orgasm on command, breasts that do not defy gravity or genitalia resembling that of an adolescent.

But, here's the thing: For many, fantasy is just fantasy. Oftentimes, we don't want our fantasies to become reality -- and, maybe I'm just projecting here, but when they do, they tend to be disappointing. "All forms of erotica affect the brain by satisfying existing biological needs rather than shaping future expectations," Ogas told me by email. "Eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's Karamel Sutra satisfies a craving for sweets; it certainly does not create the expectancy that all future meals will be swirled full of creamy chocolate pleasure." Naturally, porn and romance fans alike agree.

It can be unsettling to read a book like "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" that seemingly reduces us to our Darwinian desires -- that women want a consistent provider and men just want to spread their seed. It's disturbing in large part because it's so easy to find truth there, and yet most of us want to be more than our animalistic urges; that's what makes us human. Our sexual imagination -- whether it favors a gang-bang or a knight in shining armor (or both? Hmm) -- is part of that balance. Not everything has to be politically correct -- especially when it isn't actually real. It isn't so much romance novels that need defending here, it's fantasy.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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