P Is For: Porn

For today’s post in the A to Z April Blogging Challenge, I’m going to take the bull by the horns—see what I did there?—and talk about romance, erotic romance, and porn. But not like you expect.


Lately there has been a great deal of media attention being paid to Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s the story that just won’t die, and it has baffled many of the erotic romance authors I had the pleasure of meeting this week at the Romantic Times Convention in Chicago. And lately we’ve hit rock-bottom with a piece by Katie Roiphe in Newsweek (to which I refuse to link because, come on, Kate Roiphe).

And now we romance and erotic romance writers and readers have to live beneath the shadow of that execrable phrase: “mommy porn.”

There are a lot of posts from romance fans that defend the genre against the all-too-prevalent accusation that we’re merely writing porn for women. Some of these say, “No, we’re not writing porn, we’re doing something different.” Some of these say, “Yeah, we’re writing porn, so what?”

I’m going to leave aside the porn/not-porn question for now and try to tease out something else I’ve noticed in all the mainstream romance coverage.

Non-romance readers see the popularity of Fifty Shades and draw a thick black line connecting the (presumably) female reader and the tortured billionaire kinkster hero. Then they label that line WHAT WOMEN WANT and opine about whether or not it’s good for women to want that kind of man, or whether or not it’s easy for men to be that kind of man. Then they go on to say some unusually stupid things about romance being a pernicious influence on a woman’s real-life relationships (example: this old chestnut).

The problem—okay, one of the problems—with this line of argument is that it completely erases the heroine.

Take Fifty Shades, which admittedly I have only in part. Our heroine is Anastasia Steele. She is the one in the relationship with Christian, not the reader. The reader is interested in watching the relationship between the two of them, as this Feministing piece quite accurately points out: the fun is watching the couple. It would be hard for a romance reader to imagine that the hero is a complete apotheosis of their personal desires when he spends an entire series fucking and loving and marrying someone else. (Though the ‘women are stupid and don’t know what’s good for them’ thread is nearly as strong in romance coverage as it is in coverage of reproductive rights.)

It could be argued that the book’s first-person POV effaces the distinction between the reader and the heroine: because we are in her head, we are implicitly thinking her thoughts and sharing her experiences, sexual or otherwise. There are, however, a few problems with this.

For instance: Lolita.

One of the common threads of analysis that surrounds Nabokov’s masterpiece is that the first-person POV prevents us from seeing the real character of Lolita with any truth or clarity. We know how Humbert thinks and feels about her, but we cannot trust that his perspective is accurate or objective in any way. We know nothing of how Lolita herself really feels about anything that may or may not happen in the book. It’s the classic example of an unreliable narrator: Humbert is real, Lolita is not.

And yet with Christian Grey, we are expected to ignore Anastasia’s first-person presence entirely because of course the female reader is only interested in the sexually charged male hero. He is more real than she is.

image via Old Erotic Art

We can’t have it both ways: either first-person POV elides the relationship between reader and narrator—in which case anyone who reads Lolita is criminally and emotionally complicit in a whole lot of disturbing and unethical activities—or first-person POV filters everything through the perspective of the narrator—in which case we should be talking a lot more about Anastasia Steele than Christian Grey. (Before all my fellow lit-crit junkies jump in the comments thread: yes, despite what I said above both these modes can be active simultaneously—books are magic that way, and readers are individuals—but that kind of subtlety rarely rears its head in the trend pieces that are my subject in this post.)

What this comparison makes clear is that whether we’re talking above Nabokov or E. L. James, it’s always the men who are deemed important.

This is a subtle form of sexism, but once seen it cannot be unseen. It’s why supposed relationship experts worry that romance heroes will make real-life husbands pale in comparison. It’s why people who could not name one single romance author to save their lives can still talk about Fabio, and people who’ve read romance their entire lives cannot name a single female cover model. (Guilty as charged—though a quick Google search fixed that right quick.) In an industry that is nearly entirely read and written by and for women, there is still a sneaky little undercurrent that it’s only the men who matter.

Which may, now that I think about it, explain the ‘porn’ epithet so often hurled at romance. Romance has sex, yes—often very explicit sex—but it has a history and tradition of its own quite separate from the porn industry, even that part of the porn industry that deals in dirty books and Tijuana Bibles. But there really isn’t a short cultural term for texts that explore sexual relationships from a specifically female-centric standpoint; the closest thing we have is porn, images that explore sexual relationships from a specifically male-centric standpoint. Hence the ‘romance is porn’ idea, and why it feels so wrong but is so hard to untangle.

Romance is not porn. Romance is romance. And it’s not easily decoded, especially not by a couple self-involved paragraphs in a magazine that wouldn’t know J. D. Robb from J. R. Ward.

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4 thoughts on “P Is For: Porn

  1. Outstanding post. When I saw Katie Roiphie had written about this for Newsweek, I uttered a long string of profane words. It’s been years since I’ve heard/read anything about/by her, and here she is, opining on this subject in a magazine that is clueless when it comes to romantic fiction.

  2. I’ve only been introduced to her work recently, and I envy my earlier self’s innocent unawareness.

  3. I found your blog from the A to Z challenge.

    Your point about the 1st person POV needing more introspection on the main character vs the male hero, could the issue in 50 Shades derive from its Twilight source material? As others have pointed out, Twilight is scarce on physical description of Bella while we know every facet of Edward’s being, down to all his twitching jaw movements or whatever. Given 50 Shades was Twilight fanfic to start, I would suggest that mimic of a style already adopted by Stephenie Meyer is partly to blame.

    Very interesting thoughts btw!

  4. There’s definitely something to be teased out about POV and the Twilight-50 Shades connection. But that will have to be done by people other than me. :)

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