More Than “Chick Porn”

chicks One of the sore spots of many romance readers is the term “chick porn.” It implies that the books are only about graphic sex, and that’s the only reason we read them. While discussing 50 Shades of Gray with my roommates, one of my roommates, a straight man, argued that my denouncement of the term is perhaps not as simple as I thought. He defined pornography as writing or visuals that stimulate the reader/viewer sexually. While romance novels are much more than sex, as I said, he responded that women biologically require a greater emotional attachment for sexual desire. As such, the emotional component to romance novels are just part of the stimulation. Ergo, “chick porn.”

What is pornography? My roommate’s arguments hinge on one’s definition. When I hear the word, I think of extremely graphic images (either still or video) of sex. Technically, the definition varies. According to Oxford American Dictionary it is, “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” This differs slightly from the Collins English Dictionary, in which the definition is, “writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement.”

It is this latter definition that made me pause when I went to refute my roommate’s arguments.

For purposes of clarity, I should say that really what we’re talking about would be more along the lines of “romantica,” the subgenre that falls between the larger body of romance novels and straight erotica. I’m talking about books that would have a strong “hot” or “burning” sensuality rating. I don’t think anyone could argue that authors like Carla Kelley or Robyn Carr are writing porn. Authors that write hotter novels, like Susan Johnson or Elizabeth Hoyt or Rachel Gibson, fall into a grayer area.

These books are so hot, they are sometimes considered burning. They have graphic sex. They occasionally make one blush. What is the point of the graphic descriptions of the love scenes? Sex in romance novels can be easily explained as part of the development of a relationship; uncensored descriptions of the heroine giving a blowjob are another thing.

Now, I’m pretty sure my roommate doesn’t consider me a porn addict because I read a lot of romance novels. He tends to enjoy playing the devil’s advocate in arguments, but his points made me think about the purpose of sex that is, well, gratuitous.

There is another definition of pornography I find interesting: “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.” (This, from Random House Dictionary.) Despite what the literati think, there is artistic merit in romance novels. (At least, there is in a lot of them. Let’s be honest; some have no such creative worth.) Erotica can also be artistic, and I’m not just talking about creativity in sexual positions. Take Anaïs Nin, perhaps the most famous erotic writer of the 20th century. But it also can be crude and little more than a transcript of a sex tape on a seedy website, and that goes for romance novels and erotica alike.

Personally, I do not believe romance novels to be pornography. Once you add that emotional connection, the inherent objectification that comes with viewing porn is gone. Romance novel characters are people, not merely masturbatory objects. Erotica, perhaps, falls much closer to pornography. There is certainly more depth, both to plot and characterization, but there is also the irrefutable fact that the purpose of the story is sex. Everything else is secondary, and that, I think, comes closer to the true definition of pornography.

- Jane Granville

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12 Responses to More Than “Chick Porn”

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    It’s not the phrase that bothers me, it’s the attitude behind it. This attitude that once we have children our sexuality needs to be suppressed and how dare we enjoy a well written sex based novel – I don’t care if it’s a romance or erotica, it has a sex scene in it.
    How many books are there out there now that a woman should breast feed into kindergarten and co-sleep until they are teenagers… ok, that’s pushing it but there was that Time magazine article only last month… Why can’t we put them in their own beds and expect them to sleep and our sex lives to return once our 6 weeks of healing is over?? From the few comments other’s we know have made…. I’m convince this survey is true…
    So what’s the point in having a relationship and getting married??? Baby factory??

  2. I am a huge reader of romance novels, and they are definately not pornography, even if there is an occasional stimulating scene.

    I am also a big reader of erotica which many consider porn. In many ways it is pornography, but I say … “Who cares? If you like it, read it.”

    As a writer of women’s erotica, I much prefer the term ‘cliterature.’


  3. Ruby Jones says:

    I’m with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

  4. Liz Mc2 says:

    Interesting post; I’m less and less sure what I think about these issues. I did want to ask about one thing you said, though. Did you mean that a blowjob is not sex or couldn’t be used to develop/explore the emotional connection between a couple? Or did you just mean detailed physical description of the sex isn’t always necessary to show the emotional development? because I’d disagree with the former, but think you have a good point on the latter.

    PS Your roommate is wrong about women and porn. Studies show women *are* physically aroused by porn; in fact, straight women respond to a wider range of porn than straight men. That’s different from how a woman feels about that arousal or whether she likes the way a lot of porn depicts sex, of course, but women don’t need emotion to be physically aroused.

  5. Jane AAR says:

    LizMc2– I meant the latter. Sex of any kind can be a part of emotional development, oral sex in particular; I think it is a far more intimate act than “regular” sex. It is the level of graphicness that I question.

    Katie O’Conner– I like your term a lot- it made me actually LOL.

  6. Ash says:

    I think it’s unfair to categorize romance novels as porn. Not that there is anything wrong with watching or reading porn but in my opinion such sweeping generalizations about romance novels undermines all the effort authors put into creating a good story, fleshing out characters, researching etc.

    Porn is fundamentally about sex, romance novels are essentially about people finding each other and finding themselves, yes sex is a part of the book but then again sex is a part of relationships so you cant ignore it when you are writing a book about relationships! It is however at the end of the day not the main point of the book but just an aspect of it.

    You can learn as much from romance novels as you can from any other book. I think people are a little prejudiced when it comes to romance novels. There are plenty of non romance books out there with sex scenes and I don’t see anyone categorizing them as porn.

    If we classify books in the same way we classify movies we would see that they are in no way porn for instance “The English Patient” had sex scenes yet it is not classified as porn. Similarly take tv shows “The Tudors” for instance has plenty of steamy sex scenes yet it is not in anyway classified as porn.

    people who assume romance novels are porn are those who haven’t really read them or at least haven’t read any good ones :P
    I think a lot of misconceptions about romance novels are a direct result of its packaging, Thanks to amazingly generic titles in which variants of word like “seduction” “pleasure” “surrender” “rouge” or “rake” are emblazoned on a cover where a half dressed couple is groping each other people will always assume that the content of said books will be salacious.

    p.s I apologize for the length of the post. I got a little carried away :).

  7. Katie (kat) says:

    Following that logic any movie or TV show that has a love scene should be classified as pornography since there is bound to be someone stimulated by it. James Bond films should be labeled d**k porn and certainly all those mystery, horror & spy books written by men and featuring sex scenes would fall into that category.

    I love Game of Thrones which has some pretty explicit sex scenes but I am not watching this series for sex but for the very engrossing storyline and the delightful Tyrion Lannister played by the sublime actor Peter Dinklage. I’m sure the men who read & watch this series would be offended if their interest in the show/books was dismissed as enjoying pornography.

    I read romance for the love story not the sex. Sex is certainly a part of the story but it’s not my focus. We are a very diverse group of people, us romance readers. I’m sure sex has a varying level of importance to the story depending on the reader. For me I’m looking for the very alpha, very protective hero pursing the heroine who is his one true love with the book concluding in a happy ending. I don’t mind sex scenes but what really works for me is dialogue and, with a good arthur, the belief that the hero loves and cherishes the heroine.

  8. Jane AAR says:

    Katie (Kat) and Ash– I think the biggest distinction that has to be made is the purpose, not the effect. Is stimulation the reason for the level of explicitness, or just a side effect? That is what will determine what is porn and what isn’t, I think. (At least for things that are in those gray areas between what is obviously not, and what obviously is).

  9. Katie (kat) says:

    Well, I think the purpose of most romance novels is to tell a love story not write a sex scene. Sex is used to support the romance not the other way around. I’m sure that is not true in every case but probably the majority. I think it is ignorance that keeps people, such as the author’s roommate , espousing that romance novels are porn for women. It seems far too easy to attack a genre dominated by and for women as something base rather than positive.

  10. Hmm. I hope that the sex scenes I write have a purpose in the story (character insights, emotional connection), but they are also meant to arouse. Just as my action scenes are meant to excite. I don’t think I can tell anyone how to define porn, so I’m okay with those who think any sexually stimulating material falls under that umbrella.

    What I don’t like is the underlying assumption that high sexual content = low quality. For those of us who like hot books (whether we get aroused or not) well-written sex is part of what makes the reading experience satisfying. Explicit material has value. So call it porn! Just don’t call it trash. :)

  11. Lynn M says:

    I agree 100% with Jane’s last paragraph. For me, the thing that transforms romance novels with “hot” or “burning” ratings from being porn is the emotional element. Porn, which for me has a negative connotation (not judging anyone!), involves nameless, faceless participants who are virtually interchangeable. Whereas in romance novels, the specific characters involved do matter. There is more at stake than simple physical excitement for the reader, there is also an emotional investment in what is happening. If you can take the sex scenes out of the book (movie, tv show, etc.) and still have a story, it’s not porn. If taking out the sex aspects leaves you with two people staring at the wall, I’d call it porn. Therefore, I’d disagree with Jane’s roommate in calling romance “chick porn”, or at least argue that using the “porn” as a descriptor simply means indulging in something a person really enjoys, as in “house porn”, “car porn”, or “food porn” all describe specific genres of TV shows.

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