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