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Sex Week: Why Romance Novels Are Girl Porn

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor


Through the years, thanks to having mostly male friends in high school and a few kinky boyfriends, I have watched a decent amount of pornography—not enough to call myself an “expert,” by any stretch of the imagination, but more than most women I know.  One question I’ve gotten from my male friends, on more than one occasion, is, “Why can’t women get into pornography?”

My answer: they do.  They’re called “romance novels.”

I believe that many women read romance novels for the same type of sexual release that men view pornography for.  That’s not to say that some women don’t enjoy pornography, or that some men don’t like romance novels.  But for many women—me included—romance novels simply work better than pornography.  And I think there are reasons behind that.

A few caveats: I’m writing this article based mostly on my own experiences and on what I’ve heard from other women (and men).  As such, my argument will be based on the heterosexual female perspective; I simply don’t feel I have enough knowledge to write about the lesbian or bisexual female perspective.  Also, I’m defining romance novels as, “Any novel that has a romantic relationship as one of its primary plot points.”  That means that romantic hybrids (e.g. paranormal romance) are included, as well as many books you may not necessarily find in the romance section of the bookstore.

Why doesn’t pornography work for most women?

Let’s take an imaginary porno.  We open on a woman.  I think maybe she’s a housewife.  Or maybe not.  Her husband leaves, or maybe he’s her father.  There’s a knock on the door.  She opens it, and there stands a man.  I think he’s supposed to be a pool cleaner.  They have sex.  Lots of it.  Then the husband comes home, and he joins in.  Then some more people come by.  They join in, too.  Etc.

Most of the heterosexual men I’ve known are very aroused by visual stimuli.  Throw an attractive, naked female in front of them, and you’ll get a reaction.  But for women, it’s often more complicated than that.  In fact, a study reported in the New York Times reported that women are turned on by a lot of things—but not, apparently, the sight of a naked man.  Also important: the readings that researchers got from measuring their vaginal responses versus the level of arousal they self-reported didn’t match.  To me, this indicates that arousal, in women, is as much a mental state as a physical one.

Returning to our imaginary porno.  Who are these people?  Why should I care whether they’re having sex?  What does it matter?  For most women, sex is just as much an emotional experience as a physical one.  

The focus of romance novels is the relationship between the characters.  The book’s success or failure depends on whether we care about the main characters.  There might be sex scenes, but the sex is an outgrowth of the relationship between the two characters.  Thus, we’re more turned on than we would be by images of random people having sex.

One of my favorite romances is Lover Eternal, the second book in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series of paranormal romances.  The book focuses on Rhage, a vampire, who falls in love with Mary, a human who may be dying of cancer.  Rhage has a problem of his own: he shares his body with a monstrous dragon beast.  When Rhage changes into the beast, he eats people—literally.  Unfortunately, the dragon desires Mary just as much as Rhage does.  Throughout the book, we watch them fight against overwhelming odds.  We care about them.  We want things to work out.  

Rhage’s fears that the beast will hurt Mary ultimately culminate with a scene where Rhage has himself restrained to test whether they can make love without the beast taking over:

Mary went into the room and closed the door.  Candles were lit on either side of the bed, and Rhage was lying naked on the mattress, his arms angled up over his head, his legs spread to the point that they were stretched.  Chains wrapped around his wrists and ankles and then looped around the bed’s heavy oak supports.

You can imagine how things go from there.  It’s a kinky scene—though I’m sure there’s something quite Freudian about the idea of the male needing to be restrained during sex because he fears the beast will take over.  But it also means something, in the context of this story.  By the time this scene takes place, we’ve watched Rhage and Mary fight for one another for almost 90% of the book.  The beast has been a huge obstacle for them, preventing Rhage from really giving himself to her during sex.  It’s incredibly erotic, but also very emotional.  It works on a lot of different levels.

Another author who balances emotion and eroticism incredibly well is Jeaniene Frost.  In Halfway to the Grave, the first book in her Night Huntress series, the protagonist, Cat, is convinced vampires are evil—even though she’s half vampire herself.  She hunts and kills vamps.  Enter Bones, a 240-something vampire bounty hunter.  After she tries to kill him, he kidnaps and coerces her to work with him.  She hates him at first, but she’s also very attracted to him.  The development of their relationship also parallels how Cat’s feelings about vampires’ inherent “evilness” changes.

His lips trailed down my neck, finding my pulse unerringly.  He drew it into his mouth, manipulating my vulnerable artery with his tongue and lips.  It was the most dangerous position to be in with a vampire, but I wasn’t afraid.  Instead, the feel of him sucking on my neck aroused me unbelievably.  The waves of heat sweeping through me had me quivering.

His lips came up to my ear, and he licked the shell before whispering into it.

“I want you so much.  Tell me you want me.  Say yes.”

Here we have a hint of danger (horny vampire plus neck artery could very well equal a dead lover), plus the element of dominance versus submission (Cat relinquishes control, allows herself to be vulnerable to Bones).  But at no point do we ever forget that this is about Cat and Bones—not Random Girl X and Vampire Archetype #135.  We’ve seen Cat struggle with her vampire prejudice as her friendship with Bones deepens.  We’ve listened to Bones talk about his long and sordid history with women.  We’ve watched them dance around each other, literally and metaphorically, as Cat tried to rationalize her way out of being attracted to Bones.  This scene isn’t just about sex; it’s about them, and their relationship, and Frost never lets us forget that.  Four books later, Cat and Bones are still the focus of the Night Huntress series, and their sexual chemistry still sizzles off the page.  Chapter 32 of the second book, One Foot in the Grave, has become quite notorious in certain internet circles for its explicit descriptions of sex, and Frost has teased about another, similarly themed chapter in the fifth book, This Side of the Grave (being released February 22).

That’s not to say that there aren’t adult films out there that have well-developed plots and characters.  (In fact, I will be talking to someone later this week who directs exactly those kinds of films.)  But these films represent a still-emerging niche.  For years, the “average” pornography has been of the lonely housewife-boinks-pool cleaner variety described above.  Any meager attempt at plot or characterization is quickly abandoned for random people having lots of sex.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  But for many heterosexual women, arousal cannot be separated from the emotional components of sex.  If we’re not emotionally invested in the relationship, the sex acts are simply not as appealing.

Romance novels also allow readers to use their imaginations to make the characters whatever they want to be.  A description of the character may be given, but beyond that readers are allowed to craft their own vision and fantasy of him.  Meanwhile, a pornographic actor is limited by how attractive you think he is.  Take, for example, Ron Jeremy.   The man has starred in dozens of pornographic films, spanning several decades.  He’s arguably the most famous adult film star of all time.  Yet I don’t find him attractive in the slightest.

Romantic novel heroes, on the other hand, can be as attractive as I make them.  Take, for example, the description given of the hero, Ciann, in Karen Marie Moning’s book Spell of the Highlander:

She forced her gaze up to his face.  It was as sinfully gorgeous as the rest of him.  He had the chisled, proud features of an ancient Celt warrior: strong jaw and cheekbones, a straight, aristocratic nose, flaring arrogantly at the nostrils, and a mouth so sexy and kissable that her own lips instinctively puckered, then parted, just looking at it, as if sampling a kiss.

What does this paragraph actually tell us about Ciann?  He is “sinfully gorgeous,” a subjective measure.  He has strong features—a decidedly less subjective descriptor, but still ambiguous.  His mouth is “sexy and kissable.”  Does that mean he has thick lips?  Thin ones?  Ones that look like they’re soft and warm?  I don’t know.  In fact, the only concrete descriptor we’re given here is that he has a straight nose; even “aristocratic” is a subjective term.  Moning does give other descriptions of Ciann that are more concrete—he’s tall with long, dark hair, very muscular, etc.—but within these confines we have the ability to imagine him as we please.  (And even outside of them, honestly.  Who’s going to stop me if I want to imagine him as a skinny blond?  The imagination police?  I’ve certainly had books where I’ve suddenly realized that the picture of a character in my head doesn’t match his/her physical description at all.)

I do believe that a big reason more women don’t watch pornography is because there’s still such a social stigma against it.  Women just aren’t supposed to “do” that kind of thing, and many are very concerned about what people will think—despite the fact that the activity would occur within their own bedrooms.  Romance novels are socially acceptable, even if they are looked down upon.

But why is that?  Even without the societal pressure, I think that many women would still turn to romance novels for erotic stimulation.  Yet whereas pornography is considered sort of a “rite of passage” for guys, romance novels are thought of as silly and trite.  Yet Psychology Today stated that “women who read romance novels make love with their partners 74% more often.”  And the boundaries between “romance” and “erotica” are diminishing all the time.  Anal sex?  S&M?  Threesomes?  All quite common, and vividly described, in today’s romance world.  Those who look down upon romance novels and their readers are ignoring the fact that these books provide a way for women to become more in touch with their sexuality.

So bring on the romance novels, in all their sexy, sexy glory.  Society may thumb its nose at me, but hey: I’ll be getting laid a lot more often than the rest of them!

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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