Last week I wrote about whether or not pornography use was the equivalent of romance novels, which caused quite a stir in the comments. The main purpose of the post was on investigating whether or not porn is cheating, and the idea that romance novels can be dangerous came up. But I didn’t really have room in that post to elaborate. I think, though, that it warrants its own post. So here goes!
The problem is that many books fall under the category of “romance novels”, anything from Jane Austen to Janette Oke to Nora Roberts to Karen Kingsbury to whoever it was who wrote Twilight. Yet these books are really very different genres, despite the “romance” moniker. So how do you decide whether or not they’re really beneficial–or at least not harmful–to read? (and if the problem is that your wife reads romance novels, skip to the bottom for some thoughts!)
In the comments section people were making a distinction between the typical “bodice ripper” romance novels, with descriptive sex scenes, and your Janette Oke romances. But I’m not sure the line can be drawn so easily, and it’s not always about what genres or publishers they have. For instance, I’ve read some Christian romance novels lately that, while you couldn’t call them soft porn by any stretch of the imagination, were still Christian in Name Only. They had breathless kissing scenes, and the main relationship between the woman and the man seemed to be a physical attraction, and not a deep friendship. So here would be my warning signs for novels that could verge on dangerous to read:
1. Reading Erotic Novels is Always Dangerous
If you walk into a regular bookstore and go to the “romance” section, you’ll predominantly find books that were written with highly erotic scenes in them. The whole plot revolves around a woman falling in love with a man, and the romance is highly sexualized in nature.
These novels were written to be titillating, and I really don’t think there’s a huge difference between this and porn. It’s “soft porn”, and indeed many women find themselves far more aroused by reading something like this than they would be watching porn on a computer. So women who devour novel after novel like that aren’t that much different from men who watch porn all night. I’ve written more about the dangers of erotica, too.
2. Romance Novels That Stir up Dissatisfaction
Then there are “romance novels” which aren’t sexual, but could still prove to be a danger if they stir up dissatisfaction with your mate. For this type, you need to know yourself. For instance, I love Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (both by Jane Austen). They’re beautifully written, they’re wonderful prose, and they’ve got amazing characters. I consider them works of art, and I so appreciate them. Plus I find them so much fun!
But let’s face it: if you’re really dissatisfied with your marriage, it may be best to steer clear of these, even if they aren’t written to be sexually stimulating. Books are an entirely different medium than movies. When we read, we take part in creating the story because we have to participate in picturing it and putting images to the words. Thus, we become really emotionally engaged in a book, often more than we would in a movie. So when you’re unhappy in your marriage, a book can be “an escape” where you experience something very different. That type of escape can be dangerous if you’re trying to get away from a marriage that isn’t healthy.
Some people can eat a handful of chips and then stop. Other people, once they take that first handful, will devour the whole bag. We each need to be aware of our own temptations. For many of us this type of book really doesn’t cause a problem, because it’s just the story that we enjoy, and we don’t see it as reflecting on our marriage. But if you’re struggling with your relationship and with accepting your husband, and if you’re struggling with feeling emotionally drawn to other men, it’s probably wise to avoid even these.
That’s why I find making a statement that “these books are fine” but “those books are not” aren’t really helpful. It really depends on where you are in your marriage.
3. Books That Give an Unrealistic View of Marriage
Finally, I’d include books that give an unrealistic view of what marriage or love is supposed to be. Books like the Twilight series would fall into this category. In Twilight, for instance, love devours you. It’s something that no one else can understand. The Twilight depiction of true love is something that’s secret, it’s all encompassing, and it excludes others.
Too many teens are growing up thinking that this is the picture of true love. When you love someone, the world will be against you. No one else will understand you. Your parents won’t understand. Your friends won’t understand. It’s just you and him against the world. It’s actually quite similar to Romeo and Juliet. It’s more about obsession than it is about a love that perseveres, day after day.
I’m wary of these especially for younger girls, even if they don’t really have sex scenes in them. Love should be portrayed as something which grows your life, not shrinks it so that it’s only that guy and you. So be careful of this!
I’d also put some of the Christian books I’ve read lately into this category. The “romance” doesn’t consist of a deep friendship that’s rooted in something strong; it’s all about feeling “breathless” when you’re near someone, or having one’s heart race. It’s describing that original feeling of headiness and attraction, but not something that’s a good foundation for marriage. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to someone. But when the plot involves attraction and really very little else, I worry that it’s sending the wrong message. It’s portraying marriage as something which is always going to be characterized by major attraction, and that rarely lasts, nor is it enough to build a relationship on. My teenage daughter wrote a post recently about why she hates Christian fiction, and a lot of this is exactly the reason!
I think that covers the major genres.
Of course, I don’t want to be legalistic about this, because I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed some novels that aren’t of the romance genre that have some sex scenes in them. I tend to skip over those scenes, in the same way that I fast forward through some scenes in movies, because I like the rest of the book. It’s not like I’m perfect in this area by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, I’ve appreciated Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series, though it has racy scenes. And there are others that would fall under this category.
The difference between that and porn is that these scenes are only a part of the whole, and a small part at that. They can be ignored. On the other hand, when it comes to more soft porn books like Nora Roberts’, or actual porn movies, they can’t be separated. That’s the main event. That’s the reason it’s written.
So I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for romance novels–other than the soft porn genre–as to which are okay and which aren’t.
I think you need to be aware of your own danger areas, and steer clear of those. And if you find that in reading books you start to ignore your real life, or have the urge to escape your real life, then they’re probably not a helpful use of your time! On the other hand, if you just find them fun, and you can read a book every now and then for relaxation, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Know yourself, and be faithful to your responsibilities and your marriage, and other than that, it’s up to you. But one last warning–
Don’t Forget About the Danger of Progression
Quite often we start reading the “harmless” novels–the Janette Oke, the Amish romances, the good clean Christian books. But then we want a little more. So we branch out a little. And pretty soon, before you know it, we’re reading erotica. They do tend to feed the appetite for more. I’ve known so many Christian teens who just devoured all the romances in the church library, and then headed to the public library for more, and ended up almost addicted to really steamy stuff. So be careful. Don’t let an appetite for something relatively innocent feed an appetite for something that’s not.
Thoughts for Guys Whose Wives Read Romance Novels
I know many people who wind up on this post are guys who are distressed because their wives read these steamy romance novels all the time but seem to refuse romance with you! That’s definitely a problem. A couple of things that can help:
Read this post on how Kindles can wreck your marriage about how erotica actually undermines a good sex life.
Here’s a post on achieving spiritual intimacy when you make love. When a woman is escaping to novels, you’re probably not feeling very intimate. Why don’t you read this together?
Talk to her about it. Share what you want out of your marriage, and ask her what she wants. Ask her if she can set aside certain times during the week when you do things together and rediscover each other. That’s often a better route than asking her to quit entirely–unless we’re talking erotica, and then she really does need to quit.
My book 31 Days to Great Sex takes couples through a bunch of exercises to improve their emotional, spiritual, AND physical intimacy. You talk and laugh a lot! And you’ll talk specifically about what real intimacy is. That may be a way to open the door to communication about what she’s doing to your marriage.
Now, what do you think? I’d love to know! And if you think other women would benefit from this post, please hit the Facebook button on the right (as well as the Like button!) or share it on Twitter! Thank you!