Romance Novels: Porn or Not?

I remember walking through an airport terminal and seeing a giant poster for the film 50 Shades of Grey. Now, this was an airport terminal where you have people of all ages (including children) and all walks of life seeing this marketing try to normalize acts of sexual violence between partners. As a man, I was more than a bit shocked by the brazenness of this massive advertisement and how telling it was of how far we’ve come undone as a culture.

But, taking a step back from the extreme end of 50 Shades, what about your standard romantic novel? Could a book really be as morally bad as a pornographic film? Are those collections of novels at the supermarket—with all the beefy, long-haired men clasping a scantily clad lady—as morally problematic as the porn sites that rake in billions of dollars each year?

Well, what is the real purpose behind a “romantic novel”? Chiefly, it’s escape.

But escape into what?

Romantic novels are about escaping the humdrum and conjuring up some excitement—particularly sexual excitement. What we have is “textual porn,” words and usually a thin plot meant to arouse and conjure lustful images, if not actions. While the medium is different, the end of the action is the same as your standard visual porn.

Again, at the unfortunate end of the spectrum, you have texts such as 50 Shades that glorify sexual violence, brokenness, and victimhood instead of integrity and any kind of selfless, disciplined love. Just like the “fantasy” women of visual porn, the men in these novels are often caricatures of real masculinity and use their strength to dominate instead of serving the woman before them.

As a Catholic Christian man, I know I am called to a higher standard than the faux-masculinity these novels present. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. ”

Whether textual, photographic, or cinematic, porn takes what should be an intimate gift between spouses and offers this union up for disordered self-gratification. We can hide behind excuses and rationalizations, but whatever the format the goal is the same—to stir up sexual excitement that doesn’t lead to any total or life-giving union outside of myself.

Great books feed our souls and have something to tell us about the human condition, raising our eyes and hearts upward to the greatness to which we are called. We are made in God’s image and likeness, meant for authentic love and to have this love reflected in our art and literature. We shouldn’t settle for less.