signup now
Don't Call It Mommy Porn
  • May 08, 2014 : 15:05
  • comments

I was 12 when I bought my first romance novel. My mother probably bought it for me, remembering the Mills and Boon romances she had devoured in her teens. In her day, the hero and heroine shared little more than a chaste kiss before the book’s close, right before the wedding.

But romance novels had changed a lot in the intervening years, and the slim Harlequin novel contained a very hot, explicit sex scene. I remember feeling overwhelmed and flushed as I read it. That book got me hooked. I spent the rest of my teen years hovering in the romance section of the bookstore each month when the new titles went on sale, often buying at least one or two.

Perhaps it’s because of my longtime reading of sexually explicit romance novels, but when a certain book called Fifty Shades of Grey started a media firestorm in 2012 over “mommy porn” and the existence of women who read erotica (the book has sold over 100 million copies as of February), I was surprised that it was news. Sex in romance novels has been around since the mid-1970s, with major publisher Harlequin late to the game, printing explicit sex beginning around 1980. That’s over 30 years of women writing, selling, buying and reading sex with nary a whisper.

The nature of sex in romance novels has changed, however. Jenny Trout, an author of erotic romance whose funny chapter-by-chapter recaps of Fifty Shades of Grey earned her a sizable Internet following, says, “[In] those old-school romances, almost always the heroine is raped by the hero and then she starts to like it and then she really likes it, but first she has to be forced into the sex so that the reader knows that she’s not a ‘bad girl,’ she doesn’t really want to have sex, but since it’s going to happen anyway she’s going to enjoy it.”

Since those early sex scenes, most romances have evolved considerably: there were still a few blushing virgins when I began reading romance novels in the 1990s, but most books featured female characters who were sexually active, and in every book the heroine wanted to have sex with the hero; often she was the initiator. Nearly two decades later, the flurry of shocked and scandalized media coverage of Fifty Shades and the erotic romance genre makes it seem as though erotica aimed at women must be far more risqué now than ever before. Trout disagrees. “I don’t think [romance novels are] getting sexier, I just think people are noticing it more and I think the sex is presented in a different way,” she says.

Harlequin, Avon and other large romance publishers may not have ventured into BDSM, but there are plenty of erotic romance publishers and self-published authors who have. Jenny Trout’s The Boss series, for example, which she began writing in response to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, features bondage scenes and a dominant/submissive relationship. The inclusion of BDSM elements in romances isn’t limited to recent books, either, says Trout. “One of the first romance novels I read was Bertrice Small, All of the Sweet Tomorrows, and there’s a scene where the heroine is in a harem and her feet are being tortured, this erotic foot torture thing in this book from the ’80s! So Fifty Shades of Grey comes out and she’s like ‘and he spanks me and touches me down there.’” The sex-savvy reader was not impressed. “I was expecting a lot more from this!” she says.

In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey has much more in common with these older romances than the modern ones. Trout explains, “[The] heroine has never masturbated before, she’s never had an orgasm, she’s never even had any sort of sexual feelings. First she has to be reluctant or afraid, but he’s going to show her the way because he’s the one true love, and that makes it okay for her to enjoy sex. She has to have a male’s permission.” She adds, “That’s very much in keeping with the old stuff.”

What makes a book like this so popular among today’s allegedly sexually liberated women? Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist from San Francisco, California, suggests that many women are not as sexually liberated as we think. “I’m hearing all these women saying ‘I need a Christian Grey to help me get in touch with my sexuality and help me get more comfortable.’ You can do that on your own! You don’t need a man to show you everything and have this weird power dynamic over you,” Marin says, adding, “I don’t like that it doesn’t give women permission to take ownership of [their sexuality] and for them to feel comfortable exploring it on their own.”

Trout agrees. In fact, she feels that women seem to feel the need for permission even to read about someone else exploring their sexuality. “There are so many women who will talk about Fifty Shades and say, ‘Well, I only read it because everybody else was reading it.’ Especially with the bondage elements, women want an excuse that they’re reading it because everyone else is, not because they have an interest in BDSM.”

Marin feels that this dynamic of the man as sexual leader and woman as follower is harmful to both men and women. When men feel responsible for their partner’s sexuality it can cause a great deal of anxiety. “[Men] feel like they’re supposed to guide and lead every aspect of the dynamic and it’s so much pressure to put on one person’s shoulders,” Marin explains. “And for women it creates this really unsatisfying relationship with your own sexuality where you’re always dependent on another person and you don’t give yourself permission to explore and experiment.”

Comedian Jen Kirkman does a standup comedy routine about female masturbation in which she describes being unable to get off without a narrative element in her fantasy. Even before I started reading romance novels, I remember narrative featuring heavily in my early sexual fantasies, and it has continued to do so. An informal poll of my female friends seems to confirm this: they all agree that just looking at a photo of or thinking about a naked man doesn’t do it for them without some sort of underlying story. Unsurprisingly, as a longtime reader and author of erotic romance, Trout concurs. “I think it’s really important for most women to have a story behind that fantasy. I want to know that the person I’m fantasizing about likes me as a person, that there might be some kind of relationship or friendship there in this world that I’m fantasizing about, so it’s like I’m respected.”

Marin, however, offers a slightly different perspective. In spite of the women she sees in her practice who say they need a narrative and an emotional connection in their sexual fantasies, recent scientific studies suggest that women may get more aroused from purely visual porn than they think. “They’ve done studies with having men and women view porn and attaching gauges to measure erection or lubrication, and then they’ve compared that to how aroused they report being. And the way [women’s] bodies were responding was completely opposite to what they were reporting.” Marin adds, “Studies like that aren’t totally conclusive, but there’s probably a bit of both that’s true: women really do like that idea of a narrative, and they also react pretty well to the actual visuals.”

There is, of course, no hard-and-fast rule for what will turn women on and it will never be as simple as saying “Men like visual stimulation and women like narrative” or even “Women claim not to like visual stimulation but really they do.” One interesting possibility suggested by this research is that while watching porn may be physically stimulating to women, our libidos aren’t fully engaged unless we have a compelling mental stimulus as well.

Women’s sexuality is not yet well understood, but we know it is incredibly widely varied. If porn geared toward men seems to be constructed with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality—young, thin, naked women with big boobs, an emphasis on the man’s pleasure and the almighty money shot—erotica created by and for women is bespoke tailored, featuring performers of all sizes, shapes and races and acts from the romantic to the depraved. I would, in fact, go a step further: in my experience, and the experience of women I’ve talked to, to a greater or lesser degree, women act as their own pornographers. We gather material from our daily lives, media and, of course, porn or erotica and synthesize what turns us on into our own personal fully immersive mental porno movies. Says Marin, “I feel like women take ownership about what it is that really does turn them on. When a woman makes the conscious decision to read a dirty book, look at some pictures or watch porn, it is about getting aroused, doing a little bit of self-discovery and figuring out what she likes and synthesizing in that way that you just described.” What turns women on is so individual that it’s rare to find any given creator of erotica who is always on our same wavelength, sexually. “Sometimes the hero will say something or do something and it’ll be just so perfect and you’ll be like, ‘Yes! That’s so hot!’ but then the next thing in the scene you’re like, ‘Ew, really?’” Trout says, laughing.

While many women clearly do experience this process of synthesis, it seems there are others who use written erotica for immediate sexual satisfaction. Says Trout, “Because I read erotica and it was, literally, the synthesizing or the ‘filing that one away in the bank for later,’ I always thought everybody was doing that. But on Twitter one of my readers said that her vibrator broke and she blamed me. I was surprised because I was, I guess myopically, expecting that every reader experiences it the way I do.”

Women have been quietly reading and writing erotica for 30 years, largely ignored by the mainstream media, but the recent runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey has forced the world to take notice and attempt to claim it as a new phenomenon. Their label of choice is “mommy porn,” a term coined in 2012 by the New York Times. It’s not a flattering term for readers or writers of the genre. Trout says, “It devalues [women’s sexuality] in a lot of different ways. What they’re saying is ‘Look at all of these mothers who are reading these books.’ Once you have children you are no longer a sexual object; you’ve fulfilled your role of ‘the whore,’ now you’re ‘the mother’ and you can’t have both. And it devalues the books that are targeted to women, because if women are writing them for a female market and women are spending their money on it, and it’s this cyclical all-women thing, we’d better give it a cutesy nickname so that everybody will know that these aren’t real books and these aren’t real readers.”

In the aftermath of such high sales, publishers have been quick to put out new erotic romance titles aimed at women, hoping to cash in on the phenomenon by marketing these books as “the next Fifty Shades of Grey.” The big question is whether E.L. James’ books were a one-time anomaly among women readers or whether they mark the beginning of an era where erotica becomes much more widely read. Trout thinks the truth is somewhere in between. “Anytime a book is that big, it’s an anomaly.” Trout adds, “But I do think we are seeing a loosening up. There was this whole community of readers who were reading erotic romance before Fifty Shades of Grey came along. Ellora’s Cave, the publishing company that really took off, started in 2000 and it was this already huge movement, but suddenly Fifty Shades of Grey came along and now more people are getting into it. The genre hasn’t been killed by the popularity of Fifty Shades and it has been boosted, but I think there’s going to be more to come. The genre was there for a lot longer and it’ll keep staying there even after the Fifty Shades thing dies out.”

read more: News, Sex and Dating, books, interview

1 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    This was incredibly well-written. I almost started throwing confetti.
Advertisement