Emotional Pornography

What is it about pornography that makes women dislike it so much? Is it the objectification of women to fulfill male fantasies? Is it that we, as normal women, can’t ever live up to that gorgeous, airbrushed porn star? Is that it sets a man’s expectations to high when it comes to women?

Yet… don’t romance novels do the same thing to men? But whenever anyone, be it a religious leader or a husband, objects, we defend it. It’s not porn, we say… or is it?

Pornography is defined in the dictionary as anything intended to create erotic excitement, be it visual or emotional. Men are turned on by visual images, thus why pornography in video form appeals to them so much. Women, on the other hand, are wired differently. Our excitement is created mostly in the mind, with expectation, implication, and romance. We want a strong man, so we find strong literary men incredibly sexy. So, the romance novel is born. It doesn’t even have to be overly sexualized; just the thought of forbidden fascination, a stolen, heavily-charged kiss, or a chance encounter is enough to turn us on.

And therein lies the problem. It’s very difficult to live up to the Bible’s standard of thinking “on all things that are lovely and pure,” particularly in the modern world, where pornography – either in its visual or emotional forms – is readily available. We might defend our choice of reading material, since by most classifications, it isn’t all that sensual… but does it produce sensuality in us? Do we get to the point where reading a Christian novel, we wish the scene hadn’t ended there? I remember reading Lori Wick novels as a teenager, and being annoyed that the door always shut on the couple. Would it have killed her to give them a passionate embrace, at least? Something to go on. And that’s why she stopped there… because anything more would encourage my emotional porn.

As a writer, I continually face this challenge. It’s a natural progression of events for romantic characters to become lovers, and that presents a new range of problems. Not only must I be aware of leading myself into sexual temptation by fantasizing incredible love scenes for my fictional characters, I must be cautious of potentially leading others “into temptation” through what I write. Sometimes the most erotic love scenes aren’t even “sexy” by the standards of the world, but if they connect to you on an emotional level, you find them more so. Less can be much more. Graphic love scenes in books or in movies aren’t my thing, in fact, it can turn me off… but bring emotional passion into it, and that’s another story. What’s more emotionally satisfying and spiritually stirring, an animalistic sex scene or that moment in The Painted Veil when after a long estrangement, Walter sweeps Kitty up into his arms?

So, who is responsible for our reactions to “emotional erotica”? Is it the author or the state of our own heart? Do we learn what triggers our desire for emotional pornography and stay away from it, or do we indulge and defend it as “harmless”? Do even innocent romance stories threaten our future and current relationships, because it objectifies men into something no man can actually attain? Where does instinct end and sin begin? It’s different for each one of us, but in this fallen, utterly-sexual world, nothing is ever entirely innocent.

22 thoughts on “Emotional Pornography

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  1. After reading a few romance novels I have to say that they objectify men in a similar way to porn movies objectifying of women. Both present an impossible standard by which to judge the represented gender.

    Visual porn portrays attractive-to-beautiful women willing to perform all sorts of sex acts with great enthusiasm at a moment’s notice.

    Emotional porn portrays some variant of the attractive, powerful alpha male who dominates everyone around him and disdains all women… except for this one ‘special’ (but actually pretty bland) woman who he loves beyond all reason and centers his entire existence around. Basically he is a beta male for his love, and an alpha to everyone else.

    Every time I read a romance novel I felt emasculated, as there was no way I could ever come close to being like the man I was reading about in the book… and just as I could see a woman finding her man’s porn collection and feeling intimidated by it, I felt intimidated every time I found a girlfriend’s romance novel.

    I understand why these things are pervasive, as we like our fantasies (they are sooo much better than reality after all), but ultimately it becomes unhealthy as we create mental standards for our mates that just cannot be met by real people.

    I am not saying that a sex scene that contributes to the plot (actually a rare thing) is bad, or a romantic subplot is bad in a story (cause we all like to see a couple with good chemistry work things out) but the excess of these things will make it harder to have a healthy relationship with your less-than-perfect significant other (note, I did not say impossible).

    Anywhoo… thanks for the article, and letting me ramble!

  2. It has occured to me in the last few years that newer Christian romance novels tend to go further, in the physical field, compared to the older ones. Sometimes I really scratch my head and think, why am I reading this in a Christian novel?

    1. And yet, you can’t say “damn” in a Christian book. Hmm, which is more destructive — mild profanity or sexual passages intended to emotionally and/or erotically excite a reader?

      I don’t read a lot of secular fiction and never did, but I was surprised at age fourteen to discover a lot of Christian books aren’t as clean as I assumed they would be. It seems that if it’s between a married couple and isn’t terribly explicit, it can hint at as much smut as it wants. =/

      1. I’ve noticed a similar trend with violence. A character can’t swear in a Christian novel, but he can fire guns and punch out adversaries. Talking with someone on this a while ago, and he showed me a ‘Christian’ book where a child having a tantrum is restrained and at one point struck across the face when a parent snaps… but nobody swears. Weird.

  3. Well said, Charity. I was actually planning to address this topic of emotional porn on my blog a few days ago. It’s just so frustrating how some people think porn is merely visual, while forgetting that there are emotions at stake as well. We are constantly bombarded with temptations the media sets before us, but then, aren’t we responsible for our own thoughts and emotions. The argument “it’s just entertainment” doesn’t seem like a justified explanation. Something that can appear as trivial or as sweet can be harmful, which is why guarding our hearts and minds (and choosing not to indulge is emotional porn) matters a lot. Even for me–someone who chokes every time a scene in a book or film gets too…graphic and emotional.

    1. I think it’s a twofold thing. Sometimes, stuff is going to turn us on — it’s natural. Whether or not we choose to linger on it, and return to it for that same effect, determines our sin — kind of like it’s not a sin to be caught off guard and tempted, but it is to give in to temptation knowing what you’re doing. Women are awfully bad about emotional pornography; we idolize fictional men (even in a non-sexual manner can be bad) and set unrealistic expectations for the men in our life. And that’s not really fair. If you do wind up writing a post, I’d be interested to read it, so let me know. =)

  4. When the recent Pride and Prejudice film came out (the Keira Knightley one) audiences were dismayed by the lack of a kiss at the end. I remember being pretty satisfied with the ending but my mum wanted to see the wedding, which would naturally be a perfectly magical event, and my sister didn’t like that moment where they stand with their foreheads touching as the sun rises (which i found incredibly romantic), happy just BEING together. Never mind the fact that Lizzy and Darcey had overcome their own faults, never mind that they were in love, even engaged, audiences wanted the kiss! I believe a final scene was added for American audiences (in the UK we got it as a DVD bonus scene) that showed a kiss between the married Darceys, because dag-nammit if they don’t kiss then it doesn’t count! And I remember thinking how bizarre that seemed. Not that I’m innocent in all this, I definitely have my own erotic triggers, but I found it so funny that despite the obvious emotional journey of the characters, there just HAD to be a fantasy kiss, as the final proof.

    1. Yes, unfortunately American audiences did get treated to one of the most absurd, cheesiest scenes in all of cinematic history, where both are sitting outside in their night things spouting sap at one another and kissing. It was enough to make me gag. I don’t mind a kiss (the ending of Emma wouldn’t be the same without it!) but that was just… bad.

  5. This is why those stupid “50 Shades of Grey” books annoy me so much. There are some wives who have the gall to send their poor, humiliated, and extremely sheepish-looking husbands to pick up their library holds. I’ve faced many a depressed husband across the holds desk because he needs to check that book out for his wife and doesn’t have her card. That entire series is emotional porn specifically designed as a major turn-on for women. But, nobody says anything except for the occasional attempts at banning it, which only makes the curiosity worse.

    For one moment, I’ll agree with Adam in regards to sin. I think that reading emotional porn and watching pornography are on the exact same level sin-wise. Both create an erotic experience for the reader/viewer and so both participants, if married, are committing adultery in their hearts because they were turned on by something other than their spouse. Both individuals are equally guilty. It’s interesting how women can and do blame their husbands for occasionally glancing at porn (which they shouldn’t be doing), but never think twice about that novel on their nightstand, with the hunky dude dressed in a kilt clutching a scantily clad maiden.

    All I can say is, the sin goes both ways.

    1. From what I’ve read about the series, I don’t even know why it would turn on a reasonably sane woman. It sounds more repulsive to me as reading material, as opposed to erotic — but then, I haven’t scalded my conscience enough to need more twisted things to turn me on.

      Sin does go both ways, but interestingly, it’s only the men who get talked to about it — say anything from the pulpit against innocent romantic fiction and you’ll face a backlash; yet preach against pornography and all those housewives will agree. I don’t think it’s fair to aim all the blame at men in society, when a fair amount of sin is shared by their wives / girlfriends.

  6. In my mind, the WIP that is never touched in my Microsoft Word files is going to have a “teasing” love story – one that could be thought “passionate” to the right reader while maintaining a very proper ideal. Obviously in your scenarios of “The Painted Veil,” the latter instance is far more satisfying whether modern America wants to admit it or not. As a reader, I don’t mind a bit of charismatic passion or “innocent” but playful flirting, but there is a line – cross it and the author/writer may not be able to retract it.

    Sadly, screenplay writer’s do “dirty up” author’s original works. I remember thinking how sweet the ending of Alex Flinn’s book “Beastly” was and then being disappointed that the film chose to make it more physical (only by PG standards, mind you) than it should have been.

    One of the most memorable, most romantic scenes that my mother adores is the end of the re-make of “The Four Feathers.” She loves that the couple aren’t locked in an embrace or kissing at the end, but instead he reaches out to take her hand in a loving hold.

    No matter the impressions culture gives us, we do want “more” from the romantic relationships we sigh over. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing the proof of that.

    1. Have you noticed how it’s the human instinct to want people to become lovers? It happens all the time. Friendship isn’t enough for our romantic little hearts, because we know God planned something different for men and women. Yet often, our desire for this relationship to intensify violates our own standard of morality. It’s wrong to want Castle and Beckett having sex outside of marriage. It’s wrong to want Elena and Damon having sex outside of marriage. Still, we want it, because somehow in our mind that completes them as a couple. Is it any wonder, with believers feeling this way, that secular Hollywood will throw characters into bed with one another? They don’t understand why it is significant, simply that it is — and so yes, sometimes clean books will turn into not-so-clean movies.

      I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like a nice kissing scene at the end of my movies — but that’s enough. I don’t need any more.

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