What’s So Bad About Romance Novels?

Erotica has gone mainstream, hitting the top of the NY Times Best Seller’s List. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel that has become an international hit.

Sad. Book reviews, whether pro or con, leave a bad taste in my mouth and the feeling that “it just ain’t right.” Or good. Or holy.

“It’s a rape fantasy!”  according to Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of the HLNtv program, Dr. Drew.  Dr. Drew is a practicing internal and addiction medicine physician and a member of the Huntington Memorial Hospital staff.  He is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Keck USC School of Medicine.

Dr. Drew spoke to a panel of women on his TV show that gave the book high marks as a love story. He contended that the novel is hazardous to our society.  In the book, the lead character, Christian, forges a relationship of sorts with Ann, a young virgin. He gets her to agree to sign a contract to be his sex slave.

Dr. Drew stated that by exercising mind-control capabilities over Ann, the relationship is rape, not romance.

Some critics claim the book brings feminism to a freezing halt. Women sought to overcome subservient roles in society and here is an erotic novel that glorifies the idea of women being abused. As a reformed feminist myself, I understand both the fear of female victimization and also the Christian ideal of real femininity.  The beauty and strength of womanhood is reflected in our inherent dignity.  This book presents evil (specifically, lust and controlling women for personal pleasure) as entertainment. That is neither dignified nor beautiful.

Dialogue surrounding this novel asks the question: What do women want?  I want to up the ante and ask, What does God want?  I also want us to up our standards beyond just this trashy trilogy. (Yes, two more are scheduled.)  It is easy enough to point out the evil of glorifying sexual abuse, but take a closer look at the literature that has paved the way for erotic novels.

Romance novels have been held as harmless entertainment.  In spite of the addictive nature of these books, many are blind to the harm they cause.

Just as it is wrong for men to engage in sexual arousal and attraction to women by viewing porn, so it is wrong for women to engage in fantasy of other men through romance novels.  Rather than living day to day in the here and now with real life partners, such books heighten expectations and desires. The real life spouse pales in comparison to the fantasy character. Thus, it sets up a situation of dissatisfaction and seeking someone else outside of marriage.

I’ve been to many garage sales where hundreds of romance novels are for sale. Women talk about reading a couple books or more a week. This type of fiction is big business and addictive to many.

According to the 2011 Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2011 report:

  • Romance fiction generated $1.358 billion in sales in 2010.
  • 8,240 new romance titles were released in 2010.
  • Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.368 billion for 2011.
  • 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008.

Sheila (not her real name), a former romance novel addict from British Columbia shared her story with me several years ago. I interviewed her while collecting stories for the Amazing Grace for Married Couples book. We ended up not including it in the collection but I’ve kept the notes hoping to share her story at the right time.

When she met Dan (not his real name) at church, they quickly fell deeply in love. They married after a short engagement and soon had two children. Dan worked full-time and Sheila worked part-time in the mornings.  The couple could only afford low-income housing. The stress of life took a toll on their marriage; quickly fading from passionate romance to just getting by.  Sheila began to think she made a mistake marrying Dan, that perhaps he was a failure. Feeling trapped, she often escaped by reading romance novels—stories of adventure, exotic places, love and exciting tension.

“Reading romance novels did not help my marriage,” Sheila admitted, “it only allowed me to escape it. Then, when I returned to the real world, my life looked even duller and more unhappy.” As she spent more and more time in fantasy, Sheila often took long walks or went on drives and imagined romance scenarios in her head. The excitement of a handsome leading man that desired her filled her daydreams.

At the time, such fantasies seemed harmless. After all, Sheila was just reading and imagining exciting love stories.  When the couple’s eleventh wedding anniversary arrived, however, Sheila realized she no longer desired Dan. He did not seem exciting.

“He complained that we did not make love enough,” Sheila admitted.  “He sent flowers and suggested weekends away, but his moodiness made him seem unattractive to me. I was not interested in him and started avoiding him.”

During this time, Sheila began to flirt with a co-worker, Bob (not real name).  He admitted also being unhappy in his marriage. The flirting escalated into an affair. “I thought I was in love,” Sheila explained. Bob became the leading man from her fantasies.  She confessed to Dan that she was in love with another man when he confronted her about a hotel receipt he found in her car.

Dan was devastated. Sheila left with the kids to live at her mother’s house. But once Sheila was free to be with her leading man, Bob returned to his wife. He quit his job and they moved to another state.

Slowly, the fantasy faded and Sheila began to see life as it was. Dan was a good husband and father. Bob had used her. She had been a fool.  Thankfully, Dan was willing to work on their marriage. They started by putting God first, reading the Bible and praying together and going to counseling. Sheila threw out all her romance novels.   “By giving up the illusion of love, I realized that real love was already in my grasp,” she said.

Unlike fantasy, the marriage recovery was neither easy nor fast. I will not get into the details of their healing but when I last spoke with Sheila she reported that she and Dan were looking forward to their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  “I’m very happily married,” she said. “Because I almost blew it, it’s an exultation that I look at that 25-year mark.  And this is not fake.”

The story is a personal glimpse at how fantasy chips away at a real relationship. Women reading romance novels and those that are part of the Fifty Shades of Grey frenzy would say they can separate fantasy from fiction.  I contend what they are really doing is separating God from their lives. There is nothing in such reading that leads one to holiness.

Love and romance, when experienced in union with God, can lead to marriage and a fulfilling relationship. Through God’s grace, the trying times are survived and overcome, not escaped in fantasy. Some reviewers fear that Fifty Shades of Grey will spawn a new sexual revolution. I contend that it is really just the same old revolution with further degeneration among those who fail to see sex as God’s gift between a man and women united in marriage and in love.


Patti Maguire Armstrong is a speaker, Catholic author of nine books and winner of the 2011 About.com “Reader’s Choice Award.”

Her blog: http://www.pattimaguirearmstrong.com/

Family website: RaisingCatholicKids.com

Connect with her on Homeschool Heart Facebook Page or her personal Facebook page or on Twitter.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Pargontwin

    My mother used to love to read the old Gothic and historical romance novels, back in the mid-60s, when sex was not explicit, but only vaguely hinted at, in such stories.  They were “clean” enough, and the hints vague enough,  that she could share them with me, and I was only 11 or 12 at the time.  The interest soon palled, however, because all of them were essentially the same story in a different setting and with slightly different characters, and we both got bored with them. 

    Fast-forward to today.  Now in my 50s, I recently read an “intrigue” romance book that someone gave me.  Halfway through it, I received the shock of my life when the main characters engaged in a very explicitly described act.  I think I only read partway through the first sentence of the scene, saw where it was going, and put the book away.  I have since told my friend not to lend me any more of those books.  But I find it disturbing that the “harmless romances” that were the biggest fad in high school (I was more interested in reading Heinlein and Asimov at the time) when I was in my teens are now nothing more or less than pornography.  Between that and the fact that “sex ed” classes teach(even if only indirectly) teens to indulge, no wonder teen pregnancy has taken on the proportions of a pandemic!

  • Christina

    Thank you for the article!  Yes, we must guard our hearts for only our spouse.  There are so many tools that the evil one uses to gradually pull wives away from husbands and husbands from wives.  Romance novels, certain movies, TV shows, songs on the radio, internet pornography, etc, can paint an image for us of a better, more exciting relationship which really isn’t that way in reality.  Even birth control can make us think of sex as just for pleasure. 

    Certainly in marriage, most days are not overly exciting and on-edge thrilling.  To constantly see that on screen and read about that in books can make us wonder if we are missing something.  Like in the example you cited, this can make one vulnerable and more open to an affair, which also is not as exciting after the initial “rush” fades and reality surfaces.

    Marriage brings a deep joy that is often seen when “stepping back” and looking at the big picture.  God must be at the center of our minds and hearts to make it a beautiful thing.  This brings true contentment that survives the “reality” of daily life.

  • Guest

    Romance books sell a fantasy. They are FICTION. And as a genre they have the largest list of sub-genres of any form of literature. Which means not all of them contain explicit sex scenes, where the line from romance to porn gets crossed all too easily. Don’t buy them (or throw them out, delete them on the ereader) if you want to keep your stories clean. There are more clean romances published each year than one person can read. Everyone has full contol over the book purchases they make – and – by the types of romances a person buys you send a message to the publisher’s marketing department. If enough people stop buying the smut, they’ll notice.

    Now, when a person is incapable of separating fiction from real life, you have a whole set of other issues at play, which is not the romance book’s fault. Same goes for addiction. When for a person the escapism that is inherent in any fictional story, be it romance or any other genre, classic literature or contemporary entertainment literature – becomes reality, then you are dealing with mental issues whose root causes are not remedied by villifying an entire genre with a broad brush. 

  • ‘O Ye virgins, I have but a word to say to you. If you look to married life in this life, guard your first love jealously for your husband. It seems to me a miserable fraud to give a husband a worn-out heart, whose love has been frittered away and despoiled of its first bloom instead of a true, whole-hearted love. But if you are happily called to be the chaste and holy bride of spiritual nuptials, and purpose to live a life of virginity, then in Christ’s Name I bid you keep all your purest, most sensitive love for your Heavenly Bridegroom, Who, being Very Purity Himself, has a special love for purity; Him to Whom the first-fruits of all good things are due, above all those of love.’

    St. Francis de Sales

  • Zed

    I don’t know how many people realize that this type of sadistic ‘contract’ is foundational in certain types of witchcraft, and is a foundation of Satanism. It has taken quite a while before this has been published ‘mainstream’, apparently without any fear among the commercial publishers. They are no longer even afraid of being accused of stirring up ‘child abuse’, much of which had been instigated by CONSCIOUS ‘activists’. It was not all an accidental phenomenon. And now we have this. 

    Well, a generation has been brought up now reading Harry Potter, right? A Christian teacher in the UK who refused to read it to a child (as it was offensive to the teacher’s beliefs and she identified it as witchcraft) was fired very quickly and refused re-instatement. This book is not even ‘erotica’. It is clearly a ‘how-to manual’ and will have the undoubted ‘copycat effect’. Have you tried literally boycotting the stores that sell it? Buying a copy in a busy mall and tearing it publicly to shreds? Or is that illegal maybe? Try getting a hundred people to do that, politely but with plenty of noise. In ten different malls. Then try a hundred cities. Try it. Try it because if you don’t, how will you leave with what is coming next?

  • Sharon

    I am very sorry to say that I see a young or intro form of this among my daughter’s books. She is 17 and has been reading teen “romance” novels. These are all very currently-themed stories, that is, they seem to want to out do each other in finding edgythemes or subplots. One features a teen dealing with an emotionally immature mother who takes nude photographs of herself and sells them on the Internet. Another features fairly explicit sex scenes between a highschooler and her abusive boyfriend. that novel, Nineteen Minutes, is one of the books on her Catholic high school reading list. I guess the classics are to passé for kid, and how could there be a need to raise their hearts and minds above the gutter our society has sunk itself into?

  • Micha_Elyi

    Q. What’s So Bad About Romance Novels?

    A. They’re porn.

  • Avid_Reader

    I don’t think you’ve made a connection between romance novels and this one woman’s affair. It’s like saying guns are to blame for the Colorado theatre mass-murder. If we’d just ban all those romance novels, no one would ever have an affair again…

    Most genre fiction is escapist, whether it’s romance, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, or any of the various sub-genres and sub-sub-genres among them. Are romance novels worse than novels that depict graphic and unrealistic scenes involving extreme violence? Are they worse than novels that depict fantastical worlds in which individuals possess superhuman powers? They’re equally unrealistic and escapist, and there have been individuals who’ve lost their grip on reality and immersed themselves in these fantastical, escapist tales to no good end. 

    This woman clearly had unrealistic expectation for  her marriage. Of course, reading through the Catholic mommy/marriage/nfp blogosphere, I’m not surprised. Those blogs are as fantastical and escapist as anything Julia Quinn or Susan Elizabeth Phillips ever wrote. Life is wonderful! NFP is 100% effective! Every pregnancy and child is nothing but a joy and a blessing from the beginning! All our money issues and mental stresses melt away at Adoration! 

    In other words, were her unrealistic expectations driven by romance novels, or were her unrealistic expectations already cultivated based on what she was hearing from her Catholic community? “Short engagement”, too, is a red flag. Most Catholic parishes require a year long engagement so that couples will have a better understanding of the realities of marriage. 

    Sure, there are some problematic trends among the romance community, and many of us have chosen to move into other genres because erotica, gay romance, disturbing paranormal romances, and cheap, objectifying sex are becoming the norm rather than the exception. The genre, however, includes sex-free romances of all types — Regency, YA, Inspirational, romantic suspense, etc. And many literary and mainstream novels contain strong romantic storylines, as do thrillers, sff, cozies, and so on. 
    So it’s not the romance. Blaming romance novels for this woman’s choice to cheat on her husband sounds more like and excuse or rationalization than a reason. 

  • Avid_Reader

    So Georgette Heyer wrote porn? Mary Stewart? How about Julianne Donaldson’s Edenbrooke, if you want something published recently? Or all those Amish romances that are super popular right now? 

    Yes, too many romance novels, especially contemporary and paranormal romances, contain pornographic sex scenes. But many do not, if they contain sex scenes at all. 

  • Omaha Sue

    Well said-all men and women should read this!!

  • La-Dee-Dah

    There’s genuine romance, and there’s just plain old trash. 50 Shades of Grey is the latter.

  • La-Dee-Dah

    Romance novels, even the so-called Christian ones, aren’t always so wholesome. In addition to problems with lust and inflamed passions, sometimes romance novels create other problems with sins such as envy (everyone has someone and I don’t…that kind of thing)…plus they can set up a woman to have unrealistic expectations in life regarding what a husband or boyfriend should be like. Comparisons can be a real problem for some women. Plus one has to wonder if all this escapism  is truly healthy, and if it even should be encouraged. Christians in the early church would be appalled at the things we seem to think are ok. The Desert Fathers and  Mothers would tell us daydreaming, fantasizinig and escaping into fictions are sins because that is time not devoted to God and prayer. In short, it’s a form of idolotry.

     As Christians, our time should be spent more wisely and can one honestly say that filling our heads with fluff and ‘romance’ is a good use of our time? Time reading romance novels is time that could’ve used in spiritual growth or even earning a college degree in something useful…or maybe even creating some real life romance with a honest to goodness boyfriend or husband instead of fantasize about someone who doesn’t really exist, and whom real men can in no way measure up to.

  • La-Dee-Dah

    Maybe we should be questioning the whole idea of escapism anyway? Is it appropriate for Christians? Escapism can be seen as a form of sloth, which as we all know is one of the seven deadly sins.

  • Elizabeth Schmeidler

    For all of you mothers who want your daughter (or son) to read something wholesome, I have written two fictions books so far, both historic, both with suspense and mystery, both very Catholic/Christian, and both have some romance, but the kind that leads the reader to God’s view of love rather than the world’s. : “Forget Me Not” and “A Child Will Lead Them”.
    I wrote them because I felt led to by God, yet, I am just now, however, seeing all the different teachings that He has woven into these stories…and in ways that I never even fully comprehended. Recently, a Catholic woman in my town approached me and told me that she was the type who read “smutty books”…She told me that she was reluctant to read my book because she thought it would be boring because it was wholesome and Catholic…then she went on for fifteen minutes about how couldn’t put it down and loved it! Many times people just don’t KNOW the complete truth. They are floundering like fish on the hot dry sand, trying to find life, love, and fulfillment but they don’t really “get it” or realize that it is in God’s truth that true love and joy is found. There is so much that destroys out there for our kids to fall into, and we must acknowledge that our kids are going to be reading something…so why not read something that will entertain AND build their faith?

    Both books are available through Amazon.com or through my website:www.willyoubemyvoice.com
    Elizabeth Schmeidler

  • chaco

    It took me until mid 40s to get a handle on this addiction. 1Cor. 15:56 alludes to “law empowering sin” ;much like “Stay out of the cookies ” can heighten the temptation. I love how acronyms can deliver alot of perspective quickly. I came up with E.P.L.S. E-eternal P-peace & L-love S-sister; It reminds me of Garden of Eden sin and quickly aligns my perspective with God’s whenever a scantily clad seductress crosses my path.. It doesn’t deny a love or excitement for women. Yet, it doesn’t “Slap my hand” saying; “Naughty-Naughty !”
    which can serve to draw me closer to the “Quicksand of Fantacising”.

  • chaco

    E P L S pronounced epples sounds like apples which is why it reminds me of Garden of Eden sin.

  • GodisgreatReligionisdangerous

    And the religions of this country wonder why people with brains are running the other direction. The people who actually understand what that book was about are laughing like maniacs at the I know what’s best for you religions. Honestly, do you ever research what you’re bad mouthing, any of it? If you don’t understand something, don’t talk about it. Very simple, but trying to convince people they are immoral for liking something as basic as sex in a different way simply because you don’t get it shows you are interested in only one thing. CONTROL over peoples lives. The kind of sex in 50 Shades is consentual. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who practice it and here’s a tad bit of fact, you know, that word religions don’t like, fact. BDSM is all about control over your own body. That’s right. The submissive is in actual control. Learn something before you start trying to tell people how to live. One last thing. Do you honestly believe the way I have sex with someone makes one iota of difference to God? I could have raunchy, animalistic sex with a man and then step out the door and help a person while you, the holier than thou, walk past them with your nose shoved so high up in the air you might drown if it rains. Me, the degenerate who makes sure people have food to eat or clothes on their back, or gives someone a place to stay, you know, the kind of stuff Jesus did. Or you, the better than everyone else because you follow a religion while yelling at the top of your lungs take care of yourself, you aren’t my problem, hurry up and die so I don’t have to use my money on you, live how I tell you to live or you’ll go to hell. Which one do you think will find favor in God’s eyes? That’s laughable, you think you will, I’m sure. Until people understand that religion is nothing but a way to control people, and was founded for that exact purpose, this world will never live in peace.

  • Roger Thomas

    I remember being surprised when, at a ministry conference, a /woman/ minister stated plainly that romance novels often acted as the feminine equivalent to pornography. Being a guy, I’m sensitive to the harm porn does, but the thought that romance novels could serve the same role for women astonished me. My wife swiftly confirmed the minister’s intuition – that it didn’t matter whether the image was visual or verbal, it was a false image designed to distract the viewer (one reason why she isn’t a big romance novel reader.) Yes, there are variations, from the putatively pristine “bonnet novels” with Amish heroines to the frankly erotic /Fifty Shades/, just as there are everything from calendar pinups to hard-core porn for guys. The question we need to ask is why we are reading (or viewing) this, and what are we expecting it to do for us?