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.

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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.

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