Friday, October 12, 2012

Romance as Pornography for Women: A History (part 1)

In my previous post on what a feminist can gain from reading from romance, I discussed the use of the phrase "pornography for women" to describe the genre. Several readers suggested that the phrase might refer to other things besides the idea that romance cloaks sex in narrative clothing. In the wake of such responses, I began to wonder about the history of the term. Who first used the phrase to describe romance? What did he or she mean by it? And how has the meaning of the phrase changed over the course of its history?

The earliest usage of the phrase that I could find in reference to romance fiction, as opposed to actual pornography, is from 1979, in an essay by Ann Snitow called "Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different."* Snitow was one of the earliest literary critics to look analytically at Harlequin romances, and one of the first to move beyond viewing genre romance as either a patriarchal opiate for the female masses or a rebellion against patriarchal restrictions. Instead, she was interested in exploring how the Harlequin novels accurately describe what she terms "certain regressive elements in the female experience" (308).

Viewing romance as "pornography for women" was not original to Snitow; she heard a fellow scholar, Peter Parisi, make the connection in an unpublished talk he gave at Rutgers in 1978. Parisi claimed that Harlequins are "essentially pornography for people ashamed to read pornography"; the romance and promised wedding serve only as a cover for readers raised to think sex outside of marriage is sinful or shameful, but who still read primarily for sex (314-15).

Snitow agrees with Parisi that Harlequins are pornographic, but takes pains to note that she is not using the word pejoratively. Rather than judging Harlequins because they sexualize all contact between hero and heroine, Snitow is more interested in thinking about whether the books "contain an affirmation of female sexuality" (315).

In considering this question, Snitow makes a fascinating argument, one that compares pornography to "infant desire and its furious gusto": "In pornography all things tend in one direction, a total immersion in one's own sense experience, for which one paradigm must certainly be infancy. For adults this totality, the total sexualization of everything, can only be a fantasy. But does the fact that it cannot be actually lived mean this fantasy must be discarded?" (316). While misogyny may be one aspect of contemporary pornography, another is its "universal infant desire for complete, immediate gratification, to rule the world out of the very core of passive helplessness," Snitow argues (316).

Because of the way it explodes the boundaries of the self, Snitow believes the "abandon" of pornography gives it the potential for subversion, even for social rebellion. Especially when it also depicts the power balances of society run to excess. But she sees this radical potential as still unrealized, both in pornography for men being published in the 1970s and in the Harlequin romance of the period.

Intriguingly, though, she does not read Harlequins as simply oppressive to women. Rather, she sees in them a strength: the insistence "that good sex for women requires an emotional and social context that can free them from constraint" (320), an insistence rare in any literature of her time. Unfortunately, Snitow notes, the road to good sex that Harlequins of her day map requires romance heroines to give up the very qualities—aggression and spontaneity—that are the hallmarks of rebellious infantile abandonment. In order to gain emotional intimacy, heroines must passively wait for it, for fear they will scare off their emotionally wary heroes.

In future posts, I'll be taking a look at how the phrase "pornography for women" has changed since Snitow (or more accurately, Parisi) coined the term. For now, I'd like to consider the conclusion of Snitow's essay, in which she imagines what a progressive pornography, one for both men and women, might look like. Her vision cals for both "personal feeling and abandoned physicality together in wonderful combinations undreamed of in either male or female pornography as we know it" (320-21). Such a progressive pornography will not be achieved, she posits, until equality between the sexes as both workers and child-rearers is far more commonplace than it is in America in 1979.

Today, U.S. society is far more egalitarian than it was in 1979. But many barriers to full equality between the sexes remain. How close do you think today's romance novel (Harlequin or otherwise) is to embodying Snitow's dream of a positive pornography?

* First published in the journal Radical History Review (20), and later reprinted  in Susan Ostrov Weisser's collection Women and Romance: A Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2001, 307-322. Quotations above have been taken from Weisser's reprint.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Happy Baby   
• Two covers from Harlequins analyzed by Snitow courtesy of Goodreads  

Next time on RNFF: Book review of Ilona Andrews' Magic series 



  1. What an interesting question! I have to admit that, rather than asking about the origins or history of the phrase, I most often simply jump to my opinion of its use. Still, pornography denotes a sexual experience, one focused on "stimulating erotic, rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." I don't read romance for erotic stimulation. I read it for emotional stimulation, and the sex scenes that I remember, I recall for their intimacy and for the connection they create between characters.

    1. Can't one read to experience multiple feelings? I definitely read romance for the emotional (and far too rarely, the aesthetic) feelings they give. But I also admit that I enjoy the erotic stimulation some romances give, as well. Do we as romance readers fear claiming the sexual component of our reading, for fear that we'll be tarred with the "pornography for women" brush?

  2. Hmmm... Yes, we can and do read to experience multiple feelings. I didn't actually mean to suggest that I don't enjoy the sexual component of my reading-though perhaps, on some level, the omission is significant and telling. Yet, I am not sure that I would separate erotic stimulation from an emotional one. Romances without emotional intimacy fail to arouse any sexual feelings in me whatsoever. Perhaps I have internalized the idea that sex and emotion should not be separated; whatever the case, I do not separate them. The shirtless hero on a cover does nothing for me. A picture of my boyfriend shirtless is a completely different matter. So, I would still say that pornography for women is not an accurate phrase. Yet, perhaps it would be better for women if we did not mind the label so much. So, I'll work on this, "Hey, I'm JW, I write and read pornography for women." Ah, doesn't quite feel right. I'll keep practicing. ;)

  3. Ha! I admit reclaiming the negative label and using it for our own purposes (a la "gay" and other derogatory terms reclaimed and reused by the groups they were once used to oppress) hadn't occurred to me. I think I'm thinking more along the lines of when someone accuses a romance writer of writing "pornography for women" that writers shouldn't immediately jump to denying it. Recast the conversation, perhaps, by asking the speaker to acknowledge the importance of sex in adult romantic relationships, and that writing without including sex in romance novels is denying a major component of relationships. And if readers take pleasure from that component, that's an added benefit.

    1. "writing without including sex in romance novels is denying a major component of relationships."

      I have a feeling, though, that Snitow was writing about romances in which there weren't any explicit sex scenes.

      The other thing about the "pornography" label is that it may imply that the work in question has no artistic merit because, as AgTigress wrote in a post about the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial:

      Penguin won their case, on the new legal grounds of ‘literary merit’ as a justification for explicit sexual content. The mere presence of sexual incidents in a book no longer defined it automatically as pornographic, obscene and illegal, and the Penguin edition went on to sell 3 million copies, many of them doubtless to people who had not previously heard of D.H. Lawrence. Definitions had to be changed, but this has happened informally and gradually, and the situation in other English-speaking countries may lack the clear 1960 turning-point identifiable in the UK.

    2. Laura:

      You're right that Snitow was writing about Harlequins, which did not feature any explicit sex scenes. But she argues that they are imbued with sexual feeling, if not with direct scenes of sex itself.

      The pornography label has definitely been used as a binary opposite to "literature." Snitow though, didn't use it that way. She was careful to note that her argument wasn't about the literariness of the books (she felt they didn't have much), and that she was using "pornography" in a neutral way (if a word with such negative connotations can be used neutrally). I'm interesting in discovering when the "pornography for women" label was used to denigrate the literary quality of the genre -- back to researching...

  4. "She was careful to note that her argument wasn't about the literariness of the books (she felt they didn't have much)"

    That's what I find rather telling, though. If she had thought they had literary merit how would she have distinguished them from other literary love stories with happy endings? I suspect she probably wouldn't have thought of literary love stories as "pornography." Certainly, when she used the term "pornography" in a "neutral" way, she may have been trying to stay neutral about their morality, but I didn't get the feeling she was taking a neutral stance on the question of their literary merit.

    Any connection between the (assumed) lack of literary merit and the "porn for women" label wasn't stated explicitly, though, so I'd be interested to see what you come up with in your research.