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50 shades of white

A couple of days ago I had a moment. Okay, it wasn’t just a moment. It was a few hours. I could tell you how it wasn’t really my fault. How I just followed a link from someone, read about her passion for fiction and clicked on a book in a series that she’s into.

I could tell you that I downloaded it onto my Kindle reader without thinking because it was free and because I thought that maybe it would be science-fiction or fantasy (my regular genres of choice). I could tell you all of that, but the truth is that a book called Kiss Me, Please1 is unlikely to be sci-fi. A series of books where the first one is free and the next six are $3.49 each is unlikely to be high-quality literature.

What I downloaded was presented as a fun, young adult romance novel. But if I were to categorize it honestly, I’d call it an ‘erotic romance’.2 Pretty soft as far as these things go (it was written for 14 year olds), but plenty explicit enough. The descriptions of sexual feelings and physical manifestations of those feelings started on page two and continued with increasing intensity through the chapters I read. By chapter five, the descriptions were not just of sexual feelings, but of sex acts. I wish I could say that my interest in it was purely academic—looking at plot structure, grammatical features, poetic expressions etc.—but I (like most people, I suspect) am not immune to the grubby charms of this kind of thing. Despite the paper-thin plot, the terrible grammatical errors and the mundane language, the book was enjoyable—in much the same way as eating through a block of home brand chocolate is enjoyable. There’s the buzz of the sugar and caffeine, followed by a bad aftertaste and a good amount of guilt.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because my hunch is that I’m not alone. If the author’s website is anything to go by, this series of books has been extremely popular. And it’s part of a larger trend. Romance novels have always been popular amongst women, and over the years their sexual content has been steadily increasing. In 2005 erotic romance as a sub-genre was recognized as an under-tapped market, and since then booksellers have flooded their shelves with content to meet the growing demands of readers. It is now normal for romances (even those not classed as erotic) to take readers beyond the living room and let them witness and vicariously participate in the heated and messy goings on of the bedroom. The recent flourishing of ebooks has hastened the spread of this kind of thing, leading to the infamous rise of the Fifty Shades series, which became popular enough to merit huge display spaces in supermarkets. And you could read it on the train, and no-one would know.

“So is it just a matter of taste, or is it a sin to read novels with explicit sexual content? And what is it inside us that gives such writing any appeal anyway?”

So what do we make of this as Christians? Many of us are uncomfortable with explicit talk about sex. Is this just an aesthetic thing: we might not like the writing style or perhaps we find the descriptions crude? Or is it a matter of godliness: we think it’s wrong to read detailed descriptions of the sex acts of others, even if they are fictional? So is it just a matter of taste, or is it a sin to read novels with explicit sexual content? And what is it inside us that gives such writing any appeal anyway?

The standard

First up I’d like to assert that there is a good kind of sexual writing. There is a pure and edifying form that we can jump into wholeheartedly. God created us as sexual beings and gave us the Song of Solomon to enjoy—eight whole chapters of the Bible that scintillate our senses and invite us to delight in the physical aspects of love!

How beautiful and pleasant you are,

O loved one, with all your delights!

Your stature is like a palm tree,

and your breasts are like its clusters.

I say I will climb the palm tree

and lay hold of its fruit.

Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,

and the scent of your breath like apples,

and your mouth like the best wine. (Song 7:6-9)

The Song is playful and sensually exciting. In it, the lover and his beloved delight in one another. Their love is intoxicating and the Song is a rhapsody of their infatuation. They describe the glories of each other’s bodies. They yearn for each other. They savour the pleasures and celebrate the possibilities.

Exclusivity is the context in which their passion for each other exists and mutual enjoyment is its purpose. The lover and the beloved belong to each other. It is all about the two of them. The refrain “My beloved is mine” (2:16, 6:3) is a good summary of their relationship. She is a vineyard and all her fruit is for him (8:12), she has stored up every delicacy for him (7:13), his desire is for her (7:10), she brings him contentment (8:10), he finds her beautiful (4:1-15), she finds him desirable (5:10-16). If there is any other man or woman vying for attention, they do not rank a mention. She is “a garden locked” (4:12). Their ownership of each other is deep and permanent (8:6). Mutual love and attraction bind the two of them together and there is no room for anyone else.

The Song also recognizes the power and danger of sexuality. The repeated refrain throughout the book “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” indicates that sexual love can be overpowering, that it can lead us to impulsive action (as in 5:6-7); that like many of God’s good gifts it is not always easy to manage or contain.

Perhaps this explains the language of the Song, which is “at once voluptuous and reticent”.3 Its masterful subtlety distinguishes it from erotic texts of its day. Compare Song of Solomon:

Let my beloved come to his garden,

and eat its choicest fruits. (4:16)

With the invitation of Inanna, the goddess of love and fertility, to her lover:

Plow my vulva, my sweetheart.4

In the Song, metaphors from nature and architecture provide a veil over the couple’s love-making so that we are not peeping-Toms looking where we oughtn’t look. Its bold assertions are enticing, but what is left unexpressed is even more powerful, awakening the reader’s imagination and effusing an aroma of sensuality over all of the text.

The Song of Solomon’s inclusion in the canon is an affirmation that sexuality is good, and that it is possible to write about it in a sensual and enjoyable way.
It is known as Song of Songs, the greatest of songs (in the same way that the ‘holy of
holies’ is the most holy place).5 The Song of Solomon is, then, the model of true sexual literature and the measure against which other forms should be judged. If bookshop romances are to measure up to the standard set in the Bible, then (i) exclusivity and full commitment to one another is the context in which lovemaking should occur; (ii) the mutual giving of pleasure should be its function; and (iii) we should be told enough to have our senses enticed but the couple’s privacy must be protected by the artistry and restraint of the language.

Enjoying sensualism in its true form is good, but we must now set the genre of Kiss Me, Please and Fifty Shades of Grey against the sexual expression of the Song and see how they measure up.

If exclusivity and mutuality are the context and function of the sexual attraction between the lover and the beloved in Song of Solomon, the heroine’s sexual appeal in the eyes of the world and her experience of power and pleasure feature in the erotic romance genre. While the heroine may think herself plain, inexperienced or awkward, she seems to always have multiple men falling in love with her. Whereas in Song of Solomon it is just one man, in erotic fiction it seems that almost every male in the narrative feels overwhelming physical attraction towards the heroine. She herself may or may not be drawn to more than one lover, but her sexuality is not just something shared between the two of them. It radiates from her, delighting her lover but causing problems for others. Those around look on, often wild with jealousy. The heroine becomes aware of her power and it aids her in her rise from sexual naivety and insecurity to sexual fulfilment. By the end of the story she will have confidence in her own appeal and will be the sex goddess, able and excited to perform any feat her lover(s) desires.

As such, the story isn’t as much about the two of them as it is about her. She is sexy and desirable. The reader fantasizes about being her. About being able to make the girls jealous and the men sweat. She dreams of being powerful and of using that power to triumph over others and pleasure herself. There is a marked difference between this and the sensuality of the Song, where sex is all about the two of them, wrapped up in each other, delighting each other.

The artistry of expression in the Song of Solomon is also not mirrored in contemporary erotic romances. I’m loath to give examples, but it is enough to say that the invitation of Inanna above is sophisticated in comparison to many expressions in current bestsellers. If metaphor is used, it is not used as a veil, and very, very little is left unsaid. The effect (indeed, the purpose) of this direct language is not to awaken the reader’s imagination so much as to awaken her lust. Reading Song of Solomon causes the reader to wonder at the beauty of physical love, to thank God for it and to delight that she is/may one day be a participant in it. She may be aroused in imagining the joy of lovemaking open to her in her own marriage (or her possible future marriage if she is single). But her imaginings are her own, since so few concrete details are given. Erotic fiction, on the other hand, leaves no room for the imagination. Because sex acts are described in such explicit terms, she sees herself doing them or having them done to her.

“The kind of erotic romances that feature on the current bestseller lists fall far short of the Bible’s standard… we can expect them to have negative effects on our lives.”

Contemporary erotic romance, then, is a very poor imitation of the true and good form of sensual writing. It does not place sensuality in the context of an exclusive relationship; it is not for the primary purpose of mutual enjoyment; and its expression awakens lust rather than the imagination. As such, the kind of erotic romances that feature on the current bestseller lists fall far short of the Bible’s standard. They are cheap imitations, fakes; and because they don’t meet God’s standard, we can expect them to have negative effects on our lives. Despite this, women, Christian women among them, continue to be drawn to it. The following section looks at the attraction of erotic romance literature, the problems it creates, and the way forward for women who feel the pull of this kind of thing.

Why are women drawn to erotic romance?

I think the primary reason why women are drawn to erotic romance is because they like a love story. In all but the crassest of books, the heroines are ultimately looking for love. By the end of the stories they have generally found Mr Right (who is also amazingly sexy) and are looking forward to spending the rest of their lives (having amazing sex) with him. If women were after sex not set in the context of a romance, then there are other places they could look.

I think that it’s a positive sign that the vast majority of women still want their erotica dished up with a significant side serve of love and romance. This is the context in which Song of Solomon places it, and the context in which it belongs.

However, it’s clear that the love story is not the only draw of erotic romances, because in comparison with other genres the writing in these novels is notoriously weak. There needs to be enough plot to create a context in which the sex can plausibly occur, but the authors don’t seem to trouble themselves to provide any more story or character development than is strictly needed.

If romance is the first attraction of erotic romances, then coming in at a close second is, of course, sex. There are some nuances in the way that the erotic descriptions act on women and some subtleties in the exact reasons why women want it. But overall, I would divide them into five categories. Women enjoy the erotic elements of romances:

  1. Out of a general curiosity about sex
  2. To inform and educate them about different sex acts
  3. To fuel their sexual fantasies
  4. To arouse sexual desire
  5. To give themselves a way of enjoying sexual arousal while side-stepping body image issues.

1. A general curiosity about sex

Sex is interesting. We are wired to be fascinated by it. Most of us have a natural curiosity about how it works. We know it would be wrong to spy on others, but erotic fiction gives us an acceptable (or at least secret) window through which we can watch what others do. We feel that it is less of an invasion of privacy than pornography since the people are imaginary and we feel it is less crass since it is set in the context of a story, but the same peeping-Tom problem exists. What other people do in their bedrooms is none of our business. Song of Solomon’s ideal is that the couple are wrapped up in each other in their own private bubble. The restraint of the language should keep us out.

2. Information and education about different sex acts

Among teenagers in particular, erotic romances often have an educative appeal. As I mentioned earlier, romances like the Kiss Me, Please series are specifically marketed at 14-17 year olds. Girls in this age group are new to sex and these books serve a teaching function, often explicitly explaining different sex acts. Girls in this age group typically live in fear of being shown up by their peers. Through erotic romances, girls learn how they ‘should’ behave and get information to put them in line with or ahead of others.

It doesn’t take much thought to see a variety of unhelpful outcomes for teenagers who consume this kind of writing. As an educational tool I would call them laughable were it not for the fact that their consequences in the lives of young girls are so terrible. Girls who act out in the way that the heroines of these novels do will not find the fulfilment that they are after. For the heroines, sex is the stuff of dreams. It fulfils them; they can’t wait to do it again. In reality, young teenage girls find sex at best awkward and more often empty, painful or degrading.

Erotic romances teach young girls that experimenting sexually is what everyone is doing, thus adding another layer of peer pressure onto them. Erotic romances make self-control a non-option. They teach that if you feel desire you have to act on it. They make girls less satisfied with their appearance since the heroine is always thin and stunning. Furthermore, they compromise the reader’s relationships with both boys and girls, encouraging bitchiness and suspicion in female friendships and objectification in male friendships—guys will be seen as potential boyfriends or hook-up partners rather than someone made in God’s image with an eternal soul. For the Christian girl trying to live a life of godliness, erotic romances are extremely unhelpful.

If you are a teenage girl immersed in the world of erotic romance (even light stuff), can I suggest you replace your romances with some serious reading? Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon has a number of books that will tell you everything.6 In detail. You need information about sex, but make sure the information you are getting is full and accurate.

3. Fuelling sexual fantasies

The most obvious and problematic motivation for choosing erotic romances over regular, non-sexual fiction is that they provide fuel for sexual fantasy. It is fine and good for us to have our imaginations awakened to the delight of sex through texts like Song of Solomon (where wholehearted, long-term committed love is the context, where mutual pleasure-giving is the purpose, and where the couple’s privacy is protected) but it is not fine to fantasize about acting out on sinful desires. In erotic romances, the context is almost always adultery or fornication. Finding pleasure in fantasizing about doing wrong is wrong. Paul tells us to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). Dwelling on it and fantasizing about it is not fleeing from it!

4. Arousing sexual desire

At various stages of their lives, women will experience significant reductions in sexual desire. In her twenties she may be weighed down with identity issues, perhaps stressed out by her work, or clinically depressed. With the hormonal fluctuations and chronic exhaustion of the child-bearing and preschool years, sex may just be another demand placed on her. Real life lovemaking is difficult and doesn’t seem worth the effort, but she wants to feel ‘something’ again. She turns to erotic romances for the chemical buzz that they can give her. She feels alive. She has escaped the demanding drudgery of life for a little while.

Using erotic romances to ‘self-medicate’, to give yourself a ‘hit’, will not solve any problems. Apart from the issues of fantasy above, using erotic romances in this way will cause more problems than it solves. It is addictive and many start with low-level erotic writing but find themselves needing heavier and heavier and more deviant reads to give themselves the same hit. Exercise, friendship, and a reduction of stress are probably what we really need if we feel pulled in towards erotic romances. With some effort, the joy of married love can be the ‘something’ that keeps you going through the difficulties and drudgery. The negotiations and self-giving required to make sex work when you are exhausted and empty are what will take your marriage to the next level and make new heights of sexual satisfaction possible in the future.

5. Enjoying sexual arousal while side-stepping body image issues

For many women, the years in which you would expect a degree of sexual voraciousness are the years in which they are riddled with identity and body image issues. Men find it hard to understand just how crippled a woman can be by low self-esteem, how critical she is of her own body, and how insecure and ill-at-home with herself she feels. A woman low in confidence may enjoy erotic romance because she can pour herself into the heroine’s character and live through her, doing things in her mind that she’d never have the boldness to do in real life.

For the woman low in self-esteem, erotic fiction is extremely unhelpful. It may seem to give her a way of enjoying sexual arousal while side-stepping body image issues, but it will actually feed her body image problems and make real sex even more threatening for her. The reason why the heroines in romance novels can act out so boldly is because they are thin and stunning. If the reader feels that she is not that, then her confidence will dip even lower and sex will become even more difficult for her. An important part of growing to maturity as a woman is discovering who you are and learning to be comfortable in yourself. The woman who spends her time in an imaginary world fantasizing about being someone else will not become more secure in herself and her problems will continue.

~

Contemporary erotic romances, then, do not compare well with the biblical form of sensual writing. They do not place sex in the context of an exclusive relationship; they are not for the primary purpose of mutual enjoyment, and their expressions awaken lust rather than the imagination. Because they fall so far short of God’s standard they have destructive consequences in our lives. Regardless of this, women are consuming increasing quantities of the stuff, and from a very young age.

If you are someone who is drawn to erotic romance, can I encourage you to question yourself? Ask yourself if you really read them ‘just for the story’, and if you do then decide today that you will find better stories to read! If you can admit to yourself that the sexual elements are a big draw for you, then see if you can identify which of the reasons I’ve given apply to you. What is it that you need to repent of? What is it that you are really after? Is there a healthier way of getting it? A more godly alternative?

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

God has created us as sexual beings. He understands us and loves us. He has set a standard for sensual writing. Let us trust that our lives will be best if we aim for his standards and are not satisfied with less.

  1. Not its real title!
  2. The industry tends to define ‘erotic romance’ as narratives about the relationship between the hero and heroine, including descriptions of their sex acts. ‘Erotic fiction’ has a high(er) level of explicit descriptions while still retaining some measure of storyline; ‘erotica’ is essentially purely sexual description and has next to no story attached.
  3. C Bloch and A Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, Random House, New York, 2005, p.14.
  4. ibid., p.14
  5. Barry G Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, IVP Apollos, Leicester, 2000, p. 22.
  6. E.g. Teen Sex: By the Book, Couple Sex: By the Book, and Let’s Make Love: Part one: Sexual Desire.

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