I wasn’t going to do this post today. I was going to be a good and diligent student who finishes his homework before he goes shooting his mouth off about the publishing world. But one of my new commentators asked me so nicely I couldn’t think of a graceful way to refuse. (And, let’s be honest, I needed the kick in the keister anyway .) So, as promised in my previous post, here’s what’s wrong with the idea of “mommy porn,” as given in the Gospel According To J.S. Wayne.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a great deal of excitement in many of the online chat loops I participate in. The reason was because CBS was doing a story on the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and chose to interview the owner of Ellora’s Cave, one of the best-regarded erotic romance publishers in the business, as well as the very talented Desiree Holt, an extremely prolific author. There was nothing wrong with Desiree’s portion or the Ellora’s Cave interview, but the overall narration and the way in which CBS chose to slant and edit the story set my hackles on edge. After viewing the story on CBS’s website, I felt compelled to write the following comment:
As an erotic romance author myself, I found this story deeply offensive…but not for the reasons expressed by many other viewers and commentators. First, I take great exception to my chosen genre being referred to as “porn,” mommy or otherwise. (emphasis added) Second, I take immense umbrage to having my work lumped in with Fifty Shades of Grey in any way, shape, or form, as many of my colleagues and fellow do. Third, neither women nor men can claim exclusivity with regards to the authoring or reading of erotic romance. This story painted an extremely biased, one-sided, and sexist portrait of erotic romance, although I will admit to being bemused by Bill Geist posing for a romance cover.
I’m not sure who is to blame for this tripe, but I suspect the way the raw footage was edited had a great deal to do with the “yellow journalism” feel of this piece. Kudos to Desiree Holt, and shame on CBS for pawning this story off on the viewing public as a legitimate or balanced discussion of the erotic romance genre.
So why am I so down on the idea of “mommy porn?”
Well, for starters, I don’t write porn. Desiree Holt doesn’t write porn. Neither, God help me, does E.L. James.
Okay, a few blank looks from the audience. Let me explain:
Pornography, or porn, is intended to do precisely one thing: stimulate an emotional and/or physical response in the reader or viewer. In this regard, all you Food Network junkies are watching porn…food porn. Saw devotees? You guessed it: splatter porn. Bronies? Yup, yup, yup. (I don’t even pretend to understand that phenomenon, but I guess whatever trips your trigger.) Pornography in itself has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the reaction of the viewer. However, let’s go back to the usage in the common lexicon, rather than this rather erudite version: naked, writhing, grinding flesh. In the vast majority of “porn” as current usage has it, there is no or very limited emotional context between the participants. It is “sex for sex’s sake,” and when you subtract it from the plot…there isn’t one.
And let us not forget that the human body does not typically bend many of the ways those actors have to. Real sex tends to look either silly or about as exciting as watching a beached whale, unless you happen to be one of the participants. (You’ll have to trust me on this one, and no, I’m NOT telling how I know, exactly. A magician gets to keep SOME secrets… )
Okay, so what about erotica?
Erotica involves an emotional context, but there is no guarantee of a happily ever after. In this genre, Maxim Jakubowski’s “Hotel Room Fuck” is a good example. Two people meet on the Internet, then in real life, and do what two sexually attracted people do, but when they part that’s it. The end, finis, finale, it was fun but… While erotica focuses on the sexual act more than most mainstream fiction, the plot can generally stand on its own minus the graphic sexual content.
This is getting to be a pretty fine distraction there, Slick. What about erotic romance?
Ah. Now we get to the “heart” of the matter. Erotic romance is, first and foremost, about feelings. About attraction, disgust, two people experiencing the whole gamut of human emotion and acting on those emotions. Angry “I can’t stand that you inhabit the same planet as me, but I want you so bad right now!” “hate sex,” tender “You are my one and only” lovemaking, and everything in between is covered here. However, as with erotica, subtract the sex and you’ve still got a plot. The only difference between your (grand)mother’s romance* and erotic romance is that the bedroom door doesn’t close. Ever.
*And before you start, yes, I’m well aware there are women in their sixties and up writing this stuff. To them I say “Good on ya!” I remember a lifetime ago, when thirty-five seemed impossibly old. Now that I’m there, I hope I’m doing as much in my sixties and up as these ladies are!
So, now we’ve got that straight, here’s why I have issues with “mommy porn.” “Porn” doesn’t describe my or most other ER authors’ work, as much as some Puritanical types would like it to. Calling it “mommy porn” conjures images of things you might see on free Internet porn sites or incest porn, and that rarely if ever applies to what ER authors write. The closest the vast majority of us come to that line is two brothers sharing one woman or intimacy between steps. (Not my particular brand of Scotch, but again, whatever trips your trigger.)
More to the point, “mommy porn” is an insulting, demeaning, denigrating label to both readers and authors of erotic romance in equal measures. Is the idea of erotic romance to create sexual arousal? Of course, at least in part. If I don’t leave a given reader with damp panties and a desperate urge to find release, or a guy with a raging hard-on, then to that reader I have failed in my task. However, there’s a lot more to it. The reader should laugh, cry, scream, or cuss me when I dangle their preferred character over a metaphorical volcano with seemingly no way out of their predicament. In porn, that involvement and investment on the reader’s part doesn’t exist. It’s all about how fast they can get off.
And this completely ignores RWA statistics that clearly show that from 2002-2005, male readership of romance novels jumped more than threefold, from 7% to 22%. (I attempted to contact RWA several months ago for updated statistics for a research paper. To date, I’ve received no response.) And why do you suppose those guys are reading romance novels? Sure, okay, they’re looking for the “hot parts.” Hey, I am one, and I’m not going to front about it. But I’ll lay you long odds most of those guys aren’t only reading these books for the sex scenes, but for what they can learn about human love, desire, and emotion. Kinda blows the idea of “mommy porn” out of the water, dunnit?
Besides, “mommy porn,” all other negative connotations aside, implies that a given woman requires that release because she cannot find it in her own relationship or life. Which is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Just about every woman I’ve ever met has two hands, ten fingers, and a perfectly serviceable imagination. The fact is, absent procreational necessity, women could get along quite well without any involvement from us hairy, testosterone-crazed types, and probably a damn sight better in a lot of places.
So, to cut a long story short, erotic romance isn’t mommy porn. Those who write it aren’t pornographers. Those who read it aren’t pervs. And to use this misleading verbal shorthand does no service to any of us. If it does anything, it points up the ignorance of those who haven’t bothered to try it for themselves before slapping a label on it and putting it in a social pigeonhole.
Some may say I shouldn’t be so hung up on the label, because after all, it IS only a label.
But, as any first-week marketing major can tell you, product labeling is everything when it comes to shaping public perception. Shouldn’t the label reflect what we’re really offering readers?
Until next time,