Romance Porn: More Women are Addicted Than You Think

Woman reading a book and covering her face

Every year, pornography tangles up millions of people in its sticky spider webs. It rolls them up like hapless flies, and sucks out their brains until they are pretty much the walking dead. Christians are not exempt. And we are finally starting to admit it and talk about it.

But there is still something missing in the discussion. Most of the time, articles about the negative effects of pornography focus on men. Women have set up lawn chairs on the sidelines, often as despairing wives who wonder how to deal with their porn-entangled husbands.

And this seems only right, because many of us believe that pornography is mostly a male problem. Although women are increasingly consuming pornography, the majority of users of internet porn are still men. For instance, CovenantEyes reports that “68 percent of young adult men and 18 percent of women use porn at least once every week,” “64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month,” and “Men are more than 543 percent more likely to look at porn than women.”

But what if these statistics are not giving us the whole picture? What if they are ignoring a huge segment of the pornography industry, a segment that affects millions of women just as powerfully and negatively as internet pornography affects men?

The Female Hugh Hefner
The other day, I was doing a bit of online research about successful self-published ebook authors, and I stumbled upon a New York Times article about Meredith Wild, a 33-year-old graphic designer-turned-author who now earns millions of dollars each year from her self-published fiction books.

Ms. Wild belongs to a very exclusive club. There are hundreds of thousands of self-published ebook authors, but according to Amazon, only 40 of these have managed to make a profit by selling over 1 million copies of their ebooks over the last five years. Ms. Wild happens to be one of them. What is her secret?

The New York Times portrays Ms. Wild as a regular all-American mom who struck it rich thanks largely to her talent at writing and marketing. Accompanying photos show her sitting on her stylish veranda, and working at the kitchen table together with her husband (a former firefighter who now works for Ms. Wild). It is mentioned that she has three kids.

Ms. Wild seems to be a respectable author-entrepreneur, the classic American success story. The article offers no hint of any ethical quandary with respect to her work (though perhaps there is unconscious shame from the author herself: Ms. Wild is a pen name, and the author requested that her real name not be published).

So let’s look at what Ms. Wild writes about in her novels. Her first novel, Hardwired, is about a young woman’s encounters with “an array of sexual kinks.” Her subsequent novels are along the same vein. At the end of the article, a writer for Ms. Wild’s new publishing house says she is happy to “focus on writing sex scenes” because: “I just want to write wicked hot books.”

And here the light begins to flicker onto the truth. Under the euphemism of “romance,” Ms. Wild peddles erotica, the literary equivalent of pornography. While her books are not filled with nude photographs or graphic video, they contain the same drug reconstituted into another form: words that translate into pornographic images which burn into the minds of their readers (to see for yourself, excerpts of her novels are available on her website).

Ms. Wild, it turns out, is the female equivalent of Hugh Hefner. She is a verbal drug pusher, shoving words as potent as cocaine at her own gender.

And droves of women are clearly addicted. In an industry that is insanely competitive, where most authors earn below the poverty line, Ms. Wild’s first novel, published in 2014, was making $500,000 in royalties per month soon after its release. Ms. Wild sold a total of 1.4 million copies of this book and agreed to a $6.25 million advance for five books. She also started a new publishing house, which has already sold more than a million copies and hit the New York Times Bestseller list with one of its first titles, Calendar Girl.

A Huge Market for “Romance” Porn
But Ms. Wild did not create her market. She is feeding meat to a huge crowd that is already hungry and shopping. Amazon’s successful ‘million club’ of 40 authors includes several other “romance” porn authors, such as:

  • Jasinda Wilder, whose website features a cartoon woman in lingerie, and whose books have titles like Big Girls Do It
  • Amanda Hocking, a “paranormal romance author who writes about anything from vampires to trolls to witches and zombies”
  • HP Mallory, an “urban fantasy and paranormal romance” author whose latest novel presents the following warning in its Amazon.com book description: “If you like your books steamy (this is an adult paranormal romance, not for kids or teens!) read on!”
  • Bella Andre, a romance writer who has “churned out more than 30 titles and sold 3.5 million books around the world, the majority in ebook format. Revenue for Oak Press LLC, the indie publishing house she created in 2011, has been in the “eight figures,” she says. In 2014, Publisher’s Weekly named it the “fastest growing independent publisher in the U.S.”

And these are just the ebook successes. Looking further, the full scale of the romance porn industry is staggering. In 2014, romance fiction was reported to be the fastest-growing segment of the ebook market as well as the highest earning book genre worldwide, with an estimated revenue of 1.44 billion U.S. dollars.

These numbers point to a huge gap in our understanding of how women interact with pornographic materials.

Statistics about pornography often seem to be testing for whether women are behaving like men. They focus on how much people are viewing or watching pornography, including over the internet. These statistics confirm that women are less attracted to visual materials. We conclude that pornography plagues mostly men, and women get a free pass.

But according to Laurie Kahn, producer of the documentary film Love Between the Covers: “More than 70 million people in the USA alone read at least one romance novel per year, and most of them read many more.”

The US Census for 2015 shows there are 100 million women between 18 and 64 years old living in the United States. If Kahn’s number is correct, and assuming that the majority of those “70 million people” are women, then up to 70 percent of American women are covertly consuming literary pornography.

Hiding Behind Jane Austen
You are sitting on a bus during your morning commute. In the seat next to you, there is a male passenger reading Penthouse. Chances are you may feel upset, perhaps disgusted. You might even demand that he stop.

On the other side, there is a female passenger holding a book with a very plain cover, entitled Into the Fire. With a mysterious title like that, this book could be about anything. If you ask, the passenger will tell you that it is a “romance” novel by Meredith Wild. The passenger has always loved these kinds of books, she tells you, ever since she read Jane Austen as a teenager. Innocent fairy tale, you conclude.

Both passengers are consuming pornography. But the woman is doing it so discreetly that almost no one recognizes it—often, not even the statistics.

Literary pornographers must be thrilled to pass under the radar as Jane Austen’s cousins. The first objection one will hear, upon pointing out the pornographic aspects of romance literature, is that this genre is so wide and varied that such a generalization cannot be made: “How absurd,” critics will say. “Can’t a woman enjoy Sense and Sensibility anymore without being accused of reading pornography?”

Well yes, romance fiction does include harmless classics without explicit erotica. But these classics are the exception, not the rule. The great majority of romance novels have explicit sexual passages sprinkled throughout. Sheila Wray Gregoire, author of the blog To Love, Honor and Vacuum, writes:

If you walk into a regular bookstore and go to the “romance” section, you’ll predominantly find books that were written with highly erotic scenes in them. The whole plot revolves around a woman falling in love with a man, and the romance is highly sexualized in nature.

And as for the sub-genres, Laurie Kahn explains:

“Whatever your cup of tea is, someone’s pouring it.” …[T[he spectrum of romance novels has exploded. On one end of that spectrum, there are chaste evangelical romances. On the other end, there are BDSM romances… In between, you’ll find paranormal romance with vampires and shapeshifters, time-travel romance, historical romance, contemporary romance, and romantic suspense. There are growing romance subgenres for LGBT love stories, a large community of writers who specialize in African-American romance, and there’s even a popular Amish romance subgenre.

Not a Cooler But a Bacardi Shot
Among those who admit that romance literature is pornography, there is a tendency to consider it “soft-core” (some also downplay it as “mommy porn“). This implies that it is less potent and less dangerous than the “hard” visual stuff that fries the brains of men.

When viewed from a male perspective, it makes sense to classify “pornmance” as “soft” pornography. Men are more visual than women, so they respond more strongly to photographs and video. To men, images are like crack cocaine, and literary pornography is mere marijuana.

But for women, the opposite is true. Women are less visual, and so less attracted to the internet pornography that is irresistible to men. For women, visual pornography should be considered a light beer while the emotionally charged “pornmance” novel is 70-proof liquor, hard-core pornography.

And there are many “romance alcoholics.” Women get addicted to romance books in the same way that men get addicted to photographs and videos. In 2011, one psychologist reported that she was “seeing more and more women who are clinically addicted to romantic books.”

Like other addictions, “pornmance” novels mess with women’s brains and wreak havoc in their lives. According to therapists, these books can cause women to become dissatisfied with their marriages, to become “dangerously unbalanced,” and according to a pornography addiction counselor, to have affairs.

Is it mere coincidence that nearly 70 percent of divorces in the United States are initiated by women?

50 Shades of BDSM
Addiction to pornography often follows a pattern of escalation. Over time, the user needs more material, and more explicit material, to sustain the same response. This is well known with regard to men’s use of internet pornography, but this pattern also occurs with respect to women’s consumption of romance novels. Wray Gregoire describes the progression of this addiction this way:

Quite often we start reading the “harmless” novels—the Janette Oke, the Amish romances, the good clean Christian books. But then we want a little more. So we branch out a little. And pretty soon, before you know it, we’re reading erotica. They do tend to feed the appetite for more. I’ve known so many Christian teens who just devoured all the romances in the church library, and then headed to the public library for more, and ended up almost addicted to really steamy stuff.

This progression of female pornography addiction may shed light on the surprising success of the 50 Shades of Grey movie, which is based on a trilogy of erotic romance novels by first-time author Erika Mitchell (under the pen name E.L. James).

These novels, which Mitchell has said are filled with all of her fantasies, earned her $95 million and brought her to the top of Forbes list of bestselling authors. 50 Shades has sold “well over 100 million copies worldwide and 45 million in the U.S.” and has become the fastest selling paperback of all time in the United Kingdom.

As reported by The Atlantic, purchasers of these books included women of all ages, across the ideological spectrum. A faith-based polling firm found that “9 percent of practising Christian women in America have read at least the first book, which is roughly the same as the percentage of all women who have read 50 Shades across the country.” And according to its publisher, 50 Shades appealed particularly to mothers:

“The people who responded best were mom-types,” said Perreault. “They would tell [the author] at the events that they had read the books five, six, seven, times—one woman in San Francisco said she had read them 73 times.”

So just how pornographic are these novels? One article gives examples of 14 explicit passages from the first book of the trilogy. If these passages were to be portrayed as images or video, they would be right at home on the greasy shelves of the local porn shop. But reconstituted into words, they are considered acceptable enjoyment for young mothers, homemakers and all other women.

Teenage girls are being reeled in too. 50 Shades of Grey was written by a fan of the Twilight romance book series, which had been targeted at teens. The vampire lover in Twilight sent millions of girls as young as 13 into swoons and sparked their sexual fantasies. It was also a huge hit on the silver screen. 50 Shades of Grey is meant to be a spin-off of the Twilight series: further reading for the Twilight teens when they grow up.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is the kind of pornography that it contains. According to The Atlantic, these books are about “BDSM—a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.” The Atlantic further explains:

Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence…. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed. …This is a troubling fantasy in American culture, where one in five women will be raped within their lifetime…

In 2015, 50 Shades of Grey was described as “American culture’s sexual fantasy of the moment.” But if this kind of kinky sexual fantasy is what now titillates American women, then their tastes have clearly evolved past the mainstream and into the clutches of advanced pornography addictions.

Women in Crisis
Walking through our local Walmart, I find a wide shelf full of Harlequins and other explicit “pornmance” literature, right next to a bookshelf filled with children’s coloring books and books about Dora and Thomas the Train. How convenient that moms can pick up their reading at the same time as the kids get theirs! Obviously Walmart didn’t think it inappropriate to pair these two types of literature—but I doubt they would pair children’s books with a shelf full of pornographic magazines.

It is a case in point: our culture considers romance novels to be a harmless hobby, almost like scrapbooking. No wonder that many female readers of these books do not even recognize that they are addicted to pornography, or that these books are twisting their brains in the same way that visual pornography is debilitating their husbands.

We know that men’s addictions to visual pornography tend to result in broken marriages and relationships, hurting families and wounded individuals. But more research is needed: how much pain in our society can be attributed to women’s addictions to “pornmance”?

As a society, we need to stop pretending that novels like 50 Shades of Grey are just a fun pastime. We need to openly recognize romance fiction as hard-core pornography aimed at women. Let’s get these books out of our airports, pharmacies and Walmarts. Let’s get them out of our libraries. Let’s start recognizing romance “fans” as addicted women who may need help.

Ladies, it’s time to take responsibility for what we are reading, and what we are teaching our children to read. It’s time to trash those pornographic romance paperbacks, and it’s definitely time to stop buying them.

We can’t let our daughters down.

Lea Z. Singh

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Lea Z. Singh is a lawyer, writer and a stay-at-home mom to three young children. She writes from Ottawa, Canada and blogs at Culture Witness.

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