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Is erotic fiction just ‘porn for women’?

‘As a Christian, pornography disgusts me,’ said the email. ‘But I admit I quite enjoy reading sexy scenes in romantic books. I’ve even bought a book of erotic short stories. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but my boyfriend insists it’s “porn for women” and no different to him watching pornography. Has he got a point?’

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard it suggested that it’s hypocritical for women to object to men watching pornography if they themselves enjoy erotic literature. However, while sexy stories may not always be edifying, I don’t think the two are comparable. In this final blog in a series addressing issues faced by sexually-frustrated single Christians (you can read earlier instalments here, here and here), I’ll explain why – although, as always, I’m open to hearing other viewpoints.

Here’s the thing: in the making of porn, real people (victims would be a better word in most cases) are dehumanised, degraded and often hurt. Meanwhile, the viewers of pornography are voyeurs, watching real people having real (though not realistic) sex – something that can have a very damaging effect on their view of the opposite sex, and their own (future) sex lives. Erotic literature, on the other hand, is an experience purely of the imagination and there are no direct victims, so I really don’t think you can compare the two. If the sexual activity portrayed in a novel is healthy and in the right context, I don’t see reading it as a major moral transgression.

Male readers may accuse me of bias, being female myself, since men are said to be more aroused by visual stimuli (porn), while women are more stimulated by narrative and emotion (books). They may have a point (‘Erotic fiction has a powerful pull for me,’ one Facebook follower told me. ‘I think women are attracted to it because it’s usually as much about emotions as sex’), although it’s a generalisation, as many women also struggle with pornography, and men can get hot under the collar reading a racy scene.

However, while reading erotic literature may not be a travesty, it’s not always helpful, and that depends in part on the reader and their grasp on reality. Some people find that reading too many romantic or sexy books sets up unrealistic expectations and fuels dissatisfaction with their real lives – a husband or boyfriend, with all his faults and foibles, can never match up to that fantasy hero who always does and says the right thing, is an earth-moving lover, and never snores or slurps his tea. Some people find they become somewhat addicted to these books. Anything that controls us, or drags us too far from real life, becomes unhealthy. Deliberately doing something that arouses you may also be unhelpful if you’re struggling with abstinence.

‘I don’t read any fiction as I find the sex scenes too arousing, and books don’t have ratings like films,’ reported one of my readers. ‘As for erotic fiction – no way! I reckon it seriously affects our expectations of our partners. Adding another layer of unrealistic expectations is just flipping frustrating!’

On the other hand, some people find it helps to manage their sexual frustration. ‘I enjoy reading sexy fiction,’ said one follower. ‘I see nothing wrong with it. It’s a healthy outlet for dealing with sexual frustration as a celibate single Christian.’

There’s another worrying aspect. There’s a major trend in erotic literature right now, spawned by Fifty Shades Of Grey – a tsunami of copycat books that focus on themes of bondage, control, obsession and stalking. I’m concerned about people – particularly young people, at an impressionable stage in their sexual development – absorbing the dangerous messages that these behaviours are evidence of love, when they certainly are not. Being stalked and controlled is abuse, and it’s dangerous to blur those lines.

Personally, I’ve found much of the erotic literature I’ve encountered frankly disappointing and not arousing at all. The need for new and original ideas seems to quickly lead into weird, perverse and unloving territory. But my perspective (and mine alone – I’m not representing Christian Connection here) is that I wouldn’t lose sleep over occasionally enjoying fictional sex scenes of a loving and healthy nature – as long as your mind remains firmly rooted in reality.

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