Are romance novels as bad for relationships as porn?

Why you shouldn't think romance novels are any better than porn.

Porn, largely considered a male domain, is often criticised. And women are often among porn’s loudest critics, because porn kills relationships, porn destroys lives, porn makes prostitutes of good women, porn is anti-women, porn is the antithesis of love*.

But here’s the thing. All real and legitimate arguments about the industry aside, the broader criticism about the material men consume for the purpose of sexual arousal often boils down to this:

“Porn is bad because it fosters unreal expectations about what women should look like and how they should behave in bed.”

OK. But is the same not true for romance fiction?

Because this genre depends on fantasy – that which is unreal. So might romance not harbour the same detrimental consequences for blokes that women fear porn holds for them? Doesn’t romance leave women wanting more from their partners than what they may actually get? Couldn’t romance raise the standards for single women so high they are never satisfied?

Here’s what’s motivated my thinking.

The Farmer Wants a Wife.

This is a TV show that pulls an average audience in excess of one million people per episode, or about one quarter of MasterChef’s peak audience and well above the most recent highest-rating episode of Q&A. This is a show that, according to its producers, exists in 20 countries around the world (it’s been number one in the Netherlands since 1995).

And yes, this is the Australian reality television show that takes women from the city and attempts to match them with fair dinkum lads from the bush.

In other words, it’s the show that makes the romantic dreams of Australian women come true. Because, I’m sure, more women would choose to watch than men, and because the figure of the farmer – the Australian version of America’s cowboy – is among the most used character types in romance fiction.

Why? Because farmers fix things, farmers are good with their hands, farmers take care of their families, farmers ride horses better than Old Spice Guy, and a farmer could pick up a hard-working, well-heeled city-gal, throw her over his shoulder, stride into a barn and have his way with her in the hay.

Certain truths such as:

Farmers aren’t all the same. Farmers aren’t all men. Farmers aren’t all good at all things. Farmers don’t necessarily make better lovers, better husbands, or better fathers. Farmers aren’t always that different from any other man on the planet - only the stereotypes are.

And what is a stereotype but an unreal thing? What is a stereotype but an unrealistic expectation? What is a stereotype but fantasy?

Women love fantasies, and this is OK, because fantasies don’t come with real-life consequences. Or so we think. But, of course, they do. They raise expectations, set standards, and unless people are careful, they can infect reality. Fantasies, be they inspired by porn stars or open-shirted farmers, are forces to be reckoned with.

In America, the romance industry is worth $1.37 billion in sales, and porn somewhere between $2 and $13 billion dollars. That’s not a great difference, relatively speaking. Yet porn cops a lot more flack than romance. Porn is blamed for breaking relationships up a lot more than romance. Romance is considered to be less of a threat to real-life love than porn is.

But if porn and romance are both about selling fantasy for the sake of pleasure – for the sake of arousal – is this really fair?

The story Are romance novels as bad for relationships as porn? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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