Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Repost: Fifty Shades of False

As my novel is currently sharing Amazon shelf space with a quantity of holiday romance, here's a  repost from 2012.

With the Fifty Shades trilogy fogging up the screens of millions of e-readers, women's sexual fantasies have hit the mainstream, so much so that the publisher is planning a big new publicity campaign based around the slogan "Reading for pleasure has a whole new meaning." Women prefer the emotional build up and relationship aspects of novels instead of the more direct depersonalization of pornography, but the explicit and fantastic nature of the sexual content in these books have earned them the moniker of "mommy porn". Just as the images men view in porn burn into their mind, the scenes women read in romance novels -- the titillating emotional interchanges, the sensual phrases, the fantastic sex -- lodge in their memory and imagination.

"Porn" is an ugly word to be juxtaposed with "mommy", but in a sense it isn't surprising that married women are driving the sales of the burgeoning "romantica" genre. Younger women, hopped up on hormones and living in a near-permanent condition of quasi-arousal (men: you do not have the monopoly on this), live in an aspirational state in which it's perfectly conceivable that the perfect man and perfect relationship and perfect happily-ever-after is right around the corner. The transgressional naughtiness of stuff like the Fifty Shades books is designed for the woman who has settled into her walk in life, who is basically satisfied with her marriage and her spouse, but who wonders where the thrill has gone and how to reanimate a sexual drive that seems balky and unpredictable. 

The sexual fantasies fueled by romance novels seem like a ideal fix to this problem. It’s so easy for the reader. One can respond quickly and effortlessly to the ideal man on the page. There’s none of the inconveniences of reality -- the awkwardness of being out of sync with her spouse; the absurdity, especially for a woman, of having a body that’s not fully under her command, this “Sister Ass” which sometimes bucks and halts grows tired. These fantasies allow the reader to step beyond her established life and relationship and experience the thrill of the chase again. They're a quick hit of cheap arousal for the woman who, by the time bedtime rolls around, is tired, worn down by the concerns of the day, and finds that even though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak, sluggish, or capricious. And her husband never has to know that what pushes her through is not just him, but him in conjunction with memories of billionaire sadist Christian Grey (or Mr. Darcy or the tough-yet-tender cowboy or what have you). If both spouses are happy at the end, what harm could these fantasies possibly do, right?

Well, plenty, actually. Romance novels -- novels for which the raison d'etre is sexual fulfillment, whether they're the hard-core Fifty Shades stuff or "Christian" romance or historical-tragical-pastoral -- create an image of effortless sexual complementarity that can supplant the very real work it takes for a woman to meet her husband where he's at, each time. And they undercut that work because fantasies can become addictive. They work their way into a woman's mind and rob her of the ability to respond honestly to her husband, just as any physical skill not practiced becomes rusty over time. It takes so much less emotional and physical commitment to become mentally aroused by retreating to happy stories (especially if there has been a fight or some breach in the relationship that has damaged communication) that eventually a spouse can become no more than tool for achieving satisfaction, or a "bin for one's urges" (as a commenter recently put it). Fantasy breeds lust, not love.

A woman who develops a reliance on sexual fantasy is cultivating a taste for something other than reality. Fantasy, so infinitely malleable, creates puppets for the purpose of objectifying them, or conveniently allows for the emotional manipulation of real people in a way that stubborn real life seems to resist. It also dismisses the real ugliness of subversive sexual situations -- women who find themselves excited by the fictional S&M antics of Fifty Shades would feel horrified, humiliated, and dehumanized if their husbands were to subject them to the same emotional and sexual abuse. True brutality isn't glamorous or arousing -- it's sickening and damaging.

And fantasy is damaging as well, especially when it trespasses on the dignity and integrity of another person. A young friend who recently described her temptations to fantasize about a man of her acquaintance wrote, "The real possibility that I could end up married to this guy made it seem 20 times more a violation to interact with a shadow version of him in my head that I could control and speak for and manipulate for my gratification -- reducing him to a mental blow-up doll was sickening enough to accomplish what love for God and hatred for sin hadn't." Fantasies, rather than bringing her closer to her loved one, were in reality erecting barriers to true interaction with him. That he wasn't aware of her thoughts didn't mean that her relationship with him wasn't being subtly influenced by her mental images.

In marriage, since spouses are supposed to become one flesh through a total gift of self, subjecting the other to fantasy, or using the other to fulfill fantasies, becomes even more of a violation. In these heady days in which every lay Catholic is a sudden expert in Theology of the Body and sexual fulfillment in marriage is a hot topic, women may feel betrayed in the moments when their bodies, whether through age, weariness, or sheer biological perversity, refuse to cooperate with the most loving of inducements. Possibly a rocky marriage or an insensitive spouse may mean that satisfaction becomes more and more elusive. The antidote to these difficulties lies not in a woman filling her mind with an arsenal of one-dimensional fantasies, but in pouring out her mind and heart to spouse. Communication -- honest, intimate conversation in private; day-to-day openness and affection; the shared communication with God and spouse that is mutual prayer -- is the antidote to a trap of fantasy. Some desires that seem so erotic tucked in the deep recesses of the imagination are shown up as tawdry and unappealing when spoken and submitted to the clear light of reality. Others may be brought to a more satisfying and tender conclusion when shared with the one who can make them come true.

Necessary disclaimer: I have not and will not read the Fifty Shades books, nor am I a consumer of romance novels because not only do I want to fill my head with such images, but ugh, poor writing.

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