In A Shaded View of Romance, I stated that sexy novels are comparable to porn:
- They create unrealistic expectations (of both relationships and sex).
- They nurture discontent in marriage.
- They cause sexual arousal.
That post was mostly about the sexual content of romance novels. Here, I’d like to focus on the romantic content.
Romance novels no longer have that “gotta read it right now” pull on me that they once had. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read one–which means either that it’s been a long time or that my heart can now handle them without being negatively affected.
I’ve questioned whether I should publish this post. How can I talk about whether or not something is okay for other women when it’s something I’ve struggled with so much? I’ve decided to publish because I share the struggles of my heart here. While my heart hasn’t experienced a struggle with romance novels for a while, I don’t think it would take too much to put me back in that place.
In every struggle I’ve shared on this blog, I’ve learned that I am not the only woman with that struggle. So I’m publishing this, praying that at least one woman who is unhealthily drawn to romance novels will be encouraged to examine her own heart.
Many women are drawn to the romance in sexy romance novels. Without the story of romance, many of these books would be little more than erotica. So what if we read books that are just romance, without any of the sex?
Plenty of romance novels have little or no sex. In fact, there are even Christian romance novels. These are often good stories that may parallel Bible stories, inspire us to be better women, or show us how faith can look in the context of a relationship.
Are these low-sex/no-sex romance novels okay?
I don’t have an answer for you.
Good fiction can draw us in and show us pieces of our own hearts and minds. I see great value in that. I also see nothing wrong with entertainment. A light escape into a story entertains us and gives us a brief respite from the daily grind. It’s really no different from watching a movie or window shopping.
While I don’t have an answer for you about whether romance novels are okay, I do know that for me, even these tame Christian romances can sometimes be a problem. However, that is because of my heart, not because of the material. If I am not careful, reading these books can foster discontent in my own marriage.
The emotional connection in a romance novel can affect me even if there is no sex at all.
My husband loves me so much—but he isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes. He tries hard to do the right thing, but he is a real person, not a character in a novel—and I don’t always make things easier for him.
The male characters in many romance novels, on the other hand, are practically perfect. Even when their flesh wins out over their spirit (for instance, by yelling when the heroine does something foolish that puts her in danger), we see them acknowledge their weaknesses, apologize, and make it up to the woman. (In a Christian romance novel, this means that he prays, repents, and seeks forgiveness.)
These guys do a lot of things in ways that are more ideal than real. Since she is also way more perfect than I am, the heroine usually manages to see her man’s heart behind his gruff exterior.
It is easy to compare the very imperfect Big Guy and very imperfect me with these characters and think there is something wrong with us.
If I am not careful, I can come away from even a Christian romance novel feeling restless and dissatisfied with Big Guy and our marriage.
So when I do want to read these books (and sometimes I do, because I love to read and I love a good love story), I need to do so intentionally, with good boundaries in place.
Here’s how that looks:
- I consider my motives. If I am experiencing some unhappiness in my life and know that I want to read a book just to help me escape that for a little while, a romance novel is likely to expand that unhappiness—so I will choose something other than a romance. If I want to read the book because it’s been a while since I’ve read a book and it sounds like a good story, it can be okay.
- I pray before and after reading. I pray for my contentment and joy with Big Guy and our marriage, and I pray for wisdom.
- I let Big Guy know what I’m reading. I’ll ask him to point out if I begin to express discontent or complain more or about new things. If that happens, it is because I am comparing my real life, flesh-and-blood husband to something in another woman’s imagination. That is not okay.
- I limit my reading to half an hour at a time. I am one who can read for hours at a time, totally immersing myself in a good story. I know I am more likely to stay emotionally healthy if I prevent myself from becoming immersed in a romance, though, so I set that as a boundary for myself.
- I never read these books when I’m alone. Ideally, I’ll read a romance only when Big Guy is in the room with me. His presence keeps me grounded in real life.
Do I sound a little conflicted? Good, because I am.
I see value in fiction and even in romance. However, I also see that reading these novels without care and wisdom can be problematic for some women—or at least, for me.
I wonder . . . am I doing a good job of being careful and responsible, or am I just looking for a way to justify sin?
To Read, or Not to Read?
I tend to avoid reading romance novels these days. Mostly, I think it is because what used to appeal to me so much in these books no longer does now that my marriage is in a pretty good place.
On those rare occasions when I do read a romance, the boundaries I’ve set for myself do a good job of keeping my heart where it should be—and I don’t get any sense of having read something that isn’t good for me.
For me, I don’t think the problem has been in the stories. I think the problem was in my own heart.
What About You?
I don’t have an answer for you about whether it’s okay for you to read romance novels. For some of us, I think it may be okay. Other women should avoid them completely. Yet others are okay only if they have safeguards in place.
So how do you know if it’s okay for you to read no-sex/low-sex romance novels?
- Examine your heart and know your motives. If you have even the smallest suspicion that your motives are other than light entertainment–especially if you are seeking an escape from your unhappiness with your marriage, look for something else to read.
- Consider your past experiences with reading romantic stories. Does it help you understand yourself better and encourage you to be a better wife, or does it sow discontent in your heart? If you find that romance novels—with or without sex—have a strong hold on you, then it’s a problem for you regardless of what any other woman can handle.
- Read Pulling Back the Shades (affiliate link), by Dr. Juli Slattery and Dannah K. Gresh.The book will help you understand many of the longings in a woman’s heart. If these longings are not being fulfilled in your marriage, it might be better to avoid reading romance.
- Know yourself. The enemy can use the smallest weakness in our spiritual armor to attack us. Even if you think you are emotionally and spiritually strong enough to read a romance novel, put some safeguards into place that will help you stay strong. And if you have had a weakness with romance novels in the past, know that it is likely to be exactly where the enemy will choose to attack you. Be careful.
- Understand what is happening in your own heart that draws you so much, and put safeguards in place that allow you to approach these novels safely—or not at all.
- Make sure you have a healthy sex life. Sex is an important part of a married romantice relationship, and a book that skims over or ignores sexual tension can be damaging to readers’ views of romance and sex. When I was sexually depriving my husband, reading romance novels without even a hint of sexual desire validated the lack of sex in our marriage. Now, because my heart is right regarding sexual intimacy in marriage, I no longer read a story without any reference to sexual intimacy as an encouragement to withhold sex. As I said, it’s a matter of my heart, not the material.
What about you? Do romance novels foster discontent in your heart, or are they just a good story for you?
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