I’ve been a lifelong reader. I love the story that taps into my imagination and makes me think new thoughts. I love trying to figure things out before the author reveals what has happened.
However, not all my reading has been good for my heart. In this post, I wrote about my relationship with romance novels. As I’ve been going through some boxes and shelves in preparation for a move, I’ve come face-to-face with tangible reminders of all the time and money I’ve put into reading these books—and with the ways my heart and marriage were shaped by my reading.
Reading into Romance
I began reading them in my early teens, starting with “light” romance. There was some sexual tension in the books, but nothing ever happened below the waist and the most explicit it got was maybe an exposed breast. Heavy on the romance and barely hinting at the sex, I read these voraciously throughout my teens.
I gradually progressed to the kind of book known as cheap trashy romance novels, or bodice rippers. These books included depictions of sex that were both graphic and emotional. The male characters were everything I wanted in a man: strong, deeply attached to the heart of the heroine, and demonstrating in multiple ways that he cherished her and could protect her. The heroine was everything I wished I could be: beautiful inside and out, pure, and so very lovable.
After I married, I stopped reading these books for a while. It wasn’t intentional, and I didn’t even notice it for a long while. Then, I began to read these books again, not realizing at the time that this happened at the same time as our marriage began to hit hiccups and hurdles. It was so nice to escape to the wonderful relationship in the book that didn’t involve petty arguments, constant insensitive requests for sex, or laundry.
Some of my favorite authors wrote series, and these added another layer. Each book would focus on the development of a romantic and sexual relationship of the hero and heroine. Meanwhile, in the background of the story would be couples from earlier books in the series. It showed that they still had all these characteristics and that even settled into married life, their relationship was wonderful.
Bad for My Heart
While these books didn’t sow discontent, they certainly encouraged my existing discontent to flourish. The men were everything my husband wasn’t—and that I yearned for him to be. The women were how I wanted my husband to see me.
The books would arouse me. Sometimes after reading a steamy scene late at night, I would initiate sex with my husband, all the while imagining that maybe someday he would become the man I wanted. Frequently, though, I took matters into my own hands. It was easier to just take care of the physical need than to put myself in a position of becoming emotionally vulnerable again.
Reading these books was socially acceptable—yet somehow, reading them made me feel broken. I always felt like I’d done something wrong that my life wasn’t like the lives depicted in the books. And I was bothered by the disconnect between my clear interest in a vibrant sex life and the drab life of my real-life marriage bed.
A year or so before I began my efforts to make changes in sexual intimacy, I was on a plane. I’d packed my current romance novel into my carry-on bag. As I reached into the bag to pull it out, I noticed that a man a few rows ahead of me was reading an adult magazine. I thought, “Oh, that’s just icky. Even if no one else sees the pictures, he is going to be sitting there feeling all aroused and thinking about sex around other people. Just gross.”
I looked at the book in my hand, and in one of those “God smacked me between the eyes” moments, I realized that the man looking at the magazine with naked women was no different than my reading this book in the presence of others.
The sexy romance novel was my version of porn.
I pulled out my crossword puzzle book instead.
About a year into my sexual transformation, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read one of my favorite authors. I pulled out one of her books and began reading. I skipped over the sex scenes—partly because I wasn’t particularly interested in them (frequent sex had taken away that voyeuristic interest) and partly because I thought that if I skipped the sex scenes, it would be a little less like reading porn (sort of like a guy who really does look at a magazine “just for the articles”). Yet l got to the end of the book feeling a bit more discontented than usual. The emotional connection portrayed in the book affected me just as much as the sexual connection.
By the time 50 Shades of Grey was released, I had an instinctive understanding that it would not be emotionally healthy for me to read. I had friends who talked about reading it and then going to jump their husbands. I read innumerable accounts of women who said their sex drives had been rekindled by reading these books. I saw bondage items crop up in stores everywhere and wondered if the women buying these items would have been interested in them the year before. The term “mommy porn” seemed quite apt.
I thought about how glad I was that my marriage was in a place that kept me from wanting what I suspected the book might have offered me: a renewal of discontent with my husband and our marriage, sexual arousal created by fiction rather than by my husband and my desire for him, and a desire for specific sexual activity in hopes that it would give me what I’d been convinced I should want.
Shades of Romance Reading
Last year, I read Pulling Back the Shades (affiliate link), by Dr. Juli Slattery and Dannah K. Gresh. I was stunned. The book grabbed at me in the first chapter, as the authors identified five longings in women’s hearts that can leave them ripe for the temptations of erotica and porn:
- Escape from reality
- Being cherished by a man
- Being protected by a strong man
- Rescuing a man
- Feeling sexually alive
These are exactly the things that I had loved so much about all the books I’d read—and they were longings that had begun to be filled as I became happier in my marriage.
Next month, the 50 Shades of Grey movie will be released. I am part of a team (a big, big team) helping promote Pulling Back the Shades in response to the movie’s release. I will be sharing posts on my social media sites related to this book team, so you’ll see a lot of that.
We understand that a man who began viewing porn as a young teen often faces lifelong battle with sexual views and expectations shaped by porn.
My experience suggests that a woman who began reading romance novels as a young teen can face a lifelong battle with relationship expectations shaped by that reading.
Oh, how I wish I could tell you the struggles are over—but I can’t. There are times I still want to seek out the escape from reality to a world with a perfect husband and sex life. Sadly, I am not always successful in fighting this battle.
Pulling Back the Shades has helped equip me to fight the battle with knowledge and a deeper understanding of myself. It is a battle I still fight—but now I have weapons and knowledge to help me.
If you have faced any of these struggles in your life (especially if you suspect your marriage might have been affected), please, please, please read the book. And stayed tuned for more in the coming month.
Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young at FreeDigitalPhotos.net