Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Paging Justice Stewart: Are Romance Novels Porn for Middle Aged Women?

Thinking more about the romance novel topic from yesterday. Fairly often, a new report comes out with statistics regarding the purchasing of pornography and the gender breakdown always has a staggering imbalance. The question today is whether those figures under-report women by not considering the staggeringly large romance novel market to be pornography.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famous said of obscene materials,

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
This, of course, ought to strike everyone as insufficient. We need to have some sense of the necessary and sufficient conditions if we are to speak of inclusion or exclusion meaningfully.

Romance novels do not have the same social meaning as (other?) pornography. My undergraduate logic professor's wife was one of the more famous romance writers of the time. This was to say something very different than "my prof's wife is a pornographer." But what is the difference?

Is it that the sexual fantasies are written and not graphic? Is it that there are no real people involved, so the questions of exploitation are not raised? If computer graphic capabilities allowed for the creation of empirically indistinguishable photos and films that were entirely created without human actors or models, would this then make the two morally equivalent? Is it that standard pornography serves to enforce an unfair patriarchal social system that historically has and continues to privilege men whereas trashy novels are, by in large, aimed at the housewife market, the very starting point of the contemporary feminist movement with Betty Friedan's work in The Feminine Mystique, that is, it doesn't feed into social injustice, but brings a little pleasure to those who are among the most anesthetized in our culture?

What do you think? Is there is difference in kind or just degree? If it is a difference in kind, on what grounds?