By Light Unseen Media
BLU~Media Blog

June 1, 2011

Romance Novels Dangerously Addictive? Who Says So?

Filed under: reading,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — admin @ 4:55 am

Ten or twenty years ago, the admonition, “consider the source” wasn’t always as reasonable as it sounded. As everyone who’s studied formal logic knows, “ad hominem,” or attacking the speaker instead of the argument, is a logical fallacy: a way of cheating in a debate.

But these days, with so much of the information presented to us consisting of unvetted, biased and self-serving rhetoric (when it isn’t just cynical bare-faced lying, which it often is), “consider the source” is the very first thing you need to do with anything you read online. That’s especially true with the endless punditry and advice posted by the gigabyte on the topics of publishing and writing.

An excellent example of this appeared yesterday in an editorial that’s been zooming around the Twitterverse and Blogosphere. Posted to Salt Lake City based KSL Online by Kimberly Sayer-Giles, the article is headed, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography.” The gist of the piece–you can go read it and come back if you need to, it’s not long–is that romance novels, in excess, cause women to have unrealistic expectations of their husbands and thereby threaten marriages.

There are so many things wrong with this piece, it’s mind-boggling. I’ll take it from the top.

The header, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography,” is one of those loaded statements like “when did you stop beating your wife?” It takes as a given that pornography is actually “addictive.” There’s no such general agreement. The word “addiction” is over-used to the point of trivialization in popular media. While it can include certain behaviors, those behaviors must be crippling and pathologically compulsive before they’re in the realm of true “addiction.” Of course, the pundits love to use this word because it’s a high-emotion trigger word and a cheap way of grabbing attention. They don’t care how misleading it is, they just want people to read what they saying.

So, the minute you read the article header, you’re being emotionally manipulated by a misleading word and an unsupported comparison.

The article next states that romance novels are enjoying huge popularity. Out of all the other categories of book to which romance sales could be compared, Ms. Sayer-Giles only mentions “religious, self-help and inspirational books.” It seems like an apples-and-oranges comparison, since fiction is consumed as entertainment while “religious, self-help and inspirational books” are all classified as non-fiction: books that are read for very different reasons. But her choice is suggestive of where she’s coming from.

Ms. Sayer-Giles writes,

“In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become as dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages as men can be by the distorted messages of pornography,” said best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn, who studies the differences between men and women.

“Some marriage therapists”–gee, can you vague that up a bit? Which ones? How many? Can we get a quote? And just who is Shaunti Feldhahn? If she “studies the differences between men and women” (that’s a rather broad field in which to claim general expertise), she must be doing so on her own time. According to her biography on Wikipedia, she has a bachelor’s degree in government and economics and a Masters in Public Policy. If she has formal training in psychology, sociology, gender issues, or even addiction issues, she’s keeping it quiet. Among her books, however, is a Bible study guide “for women only.”

Which brings us to the next paragraph:

According to psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery, author of “Finding the Hero in your Husband”, there are similarities between what happens to a man when he views pornography and what happens to a woman when she reads a romance novel.

Now, who is Dr. Juli Slattery? Well…according to the link in the article, “Dr. Juli Slattery is a Christian psychologist, speaker, wife and mother. She serves as Family Psychologist at Focus on the Family and co-host of the daily broadcast with Focus President Jim Daly and John Fuller.”

Focus on the Family, as we all know, is dedicated to vigorously attacking any form of entertainment which offends its extremely conservative Christian world-view. Their most high-profile assaults are against television, but they obviously pay attention to other forms of media, like literature.

At least Dr. Slattery has serious training in psychology. But I really have to question her assertions, as quoted and summarized in the article:

Men are very visual, and viewing pornography produces a euphoric drug in the body. This drug is the reason pornography becomes addictive. When the natural high wears off, a man will crash and feel depressed (as happens with any drug) and crave another hit.

A “euphoric drug?” Could she be talking about…endorphins? Activities that spark that “euphoric drug” include (among thousands of others) exercising, laughing at jokes, riding roller coasters, and healthy sex. But calling endorphins “a drug” makes them sound like something alien and unnatural, and pathologizes the universal experience of a pleasurable “high.” How can we be “addicted” to our own bodies’ natural response?

We can’t.

Dr. Slattery develops her argument for a few more paragraphs, and then we hear from another expert.

Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.

Now, who is this Vickie Burress? Well…she’s associated with Victims of Pornography.org, which is “a project of Citizens for Community Values.” Citizens for Community Values is a very conservative Christian activist group. Along with attacking pornography, they’re training candidates for public office in “Bible-based” perspectives.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

The entire article is very vague about precisely what it is about romance books that attracts women to neglect their marital relationships, and what, in detail, “romance addicts” do (or don’t do) that makes them so “dangerously unbalanced.” It offers no specific case examples, nor does it describe any common themes or tropes in romance that would be problematical. It glosses over the fact that “romance” itself is a huge and diverse category of fiction, about which it is difficult to generalize. The article also ignores the fact that almost all romance, by definition, promotes strong committed relationships and happy endings.

But I think the entire argument is one of those typical examples of backwards reasoning that lie behind every attempt to demonize some form of entertainment or recreation. It presumes that women who read romance novels and engage in fantasy to the detriment of their marriages would be just fine if they hadn’t been seduced and entrapped by those evil external forces. It would be far more fruitful to look at the women and their marriages first, because it’s highly probable that women who become “addicted to romance” are escaping critical problems with their spouses, not creating them. Fantasies may not be the most constructive way of dealing with marital conflict, but they can be a lot safer than confronting a husband who is, say, a violent batterer or an alcoholic. “Romance addiction,” if it even exists, is almost certainly a symptom, not a cause. Almost all addiction is.

The article concludes with suggestions for “fighting the addiction.” Ms. Sayer-Giles says,

Read self-help books together or contact a relationship professional or coach, who can help you to rekindle the flame in your marriage.

“A relationship professional or coach,” such as…? “Kimberly Sayer Giles is the founder and president of LDS Life Coaching.” That’s LDS as in Latter Day Saints: Ms. Sayer-Giles is a Mormon, and her advice comes from that perspective.

I have a lot of trouble believing that reading can be “addictive” in the same way that, say, playing the lottery or certain types of video games may potentially become. Reading is a unique activity, requiring a high level of engagement and creativity on the part of the reader. Yes, it’s pleasurable and stimulates endorphins–but unlike the passive experience of viewing pornography or watching TV, reading requires active psychological collaboration or it doesn’t work. It’s not the same kind of instant and unthinking reward that come from most addictive behaviors. While there may be women who sour on their nice but obese and absent-minded husbands after reading hundreds of books about muscular Highlanders, it’s doubtful that they’d prefer a paperback to real-life sex if the sex was even a fraction as exciting as the encounters in the book. Let’s put the real blame for these marriage problems where it really belongs.

Of course, I have to confess my own bias here. If reading and books were actually addictive and “dangerous,” I’d be out there corrupting the public at every opportunity. I’d lurk around elementary schools and offer free books to children! I’d read aloud to helpless senior citizens in nursing homes! I’d give books to babies! “Turn on, tune in and read” would be my clarion cry–no one would be safe! I’d be Public Enemy Number One!

Come to think of it…

But in all seriousness, I can only wish that reading was a true addiction. The fact is, I’ve never known anyone, of any age, to be harmed by reading any book. No one. Not ever.

No, it’s when people–especially young people, and women, and the dispossessed of all kinds–stop reading that we need to start being afraid. That’s when our society will truly risk becoming “dangerously unbalanced.”

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