Do romance novels lead to better sex for Mormon women?

OGDEN, Utah (RNS) Mormon leaders have condemned romance novels as "soft
porn," and literary critics long have railed against these fictional
yarns as "dope for dupes."

So why are so many self-described Mormon feminists drinking from
such a theologically poisoned well?

That's easy, say three women who've studied the genre. It's because
church leaders and critics are missing the messages of independence and
empowerment embedded in a genre written largely by women, for women and
about women.

These novels, though often erotically explicit, seem to support many
Mormon teachings, especially the primacy of monogamous marriage,
childbearing and family life.

Indeed, Caroline Kline discovered that nearly every Mormon
congregation she has attended has had a group of romance readers.
Kline, who has a master's degree in classics from the University of
California at Santa Barbara, conducted an informal survey of 40 Mormon
women, who were self-described romance devotees.

More than half (54 percent) said their marital relationships (75
percent were married) were strengthened because they were more sexually
interested in their husbands when reading the novels, and 40 percent
said that such books made their sex lives more fulfilling.

Although 55 percent saw romance novels as pornography to some
extent, Kline reported that 80 percent did not see these novels as
harming their spirituality in any way.

"My women felt they deserved to have a great sex life with their
spouse. They were willing to say that their sex lives matter," she said
at a recent symposium sponsored by Sunstone, an independent Mormon
journal. "If the books contributed to that and to the health of the
marriage, then they didn't accept those negative pronouncements."
Simply put, the steamy novels heated up their bedrooms and warmed
their marriages.

Feminists also have reason to value this genre, said Margaret
Toscano, who teaches classic literature at the University of Utah and
was another Sunstone panelist.

"Romance writers and readers today do not like weak heroines; they
do not like submissive or manipulative little doormats who give over
their identity to men and subordinate their wills in order to get a
husband," Toscano said.

"Heroines can be plain, they can be beautiful; they can be innocent
or the soiled dove; they can be anti-heroines or kick-a** alpha
heroines; they can be feminine or tomboys. But they cannot be stupid or
utterly dependent, or women readers will reject them."

Amelia Parkin, a single Mormon who has a master's degree in English
from the University of Virginia, enjoys reading the romance novels of
today, but recognizes how different they are from their literary

The hero of Kathleen Woodiwiss' 1972 book, "The Flame and the
Flower," rapes the 17-year-old heroine, mistaking her for a prostitute,
then marries her when she becomes pregnant.

In the 1970s and '80s, Parkin said, such heroines regularly fell in
love with their abusers despite being imprisoned, kidnapped, tied up
and, of course, raped.

What's changed in a lot of modern romances is the men.
Some power discrepancies -- of class, money or sexual experience --
remain, she said, but "where older romances generally focus on the
heroine's developmental arc, more recent romances portray the
complementary development of both hero and heroine."

Sex between these two fictional lovers now is transformative for
both. She may be a virgin and he more experienced, Parkin said, but once
he makes love to the heroine, the hero finds himself unable to be
attracted to or involved with any other woman.

"This," she said, "will be a first for him, too, a first in terms of
emotional connection and vulnerability."

What these books have in common is a more equal emotional and erotic
relationship, and, the Sunstone panelists argued, both Mormons and
feminists should be delighted by that message.

"For her spiritual well-being, happiness and personal growth,"
Toscano said, "every Mormon woman should read at least one good romance
-- filled with lots of good sex -- at least once a year."

Peggy Fletcher Stack

Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for the Salt Lake Tribune.

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