Because It’s Important

(Fair warning: This is long and deals with non g-rated topics. But like the title implies…I think it’s important!)

So…okay. I’ve had this one brewing for a few days. And it may not even be necessary what with all the 50 Shades hoopla going on. BUT. Maybe it actually is.

Because, no offense intended, but for me, 50 Shades is just a no. There is nothing redeeming about the movie, its hype, its message. There isn’t a woman on the planet who won’t be better off just pulling a random chick flick out of her DVD collection and watching that, rather than the train-wreck that is 50 Shades.

But, then again, maybe that’s not exactly true. And that’s why I’m still feeling the need to write this post.

Yes, 50 Shades is not worth the money (and honestly, I kind of hope it tanks). But is it really better to deal with something so blatantly problematic by replacing it with something slightly less problematic?

See, the issue is one of messages. We are bombarded by messages, every day, every which way we turn. And we get so numb to them we sort of tune out. Except, we don’t. We really can’t tune out completely, so we really just end up absorbing all that information, all those opinions, all those messages — without ever realizing they’ve taken root.

Unless we’re on our guard, actually stopping to analyze what messages we hear, we end up living out these messages without meaning to. Because we will always act out what we truly believe. Every.time. Not just what we say we believe. But what’s actually inside our hearts.

That’s why this whole topic is so important.

Here’s what I mean. I recently took an editing job on a novel. The book is fiction. No problem. The book is romance. Also, no problem, I thought. I read romance books. No biggie, right?

Except, this one, um, wasn’t the kind of romance I typically read. There were 3-4 scenes that were steamy. And detailed. And um…what-have-I-gotten-myself-into?!? Now clearly, 1) I don’t have a lot of experience with explicit scenes in my romance novels, and 2) I wasn’t expecting, at that moment, to stumble into descriptions of people’s bodies and exactly what they were doing. And the short version (for those who are wondering), is that I was taken aback, debated what to do, and finally decided to finish the project. And I’m glad I did because I learned some things about myself, about absorbing messages, and about some serious issues that we, as women (and especially Christian women), need to really think about.

For example…

1. There is such a thing as “girl porn.”

I’m not an expert on porn (that should be obvious given my reaction to a couple of sex scenes in a single book), but there’s really nobody who thinks porn is good. Right? It’s selfish. It’s objectifying. And it’s completely addictive. In the worst way. Clearly, this is not good. And when we’re talking about men and videos or the SI swimsuit edition or Hustler magazine, we’re all about shutting down the cycle.

But what about us? Sure, some women do videos and magazines. But the vast majority of women need words. So we read our porn. Erotica, for some. But even that’s pretty out there for most of us. No, we stick mostly to romances, love stories filled with descriptions that are designed, intended, to arouse the passions of the readers along with the characters. And this, in effect, serves exactly the same purpose as porn. Some would disagree with me, but I stand by my statement. There is such a thing as ‘girl porn,’ and we must be intentional about guarding our hearts, and our marriages, from the negative effects of such things.

2. Sometimes the effects are emotional, rather than physical.

SO what about those of us who don’t, as a general rule, read books with sex scenes? Where the book gently skips from the kiss to the morning after? Is that really better?

And my answer is…maybe. Remember, the issue is what messages we are letting into our minds. So we cannot limit the issue to the physical. “Oh, I don’t read those books, so I’m okay.” Are you? Or do you read romance books and watch romantic comedies and dream about the day some guy (or your guy) will do (fill-in-the-blank) for you? Or maybe you watch them because you know your guy would never do (fill-in-the-blank) for you. It’s an escape. It’s a substitution. You want the romance, you wish to be loved “like that,” and it makes you feel better to watch (or read) someone else get what you’ve always wanted.

And yeah, that’s a problem.

See, emotional porn is about living vicariously through someone else’s story. You feel a lack of romance, of love, of ‘being seen,’ in your own life. So you fill that tank with a movie. Or book. Or story where some guy really knows how to treat a lady, all the while wishing she was you.

And that kind of substitution is always harmful. Maybe you aren’t skipping out on sex with your husband to look at porn. But if you are depending on books or movies to fill up your emotional tank, you’ve still substituted a fake love for a real one. You’ve set your husband aside, drawing emotional sustenance from a different well.

(Now, I obviously am not blaming all women, because yes, some husbands really have ‘checked out,’ but my point here is about messages, remember? If you find your marriage in this state, you need to get help. Talk to your husband. Talk to a pastor or counselor. And above all, keep on guarding your heart.)

But, someone will say, reading these books actually makes me turn towards my husband. So it’s okay, right? Honestly, I doubt it. Yes, he’s probably happy with the attention he gets. But it’s still not a two-way, face-to-face relationship. Really, it’s more like using your husband as an outlet, rather than uniting with him. And that’s not what a real relationship is.

3. We can’t settle for less.

Here’s the thing. As I thought objectively about those scenes in my editing project, I realized a couple of important points.

– They are unnecessary. Really, the are. The deep love a character has for another person is not entirely bound up in their ability to sexually please that person. That’s why the best love stories, the lasting literary works, very rarely give explicit details about ‘romps in the hay.’ They really aren’t necessary to the bigger story.

– They are inaccurate. No two people in the entire world can routinely have the kind of sex described in those books. No man could really do what these guys did, every time. No woman is that kind of pleasured, every time. Of course, as Richard Paul Evans said in a (very good) recent article, “Romance novels (and I’ve written a few) are all about desire and happily-ever-after, but happily-ever-after doesn’t come from desire–at least not the kind portrayed in most pulp romances.” When we get our sense of “what it should be like” about sex from books and movies, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. They just aren’t real.

– They create unfair expectations. Evans continued, “Real love is not to desire a person, but to truly desire their happiness–sometimes, even, at the expense of our own happiness.” Sure, sometimes, real-life sex is great. But in real life, in a real relationship, it can’t always be uber-highs and Hollywood passion. You have to accept the quickies, the I’m-doing-this-because-I-should phases, the well-that-didn’t-go-as-planned moments. Those are as important as the really great moments. Because those are part of the bond.Yes, I want my marriage to be great. But greatness comes by blending the good and the bad times, the hard and the easy times. It’s the intertwining of two hearts and lives, two entire people, not just our physical bodies (though that is super important, too).

And the truth is, when I’ve absorbed those descriptions of what “great sex” is, then eventually, I’m going to expect my husband to somehow perform that way. But holding him to such impossible standards cannot encourage a bond between us. I’m setting him up for failure and judgment. He cannot possibly keep up with the stuff in those books (most of which he’ll never know I have in mind), and I will never enjoy my intimacy with him the way I’m supposed to if I’m constantly comparing him with those scenes.

4. Or maybe I’m just a prude.

Okay, so I’ve said all this stuff. Maybe you’re high-fiving me right now. Maybe you’re getting ticked that I’ve said some stuff that you didn’t like. Maybe you’ve just blown me off as a prude.

And maybe I am. But here’s the thing. I’d rather be a prude with a healthy, growing marriage than an experienced reader of explicit materials who’s setting herself up for misery and failure. Messages matter. And it’s important that we learn how to call what we see and read to account for the messages they communicate to us.

Ladies, as I edited those scenes, I talked about them a lot. A LOT. To Jesus, first of all. I wasn’t sure if I should feel guilty or not. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to keep reading. I didn’t quite know how to respond. So I spent a lot of time in those weeks “bringing every thought captive” because I didn’t want those scenes to leave a lasting impression on my mind. And  then I trusted God to keep them from negatively impacting me.

And did they? I don’t think so. I finally realized that I am not guilty in this matter. I did nothing “wrong” by reading those scenes. But I do have to be careful about the next time. Wisdom dictates that I have to add that question (“Are there sex scenes?) to my criteria for whether or not to take future jobs. Which may cost me some work. But, I don’t want those messages to have free rein in my heart. So, if it costs me work…so be it.

But I also talked to my husband about them. They surprised me. And I needed to process them somewhere outside of my own head. I wasn’t sure if he would care or not. I wasn’t sure what he would think. And you know what. He was so helpful. He listened without judging. He made light of them, which helped me not take them too seriously. I’m the type of soul who would’ve bottled up my concerns and let them fester, always wondering if I was hurting my marriage with what I’d read.

But in talking to my husband about them, they lost a lot of power to affect me. And what could have become something between us (for me) became an opportunity to handle things together. His strengths, my strengths, together.

SO…what’s the point? to be honest, I’m not sure. If you read a lot of romance, I’m not necessarily telling you to quit. Just to be careful. This is important. It is a bigger deal than we tend to give credit that it is. We have to guard our hearts. We have to guard our marriages. We have to read and watch with a critical eye so that we don’t create (intentionally or not) issues for ourselves and our marriages.

It is important. And if you aren’t sure what to do, err on the side of caution and get some wise counsel from other women you trust. And don’t (really, don’t) bother seeing 50 Shades this weekend. I can already tell you the messages in that story will not be worth the price of admission.