Why Erotic Romance Isn’t Porn

The media loves calling the Fifty Shades triliogy “mommy porn.” That’s a lot more provocative than “erotic romance,” which is the correct term. Erotic romance isn’t new, but Fifty Shades has suddenly made it mainstream. Why is it wrong to call it porn?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court has had trouble defining what constitutes pornography. Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote “I know it when I see it” in his concurring opinion to Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).

In this as in most things, comedians are better than lawyers at articulating universal truths. In the 1980s, Kevin Nealon appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live to review porn flicks. The reviews went something like this: “I was interested… interested…VERY interested…suddenly lost interest.” That’s the best definition of pornography I’ve ever heard.

Good erotic romance has all the components that make up any romance novel: a gripping story, engaging characters, a setting that adds dimension to the action, and a conflict that makes readers care about the outcome. Erotic romance also has fully dramatized sex scenes that are integral to the plot development and character arc. The sex scenes are never superfluous. The novel or story couldn’t stand without them. The sex scenes aren’t there to titillate but to inform.

Readers of good erotic romance don’t “suddenly lose interest.” They keep reading until the end. Or if they stop reading, it’s because the characters or plot don’t appeal to them, the same as for any other novel. Because erotic romance isn’t about the sex. It’s about the story.

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