Why Romance Novels Are the Latest Target of Book Bans

A stack of books with mostly pink covers, arranged on the edge of a white table in a white room.
Surely banning romance novels has nothing to do with femininity and oppression. (Martin de Arriba / Pexels.com)

Utah recently passed an anti-porn bill that saw Pornhub block every ISP in the state. You might have laughed—how silly!

If you read romance novels, though, you should absolutely be concerned about this anti-porn push. Why? Well, Nora Roberts’ romances were just pulled from library shelves in Florida—because they’re “too spicy” for some readers.

Wait, What? NORA Is “Too Spicy?”

Yeah. People currently think it’s a bit funny. If you understand exactly where the push is coming from, it’s not funny at all.

Recently, there’s been a serious uptick in book banning activity in the US. Many of the targeted books have either dealt with “uncomfortable” topics, like racism, or have had pro-LGBTQIA+ messaging. Books dealing with trans characters and trans identities have been particularly targeted as being “inappropriate.”

This follows a spate of anti-trans laws, including drag bans and bathroom bills, which target trans people. The rhetoric is often around keeping women and/or children safe.

The State of Legislation

Florida has been a leader in this arena, introducing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. That law banned educators from speaking about “LGBTQIA content” in elementary school classrooms. More recently, the bill was expanded to include high school. Higher education is also under attack. Other bills include the withdrawal of gender affirming medical care for trans youth, and a law that allows the state to effectually kidnap children whose parents attempt to support them if they express a gender identity beyond “cis.”

Florida certainly isn’t the only state. Missouri introduced a bill that forcibly detransitions everyone, including adults. Tennessee has a strict drag ban. Texas introduced legislation that allowed people to “rat” on trans-supportive parents, who would be investigated for child abuse.

Happening alongside all of this has been the pushback on abortion. There has been a nationwide push to outlaw the so-called abortion drug. The right wing is also now attacking birth control and fertility treatments like IVF.

It’s no surprise that these attacks are happening together. Trans rights, women’s rights, and anti-porn attitudes are all deeply, deeply interlinked.

Surprise! It’s Misogyny All the Way Down

If you hadn’t guessed by now, part of the reason behind all of this is misogyny. Simply put, some people don’t see women as people. That is why there is such a push to make trans people illegal. People want to police the definition of “woman.”

Why is it so important to be able to do that? Reproduction. These political movements are pushing for women to once more be relegated to the home. The rise in “trad wife” content and TikTokers with about fifteen children is no coincidence.

Of course, misogyny is also hooked into white supremacy here. The people encouraged to go back to the home, to depend on their husbands, and to have as many children as possible are generally white, straight women. The “race replacement theory” says white people are going to be wiped out, because white people aren’t reproducing enough.

Part of the issue is feminism—which allows for things like no-fault divorce and abortion rights. It’s no surprise to see abortion rights and birth control on the chopping block at the same time there is a huge backlash against the “trans agenda.” As far as this rhetoric is concerned, trans people are simply confused. They need to be “corrected” so they can get back to reproducing the “right” way.

Okay, so what the hell does that have to do with porn?

Anti-Porn Movements Fit Right In

The marriage of the anti-porn movement and the extreme right might seem like a head-scratcher. Remember, though, that the right is incredibly concerned with reproduction, particularly white reproduction.

Porn, they argue, prevents people—men and women alike—from having sex and making babies.
In fact, some groups specifically have “no wank” rules in their codes of conduct. Basically, members aren’t allowed to jack off, because that’s “wasting” the precious seed that they could use to impregnate someone. The code of conduct would much rather you screw someone.

That should sound familiar: several Christian groups, including Catholics, have made similar arguments against male masturbation. Since semen has the potential to become a person, it should never be wasted.

Ah, right: “the only good sex is the procreative kind!”

Sodomy laws, which ban anal and oral sex, originate in this attitude. Same with the Victorian preoccupation with making sure kids didn’t learn about masturbation. And we often hear women exhorted not to “ring the Devil’s doorbell” (the clit).

Now, right-wingers aren’t necessarily Christians, although there is plenty of overlap. Some of the most prominent members of anti-wank groups claim to be atheists. Yet they tend to peddle lies, baked into a pseudo-scientific soup: not masturbating will help you feel better, increase your testosterone, make you more manly, etc., etc.

Romance Novels Come under Attack

All right, so we’ve established the web of connections between the anti-trans/anti-LGBTQIA+ movement, the anti-abortion/anti-birth control movement, and the anti-porn movement. Basically, it’s white supremacist eugenics undergirding all of it.

So, where the heck do romance novels fit into all of this? Why did Nora Roberts, of all people, get banned from Florida libraries as being “too spicy”?

Pearl Clutching and Mommy Porn

Romance novels have long been referred to as “mommy porn.” They sit adjacent to erotica and actual porn. It’s not uncommon for romance novelists to say we need to stand on high alert any time someone comes for sex workers. Romance novels are sex-work adjacent.

Romance novels run the gamut from being sexless to being oversexed. They’ve been policed in the past, with many falling victim to “obscenity” laws. This is the same argument used to keep LGBTQIA+ content out of people’s hands or to ban “vulgar” displays at Pride events. It’s the kind of law that bans “porn”—and what is “pornography” can be a very wide range.

LGBTQIA+ content often falls under this category because queer people’s very existence is seen to be sexual. This is the exact logic behind Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill: it’s inappropriate to teach young children about sex!

When Queer Existence Is “Obscene”

Meanwhile, nobody was teaching children about sex itself. Rather, they were teaching queerness—which is separate. A gender identity is not inherently sexual. Children learn gender identities early on. In fact, many have an identity forced on them even before they’re out of the womb. So long as it “matches” the physical presentation of their genitalia, though, the right wing doesn’t care about that gender identity. It’s that anything beyond cishetnormativity might allow them to challenge the Christofascist goal of increased white reproduction.

A close up of a hand holding a piece of white paper with "LGBTQIA" written in rainbow colors.
Some people think this image needs to be censored. (Sharon McCutcheon / Pexels.com)

Similarly, a gay teacher saying he’s married to another man is not teaching about sex, the same as a cisgender woman teacher saying she’s married to a man and being addressed as “Mrs.” Yet the latter is acceptable, but the former is somehow inappropriate and corrupting small children.

It’s a very baseless argument as soon as you realize queerness is not inherently sexual. Yet many people believe it is. That’s where we get the idea that queer people simply existing in front of children is somehow pedophilia or pornographic. And that is the idea that undergirds these laws.

Wanna know what else is “obscene” or “pornographic”? Women enjoying sex!

Problematizing Women’s (Sexual) Agency

A woman dressed in a simple v-neck wedding gown holds a bouquet of white flowers as she steps through a an arch of white flowers. She looks to the right of the frame.
Ah, yes, the romance of becoming someone else’s property. (Jonathan Borba / Pexels.com)

Anything that shows women seeking out sex, initiating it, participating in it with anything more than resignation, is generally policed as obscene.

Why? Well, because, one, women aren’t horny, and two, women aren’t supposed to have any agency.
Why is the idea that women aren’t horny so important to the Christofascist state? It’s a patriarchal state, which means men have all the power. Women are imagined to be chaste receptacles for depositing the sperm of their husbands. That way, any resulting children will surely belong to the husband.

Women who are in any way not chaste are whores who become risks for their husbands. They might be doing the mailman behind their husbands’ backs, and whose to say that kid is really his?

The Larger Goal of Control

Women must be controlled and kept from sin, as the “weaker” sex. The idea that women should be frigid is a narrative used to shame and police women who might otherwise seek other men—especially if their spouse isn’t very good in bed.

This ties back to the issue with women’s agency. Women are not supposed to have any, because, once again, women are not people. That means women shouldn’t have opinions or thoughts or take action to do anything. They are passive. They should feel lucky a man takes pity on them and marries them and gives them babies. And they absolutely shouldn’t make any decisions about their own bodies—such as having an abortion or taking birth control—and they definitely shouldn’t be able to divorce their husbands. The incel community perhaps sums up the right’s attitude towards women most succinctly: why have I not yet been given the woman society promised me as a man? Why can they say no to me?

Romance Gives Women Agency

Are you starting to see where romance novels might be dangerous? In many, many cases, romance novels give women agency in their relationships. We can criticize them as tools of patriarchal control—which many narratives about romance definitely are—but romance has also been seen as a somewhat “feminist” genre.

Romance allows escapism, and it also offers women a glimpse into other relationships. In many modern romance novels, we see women with agency making their own choices.

Sure, many modern writers are still deeply misogynistic, and romance heroines often mistake abuse for “romance.” Yet romance novels usually focus on the woman and give us her point of view. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a romance novel with a “strong female character” who will tell the man no and make him beg to get her back. She often walks away during the third act break-up, and he has to grovel to get her back.

Plus, in the books with sex, the focus is often on her pleasure. Women are portrayed as enjoying and even seeking sex, sometimes outside the marital bower.

Two red chili peppers on an isolated white background.
Women’s agency is so spicy, I give it two peppers. (Karolina Grabowska / Pexels.com)

But it’s not necessarily the sex that is “obscene” or “pornographic”—it’s the very idea that women might be able to freely choose or walk away from a relationship. Giving her agency is simply unthinkable—and that’s the true objection to things like Nora Roberts.

Nora isn’t “too spicy,” unless you hate feminism and the idea that women are people.

But this is where romance novelists—even the ones who don’t include sex in their stories—get swept up in anti-porn rhetoric.

This Has Happened Before

And make no mistake: there are pseudo-leftists, people who posit themselves as “feminists” who will also take up the anti-porn banner. Anti-porn attitudes are actually very good at pulling feminists back to conservative groups. (I’ll argue that being anti-porn is not truly a feminist position, same as being anti-trans automatically rules out being feminism, as you are now policing how people can be women.) The 1980s—another period of conservative resurgence and “culture war”—famously saw an uptick in the number of so-called feminists arguing for porn bans. Their logic was that porn is inherently anti-feminist, because it degrades women.

The truth is that porn doesn’t have to be degrading. In fact, many women are horny and enjoy sex. Porn with a feminist lens often challenges the objectification of women and focuses on “her pleasure”—same as many romance novels. Similarly, sex work doesn’t have to be degrading, although many “feminists” would argue it is. (It’s no more degrading than employment at WalMart. In both scenarios, you’re selling your body for money, and in the case of sex work, especially in the digital age, you may actually have more control over how, when, and how much you make. You may even be able to protect yourself against abuse more so than you can in WalMart, where you’re just expected to take whatever the customer throws at you.)

Real Feminism Is Inclusive

These “feminists” arguments are simply anti-feminist talking points—wolves in sheep’s clothing. Anti-porn logic usually extends to policing feminine desire and it definitely rules out queer desire—since it’s not procreative. Lesbians?! How could two women ever hope to get it on? Both of them should be passive; no one would take initiative, and neither of them would have any desire, right? One might ask how lesbian porn could be “degrading” to women, since it’s two women. The argument is that sapphic content is often “for” men.

With all this information in hand, it’s easy to connect the dots and see precisely how these arguments lead right back to the Christofascist center—and why we need to push back against them.

That’s why we need to get Nora Roberts back on the shelves in Florida—but we also need to go beyond that. It’s not “just” romance novels that are okay—and if you think stopping there will keep what you love safe, you still haven’t understood. Obscenity laws are coming for “mommy porn” just the same as hardcore porn and queer content, and if you truly understand, you’ll push back not just to keep your romance novels safe—but to kick the anti-feminist rhetoric in the teeth and protect the rights of all women, all people to have agency enough to make their own decisions about their bodies, their pleasure, and their lives.

About the author

By Cherry

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