Should Catholics avoid erotic romance novels?

Author EL James poses with her erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey (PA)

A friend has forwarded me the blog of US priest, Fr Thomas Berg. It seems he answers readers’ questions at [email protected] Here he is answering the question, “Should a Catholic read racy romance novels?” The same friend has “dared” me to write on this topic, so here goes.

Actually, Fr Berg’s response is clear, sensible and faithful to Church teaching. He is discussing the much-talked-of book by EL James, entitled “Fifty Shades of Grey”. (I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to – especially after reading Fr Berg’s take on it.) He explains, for those who might not have heard of it, that “it has gained world-wide notoriety for its explicitly erotic scenes involving bondage, dominance and sadomasochism.” You can tell it’s not the world of Jane Austen.
Fr Berg quotes a woman academic, Dr Julia Stronks, who comments that the story’s heroine, Anastasia, agrees to Grey’s rules of dominance in the relationship “in part because she believes she will eventually be able to reach him and heal his troubled psyche.” This might be a serious question raised by the book but as Stronks explains, love can’t heal an abusive situation: “It shields abusers and keeps the abused in a bad situation” she says.

More importantly, as Fr Berg writes, a novel like this is actually “an occasion of sin.” This is an old-fashioned phrase, very familiar to Catholics of my generation but not something you hear today in advanced Catholic circles. It simply means putting yourself into a situation – it could be a dodgy friendship as well as dodgy “art” – where you might be tempted to commit a sin. In this case, it would be a sin against purity (another old-fashioned word.) Fr Berg points out that “pornography and all forms of obscene, titillating, lewd images and descriptions” fall into the category of “proximate” occasions of sin.

He asks, what would justify exposing oneself to the raw sexual content of a novel such as this? Nothing, unless you are a professor of contemporary literature and Fifty Shades is on the syllabus. He argues that any sexually explicit image or description “leaves its impact on our brains” so that, for the sake of our “psychosexual well-being” it’s better to avoid these things.

I have raised the potentially addictive side of pornography before in blogs, to be challenged by a post telling me that “addiction” to pornography is an excuse cooked up by sinners who choose not to exert their free will to change their behaviour. My response is that we always have some free will, even when we have damaged or undermined it but that, as with alcohol or drugs, we can lower the brain’s resistance to toxic stimuli to such an extent that willpower on its own won’t free us. Fr Berg asks, “How much immodest and sexually explicit junk do we nonchalantly expose ourselves to on a daily basis?” He reminds us that we should avoid this junk, not for negative reasons but because we “are called to live – positively, joyfully and enthusiastically – the virtue of chastity.”

As well as Fr Berg’s blog, I have been following an on-line novena to the Immaculate Conception put out by a husband and wife team, John-Paul and Annie Deddens, at [email protected] The meditation on Tuesday – day 5 – concentrates on Our Lady’s purity and asks readers to “think of all the suffering caused by our sin” and to pray for “purity of our minds, that we may have holy thoughts.” EL James’ novel isn’t going to help us to have holy thoughts; rather the opposite.

As a final thought, on the radio on Tuesday morning a writer was bewailing the fact that he has been shortlisted for the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award. I respond that no great novelist (you can tell I’m a book snob) is interested in writing explicitly and in gory detail about either Good or Bad Sex. Great writers are absorbed by the characters they create, their relationships and the infinitely complex emotional dynamics between them; these tell us all that is necessary about their so-called sex lives and everything else is a form of pornography, however it is dressed up. You only have to think of that dreadful old fraud, Casaubon, in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, trying to destroy the vital spirit of his wonderful wife, Dorothea when she tries to help him in his spurious scholarship, to know their bedroom life isn’t brilliant. And it’s obvious in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” that conjugal relations in the Verloc household are possibly problematic when Mr Verloc gives his wife a “come hither” look from the sofa and she runs at him with a kitchen knife. What more do we need to know?