Reading Twilight through the lens of my Mormon youth

Spoiler alert: This is a post about the connections between the Twilight books and the experience of Mormon adolescence.  As such it risks spoiling in two ways: one, by giving away the plot’s general trajectory, and, two, by explaining in critical terms why it bothers me that I like these books too much.  But, my aim is not to detract from any one’s pleasure in the books or from Meyers’s accomplishment.  Quite the opposite: I have always thought that understanding my pleasure increased it.

I told people who asked that I decided to read Twilight over Christmas, because, for cultural reasons, I was curious to learn more about a best selling series by a Mormon author. That, of course, was a lie: I wanted to read Twilight, because I wanted to indulge in the peculiar kind of romance that I enjoyed since my adolescence—the kind of permissible romance that doesn’t depict graphic sex and yet is unquestionable arousing.

Readers of romance novels know that these books frequently have explicit depictions of sexuality that make them a textual form of what we would commonly consider pornography. However, Meyers’s Twilight series is a more interesting, more Mormon kind of romantic fantasy, because the characters do not engage in premarital sex while still maintaining a relationship that is unmistakably an erotic fantasy. Although the absence of explicit sexual detail (at least in the first two books – the only ones I have read) makes the series an unlikely candidate to be considered pornographic, I want to suggest that the central romantic fantasy that underlies it is not only deeply Mormon in its trajectory, but also pornographic in that it both arouses and generates an idealized form of sublimated sexual romance that achieves what I consider to be the problem with more classic forms of porn: it dehumanizes and exploits the desired object. (If you are skeptical of this claim, check out the fan club “Twilight Moms.” This site markets itself to mothers who have felt renewed hope and sexuality through reading the books, some of who now feel like new brides because they fantasize that their husbands are vampires or werewolves.)

Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic that nearly all critics mention that Stephanie Meyers is Mormon, but few know what to make of it. Yet as an insider, it is hard to miss the author’s Mormon roots when Bella Swan, the heroine who thinks she is an unattractive outsider but unwittingly attracts males both human and immortal, asks her vampire boyfriend, Edward, about the conjugal relations in his vampire family: “You said that Rosalie and Emmett [his vampire siblings] will get married soon…Is that…marriage…the same as it is for humans?” (309). Bella asks the same kind of question that I would expect a typically modest Mormon young woman to ask: she asks about marriage as a euphemism for asking her real question, which is can she and Edward ever have sex. (The answer, Edward tells her, is that she is too incredibly “breakable” to have sex with him.)

The fact that Bella uses “marriage” to signify both “sex” and “marriage” does not simply signify the sexual repression of a Mormon writer and her heroine. Mormon sexuality is much better than that. Instead, I would suggest that it is symptomatic of and encourages at least two ways of (not) understanding the relationship (or lack thereof) between marriage and sexuality that are played out in the books and far more frequently coexist in our Mormon culture. On the one hand, young women can be encouraged by taboos on discussing sexuality to see Mormon marriage as an ideally sexless love, a kind of never-ending foreplay and protection from sexuality that Meyers’s first book makes so enticingly erotic as Edward refuses again and again to approach Bella sexually while still professing eternal attachment. On the other hand, the habit of using “marriage” as a euphemism for “sex” can encourage men and women alike in the belief that marriage is utterly about sex. Sexual ignorance and obsession with sex co-exist in the Twilight books, as, in my experience, they do within a perfectly “chaste” Mormon culture where it is possible to be both utterly ignorant of how to have sex and convinced that marriage includes not a little bit of physical indulgence.

Books that encourage these two kinds of fantasies, one that values sexless romance and one that depicts graphic sex are, I think, seemingly incompatible modes of exploitive porn: Bella’s longing for love that is unchanging, sexless, and protective is just as idealizing and dismissive of a potential lover’s complexity, humanity, and sexual realities as traditional pornography. And here is my point: Mormon men are constantly chastised about pornography. Mormon women almost never. And, yet, the kind of fantasy that Twilight depicts and that has attracted thousands of female readers, many Mormon, is not substantially different from traditional pornography in its consequences. In my mind, it is pornography by another name, even if it does not describe sex, because it encourages women to be aroused by a romantic fantasy that while sexless also distorts their expectations about men. Although we talk about chastity as a simple commitment to not have sex outside of marriage, this definition is far from complete, since the absence of sex can also lead to distorted expectations and relationships. Chastity, in my opinion, means not simply refraining from sex, but fully committing to thinking about and engaging with people in a way that recognizes their full humanity.

Indeed, with such fantasies, it isn’t surprising that Bella has to find a non-human love interest and that she finds in every male friend a want to be lover. Similarly, this inability for men and women to be friends strongly marks Mormon culture. Indeed, the most lingering consequences of my youthful notions about relationships between men and women is that I have few relationships with men at all, especially Mormon men. Granted, Church provides few opportunities for adult men and women to socialize together outside of singles wards, but the real problem is that after years of learning to search for my eternal companion, I can rarely see Mormon men through any lens other than potential or taken date.

And, of course, it is Bella’s search for an eternal companion that makes Twilight in the end so quintessentially Mormon in its romantic thrust. Bella’s “Plan A” in life is to have her lover/vampire make her immortal and give her a perfect body so that she can leave her broken home and join his immortal (read: eternal), rich family. “Plan B” is to go to college.

It is easy to laugh at Bella and to mock Stephanie Meyers.  It is even easier to find the books attractive.  But we shouldn’t mock without realizing that the message of Twilight is a virtual blueprint of what we still teach our Young Women: that their way to salvation from the brokenness here on earth is through marriage to an eternal companion. We can’t be surprised if their fantasies evolve to suit that message and if these dehumanizing fantasies are accepted as mainstream and even appropriate romantic goals. Non-Mormon critics say again and again that Meyers captures the sexual frustration that teens experience in high school, and the books’ popularity suggests that they do. But I think Meyers even better expresses the oddity that it is to be a Mormon young woman, who balances enforced sexual ignorance with the fact that it is through marriage, and hence sex, that she becomes exalted. It is easy to dismiss Meyers as writing a sexless romance. But these fantasies, and the often negative consequences that ensue from them, are unmistakably ours.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’ll be curious to hear your reflections if/when you read the other two books.

    One thought on the porn angle: when my ward bookgroup read Twilight, one of the (very conservative, uptight) women said: “My husband sure is glad I read this!” (the implication was that whatever desire the book aroused was fulfilled with him). I have no idea if this is typical, but if so, it might be a point of departure from “regular” porn in that Twilight’s use focuses desire on the spouse but my understanding is that regular porn does not.

    You wrote, “Bella’s “Plan A” in life is to have her lover/vampire make her immortal and give her a perfect body so that she can leave her broken home and join his immortal (read: eternal), rich family. “Plan B” is to go to college.”

    Ouch, yes, that does sound a little familiar. . .

  2. One really interesting thing; with Twilight having such a quintessentially Mormon romantic/sexual viewpoint, what does it say that it’s extremely popular with non-LDS audiences as well? What part of the larger Weltanschauung resonates with the Mormon viewpoint?

  3. Your analysis makes sense in many ways, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I consider these books to be simply light reading, not a tool of Satan, which is what I believe pornography to be.

  4. That is a really interesting comment, Julie. My initial thought is that both “textual” and “regular” porn could be directed or not towards a spouse depending on context. I have heard of couples watching video porn together to get them in the mood, so it is not unheard of for what we commonly think of as porn to be redirected towards the physical marriage. However, is it easier for a textual romance to be redirected towards the spouse – and open up more opportunities for discussing the relationship?

  5. Julie,

    Your question also made me wonder to what extent there can be positive uses of arousing material within a marriage. In this post, I have taken the line that pornography is incompatible with a healthy marriage, but then, if I am more honest with myself, most of my mental images about what sex means have come from TV or Victoria’s Secret. Without those resources (non-optimal though they might be), I probably would not have known what sex was, since no one ever discussed it with me. Does this mean that we are just being hypocritical in thinking that marriage doesn’t entail some redirecting of “porn” to the marriage? Or are we failing to offer better alternatives to sexual education?

  6. Julie, my understanding is that some forms of pornography are used in sex therapy to help couples find better ways of making each other happy. So I’m not sure your comment distinguishes between porn and something else, or if it simply highlights a potential distinction among kinds of pornography.

    Natalie, an interesting post. I guess I’d suggest that this reading would throw a great many other aspects of Mormon culture into the “pornography” camp. Certainly we’d include young men’s jokes about their hypothetical future wives; one I remember from my mission involved some elders ranking women by their FP or “fat potential.” This seems just as alienating and dehumanizing as the books you mention, so might also rank as pornographic?

    Nora, I’d guess that virtually everything, up to and including the scriptures and the temple ceremonies, can tools of evil in one context or another, wouldn’t you?

  7. Brilliant stuff.

  8. JNS – I suppose this reading would throw other material into the rank of the pornographic. And, that is one thing this post is trying to do. I want to purposely use the term pornography more loosely, because thinking about this book made me realize that we have a pretty limited definition of what is sexually taboo. The very limits that we place around pornography prevent us from examining other material or behavior that impacts our relationships and our sexuality in potentially damaging ways, but is currently permissible because outside the boundaries of what we commonly recognize as porn.

  9. Great post and very interesting point about plans A and B. I would also be curious to hear your take on book 4.

    As a former high school teacher, I did not find it out of character for a teenager like Bella to find a rich husband more appealing than school. Only 25% of Americans have a college degree– and the number of Mormon women with an education is higher than other Christian female groups so it seems a bit strong to claim that her plan B is a Mormon cultural overtone.

    As for the sexual bit, that could be true, but since I did not grow up in the Church it did not ring with my personal experience, nor did it affect my bedroom habits (perhaps unfortunately for my husband). I thought that the author tried pretty hard to make it “non-Mormon” since Bella clearly expected to have sex and made no attempt to restrain herself.

    I am still embarrassed that I liked the books so much, but mainly because they were just so incredibly cheesy.

  10. JNS- short answer: yes. I think that is why we are cautioned against ‘gospel hobbies’.

  11. Actually, I should ammend my last comment slightly. I do think that Twilight has more in common with traditional pronography than, say, fat jokes, because, at least to this reader, the book shares with traditional pron the fact that it is sexually arousing. So, although I like the idea of extending the boundaries of pornography for the sake of discussion, I think Twilight is a particularly interesting case of how the fantasy of love without sex can also be porn because it arouses and produces unrealistic expectations. Yet, we don’t recognize this attitude as falling into the category of porn, because there is no graphic sex. So, yes, I think it is useful to extend what we think about as being damaging behavior, but on second thought it might be useful to keep the term pornography referring to that which directly arouses so that the word retains meaning.

  12. Thank you Natalie for a wonderful post. I have only read the first book in the series. I read Twilight shortly after it was released and have not bothered to read the rest of the series. One reviewer at the time called Twilight “the new Harry Potter” I commend the author Stephanie Meyer for writing such a popular novel, but after reading such a comparision I was disappointed. I have watched, from the sidelines, this phenomenon erupt in my little corner of the mormon culture. I am somewhat disturbed. I see the mothers of tweens and teens alike introducing and encouraging their daughters to read this book. If their daughter is obsessed with Twilight series there is a sense of pride in the mother. I would not prevent either of my daughters from reading the series, I just would not promote it.

    My reasoning behind my viewpoint is that from what I read I do not like the way the character Bella defines as “love”. Here is a young woman who allows an obsessive, dangerous, unhealthy relationship to seperate herself from her family and friends. Twilight teaches only good love is abusive in some way. I would not want to give either of my daughters the idea to think that the only kind of good love is bad love. I am concerned about the rise in abusive teen relationships to want to protect my girls from such an experience by teaching them to not seek after troubled bad boys. I want them to know that if some some young man defines as love for him means giving up her family and friends that this relationship is unhealthy. If one of my daughters were to read Twilight we will have some frank discussions on what is fantasy and what is reality; what is real and normal, and what is not.

  13. Anon on certain topics including Twilight says:

    Very interesting post. I disagree with one point.

    Similarly, this inability for men and women to be friends strongly marks Mormon culture.

    Someone was recently quoting a movie at me (also very high culture like Twilight). Here’s one of the quotes from the movie on the subject. (Thanks imdb.)

    Sally Albright: I thought you didn’t believe men and women could be friends.

    Harry Burns: When did I say that?

    Sally Albright: On the ride to New York.

    Harry Burns: No, no, no, I never said that… Yes, that’s right, they can’t be friends. Unless both of them are involved with other people, then they can… This is an amendment to the earlier rule. If the two people are in relationships, the pressure of possible involvement is lifted… That doesn’t work either, because what happens then is, the person you’re involved with can’t understand why you need to be friends with the person you’re just friends with. Like it means something is missing from the relationship and why do you have to go outside to get it? And when you say “No, no, no it’s not true, nothing is missing from the relationship,” the person you’re involved with then accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you’re just friends with, which you probably are. I mean, come on, who the hell are we kidding, let’s face it. Which brings us back to the earlier rule before the amendment, which is men and women can’t be friends.

  14. Where to start, since I disagree on so many levels?

    1) Pornography without sex is not pornography, imo. Just as we should avoid restricting our definition of pornography in such a way that we allow soft core porn to go unlabeled, we also need to avoid the Victorian impulse to widen the definition to such a degree that it encompasses nearly everything that arouses sexually – including lingerie and erotic language and other things that are perfectly appropriate within a marriage. It’s a fine line, but it’s a line that can be as destructive on one side as on the other.

    2) Why is “sexless romance” a bad thing for teenagers? These are teenagers! What’s the proper alternative for those who feel they love each other?

    To deny sexual attraction and tension in teenage relationships is very dangerous and ignorant. I know a young woman who grew up hearing that sex was dirty and horrible (and that “good girls” don’t like sex before marriage”). When she first felt aroused and realized how good it felt, she automatically labeled herself a bad girl and decided she might as well enjoy it. A teenage pregnancy later . . .

    Again, why is sexless romance a bad thing? We live in a sexually arousing world. My teenagers are going to be sexually aroused – my boys AND my girls. Writing about sexual tension and desire that remains unconsummated is a bad thing? What should we do – write things that don’t mention sexual desire or write about giving in to it? I only see those three options. Am I missing one?

    3) I understand intellectually the concerns others have about the books, especially some of the messages it can send girls, but I like the message it sends to boys. Bella really loves Edward, and, like many young women, she is trusting and vulnerable – and it would be easy for Edward to take advantage of her. He doesn’t. He respects her, literally rising above his nature in more ways than one to exercise self-control and help make the relationship work and flourish without sex. Yep, what a lousy example that is for teenagers. Girls certainly shouldn’t fall in love with boys who have excellent self-control and don’t try to have sex with them.

    4) My daughters are huge fans, and they understand the issues everyone highlights. Their response to me when we discuss the books is the same one I hear from nearly all of their friends:

    “We have a choice between books that glorify sex (or assume it’s no big deal and unavoidable), sappy books that deny sexual attraction altogether or books that admit it up front and say it’s OK to not give in – and that says boys are just as responsible for that as girls. Which option is the most realistic? Which one would you rather have us read?”

    I understand what they are saying and, given many of the alternatives out there, I can’t argue with it.

    5) Plus, to reiterate for those of you who haven’t read the books or seen the movie, Edward is not a “bad boy”. He only looks like a bad boy to those who don’t know him – who judge him based on his appearance. There is a huge difference, and it gets botched constantly in reviews by adults I read. Again, the alternative is to look at someone and judge them based on first visual impression. How is that a good thing?

    Do I love the books? Not really. I just disagree strongly with many reviews, and calling them “porn” really, really bothers me.

  15. Ray, just for the sake of testing the boundaries of your concepts, let’s explore your first point. When you say that pornography without sex is not pornography, does that mean that a provocative photo of a single nude man or woman is never pornographic?

  16. #15 – Not if the image is not focused on sexual intercourse or stimulation, imo. Writings are very hard to quantify in this regard, however, since the images they create vary so radically from person to person. Some people might read something that is not “explicit” and still create explicit visual images in their minds – while others might read the exact same words and not do so. In that case, what is “porn” in not universal but rather individualistic.

    We have a hard time in our society with this, since so much that I believe would NOT be pornographic in another culture (like much of what can be seen in the National Geographic that is not considered porn by those not obsessed with sex) is considered porn in our own culture. I don’t label all pictures of a nursing mother bare from the waist up (or even all pictures of full nudity) as porn – unless they are staged explicitly in a way to focus away from the act of nursing and toward sexual arousal. However, I also understand that such a picture might be used as porn for someone who uses it for isolated sexual arousal.

    I’m saying we need to draw a distinction among images (visual or verbal) that can arouse sexual feelings in some people and those that are created explicitly in an attempt to do so in all people – and those that are framed in a construct that simply admits sexual arousal occurs (as I see in Twilight). For example, if we label all nudity and all discussion of sexual arousal or tension or intimacy as porn I think we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater – and I think we have taken a destructive step that I don’t like.

    In the end, I’m saying I can’t label Twilight as porn. If Twilight is porn, we might as well reject ALL books that write about sex in any way – since someone is going to be stimulated by almost any description. I can’t believe that’s a good thing.

  17. Btw, “pornography without sex is not pornography” was very poorly worded. Thanks for pointing that out, JNS.

  18. Julie: one of the (very conservative, uptight) women said: “My husband sure is glad I read this!” (the implication was that whatever desire the book aroused was fulfilled with him). I have no idea if this is typical

    It is becoming a running joke inside Mormonism and outside of it that husbands love Twilight because it leads to more action for them. Just last night we were out to dinner and some friends were relating an amusing story about a couple we all know. Apparently the wife had seen the Twilight movie numerous times and the husband was thrilled with the results he was getting from the viewings.

    I haven’t read any of the books yet but I did hear another amusing story recently. An eligible young man in our stake recently told his mother that he wasn’t even going to bother asking any girls on dates because they all want Edward and he couldn’t compete with that. Sure, it was an excuse, but it does seem to be the flipside of the impossibly idealized women we get in the media as well.

    PS — Kristen has recently been telling people the major flaw in the Edward character is he has no sense of humor. It usually elicits the sound of crickets chirping accompanied by icy stares from the hordes of obsessive Edward fangirls out there… but that makes it all the funnier to me.

  19. Thomas Parkin says:

    Natalie,

    I think you are expanding the meaning of the word ‘porn’ beyond a useful point. You are failing to make a distinction where multiple very important distinctions exist. May I suggest it would be better to say something such as ‘it is like porn, in that…’

    I feel the same when Elder Oaks suggests there is no effectual difference between ‘soft porn’ and ‘hard porn.’ There is an enormous difference.

    I think this conflation weakens your point considerably.

    Otherwise, interesting thoughts, as usual ~

  20. Natalie: Have you heard the theory that Edward is the Mormon version of Christ? Bella thinks he is perfect, like a god. Edward considers himself half human. He can be dangerous, just like Aslan, but he is never selfish. Edward says to Bella: “The Lion fell in love with the Lamb.” Maybe there is even a gospel parallel for leaving behind family and following the the perfect god you love.

    If I understood you correctly, you feel that women who read Twilight will find that it “distorts their expectations about men” and “produces unrealistic expectations.” Couldn’t you make a similar criticism of how the scriptures portray the only perfect man to have walked the earth?

  21. I don’t think this is a “Mormon” book at all. I think the reason it is so popular with teenage girls and with women who were teenage girls is most of us have experienced that all encompassing love and despair for that perfect unattainable boy. At every high school he exists, this beautiful boy who fulfils that teenage romantic fantasy of living happily ever after. Most girls go through this, not just Mormon ones. The lack of a premarital sexual relationship is part of that teenage fantasy as well. Whilst 15 year old girls are becoming sexually aware and fantasying about making out, most (in my experience) are not yet concerned with actually having sex.

  22. Oh my GOSH!!! Edward is SOOOO hot!!!

  23. hmm i think porn is just too dangerous to be used safely in this soceity to help married couples. But maybe if it is approached in a scentific and religous way…
    well, i am not married so really i have no idea. And I can say i had learned about sex from better sources than the TV and movies

  24. “And, of course, it is Bella’s search for an eternal companion that makes Twilight in the end so quintessentially Mormon in its romantic thrust. Bella’s “Plan A” in life is to have her lover/vampire make her immortal and give her a perfect body so that she can leave her broken home and join his immortal (read: eternal), rich family. “Plan B” is to go to college.”

    Sounds like Young Women’s in a nutshell – anyone ever see that seminary video where the girl decides not to go to college because she wants to have a family, but then a leader tells her she should go to college just in case she doesn’t get married RIGHT AFTER HIGH SCHOOL! No words. While I don’t necessarily think Twilight is pornographic, I haven’t read it and probably never will, so I don’t really have any authority in that area. But your argument about it seeming to fit the Young Women’s model seems about right to me.

  25. regarding #22 – Based on what happened at T&S, get ready to be inundated by teenagers. :)

  26. I’m not sure the books are very Mormon, but I think they are very distorting to what love looks like, and healthy relationships, and very anti-feminist.

    Great post!

  27. If anything about them is Mormon, it seems to me to be the desire, and possibility, to live in love eternally.

  28. I read all four books last month to find out what everyone was excited or upset about.

    So the question is “Is the Twilight books porn? I really don’t know.

    But I think we need to talk with teenagers about sex. It dosen’t help them (or any of us) to avoid talking about sex out of fear that they will be aroused. They will be aroused. You can cover up every female on the planet with a sheet and a mesh window to look through, censor every word and photo about sex and the human body and everyone will still be aroused. We have hormones.
    I thinks its better to talk about what arouses people and what to do with those feelings. The Twilight books can be used for starting those discussions.

    However, I dislike parts of the book because the relationship between Bella and Edward is abusive at times.

  29. Edward does seem like a creepy stalker. I mean he’s 90 chasing after a 16 year old girl? And peeking at her through the window? Ugh.

  30. To Ray, #14

    You said your daughters say:
    “We have a choice between books that glorify sex (or assume it’s no big deal and unavoidable), sappy books that deny sexual attraction altogether or books that admit it up front and say it’s OK to not give in – and that says boys are just as responsible for that as girls. Which option is the most realistic? Which one would you rather have us read?”

    D. None of the above. Your daughters need to find some better books, some more intelligent books.

  31. One thought about some of the comments on this thread: I am interested in the fact that several people have said something similar to the idea that it is a running joke that husbands like the results when their wives read these books. Do we have something of a double standard in that it can be framed as “helpful” to a marriage when a wife uses material to become aroused, but if a male were to do the same thing he would probably be called to repentence? If so, what does this say about our ideas of marriage and sexuality? This comment isn’t meant to be critical – I’m just interested in what you guys think.

  32. #30 – To Educated:

    My children are honors students who read complex books all the time. They are some of the more “educated” students in their schools. They like escapist fiction once in a while to balance out all the classics and “intelligent books” they read – so I’m fine when they put down Steinbeck, Hugo, Cervantes and Tolstoy to read Meyer.

    I think we do our children a grave disservice when we limit their reading to “intelligent books” and deny them the chance to unwind intellectually through literature. I guess they could do so through video games or TV, but I like the fact that my daughters choose to do so through books. I also think judging not includes assumptions about others’ simply because they read books of which we don’t approve – and, in making those assumptions, belittle their intelligence with no other information available to make such a judgment.

  33. Natalie: If so, what does this say about our ideas of marriage and sexuality?

    Maybe it just reminds us that men generally have stronger sex drives than women. My guess is that the feeling (and perhaps fact) is that greater disparities between sex drives between spouses leads to greater conflicts in marriage and so the culture/church likes to do what it can to reduce that tension. If so that would explain the ongoing attempts to cool men off. But if a basically harmless book can rev the wife up a little that theoretically helps the couple meet in the middle too (and thus reduce the tension again)…

    And yes, I’m totally talking out of my, umm, ear with this comment.

  34. #19 – I am actually quite sympathetic to the claim that using “pornography” to refer to Meyers dilutes the word’s meaning. I really debated using this term, but in the end I decided to do it. Here was my thinking:

    1. I don’t think we currently have another word or category that carries the weight of “pornography.” Calling something a romantic fantasy or something that is incidentally arousing (when I think Meyers is intentionally so) just doesn’t carry the same weight, because these things are still permissable in our society, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing. I am pro-free speech. We dismiss people who read such romances as silly, and we act guilty when we read them, but that is about the extent of our censure. So, because I want to make the argument that women’s reading of erotic romances like Twilight have the same consequences as pornography – and hence should be looked at just as seriously – I don’t really know what other word to evoke. I’d be very open to ideas.

    2. I think a lot of our image of what pornography is (graphic, visible, quick) has been defined via male sexual habits to the exclusion of what might constitute a more feminine equivalent of pornography. I think it would be useful to extend what we think of as pornography to encompassing material not traditionally seen as pornographic that women might use in ways that generate the same consequences. Obviously, not everyone is going to respond to any given object in the same way, and it isn’t at all obvious that there is no place for some arousing material, but I think more discussion of how women seek arousal would be useful. I am curious as to why we seem to find it permissable, even helpful at times, for women to read or view things that arouse them. What does that say about us? Why is it more permissable for women to indulge in arousing fantasy than men?

    All these said, I can’t help but think that the boundaries of what we think of as “pornography” are somewhat in flux and probably in the end say a lot about us. It is pretty hard to define it in a meaningful way that doesn’t open up lots of exceptions. I tend to define as pornography that which produces certain responses – arousal, addiction, idealisation – but defining something via response is pretty subjective.

  35. 33 – My response is also pretty uninformed, but I have been leaning more to the idea that while men and women both have strong sex drives, they operate on somewhat different time lines. I have heard the analogy that men are like microwaves and women ovens. This seems right to me. I bring this up only because it makes me think that one reason that narrative might be more arousing to women than visual material is that it extends the time line of arousal longer. A lot of the appeal of Twilight is in how LONG it takes them to get together.

    But, if we agree for the sake of argument that it can be helpful to a marriage for either spouse to read that which makes him or her aroused or aroused in a way that suits the other’s needs(I am not yet quite sure how I feel about this), then I think there is a really interesting discussion there about trying to understand what might count as appropriate use of stimulating material.

  36. Natalie,

    Yeah I’ve heard the crock pot vs. the microwave analogy too. I suppose it is a matter of semantics about which is “stronger” (although I will note that in terms of frequency, you can microwave enough burritos to feed a small army in the time it takes to cook a roast in the crock pot…) Anyway, I forgot to mention that even if my guess about trying to help couple meet in the middle on the issue of how revved up they are, we should not assume there is any rational or conscious effort by our church/culture to do so. Rather, the conscious effort is entirely directed toward self control/denial/discipline and that effort is almost entirely directed toward men (because of the whole microwave thing). It seems to me that when it comes to ignoring crock pots warming up with books like Twilight there is nothing particularly conscious going on — rather a utilitarian-motivated turning of a bind eye toward it may be at play.

  37. I think there is a really interesting discussion there about trying to understand what might count as appropriate use of stimulating material.

    Amen.

  38. Touche, Ray. I’m sure they are reading better books, and I thoroughly encourage them to do so. I apologize for my ill-placed assumptions, and as the saying goes…

    I just felt like lashing out at the parents who let their children read those books, but I understand your reasons.

  39. Maybe it just reminds us that men generally have stronger sex drives than women.

    I doubt this is true, but I think it’s obvious that they operate differently. This is one reason why open and honest communication about sex is so important in a marriage. You can’t assume the other person wants and needs the same things as you do, and if you don’t talk about it, you’ll never know.

    if we agree for the sake of argument that it can be helpful to a marriage for either spouse to read that which makes him or her aroused or aroused in a way that suits the other’s needs(I am not yet quite sure how I feel about this), then I think there is a really interesting discussion there about trying to understand what might count as appropriate use of stimulating material.

    This is a great question, and I’m not sure how I feel about it either. My initial reaction is to say that anything that brings you together verbally and sexually is good, but I suspect that using anything outside of honest discussion between the two partners to get aroused is just another way of avoiding actually talking and connecting in a real way with each other.

    If women are using Twilight in this way there is no substantive difference between that and using porn for the same thing, except that the visual stimulation of video porn seems to me to be much more powerful and potentially problematic.

  40. I found this book silly, predictable and poorly written. Give me warm hands and soft skin over cold marble any day of the week. Maybe what it tells us about Mormon sexuality is the same thing it tells us about sexuality in general, and that is not much. The implications of a mortal woman sustaining a relationship with a creature who lusts for her blood not her body is disgusting not exciting. It is like Beauty and the Beast turned up side down.

  41. Clay Whipkey says:

    Hmmm, a vampire who has fallen in love with a human – whom he would normally consider food – and struggles with the conflict between his love and his desire to “eat” her. If its porn, it sounds more like beastiality. Really, if you take out the vampire angle and put it in the real world, the only parallel would be a human and perhaps a chicken or a cow. The human is mercifully a vegetarian (supplements the need for protein through less cruel means), but still struggles with thinking about how good a bacon-wrapped filet would taste whenever they are together.

    **lights fuse, runs**

  42. Twilight = Pornography FAIL

    Seriously, one of the reasons I’ve put off reading Twilight is that it seems a little too tame for my tastes. I mean, I enjoy a guilty pleasure as much as the next person–probably more, because I don’t feel guilt–but I need some good old-fashioned sex and/or devil worship to feel like I’m really indulging myself. I only put up with the squeaky-clean Left Behind series as long as I did because it had the Antichrist in it. (Antichrist = Awesome)

    I found your insights very interesting, though, Natalie. I think you are pretty much right on–except that I wouldn’t characterize Meyers’ prose as pornography (albeit of the textual variety). I’ve read pornography, and while I haven’t read Twilight, I can’t imagine that Meyers’ prose can hold a candle to the smut I’ve seen in print. I think that’s how I define pornography, photographic or textual: it has to be smutty. Not a useful definition from a legal standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, it works for me.

    Admitting that I haven’t read any of the books, I tend to side with Ray on this (at least philosophically). I wouldn’t let my 10-year-old read Twilight, but if my teenage daughter was reading it, I don’t think I’d be the least bit concerned.

  43. Rebecca J–Where is all this smut you’ve been reading, and why haven’t you been passing it on to me?

  44. Gotta go with Ray on this one–calling the Twilight books pornography expands the definition of that word too far. I think in our culture we’re far too willing to label anything even mildly sexual “porn” (think calling scantily clad women “walking pornography” for example). Our extreme aversion to anything sexual I think leads to rather unhealthy attitudes about sexuality.

    Interesting thoughts, though. I always enjoy reading what you’re thinking about, whether I agree with you or not. I, too, will be interested to hear what you think of the next two books.

  45. Following the Left Behind tangent, I’ve never read the books, but found the commentary at slacktivist hilarious. Fred Clark has finished the first book (after something like 4 years of dissecting the book page by page almost) and is now working on the movie. It’s a great Friday afternoon time-waster, if you’re ever looking for one…

  46. I’m on Natalie’s side on this one. Yes, Twilight is innocent and probably shouldn’t be labeled porn, but many years ago I read somewhere that romance books are really porn for women. Men (in general) are stimulated visually while women (in general) are stimulated emotionally – thus all the advice for husbands who want some action to spend the day doing nice things for their wives and touch her often non-sexually so that by the end of the day she’s more receptive.
    Everyone reacts to books in different ways as someone pointed out above, but I found, for myself, that whenever I read romance books I got sucked in to all the mushy parts and ended each book wishing that I could be swept off my feet and why didn’t my husband adore me like the guy in the book did and why doesn’t he look as hunky as the guy in the book, etc, etc.
    As Natalie said, reading romance books can leave women with too high expectations for the men in their lives who are naturally flawed. So, for me, I choose not to read romance books (except for the occasional fling with books like Twilight) b/c they only leave me feeling dissatisfied with my current romantic arrangement – which is often why pornography can break apart a marriage.

  47. I think the problem is when you can’t (or won’t) separate fantasy from reality. I mean, men in romances are not always ridiculously perfect. Sometimes they’re flawed and we love them anyway–because we don’t have to live with them. Half of the fantasy is imagining that we ourselves are different from who and what we really are.

  48. bythelbs – I never said it was habitual! But the next time I run into something good, I’ll be sure to pass it on right away. :)

  49. I do not know if you can call Twilight porn exactly. I will say it again, whatever it is, it is not an example of a healthy relationship for young women. Passion starved adult women should not push this stuff onto kids. Kinda creepy.

  50. One fascinating thing to come out of this discussion for me is the boundless power of the label “pornography” for Mormons. This label is evidently so powerful as to instantly transform the material it is applied to into a personal tool of Satan, and so important as to require strict boundaries regarding its application. In practice, the broader American society seems to use a sort of family-resemblance usage for the term, in which magazines like the SI Swimsuit Edition can be called pornographic, as can particularly provocative “normal” Hollywood films — even with the understanding that there’s a real difference between these sorts of cultural products and the kind of thing Dirk Diggler would be involved with. Yet this conversation suggests that many Mormons are uncomfortable with this sort of family-resemblance usage and perhaps want to reserve the term for, I guess, videos of full sex?

  51. I read the Twilight books because my daughters (38,24 &21) were so enthusiastic about them. I am too old to be enthralled by a teenage vampire, but enjoyed the series as a way to relate to my girls.

    In this sort of book, the men are almost always cut from the same cloth: Handsome, competent, slightly dangerous and wealthy. Typically the women are smart and independent and the relationship starts out as a battle and ends as love. I think Bella is the unique one in this series, as she is pretty much a normal teenager, and she may be one reason these books have a universal appeal.

  52. I read the first Twilight book and was mildly embarrassed that I actually enjoyed it, all the while recognizing how fluffy it was. Depending on one’s definition of porn, I see how it could be labeled as such.

    I don’t mean to threadjack, but has anyone seen the book “Porn for Women”? It’s a small book filled with essentially fully-clothed very handsome men happily doing housework, with quotes that would generally not come from the stereotypical man (at least the stereotypical man presented by the media–I find it generally unhelpful to talk about the character traits of stereotypical men or women), such as “This is the way you like the shirts folded, right?” and “As long as I have legs to walk on, you’ll never take out the garbage.” Or men being interested in “chick” activities: “Ooh, look, the NFL playoffs are today. I bet we’ll have no trouble parking at the crafts fair.”

    Besides being entertaining, this book raises the question of the definition of porn.

  53. I wrote about this topic here a while ago in response to a Gail Collins column, and I arrived at the same conclusions. I personally don’t care what people think about Twilight (I know a lot of women who love the books), but I do object to the double standard.
    Natalie was right to reference Twilight Moms to illustrate the point. In my original post, I dropped a few quotes from that site:

    “I have read many posts on here that women are saying their husband’s benefit from our obsession. I was wondering if that is true for everyone. Sometimes Edward so consumes my thoughts I feel like I am cheating on mine. Totally unrealistic, but can’t help it”

    “I live with am married to and very much love a woman that sounds alot like you, she has an uhhmmmm curiously illogical maniacle obsession with Edward that shifted to Robert. I take it in stride, I’m not particularly gleeful about it but i’m also the one who gets to snuggle with her every night. I am under no delusions that after an 18 hour day of posting, searching yearning stealing and hijacking photo after photo that when I walk in the door her mind magically disolves the days events of razor sharp focus on the pretty boy. I guess you could say we share her focus. She assures me this isnt so but alas i am not stupid, we men pull this off well but that is another story.

    I would say if it is to the point where it feels wrong to you then maybe it is. Personally I would much appreciate it if my wife thought it had gone to far for her and she realized it was affecting our relationship negativly to step back and reevalute, but at the same time if a little bit of day drooling warms her up and doesnt raise the bar to high (I simply can not compete with Edward) then I see nothing wrong with it, it has done wonders for us.”

    “My hubby is also not very romantic, but he is very sweet and I know I could not live without him, I have guilt sometimes because I can get so consumed with the twilight world and any man compared to Edward could never compare so I just keep reminding myself that he is not real, otherwise I would probably jeopardize my marriage by looking for him! how sad is that?”

    “In the real world, my husband is a catch in his own right. He’s handsome, a good father, attentive, blah, blah, blah……in my most obsessed moments my heart ached to be with Edward (again, I get it…he doesn’t exist) and I can’t help but think that wanting to be with anyone else, even a fictional character, isn’t building my relationship with my husband. I envy the wives that say their marriages benefited from the books, I’m a little different, though. I’m hoping that I’m not entering a mid-life crisis!!”

    …and on and on.
    Most criticisms of pornography (creates fantasies about people outside the marriage, is often enjoyed compulsively, creates unrealistic views of the opposite gender, etc) apply very fittingly to Twilight, and most defenses of twilight’s effects on women are echoes of things people say in defense of porn (Not everyone gets obsessive over it, it can be useful for enhancing marital relations, “everybody knows it’s just fiction,” etc).
    All that said, I think we get too fixated on the definition of pornography as the standard of what is unhealthy or harmful. I think a better standard would be Don’t engage in any form of entertainment that causes you to fantasize about someone other than your spouse, and for many people (not all, of course), that makes Twilight clearly off-limits.

  54. Porn for Women is not porn, it’s fantasy. Big difference.

  55. Are action-packed stories (or sports) porn for men? Just wondering.

  56. Newegg is Porn for computer geeks.

  57. Ray (55),

    Good question. I think all of us males fantasize from our childhood about defeating bad guys, solving problems, building stuff, winning games and whatnot, but I don’t think fantasies are harmful until they begin to involve other people. If porn affects men by giving them unrealistic ideas of beauty and sexual activity, romance novels give women the equally harmful idea that finding the right man is the way to gain access to wealth, power, freedom, or all of the above.

  58. One fascinating thing to come out of this discussion for me is the boundless power of the label “pornography” for Mormons. This label is evidently so powerful as to instantly transform the material it is applied to into a personal tool of Satan

    Yep, pretty much. If you could label something pornography without also labeling it a tool of satan, I’d be far more willing to agree with Natalie. I still think it falls short of true pornography, though I’ll agree with semi-erotic fantasy, with strong emphasis on the semi. In my mind it’s problematic to label anything even slightly erotic as pornography, which is what Natalie is suggesting here.

  59. My children are honors students who read complex books all the time. They are some of the more “educated” students in their schools. They like escapist fiction once in a while to balance out all the classics and “intelligent books” they read – so I’m fine when they put down Steinbeck, Hugo, Cervantes and Tolstoy to read Meyer.

    That’s all well and good, but let’s not use the idea of “this is what my kids read 99% of the time” to poorly justify the drivel when they need an escape. Surely there’s better escapist fiction.

    queuno (I only read BCC when I need a break from Nibley or Talmage).

  60. As to the question of an appropriate use of arrousing material within a marriage… When I was a newlywed a male ob/gyn at the BYU health center suggested to me that I read or watch things that got me excited to heat up my marriage. It struck me as a very odd suggestion at the time. Maybe now they just prescribe Twilight to young brides.

  61. X (Adam Greenwood, his mark) says:

    #1, JMS–
    that sounds a lot like the ‘I don’t care where he gets his appetite as long as he comes home for dinner’ defense of strip clubs.

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