What Reading Romance Novels as a Kid Taught Me About Love and Sex

Like pornography, the romance novel is rife with fundamentalist terrorism of the emotions – reason enough to treat it as equally dangerous.

Tahel Frosh
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An illustration showing a girl leaning on a shirtless guy, as seen through a key hole.
Illustration. Credit: Roei Regev
Tahel Frosh

Entranced by her violet eyes, he slowly pulled her into his arms. Barbara, he whispered in her ear. She groaned: James, I’ve waited so long. He untied the straps of her dress. It slid down her pearly body to reveal her pink nipples. She nestled in his practiced arms, cuddling and purring like a kitten. The lovers all but drowned in the pure joy that swept over them. Both of them knew without a doubt that the long years during which they had waited for each other were at an end. Here they were, together. Nature itself applauded them, the warm wind cradled them sensuously, and the good years that lay ahead glittered like the myriad glorious stars of the London night.

I shut the book tearfully, sorry it had ended. Within a few days, Barbara and James, my loves, who endured a multitude of ordeals before reaching their happy end, would disappear from my life with their intricate affairs and be exiled once again to the public library. But I had to work fast. I was about 8 at the time, and my mother was going to return home at any minute and catch me in an act of forbidden reading.

By now it was routine. Whenever my mother left the house, I ran to the huge cabinet in the dining area, grabbed a chair and climbed onto it with the urgency of a junkie. On the top shelf, under an embroidered tablecloth that had been thrown there casually, as though to say, “There’s nothing to see here, move on, there’s nothing underneath,” there was usually a stack of three books. They were romance novels, which my mother had forbidden me to read, because they were “not for your age.” The authors bore such names as Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel and Sergeanne Golon.

My mother, who seemed to be obsessed with this type of reading material, brought the books from the library frequently. At some point I realized that it would be better to pretend I wasn’t interested and to read them clandestinely. Engrossed, I read methodically, polishing the books off within a day or two. The plots were of limited imagination, unfolding along predictable lines. These adventures of love followed ironclad rules, that rejected the analytical assumption that the only love that exists is unrealized love.

The novels were usually inhabited by a beautiful young woman, nave but possessing resourcefulness and intuition. She was either in some sort of distress or would be very soon. Opposite her was the man: fearless, hedonistic and exuding dark charm, but above all possessing an impressively robust social status or on the way to it, who would fall desperately in love with her. On the way to realizing their love, the two would cross continents, and experience personal crises, personality crises and – the cherry on top of the alchemical potboiler – thrilling erotic encounters.

The amorous psychosis that drove these books constituted my great educator in matters of love and sexuality; through them I learned what I should expect. In a diary I kept at the time, I described my third-grade boyfriend with all seriousness as “the lover.” Without a doubt I tried to force the books on reality, which was that we were kids with tattered clothes and scraped knees. But for me that was only one level of existence. At the other level, my lover, Yaron, was obliged to save me from something from time to time. And maybe he would build me a castle like Richard was building for Diana, I thought; maybe he should be my shield. The inexplicable disparities between life and literature prompted me to draw up romantic pacts with all kinds of boys who had the bad luck to find themselves in my fantasy.

Around this time, Yaniv, a classmate, brought a glossy magazine he’d stolen from his older brother. During recess we huddled around him as he showed us the magazine, page by page. Two men and one woman, all very naked, were doing it in all kinds of complicated postures. Their bodies were gleaming, oily and smooth. We spent a lot of time looking at the picture in which the woman is kneeling, the men’s erect sexual organs stuffed into her mouth from both sides. It was the first time I’d seen boys’ porno and I don’t think it impressed me very much. I had my own porno.

The cover of 'A Case for Romance,' by Katie Rose.
The cover of 'A Case for Romance,' by Katie Rose.Credit: Social media

Looking back, I think that girl porno is no less dangerous to humanity than boy porno. The romance novel, like pornography, is rife with fundamentalist terrorism of the emotions. Both types of “literature” are pervaded by a partial and empty imitation of the reality of passion. One form has no place for love, and in the other Thanatos is expelled in favor of an idyllic wholeness. There is no real “other” in either of them, because the subject is always consumed with cannibalism, aggressive or sentimental.

A publisher friend once told me that the romance novel is the biggest-selling genre in the world, including in Israel, and it occurred to me that these books should come with a warning, like packs of cigarettes.

On the other hand, and it makes no difference where, in either the romance novel or pornography, the hidden seam of the question of love always exists, the question that rejects dichotomies like “Make love, not war.” Maybe we can see even these two cultural disasters as variations of love.

The great poet Petrarch, who lived about 700 years ago, summed it up quite precisely (translation: Mark Musa): “So now, I think, only the plains and mountains, / the rivers and the forests know the kind / of life I lead, the one concealed from all. / And still, I never seem to find a path / too harsh, too wild for Love to always join / me and to speak to me, and I to him.”

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