What's so wrong with trashy books (and movies?)

Jenny Uebbing

Our weekend was filled with runny noses, pink eyes (I die. The second worst of childhood ailments, dethroned only by vomit), and lots and lots of reading.

The kids and I and even daddy all had books in piles around the house, freshly liberated from the library down the street and competing with Netflix for our winter-bound attention.

I must confess I spent the better part of Saturday reading a book I probably should not have finished...and I'm going to tell you why.

But first, a little background. Last week I asked my lovely readers who follow along on Facebook for some literary recommendations. And boy did I get some. You guys are so awesome, you flooded my newsfeed with more than 100 titles.

One evening later that week, after bedtime, I snuggled down with my laptop and my library account and went on a little hold binge, filling my e-cart with close to 50 titles. It was addictive, like shopping without money. Well, maybe like shopping with taxpayer money...but less of a sting than Amazon, for sure. (50 titles was a bit enthusiastic though, I will admit. Especially since 20 of them popped up in my email the next day as "ready for pickup." Oops.)

I trudged through the snow with one small boy in tow and we retrieved about a dozen titles, probably more than I could read in 2 weeks, but hey, a girl can dream.

Sure enough, the powers of illness and weekend frigidity combined and was stayed inside reading plenty. Enough for me to finish one entire novel and crack into another one, only to be discarded and replaced by a 3rd option.

Here's where things get weird though. You see, the first book I read, while engaging, was ... questionable in terms of content. It was little things here and there at first, offhand references to casual sex. Details about make out sessions. Backstories involving (thankfully) derailed trips to the abortion clinic. And things kind of escalated from there.

The problem was though, I was so engaged in the story line and the characters by the time things got really steamy (read: super trashy) it was hard to shut the book and walk away. So I didn't. I read the whole dang thing and pretty much enjoyed it but definitely squirmed through increasingly larger sections of it.

And afterwards, I felt acutely that I had betrayed an essential part of myself: my conscience.

For someone who can write confidently about skipping 50 Shades of S&M and has no problem flipping over the top copy of Cosmo in the checkout line, when it came to a book that was already in hand and being enjoyed, I had a more difficult time stepping away, even though I was fully aware that it was bad for me.

And no, I don't think that I committed any mortal sin by finishing a smutty novel, because I was skimming through the squirmy parts and was definitely repelled by - not attracted to - the sins being committed on the pages. But still. I didn't look away.

And I should have. I should have shut the book and played with my kids. Or picked up another title and tried again. Or, hell, painted my toenails or jumped on the elliptical or taken a nice long walk. There are plenty of things a tired mom can do with her limited leisure time that don't involve torrid affairs and steamy sex scenes in the back of cars.

Because here's the thing: every time I expose myself to the glamorization and normalization of evil - be it promiscuous teens losing their virginity, extramarital affairs, premarital sex, period - I lose a little bit of my natural (and supernatural) sensitivity to these sins.

It matters little that I will probably never personally commit them, (and I'm more than aware that there but for the grace of God go I); but when I am granting them entrance into my imagination - and my heart, because it dwells there, too - then I am throwing open an opportunity to grow not in virtue, but in vice. To do one thing with my "real" life, but to play by different standards inside the equally-real world of the mind.

And why invite those imaginary characters to come and live inside of me, occupying space in my brain and my heart where I'm desperately trying to cultivate virtue to impart to my kids, and to overcome the smallness and the very real fallenness of my own interior world?

We all struggle with sin, and thanks to the grace of God, we all have access to the grace to overcome them. Again. And again.

But that is by no means a license to roll around in the mud in our minds, rationalizing away the imaginary teflon divider between body and mind, spirit and flesh.

What we put into our bodies - our minds, our selves - matters. It matters because it becomes a part of us, just as much as the food we eat and the water we drink. It is incorporated into us in a permanent way. And as much as I have the authority over what will become irrevocably a part of me, it is my duty to exhort quality control over the raw material.

That's why it's not okay to go see a porno movie, even if it's mass-produced and wildly popular.

That's why I should probably delete that raunchy rom-com from my Amazon playlist, even though "it's a cultural classic" and "a little smut never hurt anybody." Because actually, all sins start small, and they have to start somewhere.

It's hard enough to cultivate virtue in a culture that is anti-virtuous, the enshrines and celebrates the very things we are commanded to avoid: murder, adultery, gossip, slander.

Why compound the difficulty by filling our brains with the crap we're trying so hard not to step in ourselves?

Why read stories about characters succumbing to temptations we're striving mightily to overcome ourselves, entertaining plot lines that, if played out in vivo, would land us right in the confessional (and maybe divorce court, or prison)?

The past 6 years of living without cable has made me much, much more sensitive to televised smut than college Jenny ever dreamed of being. So yeah, my standards there are fairly high, but its' because I'm not regularly exposed to it. The boiling frog effect hasn't set in, and I'm instantly repulsed  when I see something graphic on tv that I know is wrong, in part because it's so shocking and so out of the ordinary.

I need to be more careful about what that looks like in terms of reading material too, though. Because just like you can never unsee something once it's flashed across your vision field, it's very, very difficult to divest yourself of the written word, too.

And I'm having an epic enough struggle swimming upstream in this culture. God knows I need all the help I can get.

I'm not going to undercut myself with friendly fire by reading "harmless" chick lit filled with innuendos and sex scenes between imaginary characters. Because they might not be real, but I am.

I'm a real flesh and blood woman with real struggles and real proclivities to sin. And I've also been entrusted with a husband to care for, and 4 little souls to guide back to Him.

My God, I need all the help I can get.

And when I do need to escape (and I do, very much, very often in these exhausting early years) it ought not be to a place I have no business visiting, even if only in my imagination.

There's plenty of other stuff I could be doing with my free time, anyway. I could paint my daughter's toenails, watch a make up application tutorial on Youtube, write my husband a love letter, curl my hair, shop online for some cute unmentionables, go for a run (or a walk, as this widening load would have it), call my best friend, stare at maternity style posts on Pinterest...etc.

(I'm intentionally leaving out the titles of the books in question, partly because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or embarrass them if they did make the recommendation, and partly because I do believe that different people have different thresholds for what makes them squirm.)

But I do want to challenge myself - all of us - to be conscious of that threshold, and how we can deaden or attune our own consciences with the choices we make and the company we keep, even in our own imaginations.

Maybe especially there.

Oh, and for the the record, I'm currently reading O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, at someone's excellent recommendation. And loving it. There's plenty of grit, there too.

Because I'm not looking for an impossibly squeaky clean "unrealistic" universe, but for one that plays by natural law. Think "Les Miserables" ... plenty of sex, plenty of sin...and plenty of realistic consequences for what happens when we fail to choose the good. That's the kind of steamy I can handle.

Or a bath. I can always handle a nice hot bath. If only the kids would all nap at the same time.

Topics: Culture , Movies , Pornography , Sexuality

Jenny Uebbing is the content director of our marriage and family life channel, where her blog Mama Needs Coffee will be permanently hosted. She lives in Denver, CO with her family, where she writes and speaks on Church teachings on marriage, contraception, NFP and bioethics.


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