Culture of Death,  Sex

What’s so wrong with trashy books (or movies)?

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 bath. 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.

21 Comments

  • Mary

    Amen. I hardly read fiction bc of this same thing. And when its on a kindle/iPad, it’s sad to see people haul around cleverly disguised porn (50shades) without the shame of the physical book in hand. I think we’ve killed literature because imaginations have gone rotten. Have you checked out ‘well-read mom’ groups? I joined for the first time this year and it’s been such a good reawakening to good literature. Go to their website and check out their titles, it’s ‘the year of the spouse’ and it’s been so great so far!

  • Ellen Johnson

    My husband and I decided to abandon House of Cards for this very reason. The sex scenes were way too much and so disturbing. The third season just came out and we’re just not going there.

    • Mary Wilkerson

      Me too Ellen! I was really intrigued by House of Cards, but after four episodes, I told my husband I felt like it was really bad for our souls. not only the sex ‘scenes’ but the level of sexual corruption and deception- as though it’s ‘normal’. We stopped watching and I felt like it was a really good decision for our marriage.

  • Laura @ A Drop in the Ocean

    Thank you for putting this into words! I picked up a rom-com sort of book a long time ago and have never wanted to again. It was uncomfortable to read (even though it was not extremely scandalous). But I read it all because like what you said, you get invested in the story. But I should have walked away.

    I struggle with determining where that “threshold” should be with music. For example, Christian music is not so much fun to exercise to, so my playlists consist of more pop stuff that is NOT all wholesome. Mostly it’s not horrible, but it’s not all about virtue either. I don’t want to desensitize myself a whole lot, but am in a bit of a dilemma there. Anyone have ideas for how to handle that?

  • diana

    Ohhhh…this is a good topic to explore. I’ve had trouble finding Christian fiction that I like, some of it just seems to cheesy to me, so I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I’ve read plenty of decent books and then others…well nothing like 50 Shades of Grey (which I haven’t read) but probably some that push the limit. Thank you for posting this!

    • Laura

      Diana, I felt the same way for a while — loving to read fiction but not knowing what to read and picking through a minefield of smut. I got on Goodreads and followed a lot of friends and other bloggers, please whose taste I trust. Now I have a to-read list longer than I’ll ever get through! Also, Modern Mrs. Darcy is a great blog for book recommendations.

  • Go Bluejays!

    A couple of thoughts as I read this. I do not have cable and have found that I am very shocked by what I see on Netflix, but Netflix doesn’t have the “decency standards” that primetime TV does. I turned on a very well-known show because I heard people raving about it and saw a pronographic sex act in the first five minutes. That kind of nudity would not be allowed on live tv. So I feel I have to be a lot more on guard with Netflix!

    About someone recommending a book to you that was trashy: it makes me sad but doesn’t surprise me.

  • Colleen

    I read Gone Girl, and had the same experience – felt like I should stop, but then had to finish the story. The thing is, it played out in my mind for like a month. So the brief satisfaction I got from reading how the story ended was just not worth it.

  • Caroline

    When I was a young teenager, I specifically remember my mother hearing me listen to a George Michael song, which had questionale lyrics in it, nothing horrible compared to other stuff, but she spoke to me about it immediately after it ended and told me how it was not a good thing to allow oneself to listen to, and how my father, had said the same thing to her about some song or other before that she had apparently been listening to. That really made a mark on me as a girl, and I remember coming across books at the school library once or twice that I soon put down because I heard my mothers voice repeating the same words. It’s so very important to instill that in your children. Even at a young age without getting into specifics, remind them how careful they should be to not muddy their souls by their eyes, their windows to their souls.

  • Emily B

    Amen! I have developed the same sensitivity after staying away from television for some time. I have a very low threshold for “ick” in both tv and reading. It has become really awkward at times when a friend thrusts a book into my hands and insists I must read it because she loved it. It’s an awkward conversation because I agree that everyone’s threshold is different and I know that my threshold is low. The Ameilia Peabody series Elizabeth Peters is very good and safe. I love O Pioneers by Willa Cather. the Ameilia Peabody is less serious….almost like a Scooby Do fiction for adults.

  • Ari Mack

    Teresa Tomeo addressed this just this morning. There’s a quote about the ills of early Roman society and watching “theater” and people being mauled to death – something like, “If you’re not allowed to do it, you’re not allowed to watch it.” If you aren’t to commit certain sins, you shouldn’t participate in those same sins by watching someone else commit them, either in person, online, or in your imagination. Sorry I don’t have the exact quote or source.

  • Rachel

    This was great! I had started a show on Netflix that started out fairly innocent (and I’m a sucker for period dramas) but it slowly added in more and more trash. I definitely experienced the boiling frog syndrome because it took me way too many episodes to call it quits.

  • Brigitte

    Thank you for challenging us all. I work in a library and sometimes I wonder why we traffic in the type of books you describe….the library is in lancaster county Pennsylvania and it also has a big collection of Christian fiction. I used to feel apologetic about my Amish fiction habit, but the truth is that reading about strong families and faithful people really makes me want to imitate their virtues. ( and I know the Amish aren’t saints, it’s just that fiction happens to appeal to me.) please share any good discoveries you find in fiction. I need to re sharpen my sensitivities to TV.

  • Thea

    Well said! I agree with so many points in this post. You make a great distinction between the kind of steamy worth reading and the kind better left unread. You also hit the nail on the head when you write that it’s much harder to put down a book of gradually diminishing value that you’re already reading than it is to avoid a smutty book in the first place.

    Also, I love Willa Cather! I haven’t read O Pioneers!, but it is definitely on my list 🙂

  • Liz

    If you haven’t already read her work, I’d recommend almost anything by Georgette Heyer. Her romance novels are almost all set in Regency-era England. Very Jane Austen-esque, free of salacious content (there’s never anything steamier than a kiss between the romantic leads), and easy to read even when your mind isn’t running on all cylinders. Some of my favorites are Friday’s Child, Bath Tangle, Frederica, Arabella, A Civil Contract, The Nonesuch, Sylvester, and The Corinthian.
    I don’t know about you, but I just can’t bear to read anything tragic when I’m a hormonal, emotional, expectant mom, which is why Heyer was one of my mainstays during pregnancy. I also devour just about any novel written by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse– he’s always brought some much-needed fun and levity to my otherwise serious reading list.
    Another writer almost guaranteed to brighten your mood: the playwright George S. Kaufman. In particular, his collaborations with Moss Hart are hilarious (I’ve read You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Once in a Lifetime, and George Washington Slept Here each more than half a dozen times); Kaufman’s collaborations with Edna Ferber, while not what I would characterize as comedies in the traditional sense, are nonetheless quite successful– at once riveting and thought-provoking. Works like Dinner at Eight and Stage Door have surprising depth and insight into the human experience. Library of America has a volume currently in print called “Kaufman & Co.” which contains most of Kaufman’s finest work.

  • Hannah

    AMEN!!
    Ok, I really really really loved this post.
    I find, that even if I don’t “approve” or am (initially) horrified/grossed out by something, if its portrayed sympathetically, by lovable characters, it will get into my heart, and eventually my head…that is, everything I read or watch is like food that I eat, that broken down, rehashed, rebuilt, becomes part of my mental architecture. I can’t simply read/watch something and forget about it, especially on a subconscious level, things resurface years later in my dreams, etc.
    My heart is the back door to my mind, and thus I have to be very careful about what I let into it.

  • Suzi Whitford

    The grace from God that has come with motherhood has changed me. Once I saw my body as not my own, as a vessel to be used by God, to grow and nurture another human, I could no longer fill it with filth. Similar to when someone lends you a beautiful dress, you tend to take much better care of it because you know you’ll have to return it. You take extra precautions ensuring noting spills on it and keeping it pristine. But if it’s your dress, you have a more relaxed attitude. Maybe that was it, once I realized my body is a gift that I do not own, that’s when the filth had to stop! We all have our weaknesses,we just keep running back to God’s loving arms, and we try again.

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