Books

Romance Fiction And Women's Health: A Dose Of Skepticism

Pages of a book made into a heart shape. i i
Andrew Lilley/iStockphoto.com
Pages of a book made into a heart shape.
Andrew Lilley/iStockphoto.com

The Los Angeles Times is the latest to pick up an essay written by British psychologist, advice columnist and relationship guru Susan Quilliam. In the essay, Quilliam discusses a bunch of research, some of which indicates that reading romance novels is correlated with happy relationships, and then heartily editorializes that she nevertheless still suspects that secretly, they are bad for healthy relationships. (Interestingly, the L.A. Times correctly classifies the piece as an "essay," while the Guardian classifies it as a "report.")

In an effort to explain that her essay is not the simple condemnation of women who read romantic fiction that it might otherwise seem to be, Quilliam presents a proposed sexual health issue based on the statistic that only 11.5 percent of romantic novels in a "recent survey" discussed condom use, and that same paper found that there was a "clear correlation" between reading a lot of romance novels and having negative attitudes toward condoms. (She herself, by the way, last reports reading romance fiction as a teenager, which she says equips her to "see the point" of why women read it.)

The number of problems with this assertion are many and varied. First of all, the paper cited was published in 2000. That's eleven years ago, for those of you without calendars on the walls, and referring to it as a "recent survey" is already a stretch. Moreover, I tracked down the "recent survey" myself, and I can confirm what's been going around Twitter, which is that it covers a total of 78 novels published between 1981 and 1996, selected by plucking books off the shelf at three Cleveland bookstores. None of the books are less than 15 years old, and some were published 30 years ago, before condoms and AIDS were receiving anywhere near the public attention they receive now. Presenting this as the current state of the romance genre as concerns condoms in light of current information about sexual health is more than a little problematic.

Because the number of books included is quite small (fewer than 80, published over a 15-year period in a genre where Quilliam stresses that some women read a couple of books a week or more and the sheer output is enormous), the statements about what SUBSETS of those novels say are based on even smaller numbers. Here's what Quilliam says:

There's a final, worrying difference between sexual health professionals and the producers of romantic fiction. To be blunt, we like condoms – for protection and for contraception – and they don't. In one recent survey, only 11.5% of romantic novels studied mentioned condom use, and within these scenarios the heroine typically rejected the idea because she wanted 'no barrier' between her and the hero. Even more worryingly, while the romance readers interviewed said that they knew that such episodes were fiction, and that spontaneous sexual encounters are never risk-free, nevertheless there was a clear correlation between the frequency of romance reading and the level of negative attitude towards condoms and the intention to use them in the future.

Okay. So. Because only 78 books were included to begin with, the "11.5 percent" refers to a total of nine books. Within those, Quilliam says the heroine "typically" rejected the idea of using a condom — something the paper reports happened in three of those nine books. The "no barrier" business comes from the paper's explanation that the three female characters who turned down condom use "gave reasons such as" that one, meaning that it was most likely made in one of those three books.

So what's described as what "typically" happens is based on what happens in three books out of nine, and the foolish-sounding "no barrier" thing seems to have come from just one. The paper does say that of the 13 books published in 1996, only one included a discussion of condom use, but by that point, you're talking about such a small number of books that it's very difficult to conclude very much. And remember — even these "newest" books are 15 years old.

The paper then explains that the research found that women who read more romance novels had more negative feelings about using condoms than women who read few romance novels. But, of course, as the paper acknowledges, this doesn't prove anything about causality — reading romance novels is probably correlated with lots of things, including lots of things about sexual and relationship behaviors and attitudes. Not all of those things are caused by romance reading.

So they went on to a second study designed to control for whether it was really the condom-less romance novels at fault for the negative condom attitudes. Here's where it gets ... a little bit funny.

What they did was split the subjects into groups, and one group got two paragraphs of an actual romance novel written by a romance novelist that didn't mention condoms. The other group got those same two paragraphs with this bit added in between:

He pulled back slightly so he could look at her. "Should we use protection?" he asked gently. She nodded at him, her face warm, as he unwrapped the bright foil. Pleased with his concern for her, she smiled at him and kissed his throat.

It appears from the paper — which stresses that the other parts of the excerpts came from real books — that they wrote this paragraph themselves. And ... I don't mean to be critical, but that is the least sexy, most distracting, most pull-you-out-of-the-moment things I have ever read. That is not a romance-novel-grade sex moment. That is a science-experiment-grade sex moment. NEVERTHELESS, they found that including condom use in the scene meant that after they read it, people had more positive attitudes toward condoms. On the other hand, it led to only "marginal" increases in their intentions to use condoms in the future.

Another thing to note: the entire sample was made up of introductory psychology students — 97 of them for the basic "condom attitudes versus romance reading" part, and about 50 of them for the "please enjoy this extra condom paragraph" part — with a median age of 19. I would argue that the entire readership of romance novels, and PARTICULARLY their ability to influence anyone's behavior or attitudes about sex and relationships and condoms, is not necessarily well-represented by a group of 50 introductory psychology students with a median age of 19.

So essentially, the argument that romance novels present a current hazard to women's sexual health relies on a study that, 11 years ago, counted how much condom use there was in books that are now between 15 and 30 years old. From that, you get the conclusion that romance novels don't show condom use. Then, from the study of a couple of classrooms worth of college students more than ten years ago, you get the conclusion that all these condom shunning in books influences real women not to practice safe sex.

Here's the problem: Currently published contemporary romance novels show condom use all the time. Okay, not all the time. But the books in the study were books taking place roughly in the present (since they agreed it wasn't entirely fair to judge a book taking place in the 12th century for not showing condoms), and to put it simply, it is VERY uncommon in my experience with current contemporary romances for a sufficiently explicit scene not to include safe sex practices, except in cases where what will later result is an unwanted pregnancy. In other words, if you're reading one of these (in my experience), and there's no condom and no discussion of one? That is a story about What Happens When You Don't Use A Condom, which is usually: you get pregnant.

I don't want to go into too much detail about sex scenes in contemporary romance novels, because nobody wants that discussion to happen, but my own experience suggests that the idea that contemporary romance novels suggest that condom use is unromantic or mood-killing is just plain uninformed.

And what's particularly vexing about it is that if you're determined to make this point, you could so easily get some information about current novels — novels written in, let's say, the last five years — where every bit of anecdotal evidence I can provide and have heard from others indicates that condom use is much more common in contemporary novels than it was in, say, 1990.

If that's the case, as my own reading suggests it is, then the conclusion from the same research about condom attitudes and condoms in books would be the precise opposite of what Quilliam says it is. You could just as easily argue that the books published now in which condoms are positively expected and are generally part of very happy sexual experiences are great boons to women's sexual health, because — probably even more effectively than the clumsy "Should we use protection?" paragraph used in the study — they may increase positive attitudes toward condom use.

But of course, that's not really the point of the piece. The point is really that Quilliam as an advice columnist and relationship psychologist just thinks they're bad for women to read, because women can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality and therefore throw over their poor husbands and boyfriends because they expect perfect, idealized relationships. In spite of evidence she acknowledges that reading a lot of romance novels is correlated with happy monogamous relationships, and in spite of a complete failure to cite any actual statistical evidence that romance reading has any negative effect on anyone's ability to form or conduct happy relationships, Quilliam concludes her piece with a bunch of may statements.

If a woman learns from her 100 novels a year that romantic feeling is the most important thing, then what follows from that might be to suspend her rationality in favour of romanticism. And that might well mean not using protection with a new man because she wants to be swept up by the moment as a heroine would. It might also mean allowing that same man, afew months down the line, to persuade her to give up contraception because "we love each other." It might mean terminating a pregnancy (or continuing with one) against all her moral codes because that same man asks her to. It might mean panicking totally if sexual desire takes a nose dive after pregnancy or because of strain – after all, such failure never happens to a heroine. It might mean – in the wake of such panic –judging that if romance has died then so has love, and that rather than working at her relationship she should be hitching her star to a new romance.

It might, I suppose. And, not to be glib, but reading Harry Potter books might make women think they should go to wizard school, and reading old-timey mysteries might make women think most murderers are committed by butlers. But if we're so utterly ill-equipped to distinguish fact from fantasy, why is a high level of romance reading correlated with happy monogamous relationships?

My sense of romance fiction has been that it works like most other forms of escapism: People seek out the stuff they're already drawn to. That's what makes it escapist. People who dig cowboys like books with cowboys. People who dig nerds like books with nerds. You go to the specific escapist script more than it is imprinted upon you.

Romance is a genre that has evolved, like every other. It has a history in which some very disturbing stuff (rape, for instance) was popular. (For more about this, read the terrific book Beyond Heaving Bosoms.) There have been writers who never met a book that they didn't think would benefit from a a few soft cries of "No! I mustn't!" or a nauseating episode of gentle but insistent deflowering. Plenty of it is terrible. Some of it is a lot of fun. But when you read claims that it actually harms people, just be sure you give them a careful once-over, just so you know what the evidence is. And, of course, isn't.

[Because readers always ask what writers I recommend when I write about this stuff, I will list a few I like: Jennifer Crusie, Kristan Higgins, Julie James, and the remarkable Nora Roberts, who has written, according to her official bio, 173 New York Times bestsellers.]

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