Romance novels promote risky behavior - or they don't

Posted: July 13, 2011

And damn, did he have to have such dreamy bedroom eyes? . . . He had the kind of gold-flecked irises that attracted a woman and sucked her right in.

He might as well wear a sign around his neck that read: Come and get it, sinful indulgence right here!

And boy was she ready to go get it.

- From Witch's Fire by Tabitha Shay

You've seen the steamy reads - heroes with chiseled chests pressed against gorgeous heroines - sold in grocery checkout lines or already in the hands of your wife or mother, especially as summer gets into full swing.

A recent essay in a British medical journal declares that the romance genre is not just a diverting fantasy. Rather, its portrayal of idealized love and sex promote unreal expectations and unsafe sexual behavior.

So declared Susan Quilliam, British sexologist and agony aunt, the U.K.'s rather dramatic name for an advice columnist.

Quilliam asserts that "a huge number of issues" that she and others see in clinics and therapy rooms can be traced to the influence of romantic fiction, where emotional decisions regularly trump rational ones.

Romance readers "say they can distinguish fact from fantasy," Quilliam wrote in the July 6 issue of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care. "But when it comes to making life decisions, are they not much more tempted to let the heart dictate simply because they are romance fans?"

One source cited in Quilliam's piece is the dissertation of Gretchen Anderton, who received her Ph.D. from Widener University in Chester in 2009.

Anderton, currently in the Peace Corps, was unavailable to discuss her work.

But Betsy Crane, an adviser on Anderton's dissertation, says her student's paper does not support Quilliam's central thesis.

"Going back to Gretchen's abstract, I was actually struck by the line that said women were able to differentiate between fantasy and reality," said Crane, whose program bills itself as the world's largest accredited graduate program in human sexuality.

According to Anderton's study, most readers she surveyed felt strongly that romance novels did not negatively influence their behavior or expectations and that they were able to maintain this separation between romance novels and real life, because "they do not read romance novels in an information vacuum."

In her editorial, Quilliam seeks to draw another worrying difference between sexual-health professionals and the authors of romantic fiction.

"To be blunt, we like condoms - for protection and for contraception - and they don't," Quilliam said.

It sounds rather alarmist, but Quilliam cites a recent survey to show that only 11.5 percent of romantic novels studied mentioned condom use, "and within these scenarios, the heroine typically rejected the idea of a barrier between her and the hero."

That sounds reasonable, except that the "recent study" cited in the article is from 2000 and sampled just 78 books available in the Cleveland area. The books used were published from the early part of the 1980s through the mid-1990s, a radically different time for public education about sexually transmitted disease and condom use.

Many contemporary novels mention condoms, said Lynne Raye Harris, an author for Harlequin, the giant romance publisher. "I do always try to make some mention of safeguards when appropriate to the story," said Harris, of Huntsville, Ala.

She cited this passage from her romance, Behind the Palace Walls, published in June.

"He reached into the table beside the bed, then he was rolling on a condom and settling himself over top of her."

In a telephone interview, Quilliam retreated a bit from her editorial, emphasizing that her piece was less a study than an opinionated view of the research.

Toward the end of the article, she said contemporary works had got better at presenting risky sexual behavior in a healthy way.

Her piece lit a fire under the fans of a genre with 2009 sales of $1.36 billion.

Comment boards and Twitter were full of incendiary remarks last week.

"It irks me that these people think that all romance fans are stupid or uneducated and can't think for themselves," one posting said.

A recent study at Indiana University showed that contraception use was up in the United States, especially for women. One in four participants reported using a condom during the most recent intercourse experience. The rate rose to more than 30 percent for single people.

At any rate, Widener's Crane said women need not fear the effects of a spicy title. "It's summertime. Relax, and have fun."


Contact staff writer Juliana Schatz at 860-966-8718 or Juliana.schatz@gmail.com.

 

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