Are Romance Novels Bad For Your Health?

The scorn among tweeters is already mounting, as word spreads that a new journal article suggests that romance novels are unhealthy: "Come on!" "Really." "Puh-leeze."

But I don't care. I don't know about my health, but I have no doubt that romance novels were hideously bad for my psyche when I read them as a teenager. I remember emerging from "Sweet Savage Love," staring into the mirror and grieving the fact that I would never, ever look anything like the exquisite heroine with her long auburn locks and green gypsy eyes. And the sex scenes! It takes decades to get over the false ideas conveyed, the effortless simultaneous orgasms and uncontrollable passions...

So I'm happy to pass along the article that's raising the Twitter hubbub: It's here in the "Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care," under the title "He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…'. The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work." It describes the typical fare of romance novels, including the "beautiful but passive virgins whose sexual desire was awakened by their perfectly-choreographed seduction at the hands of a highly-skilled alpha male." Then it warns:

Clearly, these messages run totally counter to those we try to promote. We don't condone non-consensual sex. We want women to be aware of their own desires rather than be ‘awakened’. We aim to reassure our female clients that their first time may not be utterly joyful and that they may not gain reliable orgasms through penetration, but that they themselves are none the less existentially valid and that with affection and good humour things can improve immensely. We warn of the stresses of pregnancy and child-rearing, and we discourage relentless baby-making as proof of a relationship's strength. Above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak. But are our lessons falling on deaf ears when compared to the values of the Regency heroine gazing adoringly across the Assembly Rooms to catch a glimpse of her man?

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.

The author, psychologist Susan Quilliam, doesn't see bodice-rippers as all bad. She points out that they're embraced by many as "feminist fairy tales" that help women claim their own sexuality and experiment with new techniques. And they don't seem to encourage dissatisfaction with current partners. However, here's her parting line:

(Benchilada/flickr CC)
(Benchilada/flickr CC)

But I do think that if readers start to believe the story that romantic fiction offers, then they store up trouble for themselves – and then they bring that trouble into our consulting rooms. Sometimes the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the books – and pick up reality.

Readers, thoughts? Are these books just girls having fun? Or more insidious?

This program aired on July 7, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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