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)

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?

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  • http://benchilada.livejournal.com/ Benjamin Stone

    No, really, can you please put a photo credit as per the terms of my Creative Commons License on my photograph of Island in the Dawn? I appreciate that it’s linked to the photo page, but credit with the photograph is also required. Thank you in advance for your time.

    • Carey Goldberg

      So sorry — done! Not to disclaim responsibility, but it was some funny glitch — in the dashboard, it was in there, but for some reason it didn’t show up…

  • Darryl Whitely

    Many forms of media portray reality in skewed ways but some are easier to shove off as fiction than others. I personally find that seeing size -1 models on the cover of every magazine has been a lot more damaging to my body image than romance novels.

  • Benjamin STone

    I think romance novels have a really nice caveat going for them; they’re adult FICTION with the intent of tantalization. To blame them for trashing people’s expectations is like getting mad that the food you order at a restaurant doesn’t look like the photo in their advertisements. Also, I’ve found real sex to be far better than any sex I’ve ever read in a romance novel, on account of the real sex being real. :D

    PS – Could you make the link to my Island in the Dawn photo into one that leads to the photo page itself? Thanks!

  • Maya9

    I don’t see how any woman with half a brain could enjoy these books. Not only are they almost universally bad literature (sometimes grievously so), but they are ridiculously sexist. Female characters are never strong and independent, but are under the sexual sway of the man. These women don’t own their sexuality, their lovers do. If you want to read something sexual, go read some decent erotica. At least such works own up to what they are.

  • Maya9

    I don’t see how any woman with half a brain could enjoy these books. Not only are they almost universally bad literature (sometimes grievously so), but they are ridiculously sexist. Female characters are never strong and independent, but are under the sexual sway of the man. These women don’t own their sexuality, their lovers do. If you want to read something sexual, go read some decent erotica. At least such works own up to what they are.

  • Jimjam

    Now I’ve heard everything.  I can’t even take this article seriously.  That a real live medical person would even comment seriously on this is depressing.  Life requires that we know the difference between trashy romance novels and real life.

  • Wolfes

    It is obvious that the author/s researched a very narrow and outdated form of the romance novel.  The books I read have strong female characters.  I am also able to delineate fiction from the real world.

  • Mthomsen

    These books are soft porn for women – and a lot of fun! I remember reading Sweet Savage Love as a teenager – we girls passed these books around the way boys (I guess) passed around Playboy. I think most women can separate fantasy from fiction in their porn, just as men can in theirs. Maybe it would benefit some relationships for men to take a look at these books? But maybe not, if they misunderstand the point :)

  • Mthomsen

    These books are soft porn for women – and a lot of fun! I remember reading Sweet Savage Love as a teenager – we girls passed these books around the way boys (I guess) passed around Playboy. I think most women can separate fantasy from fiction in their porn, just as men can in theirs. Maybe it would benefit some relationships for men to take a look at these books? But maybe not, if they misunderstand the point :)

  • http://lizybee.wordpress.com EF Sweetman

    I am still waiting to develop dewy eyelashes and heaving bosoms…at age 48….