Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Real-Life Effects of Fiction


Amanda B. Diekman, Mary McDonald and Wendi L. Gardner's “Love Means Never Having to be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior” should perhaps have been included in my summary of academic studies of romance readers' sexuality, but I thought it really needed to be given a post of its own because of the discussion it contains regarding the relationship between reality and fiction.

Romance readers are aware that what we are reading is fiction, and we can and do distinguish between fantasy and reality. In particular, I recall many readers making statements to the effect that while they enjoy reading about alpha males, rakes, werewolves, etc, they would not want to have a relationship with this kind of being in real life (although some other readers mentioned that their spouses were "alpha males").

That being said, however, romances clearly do have some effects on some of us, at least some of the time. As mentioned in my previous post, Anderton found that
Most of the study participants (75.5%) reported that reading romance novels has had an impact on their sex lives. This occurred in several ways, including making participants more likely to engage in sexual activity and by making them more likely to try new sexual activities.
One of the effects of romance reading that I've most often seen mentioned is the way in which it can make people feel happier. Jennifer Crusie, for example, has mentioned that after reading romances for the first time "I’d come out of my reading transformed, feeling more confident and much happier."

Diekman, McDonald and Gardner suggest that
The inevitable happy endings and escapism of romance novels are a major selling point (Maritz Marketing Research, 1999; Radway, 1984). Evidence suggests, however, that such fantastic qualities can influence readers’ real-life beliefs and attitudes. Fictional information is incorporated into memory (Gerrig & Prentice, 1991; Prentice & Gerrig, 1999; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999), and unless cognitive resources are available, even blatantly false information is remembered as true (Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone, 1993). Women often read romances to escape from busy lives (Radway, 1984); therefore, they may not be motivated to engage in the effortful processing needed to discount false information or to scrutinize persuasive messages (Chaiken, 1987; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Prentice & Gerrig, 1999). Moreover, fiction’s narrative form and its ability to transport the reader into a vivid and involving fictional world are powerful persuasive tools in and of themselves. Green and Brock (1996) found that persuasion increased to the extent that readers were “transported by what they read, despite the fact that all stimuli were clearly labeled as fictional. Especially important for our present concerns, this persuasion effect was greater for abstract beliefs and general attitudes than for more concrete items of information. These accumulated findings suggest that, although romance readers may be fully aware that the portrayals of spontaneous, passionate, and risk-free sexual encounters are fictional, they nonetheless are likely to form beliefs and expectations based on such reading. (180, emphasis added)
This, I think, tends to support Robin/Janet's suggestion, made at DearAuthor, that
the relationship between the genre and larger society is complex and not directly translated or translatable.1 We see some of the same tensions in the genre we see in society, vis a vis the way women define themselves and manage relationships and love. But I also think the genre, like society, passes things along without a whole lot of reflection and examination, including attitudes about how women are valued and value themselves, and how different standards of value apply to men and women.
Robin wrote this in the context of a discussion about the value the genre often places on female virginity. Diekman, McDonald and Gardner's evidence that romances can influence attitudes and behaviour is focused on condom usage, but this, in turn, is tied in to a central fantasy that is common in the genre:
According to the sexual script portrayed in romance novels, true love is demonstrated by being "swept away" in passion. To the extent that this traditional romance script influences romance readers' own sexual scripts, readers may express greater reluctance to engage in precautionary sexual health behaviors, such as using condoms. We explored the relationship between women's reading of romance novels and their attitudes toward condom use, reports of past condom use, and intention to use condoms in the future. A systematic content analysis of modern romance novels documented the extremely low incidence of portrayals of condom use in initial sexual encounters.2 Study 1 demonstrated that high levels of romance reading were associated with negative attitudes toward condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future: Study 2 showed experimentally that including safe sex elements in romance stories increased positive attitudes toward condoms and marginally increased intent to use condoms in the future. (Abstract)
What I find particularly important about this study is not so much what it has to tell us about condom usage in romances, or romance readers' perceptions of condoms, but the evidence it offers that novels can influence readers' real-life attitudes and behaviours.
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  • Anderton, Gretchen E. Excitement, adventure, indifference: Romance readers' perceptions of how romance reading impacts their sex lives, Ed.D., Widener University, 2009, 165 pages; AAT 338383
  • Diekman, Amanda B., Mary McDonald and Wendi L. Gardner. “Love Means Never Having to be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24.2 (2000): 179-88.
  • Sturgis, Susanna J. "What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?": A Few Answers and a Few Questions."


1 In response to my previous post K. A. Laity left a comment recommending an article by Joanna Russ. I followed up her suggestion and although I couldn't find the article itself, I did locate some commentary on it by Susanna J. Sturgis who has written that
My favorite among the essays in Joanna Russ's wonderful collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts is "Pornography by Women for Women, with Love." In her essay [...] Russ suggests that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value."
Robin/Janet seems to be suggesting a similar need for caution in interpreting romances.

2 Their sample of 78 novels included only contemporary romances, not historicals, as they "felt it would be unrealistic to expect portrayals or discussions of condom use in historical romance novels" (181) and "The sampled novels represented the work of 46 authors and 21 publishers. Publication year ranged from 1981 to 1996, with 54 (69.2%) of the novels published after 1990, when awareness of HIV and other STD among heterosexuals was relatively high" (181). They found that "only 9 (1 1.5%) novels portrayed condom use" and
the male character initiated the discussion or use of a condom in every instance. Furthermore, the female character was portrayed as rejecting condom use in almost half of the discussions. [...] In fact, the female characters who rejected condom use gave reasons such as “I want no barriers between us.” (181)
They note that the lack of condoms in so many of the novels, and the rejection of them in others,
cannot be attributed to an idealized version of the modem world. The romance novels in our sample portrayed a host of other concerns: divorce and remarriage, single motherhood, dual-career conflicts, caring for aging parents, substance abuse, mental illness, and breast cancer, to name but a few. (181)
I think it might be more accurate to say that the authors of the novels, like all authors, select which aspects of reality they will include. In romances it seems that there are certain realities which are often deemed unromantic and which therefore tend not to be included in romances. Kris Kennedy's list of "Top Medieval History Facts You Won't See in Romance" provides some examples (although some of her "facts" are disputed in the comments).

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The photo was taken by Shane R. and I am using it in accordance with its creative commons license. If you can't work out the connection between it and the topic of Diekman, McDonald and Gardner's essay, you might need to look at it a little more closely, or read Shane R's description of it.

9 comments:

  1. Great post. Very exciting to think that what we read can influence our behaviour. But it's natural to add stuff we 'learn' in books to our store of information. Often I remember a scenario or a anecdote about someone and will say in conversation, "I knew this girl who once.....(whatever it happened to be)", and then I'll suddenly realise that actually, I know no such person, and I'm actually thinking of a character in a book that I read years ago.

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  2. Laura, this is fascinating stuff (again!)-- My students were very conscious of the condom use (or lack of it) in the contemporary romance novels we read last spring, and several seemed quite glad to see it mentioned. For some, its absence was more "unromantic," breaking the mood.

    (This said in full realization that, as the saying goes, "the plural of anecdote is not 'data.'")

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  3. "it's natural to add stuff we 'learn' in books to our store of information"

    I think you're right about that (though I'll borrow what Eric said about this being "said in full realization that, as the saying goes, 'the plural of anecdote is not "data."'")

    I know I've read lots of comments from romance readers about what they've learned from romances. Just to take one example, Jennifer Kloester, who's written Georgette Heyer's Regency World: The Definitive Guide to the People, Places and Society in Georgette Heyer's Regency Novels states that Heyer's romances had given her "a great deal of useful information about the English Regency period. I hadn't known just how much accurate and factual information there was in the novels until I came to research and write this book" (xv). I know people have pointed out that Heyer's novels reflect the culture/attitudes of her own period, but that doesn't negate the presence of verifiably accurate facts about the Napoleonic wars etc.

    Personally, I credit Mills & Boon medical romances for making me remember the ABC of first aid.

    What gets trickier, I think, is assessing books' subtler influences on readers' attitudes, which is why I found the Diekman, McDonald and Gardner study particularly interesting.

    My students were very conscious of the condom use (or lack of it) in the contemporary romance novels we read last spring, and several seemed quite glad to see it mentioned. For some, its absence was more "unromantic," breaking the mood.

    I find the absence of condom use in contemporary romances can make me question the protagonists' risk assessment skills. And in historicals, as I've mentioned many times, being told that the hero is a rake inevitably gets me wondering how many STIs he's got. I find that extremely unromantic.

    I do wonder if there's been a bit of a shift in attitudes among readers and in depictions of condom use in romance since the time when the study was carried out. The most recent book they included in their study dated from 1996, which is well over a decade ago. Although Anderton did find that

    With regard to safer sex practices, participants said that romance novels present incorrect or misleading information about safer sex and that they regard them as unreliable in this area.

    So maybe the depictions haven't changed that much. Or maybe it's rather that readers expect greater accuracy nowadays, and therefore even if condoms are included more often, the modern readers are much more likely to notice it and find it problematic when condoms are missing.

    I'd be very intrigued to know what percentage of current romances include correct information about condoms, and I also wonder if nowadays a higher proportion of romance readers feel the same way as your students do.

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  4. As usual, Laura, you and others have raised several points on which I should like to comment, and I just don't have the stamina to do so. I chickened out of picking up on several interesting things in the previous entry. I have this contract deadline looming, and feel guilty when I am not working.

    You have already noted the rapid and profound real-life changes in attitudes to condoms, which mean that any contemporary romances written before the 1990s are irrelevant.

    I shall try not to give a long historical dissertation, but will mention only that, for elderly persons like myself (and plenty of women of roughly my generation were writing category romances in the 1980s), condoms had incredibly negative connotations: they were associated firmly with prostitutes and their clients, with dirty and unhygienic old men. I'm not joking: in my 20s I found the very thought of a condom disgusting. This was because, for the generations that were young adults in the 1960s and 70s, sexually transmitted diseases were no longer seen as a serious risk, and contraception was taken care of by the pill. The advent of AIDS, and the resurgence of other diseases, have completely changed that picture.

    The other thing, and of course it connects with the point above, is that writers as well as readers matter in assessing the perceptions of boundaries between real life and fiction. Although it is perfectly possible for someone who has experienced only utterly miserable relationships in real life to write about happy ones and HEAs as a form of fantasy, it is a fact that some writers of romance are themselves very happily and long-married women, and they are writing what they know. If the author writes a HEA because that is how she herself has experienced the progress of a pair-bond, you absolutely cannot say that a reader who believes in the story and adds it to her store of knowledge is being misled or fed a completely fictional concept. Do you see what I mean?

    Perhaps some of the critics have been heavily influenced by modern literary fiction into regarding disfunctional personal relationships as the norm?
    :)

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  5. I may be misreading. But it doesn't seem to me that one can relate the rise and fall of condom use to the depiction of usage in romance fiction without taking non-readers into account who may or may not make use of them.

    AgTigress makes a good point. When I was young, any male who carried condoms was considered "wild," a euphemism of the day.

    Dick

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  6. "I chickened out of picking up on several interesting things in the previous entry. I have this contract deadline looming, and feel guilty when I am not working."

    I'm sorry about that, because your input is always interesting. All the same, I can definitely understand why commenting isn't going to be your top priority at the moment.

    "The other thing, and of course it connects with the point above, is that writers as well as readers matter in assessing the perceptions of boundaries between real life and fiction."

    Thanks for the summary of attitudes towards condoms. I think you're right that authors' attitudes are bound to shape what they write, and some authors are from older generations than others. While people can and do continue to change and learn as they grow older, we're still all likely to be shaped by what we've experienced. Someone whose most recent knowledge of condom use was decades ago, is not necessarily going to have the same attitudes towards, or knowledge of, them as someone who's a current user of condoms. This is, unfortunately, being reflected in statistics concerning STIs:

    Dr Babatunde Olowokure, from the HPA's regional surveillance unit in Birmingham, said: "Sexual health strategies have rightly focused on the under-25s but our results indicate that sexual risk-taking behaviour is not confined to young persons but is also an increasing trend in the over-45s. [...]
    Lisa Power, of the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "Sex is not the preserve of the young and gonorrhoea and syphilis are no respecters of age.

    "People coming out of long-term relationships may be unaware of the risks of not using a condom.

    "Rates of infections are far higher than 10 or 20 years ago, so remember to use condoms and get a check up if you are concerned."
    (BBC News June 2008)

    In April 2009 The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain revealed the results of a

    survey of 2,258 UK adults - half who were aged 45 plus [...].

    A quarter of the 45-54-year-olds surveyed said they did not use contraception as they trusted the person they were sleeping with not to have an STI, with one in 10 saying they did not like the feeling of condoms.

    Nearly a third surveyed described their risk of getting an STI when having unprotected sex with a new partner or someone other than their current partner as unlikely or very unlikely.

    A further 20% believed that their chances of picking up an infection were "next to nothing".
    (BBC News April 2009)

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  7. If the author writes a HEA because that is how she herself has experienced the progress of a pair-bond, you absolutely cannot say that a reader who believes in the story and adds it to her store of knowledge is being misled or fed a completely fictional concept. Do you see what I mean?

    Yes, I do see. In fact, I have wondered if my attitude to the genre, and my analysis of it, is influenced by the fact that I got married at an age which is at the lower end of the scale for most modern romance heroines (I was 22) and I'm still very happy in that marriage [I hastily rush off to find some wood to touch, lest saying that tempts fate ;-) ]

    Eric once mentioned that he'd been in conversation with

    a scholar of [...] “literary erotic romance,” a genre that seems able to include poetry, fiction, and film [...] as long as it concerns what he calls “the impossibility of gratifying our desire.” We want too much, and are overwhelmed; we want the wrong things, and they destroy us.

    Eric, however, thinks that "romance fiction also tells a 'truth about love'". And we do have some scientific evidence to back us up in our contention that romance isn't totally unrealistic:

    A team from Stony Brook University in New York scanned the brains of couples who had been together for 20 years and compared them with those of new lovers. They found that about one in 10 of the mature couples exhibited the same chemical reactions when shown photographs of their loved ones as people commonly do in the early stages of a relationship.

    You can find more details about that here.

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  8. it doesn't seem to me that one can relate the rise and fall of condom use to the depiction of usage in romance fiction without taking non-readers into account who may or may not make use of them.

    Unfortunately Diekman, McDonald and Gardner's article isn't freely available online because then you could see more of the details of their research for yourself, but in Part 1 of their study they had a sample of "97 female university students" (181). They were asked about the frequency with which they read political essays, science fiction stories/novels and romance stories/novels. The finding was that "high-frequency romance readers’ attitudes toward condoms were less positive" (182) and "Frequency of reading romances was inversely related to proactive intent to use condoms" (183). That suggested some correlation (though not necessarily any causation).

    Diekman, McDonald and Gardner then continued to Part 2 of their research, in which they got 49 of the same women to come to their laboratory "once a week for three weeks" (183). There the women read "identical political editorials and science fiction excerpts but were randomly assigned to one of two experimental romance excerpt conditions." (183). One group were given romance excerpts with no condom used, and the other group read romance excerpts which included condoms but "participants in each condition did not differ on previous exposure to romance novels" (184). After the three weeks were up, "participants who read the safe sex romance excerpt reported significantly more positive attitudes toward condom use than participants who read the traditional romance script excerpt [...]. Participants who read the safe sex scenario also reported less negative attitudes toward condom use" (184) and "Participants reading the safe sex excerpt reported marginally greater intention to use condoms in the future" (184). Diekman, McDonald and Gardner concluded that this

    demonstrated that the experimental addition of safe sex elements to the traditional romance script resulted in more positive attitudes toward condom use and marginally greater intention to use condoms in the future. (184)

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  9. I once read a romance novel brought to mind many ideas for adventures with my partner! I regret having not read!

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