Laura Clawson, in her recent post about the genre, attempted to refute the "myth" that "Romance novels are just porn for women":
romance has not become a $1.37 billion business on the basis of people too embarrassed to admit that they want porn buying 400-page books for the 3-4 sex scenes within. See, they also contain characters and stories, and some people like those. In fact, and I realize this is going to sound as ridiculous as claiming to smoke a lot of pot without inhaling, I mostly skip the sex scenes. I read the books for the stories, and I doubt I'm unique in that.Since various other romance readers commented in response that they, too, mostly skip the sex scenes, Clawson is clearly not alone in this particular reading behaviour. Still, there's obviously a perception that romances are "porn for women" and the question of how romances affect their readers' sex lives is one that seems to have intrigued many, including a few academics. What follows is a short summary of the existing research (that I'm aware of) into the sex lives of romance readers.
Coles and Shamp (1984) - In their “Some Sexual, Personality, and Demographic Characteristics of Women Readers of Erotic Romances” Coles and Shamp begin by describing the novels under discussion and they state that
Given their tremendous sales, the reading of these books must be a significant behavior for the 20 million loyal readers [...] who buy them. Since these stories are neither well written "literature" nor informative, in the sense of being original or historically accurate, their appeal can only result from some emotionally compelling quality in plots or settings. (188)Bearing in mind that in the court case over Lady Chatterley's Lover "Penguin won their case, on the new legal grounds of ‘literary merit’ as a justification for explicit sexual content. The mere presence of sexual incidents in a book no longer defined it automatically as pornographic, obscene and illegal" (AgTigress), one might suppose that a work with "explicit sexual content" which is deemed to have no "literary merit" is likely to be labelled as pornography or erotica. Certainly Coles and Shamp write: "it can be suggested that erotic romances are so popular among their readers because they represent a socially acceptable form of mild pornography that is not recognized as such either by those who read them or by the rest of society" (207-8). I do wonder if, however, their article subsequently helped at least some sections of "the rest of society" feel secure in describing romances as "pornography."
If we turn to what Coles and Shamp have to say about readers, we find that they first surveyed "college women" and,
In support of the hypothesis that reading erotic romances is related to sexual deprivation, readers in this group who are more often married or cohabiting, report a mean frequency of 1.45 sexual acts per week, while nonreaders report 2.50 acts per week. (196)However, the picture of romance readers changed when they surveyed older women:
Older readers reported having sexual intercourse twice as much as did nonreaders and, indeed, more frequently than the national average for all women [...]. In addition, housewife readers reported being more satisfied with sex than nonreaders. These data do not support the simplistic idea, which might have been suggested by the college sample, that lack of sex is forcing women to find other outlets through erotica. (206)Thurston comments on this to the effect that
While the Coles and Shamp (1984) study, which was conducted in 1978 and focused on the bodice rippers of that period, does not say that erotic romance readers make love twice as frequently as non-readers because they read romances, it does establish a correlation between frequency of intercourse and reading erotic romances, and between reading erotic romances and use of sexual fantasy. (158)It should be noted that when Coles and Shamp refer to "erotic romances" they are referring to novels which are rather different from those in the sub-genre known by that label today, and they are also different from the novels focussed on by Thurston.
Thurston (1987) - Thurston also refers to "erotic romances" but in her book, The Romance Revolution, she was using the term to refer to both "The erotic contemporary series romances which began appearing in 1981" (Thurston 92) and the "erotic historical romance [which] as an identifiable entity is widely considered to have appeared on the American scene with the 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. Two years later Avon again struck gold with Rosemary Rogers's Sweet Savage Love [...], setting off an avalanche of feisty heroines, high adventure, and sex that sounded the death knell for the suddenly tame gothic and regency romances" (Thurston 67). Thurston, whose The Romance Revolution was published in 1987, states that "the popular romance genre since 1972 has been divided into two basic types - the sweet romance and the erotic romance - with the fundamental difference between them being the presence or absence of specific sexual behavioral norms and explicit sexual activities" (7).
In Thurston's view, "Other story characteristics (contemporary or historical settings, for instance) create secondary divisions in the two subgenres, but it was a specific kind of sexual activity, more and more explicitly described as the 1970s progressed, that created the first and most significant division within the genre" (8). Thurston states, however, that "Sexual content is the most important classifying characteristic [...] because of the kind of sex-role portrayal that came to be associated with it" (7) and that
More and more explicitly articulated after 1972, female sexuality became increasingly complex in the most evolved erotic romances (heterosexual in the genre examined here), and by 1982 it was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy, and ultimately with a joyously feminine sense of self. (141)In other words, Thurston seems to be suggesting that in the romances under discussion, sexual freedom and freedom from particular gender ("sex-role") norms have become inseparable.1 Thurston also notes that there are many reasons why people would choose to read romances:
For almost all of the readers surveyed [...] reading romance novels is primarily entertainment-seeking behavior that provides pleasure, escape, relaxation, and renewal because it stimulates and challenges the imagination. Thus the romance as a form of entertainment and escape encompasses a web of complex motivations and gratifications, serving as a means of exploring new ideas about the changing role and status of women in society - a kind of test run or sounding board for a variety of ideas, attitudes, and behavior - at the same time that it provides the security of the familiar. It is the formulaic nature of genre fiction that opens the door to the unfamiliar, and through time and repeated exposure converts unusual or new elements into the ordinary and familiar. (131-32)Thurston also has something to say about the sex lives of romance readers. She found that "about half of the readers surveyed in 1985 said they use erotic romance novels as sexual fantasy" (134) and that
Seventy-seven percent of the romance readers surveyed in 1985 agreed with the statement "Many of the love scenes depicted in romance novels are sexually stimulating," attesting to the fact that erotic romances contain fantasies that many women can and do relate to sexually. Furthermore, most readers consciously perceived these novels as erotica and said they use them for sexual information and ideas, to create a receptive-to-sex frame of mind, and even to achieve arousal. (10)Thurston believed that in romances sex "was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy" (141), perhaps at least in part because at the time she was writing, during the 1980s, many of the novels contained
The New Heroine [who] generally is experienced, confident, self-sufficient, assertive, and even daring - all traits traditionally assigned to men - which means she no longer needs the male guardian, the rake, or the sugar daddy. What does she require in a man? Still a strong-willed character (he must be if he is to be her equal), the New Hero also exhibits many traits traditionally assigned to females - openness, flexibility, sensitivity, softness, and vulnerability - transforming him from invincible superman into fallible human being. Thus androgyny has burst into full bloom. (Thurston 98)Not everyone saw this as a positive move, however. Jayne Ann Krentz, in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992) discussed the
pressure exerted to make romance writers and romance fiction more politically correct. During the past few years, even as romance novels have commanded a spectacular share of the publishing market there has been an unrelenting effort to change them.It is not difficult to see the "New Hero," so pleasing to Thurston, under attack in this scathing comment by Krentz:
Much of this effort was exerted by a wave of young editors fresh out of East Coast colleges who arrived in New York to take up their first positions in publishing [...]. The first target of these reforming editors was what has come to be known in the trade as the alpha male. These males are the tough, hard-edged, tormented heroes that are at the heart of the vast majority of bestselling romance novels. (107)
you don't get much of a challenge for a heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. You don't get much of a challenge for her from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel. (109)According to Krentz "The second target of those who attempted to change romance novels was another familiar convention in the books: the aggressive seduction of the heroine by the hero" (109) and she concludes that
The effort to make romance novels respectable has been a resounding failure. The books that exemplify the "new breed" of politically correct romances, the ones featuring sensitive, unaggressive heroes and sexually experienced, right-thinking heroines in "modern" stories dealing with trendy issues, have never become the most popular books in the genre. (113)Wu (2006) - Perhaps it is at least in part because of this "resounding failure" that some, including Wu, believe that "Most romance novels promote deeply constraining patriarchal values" (131). Wu's
results reveal that female readers self-reported greater sex addiction, greater sex drive and greater number of orgasms required for sexual satisfaction than female non-readers. [...] Contrary to expectations, readers of romance novels had fewer sex partners, a lower level of self-assessed femininity than non-readers, and were older when they had their first thoughts about sex and had their first sexual intercourse. [...] The overall results of this study suggest that the general attitude-behavior pattern of readers of romance novels fits the Harlequin stereotype of nourishing a satisfying sex life in the context of romantic monogamous fidelity, while at the same time vicariously fulfilling sexual desires through fictitious characters in romance novels. (131)Wu's essay is available online in full and for free.
Anderton (2009) - Widener University's Center for Education announced that Gretchen E. Anderton had successfully defended her Ed.D. dissertation on "Excitement, Adventure, Indifference: Romance Readers' Perceptions of How Romance Reading Impacts their Sex Lives." Some details about it are now available from ProQuest. Unfortunately you need to have a subscription to the database in order to read them, and a copy of the whole dissertation can only be ordered from ProQuest for a fee.
The dissertation is based on information provided by "Fifty-three women romance readers over the age of 18 [who] completed an online survey composed of multiple choice and open-ended essay questions." That's really not a lot of romance readers, so it's possible the results are unrepresentative of the genre's readers as a whole. In addition, if the online survey is the same one discussed on the romance scholar listserv in August of 2008, and which was titled "Opium or Viagra: The effects of reading romance novels on women's sex lives," then it should be noted that various members of the list who attempted to answer the questionnaire had their responses automatically rejected, and at least one of these rejections was due to the person living outside the US. It's perhaps no coincidence, then, that the introduction of Anderton's dissertation opens with statement that "Since the first modem romance novel was published in 1972, romance novels have contained sex" (1). Since this seems to be a reference to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower it perhaps indicates that Anderton is following Thurston in taking an American-centred view of the genre's readers.
Since I haven't been able to read the whole dissertation, many of my questions about it remain unanswered but its main findings seem to be included in the abstract and are as follows:
- In this study, it was found that participants use romance novels primarily to relax and escape the pressures of everyday life and only secondarily to produce sexual arousal.
- 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.
- A smaller number of participants (24.5%) stated that reading romance novels has not had any impact on their sex lives, sexual behavior or knowledge about sexuality. These participants emphasized the fictional nature of romance novels and stated that they read strictly for pleasure and do not learn anything or make any behavioral changes based on what they read.
- 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.
- Most participants (85%) reported that reading romance novels has not had an impact on their feelings about their sex partners or has had a positive impact on their feelings about their sex partners.
- Another major finding of this study was that women who read romance novels and who are satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that there is no basis for comparison between their sex partners and the male protagonist or hero in a romance novel, or that their sex partners compare favorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels. In contrast, women who read romance novels and who are not satisfied with their sexual relationships feel that their sex partners compare unfavorably to the male protagonists or heroes in romance novels.
- 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
- Clawson, Laura. "Romance Reader, Unashamed." Daily Kos Sun Dec 27, 2009.
- Coles, Claire D., and M. Johnna Shamp. “Some Sexual, Personality, and Demographic Characteristics of Women Readers of Erotic Romances.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 13.3 (1984): 187-209.
- Krentz, Jayne Ann. "Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 107-114.
- Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.
- Wu, Huei-Hsia. “Gender, Romance Novels and Plastic Sexuality in the United States: A Focus on Female College Students.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 8.1 (2006): 125-34.
1 Specifically with regard to romances, Thurston acknowledges that "Traditional attitudes or viewpoints are still present in a number of stories" (104) and she found that "It is in the area of childbearing and how it functions in the context of sexual and social relationships that the contemporary romance most often is murky" (107). Thurston also notes that
Feminists early on rejected the simplistic assumption that sexual liberation equals women's liberation (a familiar cry being "the sexual revolution is not our revolution"), asserting that it increased the availability of pornography and in general made women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They also realized, as Edwin Shur (1983, 118) warned in his comprehensive work on the social control of women, that "when women's active sexuality is acknowledged, it may be misleading presented as the main path to full female liberation," ultimately distracting women from the pursuit of real social change. But while a fully developed sexuality does not predict a conscious sense of self, it is difficult to imagine that such a self could be achieved without it. (140)The danger warned of by Shur has been explored more recently by Ariel Levy:
Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were "burning their bras" and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?Janet/Robin, of Dear Author suggests that in the romance genre, however, traditional versions of female sexuality still predominate: "So-called Dukes of Slut can be heroic, but not Duchesses of Sexual Liberation." She does, however, note that there are more
What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and -- often -- women who edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild. This new raunch culture didn't mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We'd earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. [...]
There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn't work that way. "Raunchy" and "liberated" are not synonyms.
heroines who have been damaged by sexual promiscuity. [...] In one sense I appreciate the willingness to investigate the darker connections between self-esteem and sexuality in Romance heroines. But I also think it’s interesting that the sexually promiscuous woman written within a construction of romantic love often endures a great deal of shame or punishment (inflicted by others or by herself) before she receives the gift of romantic happiness. Those heroines who are unashamed of their sexual polyamory may, more often than not, be pushed into erotica, where there is no expectation of a romantic happy ending.Of course, not all romances contain heroines, and the sexuality of the characters in romances featuring gay men has also come under scrutiny recently. Spark in Darkness has summarised some of the issues as he sees them:
M/m fiction as I see it, is literature centring around a male/male relationship. It is also primarily written by straight women.
And I know some gay men loathe it with a fiery passion. And I don’t blame them - because most of it is bloody awful.
No, really. It’s full of gross (and often insulting) stereotypes, focused entirely on the sexing [...] I have read good m/m. But the majority I’ve read doesn’t come close - in fact it goes a long damn way from coming close. In fact, let’s be frank, most of it is porn. The m/m characters have as much relation with actual gay men as the nigh obligatory “lesbian” sex scene in porn aimed at heterosexual men. And, naturally, that has strong implications of appropriation, exploitation and voyeurism to say the least and potential consequences for young gays looking for something about them come across a stereotypical, angst filled, sex obsessed one-hand-reading piece of m/m fiction.