Today The Telegraph is reporting that romances are
a cause of marital breakdown, adulterous affairs and unwanted pregnancies, according to a warning published by the British Medical Journal.Unfortunately I haven't been able to get hold of a copy of Quilliam's article, " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…': The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work," published in the Journal of Family Planning & Reproductive Health Care. There is an excerpt available here, however, and it would appear that the British Medical Journal issued a press release yesterday which contains a number of quotes from Quilliam:
Far from being a slice of innocent escapism for millions of female readers, romantic novels are a danger to relationships and sexual health. That is the verdict of an article in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, which said women struggle to distinguish between romantic fiction and real life.
Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and author of the article, said that a "huge number" of problems dealt with in family planning clinics have their roots in romance novels.
"I would argue that a huge number of the issues we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction," she writes. "What we see ... is more likely to be influenced by Mills and Boon than by the Family Planning Association."That "recent survey of romantic fiction titles" is, I'm fairly sure, Diekman et al's article published in Psychology of Women Quarterly 24.2 (2000) so it's not really that recent. In addition, as I noted in my post about Diekman et al's research, the romances they studied date from between 1981 and 1996. As far as I can tell, Quilliam also refers to Gretchen E. Anderton's 2009 Ed.D thesis, "Excitement, adventure, indifference: Romance readers' perceptions of how romance reading impacts their sex lives." The abstract paints a rather different picture from the warnings in the Telegraph:
The genre has come a long way in terms of depicting a more realistic view of the world, says Ms Quilliam, "still a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation runs through the genre," she writes.
"Clearly those messages run totally counter to those we try to promote," she says, referring to portrayals of non-consensual sex; female characters who are "awakened" by a man rather than being in charge of their own desires.
The genre also promotes unreal expectations, she says, with heroines always achieving a life of multiple orgasms and trouble free pregnancies.
"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," she writes.
"And while romance may be the wonderful foundation for a novel, it's not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation for running a lifelong relationship," she says.
And there's another more "worrying difference" between sexual health professionals and the producers of romantic fiction, says Ms Quilliam. "To be blunt, we like condoms - for protection and for contraception - and they don't."
She points to a recent survey of romantic fiction titles in which only one in 10 mentioned condom use, with most scenarios depicting the heroine typically rejecting their use on the grounds that she wanted "no barrier" between her and the hero. [...]
"I'm not arguing that all romantic fiction is misguided, wrong or evil - to do so would be to negate my teenage self as well as the many millions of readers who innocently enjoy romances," Ms Quilliam writes.
But she concludes: "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."
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. 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. [...]I'd conclude that on the basis of the existing evidence
The results of this study suggest that some women who read romance novels feel that reading romance novels is strictly a recreational activity, which has or should have no bearing on other aspects of their lives, and that other romance readers are open to potential positive effects that romance reading may have on their sex lives. This finding suggests that it might be useful in further research to focus on this second group of women. 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.
(a) we can't assume that romance novels cause dissatisfaction in relationships
(b) we shouldn't assume that romance readers are unaware of the differences between reality and the fantasy version of sex depicted in some romances
(c) we need more research into the psychology of fiction and
(d) it would be nice if the press didn't sensationalise the findings of any such research.
Looking on the bright side, though, comics have had to face far worse accusations than those contained in the Telegraph's article. In the 1940s
Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist working with young offenders, believed that the "gory violence and lurid sex" of comics caused the delinquency of American youth. In 1948, he delivered a talk before a convention of psychiatrists which argued that comics caused juvenile delinquency. Wertham provided appropriately horrifying examples of boys who read horror comics and turned to a life of crime [...].----
Wertham's talk ignited a clamorous media chorus denouncing the degeneracy of comics and calling for their censorship. [...] Some towns even held "mass comic book burnings" [...] and in 1950, the U.S. Senate formed a special committee to investigate the link of comics with organized crime. In 1954, Wertham published his polemical and influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that Batman and Robin depicted "a dream wish of two homosexuals living together," that Wonder Woman represented a "lesbian counterpart of Batman," and that Superman planted the idea that children could fly. Wertham became a "media darling," speaking around the country and writing for popular magazines. (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 10)
- Anderton, Gretchen E. Abstract of Excitement, adventure, indifference: Romance readers' perceptions of how romance reading impacts their sex lives, Ed.D., Widener University, 2009.
- Goode, Erich and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
- Quilliam, Susan. " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…': The Surprising Impact that Romantic Novels Have On Our Work." Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37.3 (2011): 179-181.
- Singh, Anita. "Mills and Boon 'cause marital breakdown': With their chiselled menfolk and swooning heroines, Mills & Boon novels are a guilty pleasure." The Telegraph. 7 July 2011.
- "Women still in grip of idealized love and sex, purveyed by romantic fiction." Press release dated 6 July 2011.