Thursday, July 07, 2011

Danger! Romance Novels!

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.

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.
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:
"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."

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."
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:
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. [...]

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.
I'd conclude that on the basis of the existing evidence

(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)
My thanks to Kate Walker, whose post alerted me to the article in the Telegraph, and to The Cultural Gutter, whose post linking to “Confidential File: Horror Comic Books” reminded me of the concerns that existed at one time about comics. The warning sign came from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. The survey is taken from Diekman, et al. About the survey: "A total of 86 romance novels were selected; 8 were excluded from coding because intercourse between the main characters was merely stated as having taken pace without a description of the interaction. [...] The sampled novels represented the work of 46 authors and 21 publishers. Publication years 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. [...] In all, only 9 (11.5%) novels portrayed condom use" (181). This study was initially submitted March 2, 1999, final acceptance October 2, 1999.

    Quilliam, the consumer correspondent for Journal of Family Planning & Reproductive Health Care, writes, "[t]here's a final, worrying difference between sexual health professionals and the producers of romantic fiction. To be blunt, we like condoms -- for protection and 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" (180).

    Ultimately, Quilliam concludes: "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. [...] 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" (181).

  2. Jonathan, did Quilliam do any research of her own? Or is her article more of a summary/meta-analysis of other people's? If it's the latter, who does she cite other than Anderton and Diekman et al?

    I'm curious, too, to know why she focuses in on Mills & Boons. I'm sure there are plenty of other sources of information which might encourage someone to have "unreal expectations" about "multiple orgasms," for example.

  3. The article begins: "Just 14 years of age, innocent, if not ignorant of the facts of life, I went to stay with my older cousin. She seemed very worldly-wise, so when she offered me a romantic novel by Georgette Heyer...Reader, I devoured every page." The bulk of the article is speculative and the article is based on four sources, the two already mentioned, and then a website called "Getting to Know the Erotic Romance Field" and then an article, "Gender, romance novels, and plastic sexuality in the United States: a focus on female college students" that appeared in the Journal of International Women's Studies (2006). The majority of the article seems to be about the influence of romance novels on women and the space of therapy. The article was "commissioned" and "internally peer reviewed" (received May 16, 2011; accepted May 20, 2011).

  4. And I notice that reporting of Quilliam's article has gone global:

    There's an AFP item in and The Australian. Quilliam's article's also discussed in the Los Angeles Times, mentioned in The Times of India and in the UK the coverage has spread to The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

  5. The bulk of the article is speculative and the article is based on four sources, the two already mentioned, and then a website called "Getting to Know the Erotic Romance Field" and then an article, "Gender, romance novels, and plastic sexuality in the United States: a focus on female college students" that appeared in the Journal of International Women's Studies (2006).

    Thanks! The "Getting to Know the Erotic Romance Field" is a 2005 article by Anne Marble from AAR. It's an article for prospective romance authors, not a scientific study.

    That last one you mention is an academic study and it's available as a pdf from here.

    Wu states that

    Despite mounting scholarly interest in pornography, research on the association between reading romance novels and sexuality is inadequate. To date, empirical research using survey data in this area consists of only two studies. Muram et al’s (1992) empirical work on this issue found that pregnant high school girls (a palpable indicator of expressed sexuality) judged that the content of romantic novels epitomized their own sexual desires and behaviors more strongly than did never-pregnant high school girls (Muram, Rosenthal, Tolley & Peeler 1992). A recent empirical research conducted by Wu and Walsh (2006) found that romance novels may have some positive impact on the formation of female sexual fantasy but such a fantasy is not necessarily translated into female sexual behavior (e.g., age at first sexual intercourse). (127)

    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): 125-134.

  6. A great post here about Quilliam's article:

  7. Joseph McAleer in his _Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills and Boon_ writes: "In the age of AIDS, condoms are now common, with the hero 'turning away to attend to certain matters' before resuming his conquest of the heroine."

  8. Yes, and in 2007 Mcleans ran an article about sex in Harlequins:

    Harlequin authors are increasingly devoting swaths of their books to upfront discussions of such serious sexual issues. Last month, Annie West's For the Sheikh's Pleasure focused on a woman struggling to be physically and emotionally intimate after being drugged and raped during a night out. And plots such as these are prominently displayed in the bestselling Harlequin Presents series, not tucked away in one of the publisher's more marginal lines.

    Though sexual problems have been in HP books for years, they were often "alluded to, talked about euphemistically," explains Tessa Shapcott, executive editor of HP for 13 years. "Now we're just reflecting the fact that people are freer to discuss such intimate things. People are far more honest and open about suffering." For Shapcott, the breakthrough sexual dysfunction book was Lucy Monroe's
    Blackmailed into Marriage. Its entire plot revolved around vaginismus, a condition that causes vaginal muscles to involuntarily contract shut. [...]

    "One of the reasons I believe in writing such graphic love scenes is that there are lots of women who are ignorant about their bodies," says Monroe, who, even after counselling others for nearly two decades, "can't believe the number of women who, still, in this day and age, are convinced they aren't capable of sexual satisfaction." The writer has also delved into themes of impotence -- in a novel about a wheelchair-bound hero -- and the female-centric sexual issue of endometriosis. She had no problem selling the vaginismus book to Harlequin, after another publisher rejected the book as too "risky."

    There's a lot of variety in the depiction of sex in M&B/Harlequins.
    Treble, Patricia. "Harlequin thinks unsexy thoughts: Impotence is just the start: the new romance novels put the 'fun' back in sexual dysfunction." Macleans, 24 September 2007.

  9. And another great article in response to Quilliam:

    "Romance Fiction And Women's Health: A Dose Of Skepticism" from NPR

  10. Now Linda Holmes at NPR has posted an article which includes a link to a pdf of Quilliam's article.

    Holmes's trenchant response includes the following:

    you could so easily get some information about current novels — novels written in, let's say, the last five years — where every bit of anecdotal evidence I can provide and have heard from others indicates that condom use is much more common in contemporary novels than it was in, say, 1990.

    If that's the case, as my own reading suggests it is, then the conclusion from the same research about condom attitudes and condoms in books would be the precise opposite of what Quilliam says it is.


    The point is really that Quilliam as an advice columnist and relationship psychologist just thinks they're bad for women to read, because women can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality and therefore throw over their poor husbands and boyfriends because they expect perfect, idealized relationships. In spite of evidence she acknowledges that reading a lot of romance novels is correlated with happy monogamous relationships, and in spite of a complete failure to cite any actual statistical evidence that romance reading has any negative effect on anyone's ability to form or conduct happy relationships, Quilliam concludes her piece with a bunch of may statements.

  11. Sorry Jonathan, I didn't see your comment before I posted mine. I was too busy typing a comment which is so long I've had to split it in two. Here's part two

    Quilliam concludes that

    I may be a party-pooper, but I would argue that a huge number of the issues that we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction.
    If a woman learns from her 100 novels a year that romantic feeling is the most important thing, then what follows from that might be to suspend her rationality in favour of romanticism.

    I'm not sure, though, that there are very many romance heroines who act as though "romantic feeling is the most important thing." Jo Beverley, for example, has written that

    If [...] I believed that the search for true love overrides all other values, then Deirdre in Deirdre and Don Juan would not have had a problem. As soon as she realized she was in love with Lord Everdon, she would have kissed goodbye to the man she had promised to marry. However, she and Howard Dunstable had exchanged promises and her given word was more important to her than self-gratification. (33)

    Even heroines who "suspend their rationality" often do so because they feel a duty to their wastrel father or undeserving sibling, don't want to break a promise they made to someone else, can't abandon an animal sanctuary etc. So I'm not convinced that romances teach "that romantic feeling is the most important thing."

    And that might well mean not using protection with a new man because she wants to be swept up by the moment as a heroine would. It might also mean allowing that same man, a few months down the line, to persuade her to give up contraception because “we love each other”. It might mean terminating a pregnancy (or continuing with one) against all her moral codes because that same man asks her to.

    I've come across plenty of romance heroes who are horrified by the idea of their heroine getting an abortion; I can't remember any hero who instructs a heroine to get one. So by Quilliam's logic this should mean that any romance reader would instantly dump a man who makes this sort of request because it would prove he's not The One.

    Quilliam ends by stating that

    taken with a good deal of self-understanding, the resources to keep one’s relationship on track, and solid support when the inevitable stresses and strains arise, these books can be enjoyable and fun. (If you were to add in a large dollop of good continuing sex education – cue the aforementioned Family Planning Association – you have the perfect plan.)
    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.

    Perhaps all of us who are not heading for a consulting room can now congratulate ourselves on having "a good deal of self-understanding, the resources to keep one’s relationship on track, and solid support"?

    Beverley, Jo. "An Honorable Profession: The Romance Writer and Her Characters." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999. 32-36.

  12. I wrote about this today, too, and I'm really struck be the equation of "escapism, perfectionism and idealisation" with problematic behaviour -- and no recognition that those same tropes appear in male romance, er, crime/thriller novels with their impulsive and "manly" heroes who hop into bed without much in the way of protection, too. But women are so infantalised in popular estimation, Quilliam and others assume we're so easily swayed by mere reading. Such children we are!

  13. There was another article about Quilliam's views, this time in today's Canberra Times. It's longer and, I think, more balanced than a lot of the other reports on this topic. It includes quotes from romance author Anna Campbell and from Kate Cuthbert, who makes a similar point to yours, K.A.:

    Romance fiction reviewer and advocate Kate Cuthbert says she is constantly defending her reading habits. The happily married Bungendore mother takes issue with the fact that romance fiction critiques see women as ''so frail and fragile, as completely unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy''.

    Cuthbert reads about three romance novels a week among other reading, in part because it portrays the connections between people. ''It celebrates the positives in life.''

    She notes that stereotypically male genre fiction such as sci-fi, spy novels or thrillers are rarely (if ever) attacked for giving readers a bum steer about reality. Nobody ever worries that James Bond makes men think they are invincible. Or that their Aston Martin will drive itself.

    The thing is, there does seem to be very, very long tradition of concern about women's reading. As far as I'm aware, there hasn't tended to be a comparable level of concern about men reading equally escapist fiction. The horror comics example I included in my post was, of course, an example of concern for children's reading, not men's.

  14. I jokingly said to someone that I was recently in Holland and had no desire to fight with the windmills, thus, Don Quijote must not have had the "right" effect on me. But, perhaps, Quijote is a place to begin in thinking about a "tradition of concern about men's reading."

  15. As a medievalist, Don Quijote falls outside my area of expertise but I do think there are important differences between Don Quijote and generalised warnings about women's reading. For a start, Don Quijote is a work of fiction, whereas the warnings about women's reading are non fiction and, in Quilliam's case, were published in a journal for health professionals.

    Cervantes was writing something humorous/satirical, and I don't have the impression that his book was intended to be read as a serious warning of the dangers of reading chivalric romances.

    In addition, Don Quijote as a character is thought to be exceptional. When warnings are issued about the dangers of romance reading, however, the implication is that thousands and thousands of ordinary women are being placed at risk.

  16. Absolutely, that is the case. The generalised warnings about women's reading are interesting and problematic -- do we see this fear or concern with other groups of people? I will have to think about this further, but now I am wondering about the fear of reading in general -- the fear of a bible written in the vernacular, or the fear of certain books being shipped to the New World, etc.

    What is markedly different, of course, is that Quilliam's article appeared in an academic journal and moreover a medical journal.

  17. Another day, another article on this controversy. This time Catherine Bennett in the Observer mocks Quilliam's comments and notes that

    her paper coincided with another diagnosis, by a fellow psychologist, to the effect that fiction is actually good for you. Promoting his new book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction on Radio 4 last week, Professor Keith Oatley, said that reading fiction assisted people's "social understanding" and helps, in the manner of a flight simulator, with the development of empathy: "The more time you spend, the better you are at understanding other people".

    Bennett's conclusion, however, is that

    To award literature a healthful, utilitarian value, as much as it might appeal to humanities departments eager to claim "impact" for this officially useless discipline, is as risky a proposition, surely, as to damn it for corrupting the female mind. Champion fiction because it is good for you, or ban it because it is bad for you and, either way, before long, you'll end up with a piece in a newspaper saying it makes you fat. As well as being a completely useless contraceptive.

  18. I've been offline for most of the past two weeks so I haven't been able to track down the scholarly sources. Thanks, Laura, for the link to the article pdf.

    It would take me a full blog post and about 2 hours to document everything that is wrong with the article. Let me just emphasize that the author herself calls it a "correlational analysis" which means she is only looking for statistically significant relationships among dyads of variables. In such an analysis you cannot say anything about causation, and you do not control for other possible influences. In just skimming the article I came up with a more plausible explanation for the relationships she sees, none of which attribute the same causes she does.

    Shorter Sunita: the science is not science, and this is the scholarly article.

  19. "Shorter Sunita: the science is not science, and this is the scholarly article."

    Thanks, Sunita. I noticed that over at Dear Author Jane's mentioned Quilliam's article in her Monday links round-up. She concludes that

    Honestly, I wish the academics in romance would be more swift to respond with this science based destruction of the supposed expert’s conclusions although Laura Vivanco did put together a response

    I have a feeling my reply ended up in the spam filter. What it boiled down to was that although I try to comment on research like this, my background's in literary criticism so although I do my best, I don't feel I can claim any expertise when it comes to analysing work on romance which isn't literary criticism. I'm really grateful when someone who does have the requisite training/expertise comes along to give their opinion.

    In the meantime, I was annoyed to see that in the 7 July issue of the British Medical Journal there's a summary of Quilliam's article, "Romantic novels “negate” sexual health advice" by Polly Stoker. It's a one-page "News" item and as far as I can see it doesn't offer any analysis of the content of Quilliam's article. It just quotes from it and then concludes that

    The core of the problem then is the lack of sex education available to the public. As Ms Quilliam identified, romantic fiction can be “enjoyable and fun,” and coupled with “a large dollop of good continuing sex education . . . you have the perfect plan.”

  20. ""Shorter Sunita: the science is not science, and this is the scholarly article."

    According to Juliana Shatz, writing in today's edition of Philadelphia's The Inquirer

    In a telephone interview, Quilliam retreated a bit from her editorial, emphasizing that her piece was less a study than an opinionated view of the research.

    Shatz has obviously made an effort to research the topic, because she also tried to get in touch with the author of "One source cited in Quilliam's piece,"

    Gretchen Anderton, who received her Ph.D. from Widener University in Chester in 2009.

    Anderton, currently in the Peace Corps, was unavailable to discuss her work.

    But Betsy Crane, an adviser on Anderton's dissertation, says her student's paper does not support Quilliam's central thesis.

    "Going back to Gretchen's abstract, I was actually struck by the line that said women were able to differentiate between fantasy and reality," said Crane, whose program bills itself as the world's largest accredited graduate program in human sexuality.

  21. And as the controversy continues to attract media attention, this time at ABC news, Nora Roberts gives her opinion and Quilliam, somewhat ironically given the concerns raised about her methodology, offers some advice to other academics:

    McDaniel College, which has accepted Roberts' gift, said it aims to raise the profile of romance novels and to reinforce Robert's reputation as a master of the craft. The college said it will also build a library collection of American romance literature, including all of her novels and it will hold an international conference on romance novels in November.

    Quilliam applauds Roberts' donation to McDaniel College, "as long as there is academic rigor involved."

    "I dearly hope that the university looks at the values in writing these novels and challenges the values the same way they would a historical novel," she said.

  22. I'm thinking that we need to send Quilliam an invite to the next IASPR conference.

    And as for "as long as there is academic rigor involved"...well, I'm certain there is more rigor involved in any article in JPRS or conference paper at IASPR than is present in her opinion piece.

  23. In the circumstances, I was thinking that the conference at McDaniel might be even more appropriate.

  24. And still more (entirely uncritical) reporting of Quilliam's comments, in Time.

  25. Jessica at Read React Review takes a look at Quilliam's qualifications (or lack of them) and yet more commentary on Quilliam's comments, this time via The Age.

  26. A critical analysis of gender roles in romance fiction which I think is awesome and doesn’t have to be ultimately censorious.