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Romance Fiction Novels May Be Bad for Women's Sexual Health


“He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…” This common line from a romance fiction novel is also the title of a new essay written by UK relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam for the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care (a BMJ journal). In her article, she notes that reading romance novels could be bad for women’s sexual health.

A romance novel is a literary genre in which the primary focus is on the relationship and romantic love between two people. By definition, the novels always have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Romance accounts for over half (55%) of all the fiction novels bought, with some fans reading up to 30 titles a month. By one account, the books are the most popular form of erotica for women.

Ms. Quilliam notes that while a woman gets formal sex and relationship education as little as a few hours in a lifetime, reading romance novels exposes her to these topics as much as every day of the week. The problem occurs when a woman gets the fantasies portrayed in the novels confused with reality and leads her to make poor choices.

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For example, less than 12% of romance novels mention use of a condom during sex. In real life, this could lead to serious consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy or the contraction of a sexually-transmitted disease. Quilliam adds that a 2009 survey found that over 75% over regular romance novel readers say the books “encouraged them to have more sex, more adventurous sex, and more experimental sex.”

Pamela White notes in a 2002 “Boulder Weekly” article that some novels may touch on controversial topics such as date rape, domestic violence, addiction, and disability, but these are not likely portrayed as the negative and devastating experiences that they actually are.
The covers of the books, much like magazine features of Hollywood actresses, also portray the lead characters with unrealistic bodies. Research indicates that exposure to these types of images is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls.

But the news isn’t all bad, says Quilliam. Today’s romance novels are at least better than they were in past years. These days, depictions of sex in the books are more "healthily presented" than they were in the past, with heroes and heroines both more aware of women's sexual needs, she wrote.

Journal Reference:
J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care 2011;37:179-181 doi:10.1136/jfprhc-2011-100152

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