The Edmonton Journal published an article a few days ago on a study on the effect of romance novels on women’s sexual health (full article here):
[A]ccording to a debate launched on Thursday by a medical journal in Britain, romantic novels are an invisible yet potent threat to women’s sexual and emotional health.
A commentary blasts these formulaic books for failing to promote safe sex and encourage patience in achieving female orgasm — and for defining the success of a relationship as the ability to crank out babies.
“If readers start to believe the story that romantic fiction offers, then they store up trouble for themselves,” says British author and relationship counsellor Susan Quilliam.
“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.”
Quilliam, writing in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, says that, according to a survey, only 11.5 per cent of romantic novels mention condom use.
“And within these scenarios, the heroine typically rejected the idea because she wanted ‘no barrier’ between her and the hero,” she notes.
Even the steamier offerings of romantic fiction are dismal failures when it comes to sexual health, she contends.
The typical bodice-ripper ends “with the heroine being rescued from danger by the hero, and then abandoning herself joyfully to a life of intercourse-driven orgasms and endless trouble-free pregnancies in order to cement their marital devotion.”
In fairness, says Quilliam, romantic fiction today has broadened its spectrum.
Standard characters such as the brutal count and apple-cheeked maid have been supplemented by single mums, sensitive men, partners who each have to juggle daily jobs or cope with addictions, disabilities and even domestic violence.
Even so, these books fail miserably when it comes to sexual pleasure and dealing with the ups-and-downs of relationships, she says.
“We want women to be aware of their own desires rather than be ‘awakened’. We aim to reassure our female clients that their first time may not be utterly joyful and that they may not gain reliable orgasms through penetration, but that they themselves are none the less existentially valid and that with affection and good humour things can improve immensely.
“We warn of the stresses of pregnancy and child-rearing, and we discourage relentless baby-making as proof of a relationship’s strength.”
Another thing to add would be that, obviously, heteronormativity is also rampant in many of these books and in the above discussion with no mention of women potentially having sex with women, and monogamy generally goes unquestioned as well.
While I’m sure some women can indulge in romance novels as their guilty pleasure (or just plain pleasure, no need to be guilty!) while being sexually healthy, aware, and empowered, obviously the impact mainstream romance novels (and their close companions, mainstream erotica and porn) have on women is important.
For this reason, I’m proposing that, as an activist project, you try penning your own sexy romantic/erotic story that models healthy, women-positive sex. Sex ed is great but eroticizing consent, safe sex practices, alternative forms of sex, good body image, etc. has even more potential to make a difference. Once your feminist masterpiece is complete, if you’re not quite sure how to go about publishing it, try out an online site like Literotica (warning: links to site with erotic content) for starters! Not only might this activist action help shape psyches, us feminists need something to read too!