She sighed as his fictional virility emperilled her sexual health…

Barrier contraception: Not a staple of romantic fiction. <em>Picture: Robert Elyov</em>
Barrier contraception: Not a staple of romantic fiction. Picture: Robert Elyov
An agony aunt and broadcaster has hit out at romantic novels for the impact they have on women’s sexual health.

In a paper entitled: “He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers”, Susan Quilliam argues that the “rose-tinted” view of relationships in the likes of Mills and Boon publications makes itself felt in the problems which women bring to the consulting room.

In particular, she blames romantic fiction for dissuading women from using condoms, saying: “To be blunt, we like condoms – for protections and contraception – and they don’t.”

Ms Quilliam’s contention, published in the latest issue of the BMJ Group’s Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare, is that women are in the “grip” of idealised love and sex “purveyed in romantic fiction”. Although she confesses a teenage addiction to Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances – and admits the books can be fun and enjoyable – she suggests the genre isn’t doing women any favours overall.

“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.”

Romantic fiction accounts for almost half the fiction titles bought in parts of the developed world, she says, and although it has come a long way in terms of depicting a more realistic view of the world, a “deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation runs through the genre”.

Drawing a distinction between classic romances – where girl meets boy in the first chapter and is irrevocably committed to him by the last, with no diversions – from “chick lit”-style books like Bridget Jones (where unambiguous happy endings aren’t a must and where there are lots of diversions and sub-plots), she says some fans read a book every two days. This means that women are exposed to more of the romantic fiction’s vision than they are to formal sex and relationship education.

Common motifs in romances include non-consensual sex, female who are “awakened” by a man rather than being in charge of their own desires. The books also raise unrealistic expectations – for example, that heroines always achieve a life filled with multiple orgasms (without clitoral stimulation) and trouble-free – and frequent – pregnancies to “cement their marital devotion”.

“Clearly these messages run totally counter to those we try to promote,” she writes. “We don’t condone non-consensual sex. 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 nonetheless 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, she adds. “Above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever prefect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak.”

The condom issue is of particular concern, she says, with one study showing that only 11.5 per cent of romantic novels studied mentioned condoms – and even here, heroines typically rejected them, wanting “no barrier” between her and the hero.

“While the romance readers interviewed said that they knew that such episodes were diction, and that spontaneous sexual encounters are never risk-free, nevertheless there was a clear correlation between the frequency of romance reading and the level of negative attitude towards condoms and the intention to use them in the future.”

On the upside, other studies have suggested that reading romantic novels has encouraged women to have more sex, more adventurous sex and more experimental sex. Women also reported that they did not negatively compare their own real-life partners with fictional heroes unless the partnership was already rocky. Women might also use the books to nourish love and rekindle sex lives.

On the whole, however, she warns that if women start to believe the story that romantic fiction offers, then they store up trouble for themselves.

“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,” she says. This could mean she doesn’t want to use protection with a new man because she wants to be swept up in the moment as a heroine would. It could also mean she panics if sexual desire takes a nosedive after pregnancy or due to stress, causing her to think that the relationship has died with the romance.

“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.”