Impact of Romance Novels on Sexual Health: 2014 vs. 2021

Anjali Mediboina, Final Year Student, ASRAM

I came across an article entitled “The impact of romance novels on women’s sexual and reproductive health” by Kundan Iqbal and won the Margaret Jackson Prize in 2014[1]. 

The article explores the question: can romance novels potentially influence readers’ attitudes, beliefs, and sexual health behaviour? 

Summary of the Article:

(Here, it should be noted that this article was written in 2014, and most of the references are articles and studies done in the early 2000’s.)

  • “Romantic novels often openly and sometimes explicitly portray female sexuality, desire and the act of intercourse, usually in a positive and liberating manner.”
  • However, romance literature may also promote and idealize love and sex, while leaving out the “unromantic, awkward, unseemly, and messy bits”.
  • An analysis of romantic content in best-selling fiction novels found that romantic partners are depicted as constantly available for and desiring sex. Romance novels also commonly depict easily achievable and remarkable orgasms for both sexes, with females often experiencing multiple orgasms.
  • There is no mention of contraceptive use; a 2000 study analysing 78 novels, only 1 in 10 mentioned the possibility of condom use; and birth control or sexually transmitted infection prevention were only rarely discussed.
  • Romantic literature can lead to improved sexual confidence, greater sexual activity and greater sexual experimentation, but also perpetuate gender stereotypes. 

______________

Romance novels are defined as: 

fiction focused on a central love story, which is concluded in an emotionally satisfying and optimistic manner[2].”

Or, to quote a line from A Bookworm’s Guide to Dating by Emma Hart:

a billion-dollar industry, and arguably the only one that truly empowers female writers. …Ironically, it’s also the most viciously attacked, and that’s probably because of the fact it’s primarily female led[3].”

As a reader of romance, I can say with confidence that romance literature as of 2021 is much, much more diverse, with healthy and authentic representations of realistic relationships.

For instance, in response to the lack of “awkward, unseemly, messy bits” as referenced in the original article: romantic literature now has a great representation of main characters with chronic illnesses, disorders and disabilities. Some examples:

  • With You Forever by Chloe Liese (published Sept, 2021): one of the protagonists has Ulcerative Colitis, and the other is autistic. 
  • Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert (published Nov. 2019): the main character, Chloe Brown has Fibromyalgia, a condition associated with chronic pain. 
  • First Love, Take Two by Sajni Patel (published October, 2021): the main character, a family medicine resident, has anxiety and touch aversion. 

These books not only create awareness about the conditions and disorders, but also give a good insight as to how the condition could affect a person’s way of life. It also helps in removing the stigma that a person with a disability or chronic health condition can’t lead a “normal” life and have relationships. 

And, to address the point about gender stereotypes: While the tropes of the “alpha male” are quite popular, the common gender roles are being challenged. More and more female characters are being portrayed as ambitious and independent, with the incredible representation of women in academia, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) fields and as business owners, while men are being portrayed as sensitive, emotional and feminist, thus breaking the toxic masculinity traits that are so common in rom-coms (both books and movies). Some examples: 

  • Chemistry Lessons Series by Susannah Nix ( since 2017): A series with the main characters in various STEM fields.
  • Bromance Book Club Series (since 2019): A series revolving around a group of men, who read romance for tips of life and relationships. 

Also, romance novels these days have a diverse array of characters in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, family structure and body types. Representation matters, as seeing people who look, act, and experience life like them in media makes a person feel included in society, and it reinforces positive views of themselves and what they can achieve in society[4].

However, there are some points stated in the article that I will agree with. For example,  the point about characters having a constant desire for sex rings true. Libido and sex drives are unique to an individual, and the same goes for orgasms; many have even cited differences in libido as a deal-breaker in relationships[5]. And while I don’t think I’ve read many books that comment on this, but one particular book does come to mind:

  • The Heart Quotient by Helen Hoang (published September 2021): The main character admits to not being able to orgasm with her previous partner and mentions a particular way in which she gets stimulated.

And, contraceptive use: The mention of contraceptive use has definitely increased; most of the books I have read so far, that were published this year, mentioned the characters using contraceptives- most commonly condoms and OCPs. Nevertheless, I will agree with the argument brought up in the original article: 

“the [character] typically rejected the idea because [they] wanted ‘no barrier’ between [them]and “this lack of consequence and discussion of potential risks … may remove perceived barriers or concerns among adolescents that would otherwise encourage them to think more carefully or cautiously about sexual behaviour[6]”. 

*[7]  

Conclusion:

The suppression of sexuality is culturally widespread and in particular, women’s sexual promiscuity, activity, and enjoymeThe suppression of sexuality is culturally widespread and in particular, women’s sexual promiscuity, activity, and enjoyment are almost always judged and punished more harshly than men’s. This can be reflected in the general opinion of romance novels as “frivolous” and “trashy”, and the fact that most authors choose to use pseudonyms to publish their works.

Promoting realistic relationships, healthy sexual practices, and normalizing sex and sexuality, while being “ostensibly harmless escapism”, romance novels can both educate and entertain readers. I would say that there is an impact on our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, but definitely in a positive way. 

And for those who still say romance novels “may lead to unrealistic expectations, disappointment and frustration” I’d like to quote author Jude Deveraux: 

“[Supposedly] women who read [romantic novels] are so stupid that they can’t tell a story from reality. Is anyone worried that the men who read spy thrillers are going to go after their neighbours with an automatic weapon?[8]

References:

  1. Iqbal, K., 2014. The impact of romance novels on women’s sexual and reproductive health. [online] Available at: <https://srh.bmj.com/content/40/4/300#ref-2> [Accessed 13 October 2021].
  2. Ménard AD, Cabrera C. ‘Whatever the approach, tab B still fits into slot A’: Twenty years of sex scripts in romance novels. Sexuality & Culture. 2011 Sep;15(3):240-55.
  3. Hart E. A Bookworm’s Guide to Dating. 2020.
  4. Jagoo K. The Importance of Representation in Books [Internet]. Verywell Mind. 2021 [cited 13 October 2021]. Available from: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-importance-of-representation-5076060
  5. Jonason P, Garcia J, Webster G, Li N, Fisher H. Relationship Dealbreakers: Traits People Avoid in Potential Mates – Peter K. Jonason, Justin R. Garcia, Gregory D. Webster, Norman P. Li, Helen E. Fisher, 2015 [Internet]. SAGE Journals. 2015 [cited 13 October 2021]. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167215609064
  6. Quilliam S. “He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…”. The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work.
  7. BORDONI F. [Internet]. 2017 [cited 13 October 2021]. Available from: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lifestyle/lifestyle-news/how-embracing-female-sexuality-can-help-heal-hollywood-post-weinstein-guest-column-1063557/
  8. Deveraux J. 1997. Remembrance. New York, NY: Pocket Books

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