Are romance novels good for you?

Romance novels get a lot of crap. Very Serious Readers are inclined to label them ‘trash’, as though the 74.8 million women (and men) who read them each year either have poor taste or simply aren’t bright enough to appreciate Real Literature.

Well, that’s a load of bollocks.

But perhaps even more insidious is the argument that reading romantic fiction is somehow actually physically bad for you. As in bad for your health.

This essay by a Cambridge-based relationship psychologist received widespread media play when it was released, making the argument that romance novels are bad for readers because they create unrealistic expectations about relationships and promote unsafe sex.

One of the studies highlighted in the report was a survey conducted in 2000 that found that condoms or other forms of contraception were used in only 18.5% of love scenes in a selection of romance novels. The books used in the study were published between 1989-1999. (A study of more recent romance novels – from 2000-2009 – found that contraception was mentioned in 57.9% of cases.)

Of course, even using this measure as some sort of yardstick for whether or not romance novels are healthy assumes that it’s the job of romantic fiction to provide sex education to readers.

When the heroes of thrillers are blasting away bad guys, no one stops to question whether there will eventually be an inquest or how the hero will eventually be able to defend the use of lethal force. Will that gun battle in Berlin between a U.S. secret operative and a bunch of Russian spies result in an international diplomatic incident?

No. Because it’s fantasy. This is fiction, not a textbook, and the people who read it aren’t idiots incapable of knowing the difference. Just because we enjoy the fantasy of indulging in a passionate encounter with a dream man and telling him to leave off the rubbers doesn’t mean we’re going to risk our reproductive organs in real life.

And let’s note that studies of the content of romance novels are not studies of the behaviors of those who read them.

In fact, there are several studies of those who read romance novels that demonstrate some possible fringe benefits (besides—you know—reading being fun):

  • Romance readers are less promiscuous, but report having a stronger sex drive and greater sexual satisfaction. [source]
  • Reading romance novels has been correlated with an increased sense of empathy. [source]
  • Romance novels can actually increase positive attitudes towards the use of condoms and safe sexual practices. [source]

That’s without getting into the battle that romance novels are often well-crafted works that demonstrate strong characterization, tight plotting, fluid prose and great tension.

(There are, of course, also some pretty terrible ones, and others that simply aren't to your taste. Which is pretty much the same deal you get in any genre.)

My own interest in writing romantic storylines is that, when done right, love has a profoundly transformative effect on your characters. It brings them into a greater and deeper realization of who they are. And that, to me, is what great fiction is really about.

Having more sex because you read it is just a bonus.

(A really nice bonus.)

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