Who reads the (British) Journal
of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care? A few more people this
month than last, judging from the coverage given to an article in that worthy
publication by British psychologist and agony aunt, Susan Quilliam. Her essay spiced
up the journal’s usual menu of condoms and chlamydia with the attention-grabbing
headline: “‘He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…’. The
surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work”.
“Our work” refers to the Family Planning Association’s
activities, to Ms Quilliam’s own practice as a relationship counsellor, which
seems to be located (mentally) just down the corridor from the FPA, and the
doctors who do abortions (just around the corner). Together, they are up
against a tide of romantic fiction that is filling women’s heads with dangerous
nonsense about relationships, sex and babies.
Let’s be clear; we are not talking about Pride and Prejudice
here but the modern incarnation of the romantic novel, which has been stripped
of everything that made it art — character development, plot complexity, philosophy,
historical realism — and reduced to a relentless focus on the romantic
attraction between two palpitating individuals who finally kiss and marry — or
simply go to bed.
The fact that it may be dressed up again in the see-through
garments of an historical era, the crime thriller, or vampires and werewolves
does not alter the basic
recipe that girl must meet boy by page three and that their relationship
must move without any major distractions to an “emotionally satisfying and
optimistic ending” (Romance Writers of America definition) by page 200. What
this means for the gay or bondage sub-genres one can only imagine.
Obviously there is a lot to criticise, ridicule (including their sometimes hilarious covers) and dislike
in these tales, the reading of which seems equivalent, at best, to blowing
bubblegum or popping a party pill, and, at worst, to sousing oneself in porn.
And yet there are lot of women (and evidently some men) reading this stuff. A
lot. Mills & Boon, the most famous brand, alone sells 130 million copies
worldwide each year, with one bought — the publisher boasts — every four
seconds. In some Western countries, romance accounts for nearly half of all
fiction bought and some fans read up to 30 titles a month.
What is more, says Ms Quilliam, many believe the
romantic lies they read; the evidence keeps turning up at family planning
clinics, surgeries and therapy rooms in the form of pregnant and distressed
women. It is not flattering to the intelligence of women but her theory is
plausible; whatever you read on a regular basis must have an effect.
Unfortunately, though, the psychologist gets her critique of RF back to front.
The porn aspect does not bother her at all. On the contrary,
along with former feminist critics of RF, she endorses the recent “liberation
of sexuality within the romance genre” and its “female-focused erotica”. She
reassures us with research showing that women who experimented with the “more
adventurous sex” they read about “did not negatively compare their own
real-life partners with their fictional heroes unless the partnership was
(She even found a study done with female college students revealing
“a correlation between high levels of romance usage and happy monogamous
relationships” — that’s “monogamy” among unmarried college students, you understand.)
No, her beef is actually with the one redeeming feature of
these pathetic tales, the fact that the passionate couple often end up married.
Some categories are not experimental enough. In spite of contemporary touches
like women with jobs, sensitive males, solo parents and domestic violence, they
hew too closely to a 1970s model in which the characters abandon themselves to
the pleasure of normal sexual intercourse and as a consequence have “endless
trouble-free pregnancies to cement their marital devotion.”
Marriage? Babies? What utter perversity! Ms Quilliam herself
is appalled at the “escapism, perfectionism and idealisation” that still keeps
so many women in thrall to romance. “Clearly, these messages run totally counter
to those we try to promote,” she says of herself and family planning friends.
Quite properly they condemn non-consensual sex, and quite reasonably warn
against unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships. But it’s “relentless
baby-making as proof of a relationship’s strength” that troubles them most.
This, and not just the chance of catching a nasty disease,
seems to inspire the most quoted part of her essay, which begins thus: “There’s
a final, worrying difference between sexual health professionals and the
producers of romantic fiction. To be blunt, we like condoms – for protection
and for contraception – and they don’t.” She cites a survey from 2000 showing
that “only 11.5 per cent of romantic novels studied mentioned condom use” — a statistic
that has been analysed
on the US National Public Radio book blog and found wanting, by the way — and
that high-use RF readers (college students again) were least likely to use
And yet … and yet. Given “positives” such as more
adventurous sex, and the fact that we have all read RF even if it was only
Georgette Heyer decades ago, and because no-one at Family Planning wants to be a spoilsport where
sex is concerned (least of all Susan Quilliam, who updated Alex Comfort’s sexology manual, The Joy of Sex, three years ago) the genre is not beyond redemption, she says. “If you
were to add in a large dollop of good continuing sex education — cue the
aforementioned Family Planning Association — you have the perfect plan.”
If her proposal sounds like the kiss of death for the genre,
she is right about one thing: romantic escapism cannot help men and women to
establish a good sexual relationship and persevere in it. But if that
relationship is not marriage, then all her concern for it will mean an uphill
battle to save something inherently fragile and risky. The “stresses of
pregnancy and child-rearing” can, no doubt, be great, but they are unlikely to
destroy a marriage based on sound, shared values, or undermine the wellbeing of
a committed spouse. It is not babies that are the problem for today’s women,
but lack of marital commitment.
Significantly, “marriage” is a word that Ms Quilliam uses
only twice in her piece, both times in a derogatory way: once in a reference to
“patriarchal marriage” (you know, the kind that gave marriage a bad name), and
once in that sardonic reference to “marital devotion” that needs to be cemented
by “endless pregnancies”.
In this way she cements the irrelevance of her concerns to
the vast majority of women and men, who still value and desire marriage as a pathway to
personal happiness even if, increasingly, they do not get around to clinching
it. That is one reason why so many women read Mills & Boon, why Jane
Austen’s heroines have never dated, and why the whole world watches a royal
couple get married in a cathedral. Romance is about marriage; the rest is just
As for adding a “large dollop of sex education” to render
harmless the passions of princess brides and vampire lovers — it is most unlikely
to catch on. As an M&B spokesman told the London Telegraph: “At Mills &
Boon we publish romantic fiction, not sexual health manuals.” The FPA and Co
are just going to have to make their own stories about sex a lot more
Carolyn Moynihan is
deputy editor of MercatorNet.