Summer reading: Romance novels may be bad for your health


Ladies, beware as you choose your summer reads: Like so many enjoyable things, that romance novel in your beach bag may be bad for your health.

So writes relationship psychologist and “agony aunt” Susan Quilliam in an essay published in the latest edition of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.

The problem? When the novels’ escapist fantasies get confused with reality, Quilliam says, leading women to make poor choices. Unlike in novels featuring Fabio on the cover, real-life sex is not always perfect and relationships are not always smooth. Pregnancies are not always trouble-free. Shunning a condom because a novel’s heroine “wanted ‘no barrier’ between her and the hero” (as typically portrayed in the mere 11.5% of romance novels that did mention condom use at all, according to one study Quilliam cites) is likely to result in serious negative consequences.


“The values of romantic fiction...sometimes run totally counter to those which [women’s health practitioners] espouse,” Quilliam writes, later adding, “above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak.”

Quilliam notes that romance novels account for more than half of fiction bought in some Western countries, with some fans reading several of the easily digested books a week. Formal sex and relationship education might take place over a few hours in a woman’s lifetime. Realistic takes on romance hardly stand a chance.

But the news for romance novel fans isn’t entirely heart-breaking.

Quilliam -- who confesses a keen love of period romance novels during her own teen years -- acknowledges that bodice-rippers have their pluses. These days, depictions of sex in the novels are more “healthily presented” than they were in the past, with heroes and heroines both more aware of women’s sexual needs, she wrote.

In a 2009 survey, she adds, 75.5% of regular readers of romance novels said that romantic fiction “encouraged them to have more sex, more adventurous sex and more experimental sex.

Apparently, the same women said they did not negatively compare their real-life partners with the fictional swains, “unless the partnership was already rocky.”

“Whew,” Quilliam writes.