or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Romance Novels Bad For Your Health

   July 14th, 2011

Romance Novel coverI know this is a little random, but it is book-related. I was listening to NPR last weekend, when I heard a story claiming that reading romance novels is actually bad for your health.

There's a write-up on the Common Health blog, and it seems they are considered unhealthy because of all the unrealistic imagery and situations they contain. Not unlike magazines airbrushing the already almost-flawless supermodels, romance novels create a nearly-impossible fantasy world. If romance readers aren't diligent about separating fictional fantasy from reality, their expectations can get skewed, which can lead to unfulfillment, disappointment, and depression.

The article also referred to non-consensual sex, and the excitement of women being "taken" by dominating alpha-males. And that safe-sex is continually portrayed as unromantic. It seems that most of this would be counteracted by simple common sense (I watched a lot of Bugs Bunny growing up, but never tried to walk off a cliff or drop an anvil on someone), but their findings indicated that there is a correlation between frequent reading of romance novels and a disregard for healthy sexual practices.

Which is especially worrying in the ebook era, as the introduction of ereaders has increased the popularity of romance novels. Anecdotally, they're less embarrassing to read now that ereaders allow them to be read in public without anyone being able to see what your reading by the cover - although to be totally hidden, readers also need to keep their heaving bosoms in check.

Whenever I hear of something like this, my first reaction is for the library to try to somehow protect patrons from it. But you cannot protect people from themselves, and it's not really the library's place to restrict what people read - we can provide information, but they need to make their own decisions.

But wow, it would be funny if we had to ration patrons to no more than two romance novels a month - I'm sure our circ stats would take a hit.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to “Romance Novels Bad For Your Health”

  1. Alison Says:

    One of the most vivid memories I have of working in a public library (now work in academic) is of a lady who would consistently come in on Saturdays to check out a HUGE stack of our Harlequin novels. I remember thinking that I would be really embarrassed if I were her, but she obviously did not care!

    Anyone ever watch Keeping up Appearances? I think Hyacinth’s sister Daisy would fall into this category of women who read these books have unrealistic expectations. But really, when you’re married to an Onslow… 🙂

  2. Peggy O'Kane Says:

    I’m sure I won’t be the only defender of Romance who writes in response. Just like we don’t really expect children to start practicing magic because they read Harry Potter so to we don’t really expect women to go out looking for unsafe sex because they read romance.

    The “recent study” that claims that condom use is rare in contemporary romance novels was based on a sampling of under 100 novels written in the 1980s and 90s. My reading experience tells me that the use of condoms is much greater now.

    Yes, much of what happens in romance novels is fantasy but so is much of what happens in all novels.
    I try not to judge people who want to concentrate their reading on serial killers, graphic warfare, or other paeans to violence. Try not to judge me for reading about happily ever after.

  3. Lesli M Says:

    Wow, so, when are the studies on scifi and fantasy coming out…’cause, you know, I need scientific types to tell me that dragons aren’t real and distance galaxies with sentient beings are make-believe.
    For that matter, what about all those movies that have sex scenes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the characters practice safe sex.
    What is it that makes people so hateful of HEA stories? Or, like “Alison” above “really embarrassed” to even have a romance novel in her hand.

  4. Saby Says:

    I think you should read this rebuttal:


    These studies are really not scientifically legit, and assuming that romance readers are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality is infantilizing and insulting. It’s not an assumption we make about readers of, say, spy thrillers.

    Have you ever read a romance novel? The ones about the alpha male dominating the innocent virgin are almost all gone, relics of the 1970s and 80s. Heroines in romance novels today have real lives and hard decisions. They fight custody battles with their ex-husbands, struggle to pay their mortgages, battle breast cancer, and yes, fall in love. AND they use condoms.

  5. Cari Says:

    I think this is just the same as the whole “teen books are too dark” debate. What’s out there to read is going to grow and change, and every person will be affected by it in his or her own way. When I did my paper on reader’s advisory in library school, I read that things like romance novels and series are good for people because they provide a reading experience that can be easily duplicated in the future. One good experience leads to another, and the person becomes a reader for life. Honestly, I don’t care what people are reading – I’m just happy they’re reading. Of course, I know you know that, Brian!

  6. Lesli M Says:

    Like the reference librarian I once was, I hunted down the article: J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care 2011;37:179-181 doi:10.1136/jfprhc-2011-100152. THEN, I hunted down the survey that this article uses for support: Psychol Women Q 2000;24: 179–188 doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2000.tb00199.x

    The survey from Psychol Women Q says “…Publication year ranged from 1981 to 1996, with 54 (69.2%) of the novels published after 1990, when awareness of HIV and other STD among heterosexuals was relatively high.”

    If the article was published in 2000, I’m assuming the study was done sometime between 1996 and 1998.

    I think for an more accurate look at “modern” romance novels, a new study needs to be done. The 2000 study had “…two female coders [record] the title, author, publisher, publication year, page number of the first instance of sexual intercourse, whether the characters discussed using a condom, whether the characters used a condom, the sex of the character who initiated the discussion or use, and the reason for condom use if given (e.g., birth control, disease prevention).”

    A new study should also look at notes from authors. I’m seeing that more and more. Some authors will specifically state that condoms aren’t mentioned in their work; but readers in real life should practice safe sex.

  7. Jessi Says:

    I would also suggest this article from the ladies at Smart Bitches Trashy Books: http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/romances-according-to-susan-quilliam-dont-have-enough-condoms/. It is most definitly not our job to protect our poor innocent patrons from the harm our books contain. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of all the ridiculous attacks against romance novels. If I really thought that reading causes the generally sane masses to turn copy cat, I would be much more concerned about an uptick in serial murders than about a bunch of women running rampent with their sexuality and demanding successful and meaningful relationships from their significant other.

  8. Rosanne Says:

    I suspect that if something like that was limited to two books a month, people would simply go elsewhere for their reading needs. And then the library is the one that loses out in the end…

    As for me, I love reading romance novels. They are like candy, only with no calories. Light, fluffy, and an easy read. They also pretty much always are going to have a happy ending and, for me anyways, I HATE books that don’t have happy endings. I never feel more cheated when I get through a giant book and it has an ending that sucks. All I want to do is throw the book through the nearest window and get back the time I just wasted. Books (well fiction, anyways) for me are to escape the real world of bills, student loans, and horrible crappy things on the news. It better have a happy ending! However, I definitely know that they are not a shining example of reality. But that can be said for a lot of mass produced media these days… seen a movie lately?

  9. Anne Says:

    In the name of love and crunchy peanut butter, this post shocked me. I’d hoped it was sarcasm. If it is, I apologize in advance.

    Since when do librarians judge the reading tastes of other people? I am so gobsmacked I have no words to describe my feelings. This kind of judgment from a librarian is just, just…wow…

    The romances read were from the 1980s during the heyday of the Bodice Ripper. Today’s romance features plenty of gloving up. From my reading, most of the characters who don’t sheath the mighty wang find themselves with a baby on the way by the end of the book.

    Before you diss the genre completely, take the reading challenge. I’m sure Sarah at http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com can give you the list that is usually recommended to those who need education about the genre.

    I double-dog-dare you to post your experience or reviews on your blog.

    Just in case you missed it above, here’s the URL that debunks the entire study:


  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @everybody: I’m happy to hear such strong defense of romance. I don’t read the genre, but I should have guessed its readers feel they’re always under attack for it – I’m sorry if this post sounded like more of the same. I didn’t delve into the study deep enough to see the publication dates – although, not being up on the genre, those wouldn’t have meant much to me anyway. I was very interested to read that modern romance novels have changed so much from what non-romance-readers probably expect from the stereotype – thanks for the informative comments.

  11. Gem Says:

    Up till around 6 years ago, the only romance I had read was either classics, such as _Pride and Prejudice_, or Christian fiction during my teenage years. However, when I applied to my first reference position, I decided I needed to read some readers’ advisory books in case in the interview I was asked any questions about providing readers’ advisory assistance for specific genres. I was pretty comfortable with fantasy, science fiction, and classics. I also had read a smattering of mysteries but was clueless about romance. To help remedy that void I read Romance Reader’s Advisory: The Librarian’s Guide to Love in the Stacks” by Ann Bouricius.

    Reading Bouricius’ book did give me a lot more insight in the romance genre and laid to rest some of the stereotypes that I had previously had about the genre. However, I didn’t start reading romance immediately. One day, after I had been hired, I was walking down the stacks in our library and decided it was time for me to try out a romance book. I gave it a shot and to my surprise, really enjoyed it. Now I’m hooked. Obviously it’s not for everyone but I find it very relaxing to read a romance novel at night after battling with stubborn SQL queries all day. I particularly enjoy the ones with a lot of witty banter.

    I do admit that the romance covers can be scary. However, I grit my teeth and read them in public anyway since I feel it’s cowardly to let public perception sway my reading choices.

  12. Laura Stewart Says:

    But did the study account for other factors? Does reading romance novels make people not care about safe sex, or are people who aren’t prone to safe sex attracted to romance novels? I wouldn’t be willing to bet that it’s universal (or to bet against it), but my anecdotal observation is that very conservative, traditional women are very big on romance novels. Very conservative, traditional women are also often the product of or proponents of abstinence-only sex education. And we already have a proven causal relationship between THAT and a disregard for practicing safe sex. The plots of romance novels are also often hugely about traditional roles and monogamy. Get into the real world, and the people all about that aren’t the best safe sex practitioners.

    I’m not willing to say it IS that, but the people with the “journal article” (which was “internally peer-reviewed” and had 0 math or research design) sure didn’t make any case for a causal relationship, either.

    As to people’s ability to distinguish fantasy from reality and my speculation above, I’d hypothesize that amateur BDSM erotica contains at least as low of rates of mentioning safe sex, and more mention of sex with strangers; but that the readers who frequent that and admit to it have a HIGHER rate of actually practicing safe sex than romance novel readers.

    I also don’t have access to the articles (being only a librarian-appreciator and not a librarian) that are cited by the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Sex article, which I assume contain the “recent survey” that gives them their information. Maybe it’s more solid than it seems from this secondary article that reads more like a private blog post (the author writes in the first person perspective and talks about personal experiences IN A JOURNAL ARTICLE for god’s sake) than a piece of science.

    I don’t care one way or another about the romance genre, but I do care about fluffy pieces of what-ifs and speculation being badly reported on as legitimate social science.