11 July 2011

Is Mills and Boon derailing women's health?

by Kate Melville

Writing in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, pop-psychologist and agony aunt Susan Quilliam argues that idealized romantic fiction has more of an influence on many women than professional clinical advice, a situation that is damaging the effectiveness of a number of family planning and reproductive health initiatives.

"Modern women are still heavily influenced by the idealised love and sex, purveyed by romantic fiction," says Quilliam, adding that in some parts of the developed world, romance accounts for nearly half of all fiction titles purchased. "And while there is clearly a place for the genre, which can be enjoyable and fun, this rose-tinted view of relationships is not necessarily doing women any favors," she argues.

"A huge number of the issues we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction," she writes. "What we see... is more likely to be influenced by Mills and Boon than by the Family Planning Association."

"[There] is still a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealization that runs through the genre. Clearly those messages run totally counter to those we try to promote," she says, referring to portrayals of non-consensual sex; female characters who are "awakened" by a man rather than being in charge of their own desires.

Romantic fiction also promotes unreal expectations, she says, with heroines always achieving a life of multiple orgasms and trouble free pregnancies. "Above all we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealizing them is the short way to heartbreak," she writes. "And while romance may be the wonderful foundation for a novel, it's not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation for running a lifelong relationship."

Even more worrying, says Quilliam, is the genre's view of condoms and safe sex. "To be blunt, we like condoms - for protection and for contraception - and they don't." She points to a recent survey of romantic fiction titles in which only 1-in-10 mentioned condom use, with most scenarios depicting the heroine typically rejecting their use on the grounds that she wanted "no barrier" between her and the hero. There was a clear correlation between the frequency of romance reading and negative attitudes to condom use," she claims.

"I'm not arguing that all romantic fiction is misguided, wrong or evil, [but] sometimes the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the books and pick up reality," she concluded.

Happy men not sexually attractive to women
Mating choices driven by bacteria?
Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals
Two legs good, four legs bad - for beating the crap out of each other

Source: British Medical Journal