Romances are bad for women – again

There seems to be another go-around in the eternal debate of “romance fiction is bad for women, because it might lead them to have unrealistic expectations of real life relationships”. Unrealistic expectations in this context often means “expecting to be treated like a human being”.

The latest go-around has been sparked by an article in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care by Susan Quilliam, a relationship councilor and “agony aunt” (she really does refer to herself that way) who not only offers the usual blather about unrealistic relationship expectations but also claims that since many romances do not mention condom use, this could lead women to forego condoms as well.

A PDF version of the article is here. For an article published in what appears to be a serious medical journal, this piece is rather insubstantial. Extremely short, too, unless the PDF is an excerpt. But then the article matches the page numbers in the bibliographical information.

The story has also been picked up at The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Teach Me Tonight and National Public Radio offer rebuttals.

A particular choice tidbit: The alleged resistance to condom use in romance novels and among romance readers is based on a study published in 2000 which was based on survey of 78 romance novels published between 1981 and 1996, i.e. many of the books were published at a time when AIDS and condom use were not yet the hot topic issues they are today. Tellingly, the illustrations that go with the various mainstream press articles show books that are almost as old as those from the cited survey. And predictably, they went for the most lurid covers they could find (bodiceripper covers for the US, 1970s Mills and Boon covers for the UK).

That said, a lack of condom use in romances set and written after approx. 1990 is one of my big pet peeves. I can accept no condoms use in SF and fantasy, provided there is some explanation why pregnancy and/or STD aren’t an issue anymore, I can also accept no condom use in historicals, because mechanisms of STD transmission and contraception were not as well known, even though condoms have a long history and there even is a fascinating murder case from 19th century France where the killer used an early condom coated with a poisonous substance to murder several women. Unfortunately, I can’t find a write-up of the case on the internet, because I remember neither the name of the killer nor of the poison, and vaguer searchterms just yield a lot of stupid advice columns on whether flavoured condoms can trigger food allergies and the like.

But in any romance set and written after approx. 1990 I expect the hero and heroine to use a condom during the first encounter, unless they are both virgins. As someone who came of age during the height of the AIDS panic it was always very clear to me that sex – unless it happens inside a longterm committed relationship – should always involve condoms. Which is why couples in contemporary romances not using condoms and not even addressing the issue baffle me. I mean, are those people stupid or what?

And while the study cited by Susan Quilliam was based on fifteen-year-old books, there still are current romances which make no mention of condoms. For example, I recently read Daddy Devastating, an otherwise okay Harlequin Intrigue novel by Delores Fossen. The hero and the heroine – who is a virgin, because she has serious intimacy issues following a near rape and severe assault as a teenager – are about to have sex. Unfortunately, none of them has a condom. “No problem”, the heroine says, “I’m on the pill to regulate my menstrual cycle.” Except that it is a problem, because while the pill is very effective against unwanted pregnancies, it does not at all protect against STDs. And while the heroine was a virgin and therefore clean, the hero definitely wasn’t and might have been carrying something. Yet the possibility never even occurred to the characters.

I suspect that the reason for the lack of condom use even in some contemporary romances is that the authors are older and were already in longterm committed relationships by the time AIDS hit, so condoms never became an issue for them. It’s still annoying because sex nowadays involves condoms – period.

And besides, condoms don’t have to mess up sex scenes either. My personal favourite of the sex scenes I have written involves a condom shaped like Dumbo the Elephant.

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4 Responses to Romances are bad for women – again

  1. I was intrigued by the idea of the condom-murderer so I did a bit of online searching too. All I came up with was a reference to the case in a short story by Peter Robinson:

    I did read a case once,’ Banks went on, ‘where a man married rich women and murdered them for their money by putting arsenic on his condoms, but they were made of goatskin back then. Besides, he was French.

    • Cora says:

      I actually found the reference to the condom murderer in Deadly Doses – A Writer’s Guide to Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Klarner:

      In the early eighteenth century, a Frenchman with a penchant for beautiful, rich wives decided to “pleasure” his women before killing them, much as in snuff movies today. Using a thin goatskin sheath on his penis to protect himself, he placed a lethal dose of arsenic on the sheath. The poison absorbed in the women’s vaginas, and they died shortly thereafter. Only his carelessness, and the fact that so many of his wives had met ill fate, made the authorities suspicious. He was found guilty and hanged.

      There’s no name and no additional information and – since it’s not an academic book – no footnotes, so it’s difficult to verify. Still a fascinating story.

      Thanks for commenting BTW. I’ve been following Teach Me Tonight for a while now. It’s a great blog.

  2. Pingback: A Plagalanche, toxic Westeros, responses to romance bashing, rape in fantasy, redneck bashing and Dallas remade | Cora Buhlert

  3. Angie Harper says: Romances are bad for women – again | Cora Buhlert

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