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 already rocky.”
(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 condoms.
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 sex.
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 compelling.