Monday 25 October 2010

Research Bulletin: Romance Novels and Unsafe Sexual Scripts

Some recent posts on the romance novel reminded me of a study by Amanda Diekman, Mary McDonald, and Wendi Gardner (2000). These researchers found that frequent readers of romance fiction were likely to have more negative attitudes toward condom use, report less frequent condom use in the past, and less intention to use condoms in the future. These risky sex behaviors were all interpreted as consistent with the “swept away by passion” script embedded in most romance fiction, in which condom-use is rarely mentioned. In a fascinating follow-up study, these experimenters randomly assigned readers to read different texts, including an excerpt of romance fiction that was altered to include mention of condom use. Reading took place once a week over three weeks and at the end of this period those who read these altered pieces of romance fiction reported more positive attitudes toward condom use than those who read the more traditional excerpts of romance fiction. This pair of studies illustrates how romance fiction might not only provide an unrealistic model for love, but also a risky model for sex.

Diekman, A. B., McDonald, M., & Gardner, W. L. (2000). Love means never having to be careful: The relationship between reading romance novels and safe sex behavior. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24, 179–188.

(Readers interested in a copy of this article may contact me for a copy. E-mail in profile.)

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Laura Vivanco said...

When I posted about Diekman et al's research over at Teach Me Tonight, one of the things I noted was that

Their sample of 78 novels included only contemporary romances, not historicals, as they "felt it would be unrealistic to expect portrayals or discussions of condom use in historical romance novels" (181) and "The sampled novels represented the work of 46 authors and 21 publishers. 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" (181). They found that "only 9 (1 1.5%) novels portrayed condom use.

I can't remember if that was 9 out of the total number of novels, or 9 out of the novels published after 1990. However, I do wonder if the situation has changed somewhat in the decade since this research was carried out.

I also wonder if there's variation depending on which sub-genre of romance you look at. The authors of this study had valid reasons for leaving out historical romances (though some historicals do actually mention the use of contraceptives), and only looked at contemporaries. I'd be curious to know whether erotic contemporary romances are more likely to include condom use. I'm fairly sure they're very common in the Harlequin Blaze line, for example. On the other hand, I have a feeling that in some paranormals, particularly those with vampires, the protagonists are not susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and may also be unable to reproduce sexually. In those cases, the world-building excludes the need for condoms. I wonder if that could possibly be something which would attract some readers who do look for the "swept away" fantasy.

Another aspect of this to bear in mind is that different readers have different preferences, and there may be generational differences. When the romance review site Dear Author carried out an informal poll on the topic of condoms in romance, 71% of those who responded (301 votes) chose the option in favour of condom use in romances and expressing disappointment at romances which lacked this detail.

The detailed comments attached to the poll at Dear Author are even more interesting, though, because they give a lot of insight into what readers prefer and why they prefer it. They make me think that romance readers' readings and preferences are a lot more varied than Diekman et al's research suggests.

Livia Blackburne said...

Inteeresting study! I'll have to pass this along to my readers. Thank you.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Dear Laura,
Thank you for these very insightful observations and interesting poll data. These are all important issues to consider and media do certainly change to reflect the times. I wouldn't be surprised if mention of condom-use has increased in romance fiction, perhaps more in certain genres compared to others. Publishers are keen to respond to explicit preferences on the part of their readers, particularly for this genre, I think.
Thanks again for your comments,

Lisa Hughey said...

As a counterpoint, this study is ten years old. I find in most of the books I read now, condom use is almost always there (however, I don't read a lot of historical fiction). Aids wasn't even an issue until 1985 or so, so using books prior to the onset of the Aids crisis skews the data as well.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Hello Lisa,
Thank you for this comment. You are absolutely right. I would not be surprised if mention of condom use has increased since the time of this study's publication. Media research, particularly research that deals with the content of certain media, always struggles to stay up-to-date. This study might tell us more about the psychology of fiction than anything specific about current romance fiction.

Laura Vivanco said...

This study might tell us more about the psychology of fiction than anything specific about current romance fiction

Do you think there could be parallels, then, with other types of omissions in fictions? I know some people prefer "grittier" or more realistic fiction, whereas some people prefer to be "swept away," and this is perhaps reflected in the diversity to be found within genres. Some genres span a range of different mimetic modes (I'm thinking of Northrop Frye's classification scheme, as summarised in the quotes in this post by my colleague Eric Selinger).

Raymond A. Mar said...

Hi Laura,
Sure, absolutely. People use media for different things at different times, depending on their mood. In many ways, we habitually inhabit types of fictional worlds that can skew our view of the real world. Media/Communications research has long demonstrated that people who watch more television news feel that the world is more dangerous, since crimes are reported at such a high incidence inflating perceptions of their frequency. People who inhabit certain types of fictional worlds with consistent themes may similarly experience a bias in their view of the real-world. Even gritty and "realistic" fiction doesn't accurately capture the banality of reality, but more it's unusual and occasional interesting parts.

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