One of my memories from my early teens is of my Aunt Jo reading her romance novels. She devoured them so rapidly and with such gusto that I thought the novels must contain if not the secrets to eternal youth then at least the meaning of existence. And I guess in a way they did.
Isn’t that what love does? Keeps us young, gives meaning to our lives. Look how many songs have been written about love. Love is probably one of the most significant emotions we will ever experience in our lives. It is no surprise then that romantic fiction is one of the most popular genres in the literary world today.
According to the Romance Writers Of America estimated sales of romance fiction in 2010 were $1.36 billion. Romance fiction was the largest share of the consumer market in 2009 at 13.2 % and 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. Impressive statistics, don’t you think?
I am not a big reader of romantic fiction but I know a lot of people who are. And I know several people who write romantic fiction for a living.
The only romantic fiction novel I have read is Dear Doctor Everett. My Aunt Jo gave it to me when I asked her why she read so many ‘love books.’
This story actually made a big impression on me. I read it over 30 years ago and I still remember the plot. Nurse falls for Doctor. Doctor is an arrogant pig. Nurse tells him to get lost. Doctor gets involved with another nurse whereupon original nurse decides she still loves him even though he is arrogant. It looks like they will never be reunited but in the end after much turmoil, heaving shoulders, throwing oneself on the bed and weeping – they are.
I sound like I’m being dismissive of the genre and slightly flippant but when I read this book at 13 years of age it made a big impression on me. I remember saying to my Aunt Jo: ‘Love is no picnic, is it?’
‘You don’t know how right you are,’ she responded.
Which brings me to the point of this post. If romantic novels can teach us about the nature of love should they then teach us about every aspect of love, in particular, the physical part of love and the sometimes negative consequences it can bring? Do you think it is the role of romantic fiction to educate its readers about safe sex or send a safe sex message?
I hadn’t thought about this question until the other day when listening to a podcast called The Book Show. It’s an Australian podcast and is very good. I’ll give you the link although I’m not sure if you can listen to it outside of Australia. Here it is.
In this podcast Ramona Koval, the host of the show was talking about romantic fiction to a relationship psychologist named Susan Quilliam. It was a very interesting perspective.
Susan Quilliam felt that modern day romance fiction didn’t contain enough of a safe sex message and that there were very few (if none at all) examples of condom usage within the narrative. She didn’t want scenes such as the female protagonist in a moment of passion reaching for a condom while the male protagonist said :’Oh, we don’t need that. I don’t want a barrier between us.’
Susan Quilliam wants more condoms in romance fiction. I don’t see anything wrong with including them but I wasn’t entirely sure it was necessary to mention them until I read that the readership of romance fiction falls mostly among women aged 31-50 and that adults over 40 who are often divorced and starting new relationships are often oblivious to the need to use condoms and there is consequently an increase in STIs in that age group. As well as unwanted pregnancies.
There is no guarantee that the women 35 and over practising unsafe sex are reading romantic fiction but if the market share stats are anything to go by, there is a good chance many of them are.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Do you think it is the place of romantic fiction to discuss safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies? Do you think such things would ruin the mystique of the romance novel which many women view as a form of escapism? Or do you think that in the modern world of romantic fiction condoms on the bedside table are entirely relevant?
Maybe instead of not wanting a barrier between them the characters should say – If it’s not on, it’s NOT on. Just like the safe sex slogans of the ’80s.
After all, the best kind of romance is safe romance. Something of which I’m sure Dear Doctor Everett would have approved.