Safe Romance

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 31-50Β  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 –Β  If it’s not on, it’s NOT on. Just like the safe sex slogans ofΒ  the ’80s.

After all, the best kind of romance is safe romance. Something of which I’m sure Dear Doctor Everett would have approved.

30 thoughts on “Safe Romance

  1. Oh, ho, ho – stir it up, Selma πŸ˜€ – this is the nanny-state attitude poking its nose where it doesn’t belong. Since when is it the place of adult fiction to moralise and instruct? (And if any 31-50-year-old living in a first-world country is oblivious to the need to use condoms during sex with an unknown quantity, as it were, then they’d have to be a troglodyte).

    Great post πŸ˜‰


    1. I so agree with you, Bluebee. I wrote about this because I was interested to hear what people think but I’m not convinced it should be a publishing initiative to slip a safe sex message into a Mills and Boon. And yes, people are testing positive for troglodytism if they are over 40 and don’t know about condoms. Hello!! 😯


  2. Hi Selma,
    I’m not a reader of romantic novels, although when I was very early teens I did read a couple, they didn’t move me that much at all I’m afraid.
    Give me a good Drama anytime. πŸ™‚


    1. I’m with you, Mags. Drama all the way. Or fantasy. Or historical fiction. Actually, I’ll read any genre if it’s well written!


  3. I haven’t read any romantic fiction since my teens either. I doubt that back then, there wuld have been any overt sex, only the intimation of it (much to my disappointment, I’m sure). How the world has changed. But your question is an interesting one. And I’m torn about it.

    Is there a responsibility? If so, should Barrie have added a warning to readers of Peter Pan about flying? “Do not try this at home!” I read Peter Pan when I was about eight years old, and promptly climbed up onto the dresser in my room and sailed off, convinced I could fly. It didn’t come to a good end. Guess I should have waited for Tinkerbell’s visit.

    But to go back to the question… In fiction, there is a suspension of reality. Would including some of reality’s nitty gritty truths destroy the fantasy? I don’t know. What do you think?


    1. That’s the question, isn’t it? And it’s dificult to answer but for me the bottom line is that it’s fiction. And I don’t think that fiction necessarily needs to pontificate. I guess it depends on whether or not publishers and/or writers feel it is a good idea to include the message. I think your point is an important one about it destroying the fantasy. Isn’t that why most people read romantic fiction, anyway? Do they want their characters messing about with condoms? I just don’t know πŸ˜‰


  4. Your idea makes sense. While I’m not a big reader of romance, in most novels, there is some aspect of romance and characters “doin’ the horizontal hokey-pokey, so in a way, most fiction readers DO get a dose of romance.”

    I guess it would depend on the type of novel: pure romance vs. romantic encounters in other fiction. So why not include a savvy gal (or guy) insisting on safe sex. There doesn’t have to be a three page explanation of putting the damn thing on, just a mention that it was done (unless you can make the “dressing of the dick” sexy (and I just grossed myself out there, sorry)).

    Making the subject approachable and “normal” gives readers that little nudge to be safe so they can live longer and buy more books. πŸ™‚ Keeping the mention light and quick won’t detract from the story.


    1. That is definitely a good way to approach it. A savvy character who just brings it up casually. You see that kind of approach in film a lot now as well as in TV. There’s no reason it can’t also be included in a novel. I mean, it’s not as if the writer needs to include a blow by blow account. No innuendo intended πŸ˜†

      Horizontal hokey-pokey *snort*


  5. I write romance fiction for a living (friend of Selma’s) and I am uncomfortable with the whole condom thing. It’s not a prudish thing, I feel it detracts from the whole idea of romance. To have your characters break up not because of a broken heart but because he gave her herpes doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    Yet my publisher has mentioned it to me. I don’t feel it is the role of the romance writer to educate people about safe sex. We’re writing fiction, not pamphlets you pick up at the health centre. You wouldn’t have a story about a cowboy carrying a gun and then slip in messages about gun control. Writers shouldn’t be required to supply the community with public service information. Just my two cents.


    1. I totally get your point, Bellie. The last thing you need to worry about is someone breathing down your neck to make sure you’ve included a safe sex message. Where does that type of thing end? If your hero is a chef must he include messages abot the dangers of saturated fats? If you have a guy who is an insurance broker should he go on and on about the importance of keeping your policies updated? I think if the individual writer feels strongly enough about it they should talk about safe sex, but I’m not sure we need it in romance novels in a general sense. It’s an interesting thing to consider, however.


  6. Bwahahahaha – you need your own column Selma (I may have said that before, but damn it – I’ll say it again). I went through a stage of reading romance novels when I was 18 and working in a shop, which was pretty boring so I needed some light entertainment. I agree with bluebee above. I also used to work in a HIV/AIDS, sexual and Hep C unit and their ‘targettted’ health promotion material was a sight to be seen πŸ˜‰ One of the problems, they will tell you, with condoms, is not that people don’t know that they should be using them – it is that most blokes don’t want to use them and use their positions of ‘power’ in the relationshiip to avoid using them.


    1. Aww thanks, Gabe. That would be cool. But I guess I have my own column in a way. Still, it would be nice to get some moola for it…..

      My dating friends tell me about the problems with condoms all the time and it usually comes down to the man refusing to wear it. I don’t understand why that is the case. I mean, I’d rather wear a condom than wake up with an itching, burning sensation down below (don’t you just love it when people say ‘down below’? It really cracks me up…)

      All that promotional material within a novel is a bit TMI. People will stop reading in droves and will be so frustrated at their lack of a romantic fix that they will turn to crime. And we can’t have that. πŸ˜†


  7. If a novel is written just to further a message (ie. safe sex) then it isn’t a novel anymore is it? It’s a message. What about when a movie furthers the message of a governing body? Is it a movie? (The Russians used to call it propaganda – or a message.) Or when a news station stands openly on the side of one political party? Is it news? It’s a message.

    There is nothing wrong with the cause of safe sex, but novelists – all writers, bloggers included – are seeking to understand the world. Not convey the rules for living in it.


    1. My pleasure about the shout out. I love your blog. Have I ever told you that? It really is a treat. I’m still thinking about the image of you in the streetcar in the twilight.

      You have made such a pertinent point. If there are all these politically correct mesaages within novels then they can’t really be classified as novels anymore, can they? Absolutely spot on!

      What a fantastic comment. We ARE simply seeking to understand the world. Hear hear !!!


  8. Oh, God, no, it is most certainly not the job of romantic fiction – of any kind of art form – to teach us how to do anything. That is the job of education system, and our parents. Personally, I have never read any romantic fiction, and I don’t intend to, but reading about a fucking search for a condom would not be my idea of fun.


    1. COMMENT OF THE WEEK RIGHT HERE!!!! I love it. I wanted to say that so badly. I don’t want to read about the search for the condom either. Ewww. Thank you for saying this. You rule!


  9. My mother was a great, if not THE greatest Mills and Boone fan, so naturally I tried them out at the start of my teens. What a larf – if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, lol! Give me suspense any time… Safe sex discussion in romantic novels – nah I don’t think so, readership will fall, plop…


    1. It will be a mega PLOP for sure. The plots are a little predictable, aren’t they? But can you believe the market share of the genre? I should be writing romance. Haha.


  10. LOL I read a few in my early teens and even at that age thought “oh barfff” lol It’s kinda like no one ever mentions using the toilet in books either…maybe somethings we don’t need to know?

    My daughter dated a guy whose mother wrote romance but she said she liked writing for Silhouette instead of Harlequin cos she likes killing characters off and Harlequin frowned on that lol

    I think the point is a perfect world where bad things like infidelity and std’s don’t exhist…escapism at it’s finest and no room for lectures from the “real” world about protection.


    1. Hahahaha. You have cracked me up so much. Can you imagine a book where one of the characters is searching for a comdom then uses the toilet? TMI to the MAX. OMG. That is too funny πŸ˜† πŸ˜†

      I didn’t know they killed the characters off in Silhouette. Oh, that adds a whole other dimension to it. I might need to read one now!!


  11. I’ve read a couple of Mills & Boons books when I was about 16 – I was so bored and on a long train journey for a few hours and I thought that the books would be good. I thumb my nose at that stuff and have never read another one since. It’s not that I am against romance; far from it. I am a hopeless romantic at heart.
    It’s just that the stories as so dumb & predictable and boring and not well written at all.


    1. I know what you mean, Roshan. That is why a lot of people seem to dislike romance as a genre. There is a soap opera component to them that is a little predictable, but I have been told by some people the grittier stories in the genre these days are very good!


  12. I’m not a reader of romantic novels, either. However, I do fancy Romantic Comedy movies. And they don’t seem to put too much emphasis on practicing safe sex. I’m not sure if there needs to be more sex ed in fictional books. I mean they are fictional. Not educational. Right?


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