Friday, January 25, 2013

Romancing the Condom: Contraception Use in Romance Novels

In the summer of 2011, the popular press jumped all over a 3-page essay published in a professional journal, one which attempted to discuss some of the problems reading romances might create for health care professionals offering formal sex and relationship education to their clients. Susan Quilliam's " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers...' The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work" pointed out, quite rightly, that "while women's exposure to formal sex and relationships education (SRE) may be as little as a few hours in a lifetime, exposure to the brand of SRE offered in romantic novels may be as much as a day every week." Quilliam wanted readers of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care to realize that they might need to factor in this disparity of knowledge when they counseled their patients and students.

Though Quilliam praised romance novels on several fronts, the popular media pounced only upon the concerns she raised about the genre: that it might discourage condom use, and that the perfectionism and idealisation common to the genre may raise false expectations for women in real-life relationships. "Romance Novels Seduce Women Into Unsafe Sex, Says British Journal" ABC News proclaimed, while Time magazine explained Why Romance Novels, Filled with Passionate Love and Torrid Sex, Mislead Women." A plethora of other online articles with such fear-inducing titles as "Are Romance Novels Bad For Your Health?" "Mills & Boon Blamed for Sexual Health Problems" and  "Mills & Boon Cause Marital Breakdowns" joined the chorus, leading, in their turn, to frustrated, outraged, and occasionally witty rejoinders from romance readers and scholars ("Romances, According to Susan Quilliam, Don't Have Enough Condoms, Do Have Too Much Fantasy" from Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels; Romance Fiction and Women's Health: A Dose of Skepticism from NPR; "But Mr. Darcy, Shouldn't We Be Taking Precautions?" from The Observer).

Interestingly, another scholarly journal article, one published only a month before Quilliam's, was entirely ignored by the popular media and, as far as I can tell, by the romance reading community (with the exception of Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight). A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera, psychologists at the University of Ottawa, published "'Whatever the Approach, Tab B Still Fits into Slot A': Twenty Years of Sex Scripts in Romance Novels" in the journal Sexuality & Culture in April of 2011. Rather than make sweeping claims about the genre of romance, these two researchers were more interested in seeing if romances had changed over historical time. Though their sample size was small (only 20 novels), it might be more representative of the most popular romance tropes than studies with more titles, given that all 20 books included were winners of the RITA award for best contemporary single-title romance between 1989 and 2009.

Ménard and Cabrera hypothesized that they would find little change in sex scripts, or "cognitive schemas that allow individuals to plan their current and future sexual behaviours as well as to understand their past behaviours.... the who, what, when, where, and why of sexual behaviour." Despite their hypothesis, and despite the pessimistic title of their article, the psychologists discovered that depictions of sex and sexuality in romance novels had changed in two important, and decidedly feminist, ways.

One of these changes—that in books from the earlier time period, sex scenes were initiated more often by heroes (63.0%) than by heroines (33.3%), but in books from the later period, the percentages had become more balanced: 31.6% male-initiated; 42.1% female-initiated; and 26.3% mutually initiated (a category almost nonexistent, at 3.7%, in the earlier group)—is worth its own post. Here, I'd like to focus on the other change they discovered: contraception was used more frequently by characters in books published between 2000 and 2009 as compared to those released between 1989 and 1999 (57.9% vs. 18.5%). While Ménard and Cabrera bemoan the "relatively low" contraception usage rates even in the more recent titles, I'd argue that a nearly 40% increase is an impressive shift, particularly in the face of arguments that insist that discussions or depictions of birth control simply aren't sexy. I'd also wager that when RITA-winning books from the 2010-2019 period are studied, the percentage will show an equally high increase from the previous decade.

Ménard and Cabrera found it odd that the shift in contraception depiction had occurred not during the 1990s, when AIDS awareness campaigns were at their height, but after 2000. One reason for the late shift might be that the most popular writers in the earlier period were primarily authors who had come of sexual age before the dawn of AIDS, while those in the latter period had grown up knowing and using condoms to ensure their own sexual health. Another might be the publicity surrounding an earlier academic essay, Amanda B. Diekman, Mary McDonald, and Wendi L. Gardner's "Love Means Never Having to Be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior," published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2000.  Diekman and her co-authors were among the first researchers to move beyond the "romance novels brainwash their readers"/"readers know what's real and what's fantasy" argument, to actually test if and how reading a particular type of novel, and a particular depiction of sexual content in said genre, had an effect on readers' real-life behavior. Though many have criticized their methodology, their conclusions—that "high levels of romance reading were associated with negative attitudes towards condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future" and that "including safe sex elements in romance stories increased positive attitudes toward condoms and marginally increased intent to use condoms in the future"—may have influenced romance writers to give greater weight to encouraging safe sex practices amongst their readers than fears of alienating readers by including depictions of contraception use had previously allowed.


Has anyone read the last three RITA award-winners for single title contemporary recently enough to remember whether they include discussions of, and/or use of, contraception? We can expand the list to include RITA-nominated books, too, and keep a running tally here to save some future researchers some trouble...





Photo/Illustration credits:
• Romance: Too Great Expectations. The Daily
• Condoms: MenInsider




Next time on RNFF
Feminism at the Beauty Pageant: Gina Willner-Pardo's Prettiest Doll

26 comments:

  1. Just to add to the mix of thoughts, a recent study suggests that condoms do not interfere with sexual pleasure http://www.salon.com/2013/01/24/study_condoms_dont_ruin_sex_really/

    I have been thinking about the representation of birth control and condoms (used or not used for sexual health reasons) in the light of the US culture wars and the seeming problems of accessing affordable contraception that many American women face. I have been wondering whether many of those women who are not on the pill in novels, do not have access to health insurance or cannot afford the co-payments. I also wonder if an author's careful avoidance of mentioning contraception is still about the slut shaming? So many books specifically say a heroine is on the pill because of messy periods not because she was expecting to have safe sex. Similarly condom use may be problematical because it implies a planned intention to have and enjoy sex. If sex is spontaneous, the moment can be blamed and responsibility side slipped leaving the heroine still a good girl.

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  2. "So many books specifically say a heroine is on the pill because of messy periods not because she was expecting to have safe sex."

    That actually makes a lot of sense to me because the pill is only a contraceptive and provides no protection against sexually transmitted infections. Therefore, it would be unwise to go on the pill "expecting to have safe sex."

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    1. I think Merrian was just talking about contraception, not disease prevention -- in the context of the books I would agree that it's to show that the heroine isn't "slutty." Safe sex in the sense of disease protection often doesn't come up at all, or is dismissed with a quick "I'm clean" conversation. (I'm seeing this more and more, and often in really improbable circumstances -- it's driving me batty.)

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    2. Yes, Willaful has explained it better than I did :) pill = safe from pregnancy sex not safe from STIs.

      I also find the 'I'm clean' convo fascinating because it is a common way to avoid writing condoms in sex scenes. I wonder if it arises not just to save the author from condoms but because it relates to (1) slut shaming 'clean' is often equal to not having much/recent sexual experience so we again see heroines as asexual except with the deeply arousing hero (2) the nature of time in a story; time for a relationship to build trust and come to the right point for the couple to have shared enough with each other that trust is built and sex arises from that trust. Most people would begin with condoms and discuss a transition to bareback as that trust is built. Outside of a novel this is likely to take time that stories are often not structured to allow. 'I'm clean' is a shortcut.

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    3. It's a shame, too, because I find the giving up of condoms very powerful in romances -- but only if they were used to begin with! Authors who consistently write in condoms get very good at eroticizing their use, or lack thereof.

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  3. Now, wouldn't that make for a politically interesting romance novel, a book that talked about the COST of birth control, as well as the need for it. Thanks for bringing up the class component of this issue, Merrian.

    Another great topic to study, narrative explanations for why heroines are on the pill (or any other form of birth control). Pretty sad if romance writers feel constrained by the "slut shaming" discourse in our culture...

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  4. I'm actually kind of surprised that the use of condoms isn't higher, according to these studies. I stopped reading romance between 2002-2008 and when I started reading again I noticed a huge difference in the contemporary romance novels. Suddenly *everyone* was using condoms. The novels also felt like they'd grown up (or, at least, the heroines felt like they'd grown up) instead of being stuck in a decades-earlier idea of sexual and relationship roles. I even noticed a lot more instances of some sort of prophylactic being used in historicals, though that's generally to prevent pregnancy and not disease.

    As to your question, Jackie, I just looked through the 2012 winner, Boomerang Bride, and it does mention a condom. My Kindle battery died just after I found it, so I can't give you the whole quote, but it does mention that the hero "dexterously" rolled the condom on. I wonder if we'll see more and more that condom use is not just described as normal but as something that's perhaps easier to accomplish than in real life. Or maybe it's another way of affirming the hero's virility and vast experience that he can dexterously roll latex over skin.

    I read all of the nominees for the 2011 contemporary single title RITA, but I left them behind when I moved later that year. I think Jill Shalvis's heroes tend to use a condom.

    I would hope it would jump out at me if a hero didn't use one, or if there wasn't at least a grown-up discussion around it.

    Thanks for the really interesting post.

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    1. "maybe it's another way of affirming the hero's virility and vast experience that he can dexterously roll latex over skin."

      I can see parallels with the way that earlier romances used to describe the hero's dexterous handling of a steering wheel (perhaps while the heroine admired his long fingers). I always got the feeling there was an implicit invocation of the idea of the hero/his car being "sex on wheels."

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  5. You're very welcome, Kat. And thanks to you for the info on BOOMERANG BRIDE. I just checked it out of the library (my first e-book library loan!) and will be on the look-out for that "dexterously" rolling of the condom. I've read both the Shalvis and the Higgins, but like you think rather than am sure that birth control discussions are featured in both...

    Looking not just at whether birth control is used, but at how it is described (realistically? As a marker of a hero's greater than normal virility? In fear of slut shaming, as Merrian above suggests) is definitely worth tracking, too.

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  6. I do not read very many contemporary romances, but nearly all of those I have read (whether comtemp. romance or erotica) have made some mention of the safe sex and/or pregnancy prevention conversation between the characters.

    What is perhaps most notable in the shifting trend in romance writing is the number of historical romances that involve these discussions about the need to be safe (let's not get the pox, dear) and/or the need to prevent unwanted progeny. I'm not sure that I can think of a single example of a historical romance printed fifteen or more years ago that dealt with the ramifications (to either party) of a sexual encounter. By contrast, nearly all of the historical romances I read that are of more modern printing make mention of the desire to prevent the spread of social disease and/or to prevent the instance of pregnancy. I cherish these anachronisms where they occur because they are evidence of our shifting culture. It now seems out of place and jarring that a heroine would participate in an encounter without first considering (and mitigating) what could result from it. Instead of just responding to these types of situations in the moment, being so swept away by desire (her own or the hero's) that all thoughts are scattered, these modern heroines (even when placed in historical settings, they are still modern) are allowed to keep their wits, to present the idea that one can participate in a sexual encounter without needing to lose one's head first.

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  7. Kelly:

    Yes, the rise of "protection" discussions in historical fiction is intriguing, despite its anachronistic aspects. It's rather shocking to read some of the stories of Regency-era wives who became infected through their philandering husbands, and were shunned.

    Can you think of any heroines, in historical or contemporary, who have had to deal with getting an STD from a (bad of course!) former boyfriend/husband?

    One day, I'm going to write a historical romance in which a heroine gets an STD from her first lover/husband because she has no clue about the possibility of sex leading to disease (not something an innocent girl was often told about). Down with lack of information! ;-)

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    1. Stories of real-life wives, I meant, in case that wasn't clear...

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    2. I've heard rumors of an Edith Layton story in which the hero has an STD, but I've been unable to track it down.

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    3. Oh, let us know if you remember the title...

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  8. SPOILER COMMENT: In the historical romance To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney the villainous husband used his belief that he was in the tertiary stage of syphilis (and therefore no longer infectious)as an excuse to rape his wife without killing her. She was not innocent of his disease nor the potential consequences of her exposure. Fortunately, he was proven correct with his assumption.

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    1. That scene freaked me out so much. I looked it up and discovered that he was wrong and would still have been infectious.

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    2. Thanks for the pointer to the Gaffney book, Kathryn, and to the freak-out warning, Willaful. I look forward to checking it out.

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    3. Several references say that tertiary syphilis is not infectious so it is good to know (just for the sake of general knowledge, of course) that it can be transmitted even then.

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    4. Perhaps I got it wrong -- I can't remember now where I looked it up. I'm wondering if the description of the stage didn't correspond with the tertiary stage? It's not specifically called tertiary syphillis in the book.

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  9. Is a discussion of prophylaxis in historical romances always anachronistic, though? I'd think that the possibility of pregnancy and its subsequent shaming effect would lead some percentage of women to think about it. Also, while the average middle class woman might well not know about sexually transmitted diseases, wouldn't courtesans, mistresses, prostitutes, and possibly women in high society know and have an interest in preventing them?

    Condom usage is common in contemporary m/m romance. While I know that condoms are sometimes used or discussed in contemporary het romance, I wonder if an analogy can be drawn to the differences between mainstream gay and het porn. Mainstream gay porn mandates condom usage; mainstream het porn relies on testing instead, in large part because the usage of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS is perceived as a public health/role model issue for gay men but not for heterosexuals.

    I will get pulled out of a contemporary m/m romance if condom usage is not addressed. I did read one recently where it wasn't that had a disclaimer about unsafe sex practices, so I suspect the book is meant to appeal to those for whom barebacking is a romantic fantasy -- although it's not just that; there are gay men who choose to bareback, either because they have reason to believe that they are having sex with people of the same seroconversion status as theirs or for other reasons.

    The circumlocution of rolling on a condom is used a lot in m/m and gay romance (I think dextrousness is usually implied) as a way to address the issue without interrupting the sexytimes.

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  10. Just wanted to add that I agree with Willaful that discontinuing condom usage can be a very powerful act in romantic fiction. I've seen it used to great effect both in m/m romance and slash fanfiction.

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  11. Lawless:

    Yes, re historical romance, as we are beginning to get more heroines with courtesan/mistress backgrounds, more discussion of (or presence of) "french letters" and the like has been appearing. But as Delilah Marvelle points out, they were initially used more to prevent the spreads of STDs than they were as birth control: http://www.delilahmarvelle.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html

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  12. Some additional links of interest regarding the historical availability of condoms and the purposes to which they were put:

    http://www.georgianlondon.com/the-green-canister-mrs-phillipss-covent-garde
    http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2010/02/casanova-condoms.html

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  13. Thanks, Lawless, for the links. Although I do wish Georgian London would cite her sources...

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  14. Agreed, although I saw sufficient indicia that she's reliable to think that she is reliable. That might not be enough for purposes of writing a book, but surely most of what she says can be researched independently.

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  15. Mmm, my training as a literary scholar is rearing its head here, obviously. I was taught that it's a courtesy to other scholars to cite your sources, so they don't have to dig them up themselves in order to check your facts. Especially when you're arguing against an established given, source citation seems vitally important.

    It's a fairly recent courtesy, no doubt; older scholarship in the field is full of books without source citation...

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