Palpitating fiction: Are romantic novels bad for women?

It's all innocent stuff: square-jawed boy meets doe-eyed girl, they fall in love, encounter a few rocky moments but ultimately seal their union with a kiss or a vague hint of sex.

Wholesome yarns like this form the heartbeat of romantic fiction, a genre that has been in existence since the mid-18th century and today sells by the bucketload.

But, according to a debate launched on Thursday by a medical journal in Britain, romantic novels are an invisible yet potent threat to women's sexual and emotional health.

A commentary blasts these formulaic books for failing to promote safe sex and encourage patience in achieving female orgasm -- and for defining the success of a relationship as the ability to crank out babies.

"If readers start to believe the story that romantic fiction offers, then they store up trouble for themselves," says British author and relationship counsellor Susan Quilliam.

"Sometimes the kindest and wisest thing we can do for our clients is to encourage them to put down the books -- and pick up reality."

Quilliam, writing in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, says that, according to a survey, only 11.5 percent of romantic novels mention condom use.

"And within these scenarios, the heroine typically rejected the idea because she wanted 'no barrier' between her and the hero," she notes.

Even the steamier offerings of romantic fiction are dismal failures when it comes to sexual health, she contends.

The typical bodice-ripper ends "with the heroine being rescued from danger by the hero, and then abandoning herself joyfully to a life of intercourse-driven orgasms and endless trouble-free pregnancies in order to cement their marital devotion."

In fairness, says Quilliam, romantic fiction today has broadened its spectrum.

Standard characters such as the brutal count and apple-cheeked maid have been supplemented by single mums, sensitive men, partners who each have to juggle daily jobs or cope with addictions, disabilities and even domestic violence.

Even so, these books fail miserably when it comes to sexual pleasure and dealing with the ups-and-downs of relationships, she says.

"We want women to be aware of their own desires rather than be 'awakened'. We aim to reassure our female clients that their first time may not be utterly joyful and that they may not gain reliable orgasms through penetration, but that they themselves are none the less existentially valid and that with affection and good humour things can improve immensely.

"We warn of the stresses of pregnancy and child-rearing, and we discourage relentless baby-making as proof of a relationship's strength."

According to figures cited by Quilliam, romance accounts for nearly half of all fiction bought, and some fans read up to 30 titles a month.

For all its popularity, the genre has only been rarely explored to see how influential it is on its readers, says Quilliam, who suspects though that it could have massive clout.

"What we see in our consulting rooms is more likely to be informed by Mills and Boon than by the Family Planning Association," she says.

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