Romances, According to Susan Quilliam, Don’t Have Enough Condoms, Do Have Too Much Fantasy

Good morning! Everyone ready to point and laugh? Get your finger ready – no, not THAT one, the OTHER one – to mock with abandon specious research and shoddy statistics pointing out a supposed flaw in our love of romance novels.

Ahoy! What steaming pile of crap through yonder website breaks! Women still in grip of idealised love and sex, purveyed by romantic fiction.

Oh, no, are you ok? Surely you didn’t hurt yourself pointing and laughing already because there’s a LOT MORE COMING.

Susan Quilliam, who is not a scientist but instead a “broadcaster and agony aunt” ( the hell does that mean?!) and relationship psychologist who recently authored “The New Joy of Sex,” contributed this article to the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care.

Mmmm. Irony. The author of a book about positive sexuality for men and women mocking and lambasting a genre that is also about… positive sexuality for men and women.

The summary of the article has the standard smacks of the genre: that sex and relationships are idealized, that women readers are too influenced by the genre and need to “put down the books – and pick up reality.”

Standard operating procedure – we can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, and we’re more comfortable living in a fantasy world than dealing with our own problems. Bollocks rubbish horsecrap, all of it.

But this part really raised my brows:

“Above all we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and that idealising them is the short way to heartbreak,” she writes.

“And while romance may be the wonderful foundation for a novel, it’s not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation for running a lifelong relationship,” she says.

And there’s another more “worrying difference” between sexual health professionals and the producers of romantic fiction, says Ms Quilliam. “To be blunt, we like condoms – for protection and for contraception – and they don’t.”

She points to a recent survey of romantic fiction titles in which only one in 10 mentioned condom use, with most scenarios depicting the heroine typically rejecting their use on the grounds that she wanted “no barrier” between her and the hero.

The romance readers who responded to the survey understood that they were reading fictional accounts and that spontaneous sexual encounters were never risk free, but there was a clear correlation between the frequency of romance reading and negative attitudes to condom use, she says.

Point, laugh, and be baffled with me, won’t you?

I’m immediately suspicious of anything referencing “a recent survey,” because there are no sources cited. Who did the survey? Who participated? Four out of five dentists? What was this “survey” mentioned in the summary? What “research” or “Fresh hell” is this?

A longer article is available for those who seek it out – which someone did! Jonathan Allen, one of many scholars studying the genre at present, found the full article and reported that the “Survey” was as follows:

86 romance novels were surveyed, 8 excluded, sample determined by 78 published b/w 1981 and 1996; 46 authors 21 pubs.

No, no, don’t break things. Point and laugh, point and laugh. A survey of 78 novels from 1981-1996. Books that are 15 years old or more. That’s the “contemporary” portrayal of sexuality being discussed in this article.

As Angela James pointed out, “86 romance novels isn’t even one month of Harlequin releases!”

While we’re pointing and laughing at the idiocy of using a 15-20 year old book to judge what the genre is saying right now, let me just make sure to point out that YES CONDOMS are used in romance novels. They’re used frequently, in fact!

Even though, as Marina Braverman cited, condoms are the choice of only 16.1% of American women according to the 2006-2008 Guttmacher Institute study of women who practice contraception, they make a very frequent appearance in romance fiction.

Why? Because romance readers like to believe that romance heroes and heroines aren’t dumb. A sex scene in a contemporary-set romance without a condom or discussion of contraception means that the reader ultimately doubts the intelligence of both parties. Moreover, authors have been known to groan about writing the condom into the scene, even though it is expected, because the physical act of using a condom is somewhat awkward and not really that sexy. Sex scenes with contraception are tricky but expected by readers.

I’m more apt to notice if there is NOT a discussion or mention of condoms, and specifically condoms, because it’s not in the least romantic to read about people who are having sex with one another for the first time who do not think about pregnancy and STDs. Condoms take care of both issues in the mind of the reader without having to interrupt a sensual scene with a, “By the way, you got any diseases?” conversation appearing in the midst.

This entire article is factually wrong, poorly sampled, and based on outdated, specious research. There have been considerable sexual health and contraception method advancements since 1997. The same is true of the romance genre.

You know what makes me extra more pointy and stabby – sorry, laugh-y? This is a journal about a subject of which I think very highly. The study of family planning and reproductive health is, in a word, important. Crucial, even. Romance novels depict female sexuality in a frequently positive and empowering manner, and are one of the few forms of popular culture entertainment that does so.

So to have the sexuality judged on a very limited and outdated sample is disappointing enough that I’m thinking of using that OTHER finger. But I won’t.

Instead I’ll imagine judging the scientific research and work of every other individual who has contributed to the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care based on the shoddy supporting research and crap thesis of this one article. I can totally judge the entire journal’s history and the credentials of every person who has written for it based on one article, right? Of course I can. It’s the Quilliam method! About as effective as the rhythm method!

More than anything, I wish that Susan Quilliam had a better and more recent understanding of the complex and positive portrayal of female sexuality in romance novels. By using an outdated sample, she’s maligned the genre, and judging by her credentials and expertise in women’s sexual health, she’d be a wonderful asset to our side of the argument in support of romance fiction.

Ms. Quilliam, if I can recommend novels that contradict the research you used, novels which feature positive portrayals of female sexuality, contraceptive use beyond mere condoms, and healthy sexual and emotional relationships, please do let me know. There are thousands.

Got one to recommend? Please feel free – I know you’ve probably got a suggestion list of ten in your mind already!


Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. My first book is coming out from Tor next May (Waking Up Dead), and a condom is used every time the heroine has sex. Did I write it that way because I want readers to use condoms? Or because it would make people like Susan Quilliam happy? No. I wrote that way because…..

    My heroine is not an idiot. She’s not going to risk her life for a roll in the hay.

    Honestly. ::eyeroll::

  2. jacquilynne says:

    If I’m reading a romance novel and there’s penetrative sex and no condom, I pretty much assume that the heroine will be knocked up by the end of the book. And since ‘I love you because you’re having my baby’ novels are my least favorite, that’s my usually about the time I stop reading.

  3. Isn’t it interesting that no one ever does a study that cites watching James Bond movies as a danger for men bcz it makes them dress in tuxedos, drink martinis, chase manic bad guys and seduce anonymous women who miraculously at midnight turn into a beer and pizza?

  4. Heather says:

    Many of the books don’t have references to condoms, but then again they generally feature a sterile vampire or an immortal disease-free werewolf. (Note: if the werewolf isn’t an immortal, condoms are used.)

    Quilliam will probably love this information because I’m sure she’ll think I’m looking for an immortal/disease-free/incredibly sexy/completely ripped/emotionally secure paranormal hero as a husband.

  5. Sara H says:

    Gah! I’m astounded at the poor research practices of this article.
    I’m also shocked when I read a romance and there’s no condom use. In the PNR/UF I’ve read there’s been stories with condom usage (Nicole Peeler’s Tempest Rising, Molly Harper’s Naked Werewolf series, I’m pretty sure the Kate Daniels series) and if there’s not condom usage it’s because you can’t get knocked up by a vampire/werewolf/demon possed warrior, etc, etc. Although maybe Edward should have donned his raincoat and Bella wouldn’t have ended up with a vamp baby trying to chew it’s way out of her uterus.
    In the historicals I’ve read, depending on the timeframe,  there’s been condoms (They involved ribbon and were from France, but I can’t think of the book’s title. I read a lot.) and any contemporary I’ve read recently there’s been condoms.
    When I started reading romance, about 4 years ago, I was actually surprised that authors would include condoms and discussions about contraceptives because in real life it can sometimes be a mood killer (but so can herpes-yikes!).
    Anyway, I’m thoroughly impressed by your response to this ridiculous article and I am pointing and laughing along with you.

  6. Dara Young says:

    Wow. The stupidity. It hurts. And I am not surprised they were looking at 15yr old romances. I mean how else would they support such morbidly asinine arguments. I’ve just read a series of historicals that either use withdrawing or french letters as the preferred contraceptive.

  7. Megan Mulry says:

    You said it, sister! It was bad enough when that woman in Utah was peddling this same line of BS, but to perpetuate these tired stereotypes in the Telegraph? I wish I could point and laugh but I am sort of sad and mad.

  8. I’m equally disturbed that a newspaper would publish an article based on such questionable study. Are they assuming that their readership is so ignorant?

  9. Mireya says:

    It puzzles me how the romance genre keeps on being targeted as some sort of insidious threat to women, and of course, by people that wouldn’t touch one themselves with a 10 foot pole.  What’s with that.  If you are going to attack something, the least you could do is actually educate yourself on the topic, and do actual REAL research.  Romance novels that are 15 years old or more… come on … I didn’t even start reading the genre until 2003 and I’ve never read any that predates 2000.  Truth be told, however, the only thing that irks me about these sort of articles presented as evidence of the evilness of the romance genre is how these people think that all romance fans are stupid and/or uneducated and can’t think for themselves. *sigh*

  10. MissFiFi says:

    I say invite Ms Quilliam to read more recent novels and give her a cup of STFU. I love the attitude that women cannot differentiate reality from fiction. Like we are complete morons with stars in our eyes.  What really annoys me is she assumes women will read these books and have distorted views of men. Disney cornered that market long ago and to think they specialize in fantasies to impressionable young girls, not women.
    I have read some erotica stories where the main characters did not use condoms. The reasoning given by the woman each time was that she could not get preggers so it should be fine. I admit that I got icked out the first time I read that.  What fascinated me was that it was always a BDSM relationship and it is the female submissive who tells this to her male Dom. Keep in mind, most of these Doms have clearly slept around more than Mick Jagger.

  11. rooruu says:

    Well played with your response to this.  I doffs my bonnet respectfully.

    I do see some young women with idealised views of what they think they are entitled to in luuurve and other stuff, but it seems much more fuelled by spoiled reality-show ‘princesses’ rather than evil romance novels.

  12. Lori says:

    People have already made my points about the article so I’ll just answer the question about “agony aunt”. It’s British slang for an advice columnist.

    idea74: Susan Quilliam needs 74 better ideas about romance novels, but I’d settle for 1 or 2.

  13. I’m tired of it. I haven’t got the energy to get angry with it any more. Hopefully the “Romance novels are bad for you” shtick will lead to more sales.

  14. Like Sara H said, even most of the historical romances I’ve read use some sort of protection (or at the very least carry some understanding of the risks involved). I guess I just don’t have the stones to quote data that is at least 10 years out of date, and wasn’t that thorough to begin with.
    Great response!

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    I don’t care either way if condoms are mentioned because I recognize that I’m reading FICTION and because just like in real life, it is none of my business what other people do in bed.

    I can’t help but smirk that the author of this study thinks that women are going to not use condoms because some romance novel heroine didn’t.  That assumes we’re all mind-numbed idiots.  Sort of how I picture Quilliam.

  16. JR says:

    Really? The mind boggles. I will admit to having devoured my mother’s collection of steamy bodice rippers when I was 11-12. She was a big fan of Bertrice Small, Janelle Taylor and Constance O’Banyon, to give you an idea. And even then, I was conscious of the fact that what I was reading was _fiction_. I dare say that a good percentage of readers in general have enough brains to know that what’s depicted IS idealized and doesn’t always take reality – pregnancy and STDs – into consideration. When did it become the romance industry’s responsibility to take on sex ed?

  17. henofthewoods says:

    Perhaps romance readers have a lower rate of using condoms for contraception – because we tend to be in long term monogamous relationships? A quick poll would show what percentage use condoms and not bother to break out the “I’ve been with one guy for 21 of my 42 years, we are a bit past condoms.”

    I have certainly read books with condoms, books with a spouse who has been cheated on getting tested for STD’s, books where birth control works and where it doesn’t (the old antibiotics-ruined-my-birth-control-pill gambit). Even books by authors who explain that withdrawal won’t actually keep a woman from getting pregnant.

  18. Thank you for pointing and laughing, Sarah. This article is a flaming pile of poo. I think I’ll go on idealizing great sex and loving relationships. So far that crazy attitude has led me to a ten-year wedding anniversary, not heartache.

    Maybe life IS more difficult for those of us who are passionate about our partners and deeply in love. Being an emotionless lump with low expectations is probably easier.

    I always mention condoms in my books. If my characters have unprotected sex, they discuss the consequences. As long as the issue is addressed in some way, I’m okay with it.

    I don’t believe there is any correlation between reading romance and negative attitudes toward condoms. Those kind of attitudes stem from ignorance. Romance readers are exposed to the subject of contraception repeatedly and are well-educated on it IMO.

    Off the top of my head, the characters in Jaci Burton’s The Perfect Play used a condom Every. Single. Time. They used a grip of condoms! Several boxes maybe! And it didn’t detract from the sexiness in the least.

  19. TaraL says:

    They’re checking novels from 1981? 30 years ago? The same year the term AIDS was finally coined and most of us had still never heard of it? And when most people never mentioned condoms in polite (or at least mixed) company?

    Susan Quilliam may not refer to herself as a scientist, but I’l bet some of the folks doing that survey do. I’ve often thought that rampant stupidity should be grounds for taking away degrees so that folks don’t lend weight to the words of idiots just because they have a few letters listed after their name.

  20. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of Quilliam’s article but from what I could see of it via Google I worked out that in addition to the not-very-up-to-date study which dealt with condom-use, she cites another study.  The abstract of that second study mentions that

    Most participants (85%) reported that reading romance novels has not had an impact on their feelings about their sex partners or has had a positive impact on their feelings about their sex partners.

    Jonathan then confirmed that Quilliam had cited that second study. Given that (a) I’ve only read excerpts of Quilliam’s article and (b) she’s quoted as saying that

    I’m not arguing that all romantic fiction is misguided, wrong or evil – to do so would be to negate my teenage self as well as the many millions of readers who innocently enjoy romances

    I’m going to be charitable and work on the assumption that Quilliam thinks that romances only have dire effects on a small minority of romance readers, such as those who end up being her clients.

  21. Fee says:

    Some of the comments to the article in the Guardian are pretty good.

  22. Kathleen O'Donnell says:

    OMG is this broad for real.. She must be a frustrated spinster, that never had good sex in her life… Try coming into at least the 90;s lady…
    I am LOL and pointing out that this gal needs to do a bit more modern reasearch….

  23. Suzannah says:

    LOL, I was just going to link to the Guardian article!  SBTB gets some mentions from fans in the comments, and I had to stop and read the Pregnesia review someone linked to – hilarious!

  24. Dorothy says:

    A lot of the romances (perhaps even the majority?) published between 1981-1995 were very likely to be historicals.  I know condoms existed in the 19th century….but they were far from the norm, and would have been out of the norm. 

    Just another huge problem in the sampling pool….

  25. You know, I’m on the fence about condoms in romances. My first romance for HQN Nocturne had condoms because it was set in Africa with “poisoned blood” as a thematic backdrop and it seemed necessary and appropriate.

    But sometimes, just like in real life, condoms aren’t appropriate. One of the freaky things about love, and making love, is that you sometimes entrust your health and well-being to another person. It’s hard to make a baby without taking that complete leap of faith. Yeah, it’s scary. And it should be. Love isn’t for sissies.

    Anyway, I realize I’m veering slightly off-topic as this is really about ignorant and wrongheaded comments about the romance genre, but the assumption that women who read about other women having unprotected sex will then go out and do that…and therefore we must all confine our writing to certain kinds of stories is very frustrating.

  26. Dorothy, I’ve got a bit more detail about Diekman et al’s research here. They did take into account that concern; they only sampled contemporaries.

  27. Alexandra says:

    All I could think while reading this is that condoms don’t need bad publicity to be disliked. The fact is condoms do suck and do make sex significantly less enjoyable, even without the ‘non-sexy’ contraceptive conversation. I have never spoken to anyone who thought otherwise. While it’s true that condoms are often a necessity, something we have to deal with in real life, it’s also true that I occasionally have to deal with less-than-amazing sex in real life. That doesn’t mean I want to read about it in a romance novel.

    Also, in reply to henofthewoods, I’ve actually read that withdrawal is actually as good a method of contraception as condoms…when done properly. (Of course there’s still no protection against STDs.)

  28. Cara Ellison says:

    This nonsense is based on fear, I think.  Like those administrators in Arkansas or Alabama (?) who make it illegal to buy sex toys because they’re terrified of women actually being empowered, knowing what to look for (ie, orgasm).  People who disparage romance novels seem cut of the same cloth.  They’re terrified women might actually think it is okay to find someone who respects you, loves you, and gives you mind blowing orgasms.  And we just can’t have that in polite society.

  29. Kristen A. says:

    I think Ms. Quilliam needs to have some Vicki Lewis Thompson among her recommendations. Every one I’ve read includes condoms or other contraception- even the paranormal stuff has some kind of paranormal contraception going on. (I give paranormals a little leeway in specifying this, because I tend to assume there’s a supernatural explanation for why it’s not necessary even if it’s never spelled out. Otherwise, I’m with the people who don’t want to read about people having sex without giving any thought to potential consequences.)

  30. Caty M says:

    Some of the comments to the article in the Guardian are pretty good.

    Oh, I love some of those.  As for the rest – what everyone else said.  “30-year-old books =/= contemporary example” is surely not a hard concept to grasp, even if you’re not familiar enough with the genre to appreciate the differences between old skool romances and those published today, and somehow haven’t noticed that early 1980s is pre-AIDS awareness ?  And one visit to a bookshop ought to demonstrate that the sample size is ridiculously small. 

    Interesting that this came out the same day as another piece of research into fiction: BBC Radio 4 had an interesting piece today (listen here; probably not accessible outside the UK, but I’m not sure) about a study that shows how reading fiction – ANY fiction – helps to improve social understanding and skills.  The study suggests fiction works for, well,  for life like a flight simulator works for flying, and helps people learn how to deal with situations, personalities, issues, relationships etc.

  31. Donna says:

    Thanks Fee, I linked and found this poser:

    Her comments follow a recent claim that romance novels can “dangerously unbalance” their readers, with Christian psychologist Dr Juli Slattery saying she was seeing “more and more women who are clinically addicted to romantic books”, and that “for many women, these novels really do promote dissatisfaction with their real relationships”.

    Can you hear my head banging against my desk?
    Clinically addicted? As in lying, cheating & stealing for the $8.99 for the latest Nalini Singh? Ruining your familial relationships, destroying your career, foregoing social interaction to keep up with Nora Roberts? Have any of you found yourself curled up in a sweating shaking ball on the bathroom floor because you didn’t get your 300 pages a day in?
    And by the by, does anyone wonder if the reason these women find dissatisfaction in their relationships is because there’s actually something to be dissatisfied about?!

  32. Molly Lyle says:

    Thank you for addressing this in such a thoughtful and rightfully disdainful manner. I saw several newspaper articles last night that derived from her journal article and new this couldn’t possibly be based in reality. I’m as disgusted as you and many others by the shoddiness of the research and the demeaning of female intelligence that oozes from Quilliam’s tripe.

  33. Lisa says:

    Wow. My cup is runnething over big time these days. I just don’t know which way to turn, between the imminent danger of YA novels converting teens to a life of cutting, drug abuse and early death (the day job) and the horror of women learning that unprotected sex is okay (the afterhours entertainment). I guess I’ll have a beer and watch some reality TV, that’ll keep me grounded in reality, right? Right?

    turned44 – not quite yet, thankyouverymuch!

  34. Mireya says:

    @Fee: I am reading the comments… man a lot are really good and I am literally LOL here, thanks for sharing the link.

  35. Kim says:

    The article was “peer reviewed.”

    Which leads me to believe the journal is shitty.  Shitty journals will publish shitty research.

    If I wrote this article for an undergraduate paper, I would have failed.

  36. jayhjay says:

    Was this study looking at contemporary romance (versus historical)? That is the only conceivable way I can believe no condom use.  Almost every book has it! Or at least a discussion of it and why not if none is used.  And in m/m probably 99% mention condom use.

    I am also curious how they determined whether condoms were mentioned. DId someone read each book cover to cover? Or were these books electronically scanned? B/c there are lot of euphemisms that make it clear they are talking about condoms w/o using the word (foil packet opening, crinkling sound, etc).

    Sheesh, leave us poor romance readers alone? Don’t these people have anything more to worry about?

  37. Erica Anderson says:

    Susan Quilliam is listed on the journal abstract page as a “consumer correspondent.” No professional credentials are listed, aside from “freelance writer” and “agony aunt”, yet throughout the article, she consistently implies that she’s a psych professional (e.g., references to “our therapy rooms” and “our work [in health care]”). Disingenuous, to say the least.

    The journal is peer-reviewed, which means that manuscripts are sent out for evaluation by experts before publication. Quilliam’s piece, however, was “internally reviewed.” That means that the editor of the journal gave the okay to publish. I’d like to think that if that piece of nonsense had actually gone out for review, it would have been rejected.

    But then, instead of bitching, we’d all be reading, and therefore confusing our real partners with immortal, well-hung zombie cyborgs.

  38. Lynn S. says:


    Coutesy of here is the definition of agony aunt: 

    “Noun 1. agony aunt – a newspaper columnist who answers questions and offers advice on personal problems to people who write in.”

    Personally I like your agony rant much better than any old advice giving shenanigans.

  39. J.S .Wayne says:

    Ye Gods!
    Another “romance is bad for women” article. It’s becoming an epidemic, I tell you!
    In my first novel, Shadowphoenix: Requiem, the main character used a condom because vampirism can be transmitted through blood or sexual fluids, and is almost always fatal. Admittedly, I haven’t troubled with condoms since in my erotic romance, but these are angels, werewolves, and female vampires (not of the same ilk as my original vampire, so it doesn’t count.)
    I’ll say the same thing I’ve said elsewhere, and for the same reasons: Almost without exception, the readers and writers of erotic romance that I’ve met are intelligent, dynamic men and women who are certainly aware enough of the potential risks to use protection in real-life situations. Whether they find it a mood killer or a turn-on depends upon the reader, but in my case, I find it kills the fantasy.
    Real life is messy; but in erotica, disease and pregnancy exist only at the writer’s discretion. I have enough respect for my readers not to preach at them about being safe once they close the book. My readers are certainly intelligent enough not to “try this at home” outside the safety of a committed relationship.

  40. headgirl says:

    Tweeted you as soon as I read this & the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel how downright insulting it is to women. It’s not even about the condom rubbish it’s about the broad crass belief that women could be so naive.How insulting. BUT Just for the record I love reading romance; I love my husband; I love sex with my husband.  This is because we are intelligent loving people who think. And yep, romance books have GREAT capacity to help you get better at sex it’s true. But that’s within a real life relationship.  Ooh I’m so cross. And anyway what’s wrong with a bit if fantasy anyway???

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