Erotic Romance, Condoms, and Social Responsibility

Hey folks. Sorry for the sporadic posting lately. My writing time for the last two months has been tied up on a sekrit project. In true graduate student fashion, I attacked the project with some top sekrit procrastination, and things got pretty hectic towards the end. But that should be wrapping up soon.

But enough about me. Let's talk about something more interesting. Like erotic romance novels. And condoms. And of course, science.

Raymond Moore at On Fiction recently described a study about the influence of romance novels on condom use. Erotic romance as a genre generally focuses on spontaneous and passionate sex. Since rubbers don’t exactly scream passion, love scenes rarely mention their use.

Researchers at Northwestern University were interested in how novels affected attitudes toward condom use in readers. They surveyed college students about their reading habits and found that students who read more romance novels had more negative attitudes towards condom use and less intention to use condoms.

But correlation does not necessarily equal causation. To prove that romance novels actually influence condom behavior, you need a controlled experiment. And here’s where we get to one of the more amusing psychology experiments in recent history.

Participants were recruited to come into the lab and read once a week for three weeks. One group of participants read unedited romance novel excerpts. For example, here's an actual excerpt used in the study.
He touched, hardly touching at all, and left her weak. His mouth, gliding like a cool breeze over her flesh, was rapture… When she sighed, he brought his lips back to hers.

He undressed her slowly, bringing the gown down inch by inch, wallowing in the delight of warming the newly bared skin. Fascinated with each tremor he brought her, he lingered. Then he took her gently over the first crest.

Don't you feel for the poor research assistant who had to read through romance novels looking for these passages? It's a hard job, but somebody's got to do it. (No pun intended. Get your mind out of the gutter.)

In the safe sex condition, participants read the same thing, except that a paragraph about condom use was added. For example, the following paragraph was inserted between the previous two.

He pulled back slightly so he can look at her. “Should we use protection?” He asked gently. She nodded at him, her face warm, as he unwrapped the bright foil. Pleased with his concern for her, she smiled at him and kissed his throat.

So what did the scientists find? After just three sessions of reading, participants in the safe sex condition had more positive attitudes about condoms. The safe sex participants also expressed marginally more intention to use condoms in the future.

So that's an amusing study. But now let's step back now and think little more seriously. The study suggests that what people read has some measurable effect on their behavior and lifestyle.

Here’s a question then. What, if any, obligation does an author have to avoid promoting dangerous or self-destructive habits in their fiction? Now this question applies to all authors, but I’m particularly interested in what authors who write for young adults have to say, since those readers are probably the most active in building their worldviews. And I'm not just thinking about condoms. What about other themes, like violence, destructive relationships, etc.?

Discussions about morality in fiction usually go in the direction of, “Readers can tell when they're being preached to and it makes for bad stories.” Most can agree that hitting readers over the head with a moral is not the way to go, but I’m asking about more subtle influences. What actions and situations do we present as sexy? What do we present as boring? And is this complicated by the fact that self-destructive/unsafe behaviors often make for the most exciting stories?

I don't have a good answer either way, but I would like to hear your thoughts. What social responsibility do we have as writers? Or do you think we only responsible to our muses?

Diekman, A., McDonald, M., & Gardner, W. (2000). LOVE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO BE CAREFUL. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24 (2), 179-188 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2000.tb00199.x


  1. This is a great subject. I don't write erotica but my books have love scenes, and I always think of protection. I don't have stupid main characters. But if they do slip up (because they're human and it didn't fit the scene), it's something they regret afterward.

  2. Only responsible to our muses -- and my muse happens to be violent and craving to watch the world burn.

    Seriously, I'm often appalled at the themes and moralities that I write. But they make such great stories, I can't imagine not going with my destructive instincts.

  3. Who could leave a post with this title alone? :)

    It's a wonderful study/question you've presented. If you study psychology for 2 seconds, you quickly start to understand that we are influenced by EV-ERY-THING, if not at the conscious then the sub-conscious level. While we can look at the many studies that show how easily we are influenced, we have to look at the flip-side of those studies as well. People are exposed to those same influential controls that don't respond at all.

    Yes, McDonald's advertising is effective, or they wouldn't spend billions of $$$ on it. However, there are people like me who are exposed to the advertising, yet never eat there. So it clearly isn't 100% . The question we have to ask is what is the difference? Why do I make choices that support, or don't support, the various things of influence I'm exposed to?

    I'm certain that violent television and games can cause certain people to be more socially aggressive, however, I've seen/played my fair share and I've never had an inkling to take that outside of the realm of fantasy. What makes me react differently?

    With people, young and old, I think it depends greatly on what else is in their sphere of influence. Say perhaps they read about promiscuous characters in a story. The people who may not have a strong psycho-social framework for sexual activity would be more likely to have their real world decisions adjusted by reading it. If they have healthcare providers, parents, teachers, etc. telling them that the behavior is dangerous, they'll probably be less likely to be influenced by something the read that tells them otherwise.

    My point: while I'm not encouraging writers to act irresponsibly (regardless of your job, etc. we should all understand how easily people can be influenced, and act accordingly), it's ultimately going to be up to the people directly connected to the teen-reader who are going to be responsible for helping them process what they are reading and shape their real-life actions. An author's responsibility is to tell a good story, which generally translates to staying true to your characters, etc. We cannot write with the idea that someone may take our fictitious workings and apply them to real life. Trying to fault the author, or somehow correlate the real world actions of readers responding to their words, (something I know you're not doing here, btw) is a very subjective/focused approach to explaining much bigger issues. In my mind, it'd be the equivalent of blaming the auto-manufacturer for creating cars that can go over the speed limit when someone has a fatal accident because the took a curve too fast.

    Sorry for the long response, but it was a great topic/post!


  4. That's really intriguing. I think a lot of people want to see, especially in YA, very immediate and serious effects for any misbehavior in order to avoid sending teenagers the wrong message. For instance, I wrote a short story (based off something that I saw in real life) where a kid drives drunk and fights with his girlfriend/best friend; the effect in the story of his misbehavior is just losing some of their respect and affection for him. But everyone wanted to see him in a car accident or something - and that doesn't happen every time a kid drives drunk! I think it's important to show the logical consequences of a behavior, but not necessarily the worst possible scenario.

    So, I guess I'm saying that if your character wouldn't use a condom, then well, you shouldn't ut a condom into the story just to get Message out. But then, maybe it's realistic for them to end up thinking abot what if they have an unplanned pregnancy. And if they would use a condom, then apparently it's worth including! I think that applies to general ethics in young adult novels.

    Thanks for the interesting post - I never heard about this study and it's fascinating (and scary!). :)

  5. Brilliant look at this issue. I don't have the answer. I write the way my mind and heart function, bringing in parts of who I am, layering my work with my own thoughts and worldview.

    When I write for YA, I do consider such things as sex, language, and violence, but not to the detriment of the story.

    There has to be a dedication to the art itself, and the inspiration of drama, story, conflict, and the violence that life can often bring. To leave out the real fire we all go through leaves a book bland and unoriginal. That does not mean we need to subject 13 year olds to overwhelming violence and sex for sensationalism.

    Where's the line? It's one we each have to draw for ourselves. Society determines whether we have erred in our judgment or not.

  6. I'm not surprised by the results of the study, but you mention erotica and romance as if they're wholly interchangeable. Erotica is about pushing the limits sexually, and is often less about the happily ever after, long-term relationship.

    Most of the contemporary romance/romantic suspense novels I've read include condom use (maybe a quick mention of the guy "sheathing himself" or even a sexier scene where the woman does it for him). Otherwise there are definite regrets if they forget.

    I feel like if the scene I'm writing leaves the bedroom door open, then condoms should play a part, but I don't hit the reader over the head with it. Even the paragraph you mentioned in the study seemed too preachy. "Should we use protection?" Um, let me think...

  7. Gwen -- Lol. Psychologists are good at many things, but writing convincing fiction is not one of them :-)

  8. If the example of moral behavior fits the characters' personalities and doesn't detract from the story -- and those are both huge ifs -- I say the author should include it. Sometimes the added scene will actually improve the work. (In this instance, I'm thinking of a couple humorous condom scenes in movies.) But I would never ask anyone to put something in their writing if it hurts the story.

    Because they are visual media, movies, television, and video games are much more influential on society, and they routinely skip over the moral parts (with a few exceptions, of course). It all comes down to what keeps the story moving. Or, for the pessimist in me, what sells. And most of the time, morality doesn't.

  9. Since I've been in a harmful relationship with an older man, "Twilight" makes me want to vomit on moral grounds. And the constant talk to "he/she is more important than life" is just great for emo teenagers already leaning toward suicide.

  10. That's really interesting.

    I feel pretty strongly that artists never *should* have to do anything.

    I'm no connoisseur of the genre in *any* way, but assuming we can judge romance novels by the same standards as other literature, then I think there's a very strong case to be made that nothing belongs in them if it doesn't in some way further the artist's intentions, whether that's to the plot, characterization, or possibly to a social aim, *if* that's the author's choice.

    I'm torn though. The study I'd like to see would be one that surveys groups about their attitudes to condoms, then gives half the participants a diet of romance for six months, while the others get mysteries, adventures, classics, what have you.

    Then see if after six months or a year, those values have changed.

  11. While I'd love to have some of the stratospherically successful YA market buy my books someday, I hope to hell that none of the purchasers walks away from them with any moral influences. That would be...awkward.


  12. I write erotcia and erotic urban fantasy - the main difference being my urban fantasy focuses on hot monogamy and in its few sex scenes the use of protection isn't need.

    In my erotica, I write about a 24 year old male lead singer in an all-girl band (switching POV to a female member in the next chapter). In the opening scene (because erotica means sex every chapter) he stumbles into a threesome with some straight sex and anal play. Here's how I covered the protection part:

    Remembering the all-important condom at the last moment, I reach down into a front pocket of my jeans and pull one out.

    The foil packet opens easily and I quickly sheath my co** in the thin membrane.

    While I never specifically thought of my moral obligation to write in condom use, I can say I was going for realism and protecting oneself and one's partner is a very real aspect of sex.

    YA and hints of condom use? I think it is the smart way to go, but also needs to be handled very carefully.

    Great study, thanks for sharing!

    And as far as Colin above saying artists *should* never have to do anything - I don't agree. Any "art" depicting pedophilia should never be created. The sick person who wrote it, drew it, painted it, photographed it and/or filmed it should be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.

    I understand that art should be about creativity and freedom of expression, but some images and thoughts should remain locked up in their sick mind to never see the light of day. The spreading of such horrible work in relation to how it affects the mind of a pedophile would be an equally interesting study - how much you want to bet it would have the same affect as the pro-condom use readers did on their depraved minds?

    Being an artist never gives one the free right to abuse the rights of others.

    In essence, the same argument could be used for hate groups. But then we get into the gray area of freedom of speech.

    Additionally, when did writing evolve into "art"? Everyone can write, but not everyone is a artist.

  13. C.J.

    I'm intrigued by your idea that, regarding depictions of pedophilia, the "person who wrote it, drew it, painted it, photographed it and/or filmed it should be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law."

    Are you suggesting that Nabakov should have been locked up for Lolita?

    What about Dorothy Allison for her National Book Award-nominated Bastard out of Carolina?

    What about autobiographical depictions of child sexual abuse?

    Categorizing fictive depictions of abuse along with real abuse (eg *real* child porn) to my mind constitutes thought crimes: molesting children is illegal, therefore thinking about molesting children is illegal.

    Would you extend that same requirement to other horrible crimes, like murder? Should any fictive depiction of murder be prohibited?

    If I've totally misunderstood you, and you're only talking about documentation of the real thing, then yeah, of course. We don't give people a pass to photograph murder and say "well, it's art!" either. But the reason I thought you were talking about fictive depictions is that you included the verbs "wrote" and "drew" in your comment.

  14. Thanks for all the comments, everyone! I appreciate all the thoughtful responses. Lots to think about...

  15. One last thought? If the writer has a responsibility, what about all the thrillers that begin with brutality toward women? True, if you want to demonstrate how bad a bad guy is, showing a brutal rape, murder, etc. toward a vulnerable person will do the trick. But I get tired of having my gender serve as a "device." Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  16. anyshinything -- I know what you mean. There are books that deal sensitively with rape, and then there are those that just throw it in because they need a plot device.

  17. I don't feel it's necessary to mention condom use in adult romance/erotica. We're adults, we know in real life it should be a consideration. Fiction is a way to leave those worries behind and just enjoy the moment.
    However, in YA I do feel it should be mentioned in a non preachy way. Hey, if kids are gonna be having sex, they should be safe. I had to rewrite a scene in my recent YA story to include it. As YA authors I feel like it's our responsibility to encourage it.

  18. pk - interesting distinction. I hadn't thought about it that way before.

  19. "Fiction is a way to leave those worries behind and just enjoy the moment."

    You're totally right. There's one important thing to remember - most fiction doesn't happen in our world. I'm not talking about fantasy or s-f - what I mean is that the setting of a story has to e simplified for plot's sake. When I'm writing action, I can make my protagonist survive an explosion that would kill any real person. When I'm writing a romance, I can decide that in "my world" there are no unwanted pregnancies – and focus on other aspects of love and desire. Most stories aren't real not because of dragons and aliens, but because of far-fetched personalities and improbable coincidences.

    The question is: how sensitive we are to such unreality? Are we naturally gifted with awareness of the simplicity of fiction? I've read once – in Huizinga's Homo Ludens – that everyone instinctively feels that a "game" or "play" is less real than one's live, but is it true – and does it extend to fiction as well?