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