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“He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…”. The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work
  1. Susan Quilliam
  1. Freelance Writer, Broadcaster and Agony Aunt, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Ms Susan Quilliam; susan{at}

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Just 14 years of age, innocent if not ignorant of the facts of life, I went to stay with my older cousin. She seemed very worldly-wise, so when she offered me a romantic novel by Georgette Heyer with the comment “I think you're old enough”, I wondered what debauchery I would find within.

Reader, I devoured every page. The adorably beautiful Regency heroine, the brutally handsome Regency hero, the passionate glances across the Assembly Room floor, the chaste kiss with which the book ended. I worked my way through Heyer's entire canon before my 15th birthday.

Which is why, when tasked to comment on the impact of romantic fiction on female sexual health, I was keener than you might imagine. The genre has been the target of much formal criticism – 1970s feminist academics said it forced women into patriarchal marriage. It still is the target of sneers, sniggers and accusations of ‘soft core porn’. But I remember my 14-year-old self and I can see the point.

Romantic fiction as sex education

That said, many Journal readers may not see the point. What relevance can romantic fiction have to the clients who turn up at our family planning clinics, arrive in our surgeries, or present their problems in our therapy rooms?

I believe there's huge relevance. In some Western countries, romance accounts for nearly half of all fiction bought; some fans read up to 30 titles a month, one book every 2 days. So 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. What we see in our consulting rooms is more likely to be informed by Mills and Boon than by the Family …

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