Mills and Boon books blamed for marital breakdown
With their chiselled menfolk and swooning heroines, Mills & Boon novels are a guilty pleasure.
They are also a cause of marital breakdown, adulterous affairs and unwanted pregnancies, according to a warning published by the British Medical Journal.
Far from being a slice of innocent escapism for millions of female readers, romantic novels are a danger to relationships and sexual health. That is the verdict of an article in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, which said women struggle to distinguish between romantic fiction and real life.
Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and author of the article, said that a "huge number" of problems dealt with in family planning clinics have their roots in romance novels.
"What we see in our consulting rooms is more likely to be informed by Mills & Boon than by the Family Planning Association," she said, claiming that the values of romantic fiction "run totally counter to the [messages] we try to promote".
"We warn of the stresses of pregnancy and child-rearing, and we discourage relentless baby-making as proof of a relationship's strength. Above all, we teach that sex may be wonderful and relationships loving, but neither are ever perfect and idealising them is the short way to heartbreak. But are our lessons falling on deaf ears when compared to the values of the Regency heroine gazing adoringly across the Assembly Rooms to catch a glimpse of her man?
"When it comes to romantic fiction, the clue's in the name; the genre is fiction not fact, 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. But I do wonder how many of our clients truly realise that."
Women who read romance novels can "suspend rationality" in favour of romanticism, Miss Quilliam said, including "not using protection with a new man because she wants to be swept up by the moment as a heroine would" or being persuaded to give up contraception a few months into a relationship.
"It might mean terminating a pregnancy (or continuing with one) against all her moral codes because that same man asks her to... or judging that if romance has died then so has love, and that rather than working at her relationship she should be hitching her star to a new romance."
Living the life of a romantic heroine can also have serious sexual health implications, Miss Quilliam said. "To be blunt, we [sexual health professionals] like condoms - for protection and for contraception - and they don't."
Even though modern Mills & Boon heroines have jobs and the heroes can be sensitive, the books still contain "a deep strand of escapism, perfectionism and idealisation... clearly these messages run totally counter to those we try to promote".
Miss Quilliam's article was published by the BMJ on behalf of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
A Mills & Boon spokesman said: "At Mills & Boon, we publish romantic fiction, not sexual health manuals. Our books reflect rather than instruct real life situations and, while many of our authors feature condoms in their sex scenes, as with real life, there are occasions when condoms aren't used.
"Romantic fiction is about escaping from everyday life, and is not a guide to reality, and our readers are intelligent enough to understand the difference."
Mills & Boon was founded in 1908 and sells 130 million titles worldwide each year. They have been translated into 26 languages, are sold in 109 countries and one is bought every four seconds.