Romance Readers and Greater Gender Role Egalitarianism

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 13 June, 2015

In the wake of yet another article which warns women to be on their guard while reading romance because

bad romance novels cross a line. They go from being misinformed and silly to being visibly dangerous. [...] Is this really our “porn for women”, our romantic fantasy fulfillment? I think it’s actually a regurgitation of some of the basest forms of sexism sugar-coated with the guise of romance. (Townsend)

I thought it might be reassuring to look at some recent research published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts:

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, although the romance genre is associated with both sexual content and traditional portrayals of gender roles, exposure to this genre was not related to more gender role stereotyping or reduced sexual conservatism in our regressions controlling for other factors. In fact, in raw correlations, exposure to the romance genre predicted more egalitarian gender role attitudes and less gender role stereotyping [...]. A past content analysis might shed some light on why romance novels did not predict less conservative attitudes toward sexual behavior. This analysis found that romance novels contain rather typical depictions of sex, consistent with Western sexual scripts and with little mention of atypical sexual activities [...]. Although romance novels might contain sexual content, the nature of this content does not appear to be inconsistent with traditional Western norms surrounding sex. (Fong et al 6-7)

Maybe those worried about whether romance readers are being brain-washed into accepting patriarchal dominance should take some comfort from this. Even if, in statistical terms, "the association between romance and decreased levels of gender role stereotyping failed to reach threshold for statistical significance" (5) it certainly didn't provide any evidence at all that reading romance increases "levels of gender role stereotyping". As for "attitudes towards sexual behavior", the depictions of sex which you can find in romances do vary quite considerably so the conclusions researchers reach about "attitudes toward sexual behavior" will probably depend on which types of romance they select for study. Townsend's comment that "rape scenes in these books are depressingly common, so much so that it’s noteworthy when there aren’t any" does make me wonder if she was reading only decades-old "bodice-rippers".

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Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. "How Exposure to Literary Genres Relates to Attitudes Toward Gender Roles and Sexual Behavior." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. 27 April 2015.

Townsend, Alex. "Tropes of Love: Gender Roles in Romance Novels." The Mary Sue. 10 June 2015.