Publications & Reports

Safe sex in chick lit: a ‘novel’ analysis of sexual health references in popular women’s fiction.

Lim MSC, Hellard ME, Horyniak


Background: Media, including fiction novels, influences health behaviours in women’s lives. This research measures the prevalence of sexual content and explores the portrayal of sexual health topics in ‘chick lit’, a genre of fiction characterised by neoliberal feminism. Methods: Fifty bestselling chick lit novels were identified from the book-related website, Goodreads. Information was extracted on sexual encounters taking place: characters involved, behaviours depicted, references to contraception and other (un)safe sex practices. Descriptive statistics were used to analyse key features of sexual encounters, and thematic analysis conducted to explore the portrayal of (un)safe sex. Results: Forty-five books (90%) contained at least one sexual scene (total: 199 scenes). 110 scenes explicitly described sexual behaviours, mostly commonly vaginal intercourse (72%), manual stimulation of a woman (28%) or oral stimulation of a man (15%) or woman (15%), and 53% of scenes implied sexual intercourse occurred but did not describe the event. Condom use was described in 43% of scenes with clearly described vaginal intercourse, almost exclusively in scenes involving dating or casual partners. Condoms were portrayed as a ‘necessary evil’; although use was normalised, they were described as having negative effects on pleasure and intimacy. Conclusions: Portrayals of sexual encounters in chick lit are realistic and recognise that safe sex does not always occur. Despite references to condom use being prevalent, the portrayal of condoms in a negative light could discourage young women from their use. Chick lit could provide a ‘novel’ opportunity to model positive behaviours and promote discussion of safer sex practices.

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