“She looked at him through the light.
She saw the pride and the interest on that handsome, poetic face, with the edgy cheekbones under the scruff, as he’d worked through the day without shaving.
She saw both in his eyes, pure gray in candlelight.”
–Excerpt from “Year One” by Nora Roberts
The secret to romance is out, though it doesn’t seem like such a secret. After all, people have been writing and reading about it centuries.
Romantic fiction is one of the most lucrative genres in the industry, drawing in more than 70 million readers across the United States — 85 percent of which are heterosexual females between the ages of 25 and 39 — and raking in annual profit of more than $1 billion. And while the genre is labeled as “fiction,” its vast readership and enticing prose divulge some truths about our society.
“Stories reveal how we think and feel about the world around us,” says Kate Blackburn, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin who studies language patterns and what they say about an individual. Her latest research, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, delves into words used in some of the most popular romance novels (published online by Smashwords) to unveil some of women’s most intimate views on romance.
“This study shows the fundamental way language reflects the way we think, feel and view others — or in this case, the nature of human sexuality,” Blackburn points out. “Identifying which words stimulate women between the pages, may also help their partners stimulate them under the covers.”
Read our full Q&A with Blackburn below:
How does literature reflect social norms and romantic values?
Blackburn: In many ways, stories are a snapshot of our culture. Past research used Harlequin and Silhoutte novels to learn more about women’s preferred qualities in mates, such as wealth, fitness and commitment. In our study, we follow that line of thinking by looking at the language used in romance novels to help understand more about how women perceive romance.
Have there been any major shifts throughout history in what romance novels suggest about social norms?
Sure, take the 1920’s romance novel. It was way more passionate and sexually expressive than romance novels written ten to twenty years prior to that. Some have argued that this shift in sexual expression mirrored what was happening at the time: Women had just earned the right to vote and were entering the work force in much larger numbers than before. It could be that this new-found freedom opened the opportunity for sexual expression.
What words do readers tend to gravitate toward in romance novels?
Interestingly, we found women were attracted to words that communicate sexual intentions, such as chuckle or moan. In a sense, these words may be tapping into the way readers explore or imagine sexual communication strategies and rehearse for the real thing.
What words were commonly used that surprised you? What words were left out?
We found that female readers appear to enjoy novels with a strong preference for sexual words, such as kiss, sensation and sex. But, some sexual words were missing. While words referencing male body parts were commonly used, female body parts were referenced less frequently in popular romance novels.
Why are there so many references to facial features in romance novels?
Evolution tells us that when women look for a mate they often scan the face for cues that signal good health — good skin and symmetry, that sort of thing. Additionally, we know that romantic partners may focus on the face to increase affection or romantic feelings. So, when words, such as mouth or grin appear it may signal a potential romance to the female reader.
Are there any other commonly used words that tie to our evolutionary past?
Commonly used primal words, such as growl, may reinforce certain cultural scripts we have about the typical romance story. In a way, romance stories create situations where the male is dominant and has a primal need to seduce his love interest.
Have you looked at whether men or women tend to be the authors of the most popular books?
This is a great question. We do know that almost 84 percent of romance novel writers are women. Unfortunately, in this study we only looked at female romance novel writers. It may be that men who write romance novels use different words to tell a romantic story. And, in doing so, their words may reveal male perceptions about women’s expectations of romance.
Psychology undergraduate researchers Omar Olvarez and Ryan Hardie also contributed to this study.