The Science of Sex – Female Mating Strategies Laid Out In Romance Titles?

Welcome back to “The Science of Sex,” a new blog topic I’m doing that looks at the scientific aspects of sexuality and how they might apply to the erotica genre.

This week’s topic is an article that ran in the UK Guardian, entitled “Evolutionary psychologists turn attention to romantic fiction.” The basic gist of the article is that scientists analyzed 15000 book titles from Harlequin Romance, looking for words that might indicate what women look for in a mate. (Definitely read the article for specific details; it is very interesting). Researchers hypothesized that certain key words would be more likely to show up in titles, reflecting the interests they believe women readers have in finding a suitable mate and reproducing.

Words like ‘love,’ ‘bride,’ ‘baby,’ and ‘marriage’ showed up most often, as did occupational titles like ‘doctor’ and ‘cowboy.’

What’s interesting to note here is that the researchers “…concluded that Harlequin romance novel titles were ‘congruent with women’s sex-specific mating strategies, which is surmised to be the reason for their continued international success’.” (This quote comes straight from the UK Guardian article linked to above). This statement, and the key word analysis itself, has me scratching my head a bit. Granted, I’m not a psychologist or evolutionary scientist. However, I’ve got two degrees, both in communications, and was required to conduct a research project for my master’s degree and take courses on qualitative and quantitative research methodology, which is just a fancy way of saying I know a little bit about how research is done and what research findings may or may not actually mean.

For starters, I think it’s interesting the scientists analyzed the titles of 15000 romance novels, but even the most frequently occuring word in those titles – love – only showed up 840 times. If I’m doing my math right, that’s about 5.6%. That’s not a very high percentage. Secondly, I’m not sure how the appearance of words like ‘love,’ ‘bride,’ ‘baby,’ and ‘marriage’ (the most frequently appearing words) are a reflection of “women’s sex-specific mating strategies…” I mean, honestly, I expect to see the words ‘love,’ ‘bride,’ ‘baby,’ and ‘marriage’ show up in romance novel titles because the topic of the book is romance. Just like I’d expect to see words like ‘rocket,’ ‘planet,’ and ‘alien’ show up in a science fiction title or the words ‘death’ and ‘murder’ show up in mystery and crime novel titles. Those words are an indication of the genre of the book.

Analysis on the frequency of occupational words like ‘doctor’ and ‘cowboy’ did seem to jive more with the idea that yes, romance titles reflect what women are looking for in a mate, but again those words didn’t show up frequently enough for me to think their appearance was statistically significant.

And then there’s my final problem with this research. The scientists looked at the novel titles for one publisher and only one publisher – Harlequin. I’m curious to know if they looked at the titles of other romance publishers, would they be able to replicate their results? In other words, would the words ‘love,’ ‘baby’, ‘marriage,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘cowboy,’ etc., show up with the same frequency in another 15000 titles from a different romance publisher? Would they show up more often? Less often? Remember that titles often reflect the brand image of a publisher, so it’s possible that maybe these words showed up so frequently in Harlequin’s titles because Harelquin wants to project a particular brand. Therefor the findings might not hold steady across all publishers. It’d be interesting to see what key words these researchers might find showing up in small, independent publishers and e-publishers. And it’d be really interesting to see what they might find analyzing the titles of erotic romance and GLBTQ romance novels. And if they were to take a look at paranormal romance titles… Can you just imagine what they might make of ‘occupational titles’ like ‘vampire’ and ‘werewolf’?

Anyway, that’s my two-cents worth on the topic. Again, I’m not a scientist, just someone who’s spent a little time studying research methodology, including how to analyze results. And I haven’t read the actual article yet, though I have tracked it down. You can download the PDF at this link –

Let me know what you think of this, if you agree or disagree with what I’ve said or with the findings of the research. I’m keen to hear what other people think.

About Cynical Woman

Cartoonist, Artist, Geek, Evil Crafter, Girl Scout Troop Leader and Writer. Also, a zombie. I haven't slept in I don't know how long.
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  1. Doctors Fisher and Cox are directors of the “Centre for Psychology and Computing” at

    Perhaps amusingly, they have a current Call For Chapters for a book called “Kinky Klingons and Asexual Androids” at 🙂

  2. Steveh11,

    A call for Kinky Klingons and Asexual Androids? I can only hope they treat the subject with a little more depth than they did the romance titles study. A number of women I’ve talked to where rather offended by the idea of romance titles exemplifying a “universal mating strategy” for women. Maybe romance titles say something about romance readers. Maybe romance titles say something about romance writers. I think they definitely say something about romance publishers. But about all women entirely? No. We’re too diverse for that.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for this study on gender and sexuality in Star Trek. I worry though that the authors may try to make another broad conclusion about what is really a very diverse group.

  3. I think you’re right. Any group bigger than maybe 20-25 members (and most that’re smaller than that!!) is going to be far too diverse to have anything conclusive said about the whole.

  4. Kes,

    Oh yeah, and that’s a big problem as well with this study. Stereotypes do not hold true for individuals within a group, nor for the group as a whole. That’s what’s upset so many women I’ve talked to about this. The researchers seemed to take a very stereotypical approach to “what women want in a mate,” ignoring the fact that not all women want the same thing ever. What’s worse, they assumed that women universally read romance novels. While romance is one of the biggest selling genres, I know not every woman reads them. I personally don’t care to read romance, for instance. Maybe I’m in a minority, but I’m not sure that anyone’s done a study to determine what percentage of the literate female population reads romance novels vs. what percentage avoids them like the plague.

  5. Pingback: The Science of Sex – Porn for Women? « The Cynical Woman Website

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