July 15, 2011— -- "Damn me to hell or take me to heaven, but for God's sake, do it now," writes romance author Nora Roberts with breathless sexual overtones in her 2008 novel, "Taming Natasha and Luring a Lady."
In the book, heroine Sydney Hayward inherits a family business and falls in love with a dark-haired stranger who arrives on her doorstep, but first she must confront a "disaster in her past."
Roberts, who has written 209 books and was the first author to be inducted into the Romance Writers Hall of Fame, is a master of the genre, one that racks up about $1.36 billion in annual sales, according to industry statistics.
Romance novels have long been the object of derision, but Roberts has recently given the genre academic gravitas. She donated $100,000 to McDaniel College in Maryland, located near her hometown in Keedysville, to offer a minor in romance literature and a creative writing course.
But now Roberts and other writers who offer sensuous characters and steamy dialogue are under fire by health professionals who say these novels can influence women to make bad relationship choices and seduce them into risky sex and infidelity.
An essay in Britain's Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care says that romance novels portray an idealized vision of love and sex -- and some women may not be able to distinguish fact from fantasy.
Susan Quilliam, a British sexologist and advice columnist, writes in her July 6 essay that women who read romance novels tend to "suspend reality" in their real relationships.
Although romance readers say they know the difference, "when it comes to making life decisions, are they not more tempted to let the heart dictate simply because they are romance fans?" she told ABCNews.com.
"Women and men need to be less driven by emotion and making sensible life choices," said Quilliam, a respected health professional who updated the classic guide, "Joy of Sex."
"Romance novels are great fun -- I used to read them myself -- but society's value of romantic novels needs to be taken into account when we, as health professionals, look at our patients and the decisions they make about their sex and love lives," she said.
Quilliam cites research at Indiana University that found romance novels rarely talk about condom use: "And within these scenarios, the heroine typically rejects the idea of a barrier between her and the hero."
"To be blunt, we like condoms -- for protection and for contraception -- and they don't," writes Quilliam, who cites a recent survey that shows only 11.5 percent of romantic novels studied mention condom use.
The essay generated press in Britain and here in the United States, stirring strong emotion online. One website devoted to the romance genre -- Smart Bitches Trashy Books -- called the article "bollocks, rubbish horsecrap, all of it."
"We have some pretty outspoken fans of romance novels in our community," said Sarah Wendell, a Montclair, N.J., romance writer and co-founder of the website. "Devoted women read them and write them and have taken a lot of crap for a long time for their love of the genre. Nothing is more insulting than to be told we are sexually unsatisfied and less intelligent just because we prefer that kind of fiction."
Wendell said readers were particularly irritated because the survey of romance novels that Quilliam referenced was 11 years old and sampled only 78 books in the Cleveland area. Those novels were written in the 1980s and 1990s before public education about sexually transmitted diseases.
Condoms Mentioned in Modern Romance Novels
The contemporary romance novel, they say, is much more grounded in reality.
As for condoms, "either they are referred to specifically or you know the foil packet reference," said Wendell, author of the 2009 romance novel, "Beyond Heaving Bosoms."
"If they don't address contraception or condoms, we notice and think they're stupid in this AIDS era," said Wendell, whose second novel, "Everything I Know About Love, I Learned From Romance Novels," comes out in October.
"I absorbed so much from reading -- female autonomy and satisfaction and confidence," she said. "The woman always wins."
Quilliam, who was surprised by the backlash to her essay, said it was written not as scientific research but as a provocative caveat for health professionals. "I pushed a lot of buttons," she said.
In her work with young women, Quilliam said she encounters women who get "swept away by emotion...One of the things that happens is they enter into a dysfunctional romantic relationship and the emotions can be very strong. And they think if it's strong, it's true love."
Even Nora Roberts herself, came to the defense of the genre with her usual quick wit.
"We are pretty smart. We know the difference between reality and fiction," she said. "We read what read because we enjoy it, whatever it is," she said. "I don't think that people who read Agatha Christie then go out and try to solve murder cases -- if Miss Marple can do it, I can do it. People are just not that dumb."
McDaniel College, which has accepted Roberts' gift, said it aims to raise the profile of romance novels and to reinforce Robert's reputation as a master of the craft. The college said it will also build a library collection of American romance literature, including all of her novels and it will hold an international conference on romance novels in November.
Quilliam applauds Roberts' donation to McDaniel College, "as long as there is academic rigor involved."
"I dearly hope that the university looks at the values in writing these novels and challenges the values the same way they would a historical novel," she said.
Robert's son, 35-year-old son Jason Aufdem-Bricke, who serves on the foundation that funded the program, said the author's plots and characters are not unrealistic.
"They are pretty real-- they're not the perfect quarterback and the cheerleader who see each other for the first time and lock eyes and fall in love," he said. "She's got a pretty good pulse for people and what makes them click."
The gift to McDaniel College, he said, "is all about literacy," the central mission of the Nora Roberts Foundation.
"The fact that there is a college that wants to explore and teach more about literature and get more people reading, we're all about it. It's a great idea."