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Condom Usage In Erotic Fiction, My Opinion

June 27, 2012

So, earlier this week, there were a couple discussions on condom usage in fiction. I, of course, need to add my two cents, that way my readers can decide for themselves if I’m an author they’ll want to continue buying from.

Safe sex in fiction, for me, is only as important as the story makes it. I don’t care if it’s a contemporary, PNR, or historical. If the characters and story itself wouldn’t call for safe sex, then I’m fine not seeing it among the printed words. Let’s be honest, anything pre-1985 isn’t going to offer much in the way of safe sex. Most of us didn’t worry about safe sex until STDs became prevalent. In fact, my mother has often told me that in her life prior to marriage (1960s-1980s), the only STD they worried about was pregnancy, and many girls still risked that. Hell, even post-1985, it took a while before safe sex was really preached.

Depending on the characters, the setting, their background, safe sex might not realistically enter their minds. It doesn’t make them less, it makes them products of their time. My generation (in their late 20s-early 30s), I think, would have more of a focus on safe sex because that was drilled into me in middle and high school. It wouldn’t occur to me to have a sex partner and not use a condom.

However, the newer generations? The generations where religion and abstinence only reign? You bet your ass I wouldn’t think a 20-year-old who had been taught everyone else was a virgin wouldn’t think of using a condom. Not everyone has progressive parents who feel comfortable saying, ‘The government is full of morons, and not everyone saves themselves, so use a condom, Junior.’

The misconception here is that authors have responsibility beyond entertainment. Now, we can argue author responsibility until we’re blue in the face, but I have the opinion that authors have no more social responsibility than they care to have, and that whatever responsibility they do have fluctuates. It is not my job to teach through my books. It’s just not. I don’t have to show condom usage in case an eighteen-year-old decides to pick up my fictional book and use it as a sex manual. The responsibility for teaching that person about reality, safe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and STDs is with that person’s parents, not a faceless stranger who wrote a fictional book.

Do I take some responsibility onto my shoulders? Yes, when I choose to. When I wrote Catalyst, I accepted the responsibility to show the degeneration of an addict and how hard it was for him to climb back out of the hole he’d dug. When I wrote Mae, I took on the responsibility to show what unprotected sex could lead to, the hard life of a single, poverty-stricken teen father, and how there were no easy fixes in life.

But every book I write should not necessarily come with a moral checklist. In our upcoming 52 Weeks, we are exploring issues of non-consent, TPE, and cross-dressing, and not always in the most positive or healthy light. That’s our choice, because it serves the framework of the story we want to tell. The idea that a budding, young cross-dresser might look to our story for guidance is ludicrous. We don’t write self-help books. We write fiction, and fiction thrives on conflict and disaster. It’s not some boring utopia where everything is happy and light and nothing ever goes wrong.

As authors, we have to decide what parts of our characters’ lives to show: the parts that readers want to see and that serve to advance the story that we want to tell. We don’t often see characters in romances going to the bathroom, or tossing and turning in their bed, or standing in the grocery store debating whether or not it’s worth paying an additional 30 cents to get 6 more ounces of laundry detergent. And the reason we don’t see it is because, in most cases, it doesn’t advance the story. You can bet that if you do see a scene like one of those in a story, you’re seeing it for a reason. And it’s the same with showing (or not showing) condom usage. If it’s not shown either way, then you as the reader are free to make whatever assumption you like because it doesn’t affect the story any more than what color underwear the character is wearing or what the thread count of his sheets are. Just because attention is not gratuitously called to something doesn’t mean it isn’t there — it simply means that it doesn’t matter in the context of the story.

I will not apologize for not having my characters explicitly use condoms when the story doesn’t call for it simply because some readers feel condoms should ALWAYS be included in romance and erotica. Sometimes, fiction is just fiction. Entertainment. A means to get away from real life and immerse ourselves in the romance and fantasy of characters not us. Sometimes, those characters use condoms, sometimes they don’t, and it shouldn’t make them unlikeable characters when they don’t.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Azalea Moone permalink
    June 27, 2012 3:37 pm

    Very well said, S.L.!

    β€˜The government is full of morons, and not everyone saves themselves, so use a condom, Junior.’ LOL

  2. Carole-Ann permalink
    June 27, 2012 3:53 pm

    Totally on your side here…..fiction is NOT reality, and shouldn’t be confused as such. I’m very happy with realistic renditions πŸ™‚

    BTW I’m amazed (still!) that I didn’t fall pregnant in the late sixties when I was at college and taking full advantage of available (and willing) guys! Condoms/birth control/STDs were not part of our education (ignorance is bliss??); but after Woodstock πŸ™‚ it all changed,and became ‘important’: but I did go on the pill after two quickly concieved babies πŸ™‚

  3. June 27, 2012 4:24 pm

    I completely agree with this! Especially when it comes to historicals or other stories/situations where condoms or birth control would be obviously out of place.

  4. June 27, 2012 4:42 pm

    I, however stand four-square behind “if we’re going to show people having sex, let’s do it RIGHT.” I make my positions and attitudes period appropriate, my condoms historically accurate, and my contemporary sex, safe. I had a LOT of bad sex, and a lot of VERY bad kink because I read the wrong books and didn’t have the net to consult back in the 80s.

    I never want anyone who reads one of my books to come away going “ooo, cool” and then trying something stupid and dangerous, like anal sex with only petroleum jelly for lubricant, (yeah, ouch) or without any lube at all! (double ouch) I figure scooping your lover’s eyes out with a grapefruit spoon is self-evidently stupid and dangerous and don’t expect them to imitate that.

    But this is me, never quite getting out of Teacher-mom mode. My sons complain I embarass them and my daughters’ lives from puberty on were ongoing vagina monologues. Knowledge is power! And empowered sex is the hottest.

  5. June 28, 2012 7:10 am

    Azalea — πŸ˜€ Thank you!

    Carole-Ann — I think, with the growth of ‘reality television’ (which isn’t reality at all, anyway), people like to conflate reality with fiction. Fiction ISN’T REAL! πŸ˜„ I have a whole blog topic planned on that. And I think a lot of us got lucky in how we didn’t wind up with kids or STDs when we were fooling around. In real life, where there are real consequences, I’m a huge proponent of safe sex. In my fiction, though, it isn’t always so cut and dry, and I won’t be forced to do something just to please a certain need for on-screen morality.

  6. June 28, 2012 7:12 am

    Violet — While I know there were safe sex practices in the past (though mainly for pregnancy issues, not VD), it throws me out of the historical. Sorry, but that swashbuckling pirate just doesn’t strike me as the type to slap on a rubber. πŸ˜„ But, that’s me, and I don’t think EVERYONE should write to please MY personal tastes, you know?

    Angelia — And I respect your right and need to write in that manner. I just don’t think every writer should be shamed into putting material into their book they simply don’t want to. πŸ™‚

  7. September 20, 2012 6:36 am

    Agree entirely that writers should be free to write what they want, and shoehorning condoms into historical novels would clearly be risible. However, research shows that eroticised depictions of condom use increase positive attitudes to safe sex, which can help decrease STI rates and thus result in healthier real-world sex. As such, I believe it’s worth doing as far as possible without compromising your work.

    It depends on your motivation as a writer: for me, writing is about telling truths, sharing ideas, giving people a pleasurable read (whether one handed or not) and adding something positive to the world (even if the story itself isn’t positive). Not adding condoms to sex scenes (unless within a monogamous relationship) would feel inauthentic to me (unless it was as an indication of someone’s low self-esteem/risk-taking) as it doesn’t reflect my real world experience (I’m very pro condoms having watched a good friend of my mother’s die of AIDS when I was 13) . It would feel untruthful (because unprotected sex carries an increasingly high risk of contracting STIs and ignoring this is naive); and it would add something that I perceive to be negative to the world (by perpetuating the myth that unprotected sex has no negative consequences). However, I don’t expect others to share that view (though I’d like them to – I’m a sex educator as well as an erotica writer) and think writers should decide/write their own ‘truths’.

    At Cliterati.co.uk we strongly encourage (though don’t insist upon) condom use in erotica on the basis that it’s easy enough to incorporate into stories, doesn’t need to spoil the flow (“He slipped on a condom and slid into me.” Job done) which then helps show that condoms need not spoil the flow in real sex and could help counter the spread of STIs: end result – readers real sex lives are potentially enhanced long after they’ve finished reading the story.

    I also think condom use does affect the story: if I had unprotected sex, I’d feel guilty and be worrying about pregnancy and STIs, which would, in all likelihood, affect the way in which I interacted with a partner. To “write what I know,” I’d draw on this. Obviously, different people have different attitudes and some people may have unprotected sex without it affecting them. However, it’s unlikely I’d base a story around people with those attitudes, as I couldn’t identify with them and my disapproval of the character’s behaviour/pity for their lack of self-protection/esteem would come through in my writing.

    Unlike a lot of writing, erotica is more likely to inspire people to copy the behaviour they read about, even if it’s not intended as a sex manual. . As Angelia points out, ” I had a LOT of bad sex, and a lot of VERY bad kink because I read the wrong books and didn’t have the net to consult back in the 80s.” Many people have woeful sex education and will take sex ed from anything that references sex, no matter whether that is the intent. Sadly, “the idea that a budding, young cross-dresser might look to our story for guidance,” is far from ludicrous – particularly given the lack of educational resources that are easily available for young cross dressers (not your fault or your responsibility, just a sad truth)

    I feel a responsibility to my readers to make sure that they’re not learning negative lessons by reading my work (from my point of view, anyway: I’m sure some would find things in my work that they perceive as negative lessons, be it a sex act that they find demeaning or a manner of interaction that they deem unhealthy. However, I am ethically happy with what I’ve written.) It’s up to each individual writer to write according to their own ethics and determine how much responsibility they wish to take towards their readers. However, I would always choose to promote erotic writers whose stories have a sex positive message above those who don’t as I see it as adding another level to the work.

    Erotica is still very much looked down on in the publishing world (50 Shades bubble aside) as being nothing more than cheap titillation. Adding another level by incorporating safer sex practices (including accurate depictions of safe BDSM play) helps show that it’s more than a masturbation aid and adds gravitas to a genre which is often scorned (I’ve been an erotica writer for over a decade, edited erotic anthologies, run the UK’s original erotica website for women and founded Scarlet magazine so I’m all too well aware of the way in which people look down on erotica compared to general fiction.) Including safer sex practices makes it more acceptable for mainstream magazines to cover/feature your work, and can thus provide a PR boost as well as a positive behavioural effect.

    Angelia, agree entirely that β€œif we’re going to show people having sex, let’s do it RIGHT.” Would love to see some of your work. And you may be interested in http://www.thepleasureproject.org/

    Kind regards

    Emily Dubberley

    PS: Brilliantly written piece, even though I don’t share some of your views

  8. September 21, 2012 7:20 pm

    Sometimes, writing is about telling truths. Sometimes, writing is merely telling a story. I feel no responsibility to compromise the story I am telling because some readers view barebacking as irresponsible. I say again what I keep saying: readers shouldn’t be taking anything away from fiction to apply to reality. If they do, that is their choice, and I won’t be held responsible for it. πŸ™‚

    There are many people in this world, though, who prefer unprotected sex. Who choose to engage in it. Who forget about it in the heat of the moment. Those are also truths, also real, and also in line with my own life experiences. As an adult well past my 20s, I don’t think I would forget as I once did as a much younger person, but I can still choose not to engage in safe sex. I keep that choice open for my characters in my stories.

    Major porn producers now offers bareback videos with warnings that such activities in life are dangerous, but they sell a fantasy. I sell a fantasy, too, with that same caveat. That is the extent of my social responsibility. πŸ™‚ But, this is my opinion on it, and only my opinion. I get into such a tizzy when authors screw up BDSM, show rape and abuse and torture as BDSM, and while I don’t say they shouldn’t write it, I do feel they should market and label it correctly. Maybe safe sex for some people is like bad BDSM in fiction for me.

    I also am a staunch hated of the ‘write what you know’ mantra. I think it’s utter crap. I may add some of what I know to what I write, but I write the stuff I make up in my head.

    And, again, I will not be responsible for people who read fiction and try to apply fiction depictions to their real life. I understand why some people write and believe as you do, but I think safe sex, condom usage, and everything that goes with it should be handled on a story by story basis, on an author by author basis, and no one should pressure any author to write in only one way because of a false sense of social responsibility in fictional books. πŸ™‚

  9. Nicola permalink
    March 26, 2014 9:57 am

    I’ve just had a Goodreads review taking major exception to my non use of condoms in a book with all casual hookups. Actually I do in a lot of ways, agree with Emily Dubberley about the promotion of safe sex and writing responsibly.

    But, I ultimately I would like to leave it to the reader to just naturally add the condom into the scene if they want to. Just like they will assume the character brushed their teeth when they were getting ready for the hot sex to follow; just as I assume characters cooking dinner will clean knives after chopping meat; just as I assume all th characters involved in any book ever have done lots of things to look after their fictional selves in every moment if their fictitious lives.

    Pre HIV there were still plenty of diseases and so that bubble everyone was in and can write from if their book is set early enough never existed in reality either. For me, mentioning condoms breaks the writing and the reading. Real life is another thing and suspending disbelief is what you need to do to enter a fictional world. That said, I think I might put some kind of disclaimer into my next book stating that, for the purposes of every scene assume condom usuage or something like that. Seems like a solution?

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