Thursday, March 18, 2010

Safe Sex and Erotic Romance

I was reading a book for review purposes a few days ago when something brought me up short. The author was in the midst of a hot and heavy sex scene. The narrator is unbelievably aroused and dying for the hero. She thinks "Condom?"--and then decides that she doesn't really want one, not just because of her reluctance to break the mood, but from the perverse desire to have unprotected sex.

Something in me screamed: "Irresponsible!" I had a visceral reaction to this decision on the character's part. I can understand that a sexual fantasy might want to ignore the danger of AIDS. Who wants to focus on negatives in the midst of passion? But for the author to bring the issue up and then dismiss it--well, I was quite surprised by my own negative reaction.

Fiction is just that. I don't subscribe to the notion that authors need to worry that their readers will try to turn their stories into reality. A book about a serial killer does not create murderers. A book that features wild, raw, bareback sex doesn't necessarily encourage readers to indulge in unsafe activities. We have to assume that our readers are rational adults. And we're not here primarily to teach them about safe sex. So why did this passage bother me so much?

I guess I was turned off by the heroine's attitude. Even if she didn't care about herself, I would have liked her to consider the question of her partner. I suspect that the author was trying to add to the intensity of the scene, but for me it had the opposite effect.

For authors of erotica and erotic romance, safe sex presents a problem. I grew up and became sexually active in the "golden age"--after the Pill and before AIDS. I hate the fact that, these days, something as enjoyable and life-affirming as sex can kill you. I despise condoms as much for the way they kill the spontaneity in a scene as for the way they feel.

Even so, I feel uncomfortable writing a scene that includes unsafe sex, unless it's clear that I'm writing total fantasy, or I'm writing a committed, monogamous couple. Sometimes, of course, a rash and deliberate choice to ignore safety is an important part of the characterization (though more in erotica than in romance). Otherwise, though, I'll at least mention condoms, especially in scenes between individuals who do not know each other well. Anything else seems odd, old-fashioned, and yes, irresponsible. Much of my work is realistic and contemporary. In the twenty first century, I just can't pretend AIDS doesn't exist.

I would love to know what readers think. Does mentioning safe sex kill the magic for you? Does unprotected sex ring alarms? Or am I shooting myself in the foot, driving away my readers, by insisting that my heroes use condoms?

What's your opinion?

12 comments:

Victoria Janssen said...

For me, it depends on the story's sub-genre.

In a fantastical setting, I don't usually mind if safe sex is not mentioned, because in science fiction or fantasy the issue can be easily covered by the worldbuilding (everybody has an injection! everybody has a spell!) even if the author hasn't mentioned it explicitly.

In historicals, I wish there was a bit more worrying about safe versus not-safe thoughts, but again I'm a little more accepting if safe sex is left out. However, I definitely appreciate it when historical characters think abuot the issue, even if it's only in the first intimate scene and left to the reader's assumption after that.

In contemporary novels, I prefer that safe sex be practiced, and if it isn't, that a reason I can accept is provided (obviously, not every writer can read my mind!). I don't mind if subsequent sex scenes aren't shown as safe, at least not so much, because I can extrapolate from scene number one, in much the way that I extrapolate the characters are eating, sleeping, and using the toilet even though those actions aren't necessarily described.

Lorrie said...

I believe in this day and age setting of modern times stories safe sex is a necessary mention, at least for the first time a sex scene is introduced. Readers will assume it is practiced throughout the novel.
As writers we can't forget to remind readers that dangers are out there in the world today.
In my stories, I do mention condom for the first sex scene.
Personally I shudder when an author doesn't remind readers, or show how concerned the partners are for each other.

Estella said...

I prefer that safe sex be practiced in the books I read.

Emerald said...

I actually feel quite strongly about mentioning condoms in the erotica I write as well, and I have almost invariably done so unless, like you said, I am writing about a stated married monogamous couple. I don't disagree with your saying that we are not doing what we do primarily to educate readers, but having been an activist for reproductive freedom most of my adult life, I personally do like to take the opportunity to address safer sex when I am writing a sex scene. And since to do this seems not unrealistic to me as far as my own sexual experience, it makes sense to me to include/address it in writing this way.

Given this, I have tended to like to see condoms/safer sex mentioned in the erotica/sex scenes I read. I realize it sometimes is not, and I have usually sucked it up and allowed the "fiction" aspect that you articulated in this post, but it certainly hasn't increased the sexual intensity for me. As you mentioned as well, it has sometimes had the opposite effect.

I personally thank you for addressing safer sex in your writing! :) I also appreciate the other comments left so far -- it seems nice to me to know that other readers/authors find it significant as well.

Thanks Lisabet and all.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello! Thanks to all for your comments. I'm very encouraged to find so much agreement with my position.

Certainly, in scifi or fantasy there's no need for safe sex. And in historical books, well, "safety" means protecting against pregnancy, not against AIDS. Meanwhile, we all know that unintended pregnancies were very common before the introduction and acceptance of modern contraception.

All the best,
Lisabet

P.A.Brown said...

I always include mention of a condom as a matter of course. But you're wrong on a couple of counts. Sex was deadly before AIDS. There have been a few diseases in the past that were transmitted sexually and killed a lot of people in very nasty ways -- syphilis being the worst. There's also a couple of types of hepatitis out there that kill. Today all those still exist and can lead to death or long term illness.

Today AIDS is not the killer plague it was in the beginning. There are people who have been alive for decades now. I know a lot of people who were diagnosed with cancer or heart disease who didn't get two more decades of life after that diagnoses, even if it was followed by years of treatment.

So I don't think including condom use in my stories kills the romance, personally I think there can be something erotic about putting the condom on a man and getting both people ready for sex.

Kayelle Allen said...

Lisabet, I write SciFi set in the far future, but I have my characters deal with safe sex in some way. In At the Mercy of Her Pleasure, the hero is a virgin, and the heroine is not. They don't address birth control, because her genetic background makes her sterile, and he is half-human and incapable of siring a child. In an upcoming book, the hero had been a pleasure slave who was given drugs to make him infertile as well as to protect him during sex, and the alien heroine's family ensures she is protected as well so she can enjoy trying sex with a human male, a rite of passage for females in her clan. In Surrender Love, the immortal Luc and his new lover Rah deal with the issue of safe sex as well. Rah's cousin tells him frankly to ask for Luc's "medicard" if the man wants to have sex, and Rah insists he doesn't know Luc well enough to ask such a thing. His cousin tells him, "Then you don't know him well enough to have sex." When the big moment comes, earlier than Rah anticipated, he does ask. Luc, although immortal and immune to everything under any sun, has himself scanned regularly as an example to the employees of his business -- use the automated scanners at work -- part of their benefit package. When the employee's ID card is inserted into the unit, it scans them quickly, and then turns the card's background white to indicate he/she is disease free. At the end of safe period, the card darkens to show the status is unknown or unsafe.

So... though it's the far future and we hope medicine will be advanced enough to deal with health issues reasonably, there still has to be a way to communicate to others about your health. In my world, that's important, even if you live forever.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, P.A.,

You're right of course--sexually transmitted diseases have always existed. Syphilis in particular killed many a philanderer. Furthermore, childbirth can be fatal -- more so in historical times. Still, I don't think that the numbers begin to approach the infection rate of AIDS. Meanwhile, despite the progress made in stabilizing the health of people with HIV, the disease is still incurable. I worry, in fact, that the world has become complacent because of the relative success of anti-virals.

Anyway, for me personally, AIDS does seem like a plague, a silent threat hanging over every coupling.

Best,
Lisabet

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi,Kayelle,

I find it fascinating that you include safe sex considerations in the worlds built entirely from your imagination. I don't know how old you are (though from your energy I suspect quite a bit younger than me), but if you grew up with AIDS epidemic, this sort of thing might seem second nature to you. For me, it's jarring.

Thanks for dropping by!

Warmly,
Lisabet

Margaret Tanner said...

Great post Lisabet, and some terrific replys.

Thank you everyone.

Cheers
Margaret

Nina Pierce said...

Like others, I try to deal with the condom/birth control issue in the first love scene. I hadn't really thought about it as preventing disease, but pregnancy, which is interesting that you bring that aspect up. Though I do think to a certain extent erotica and erotic romance is fantasy and readers don't necessarily want it to intrude on the intimacy, as an author I do think it needs to be addressed.

That being said, I love the way Kayelle built the health issue of safe sex into her world.

Excellent blog post Lisabet.

Cecilia Tan said...

I don't insist that my characters have safe sex. I do insist that the issue of STDs be brought up somewhere in the story, though. When I write erotica the realism is part of what makes it hot for me, not the "fantasy" that all lovers are perfect, sex never has any consequences, etc...

I don't know the passage or book you're talking about in particular, but in theory I probably would have loved that scene, for the character to decide she is going to take the risk for the sake of passion and go for it. Trust me, even people who have been steeped in safer sex info all their lives do sometimes take that risk, and let's face it, for a lot of people RISK IS HOT. The risk isn't always in the form of unprotected penetration in fiction, but that's certainly a valid and realistic one to bring in.

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