I’ve been thinking about condoms a lot lately. I can’t figure out whether or not to use them. I want to prevent pregnancy and heaven knows I don’t want to promote the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but condoms have a tendency to get in the way and create awkwardness and I can’t really figure out a way to wriggle them into situations which arise spontaneously without it looking really weird. And don’t get me started about the pill and how to work that in. But I wonder about my responsibility concerning their use.
A bit of explanation may be required at this point.
As writers, we write about sex, in all its variations and levels (you knew that’s what I was talking about, right?). And my dilemma concerns our role in portraying sex. If we knew only sexually well-informed readers read our books, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue—we could write unprotected sex scenes all day long and never give the little love sleeve (or the little love pill) a thought.
But we can never tell who’s going to end up with our books in their hands. And how many times have you heard someone say they learned about sex from romance novels? It seems entire generations grow up learning more about sexual intimacy from us than from their families. I know for a fact, given that I was just entering adolescence in the eighties, that many of my friends learned about sex from reading romance books. But they learned safe sex: in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was a political act to incorporate mention of condoms, and they sprouted like dandelions in all levels of romance, and pretty much every other book featuring men and women.
I’m proud that writers took it upon themselves to bring awareness to the gross lack of information available about AIDS and the dangers of unprotected sex, but this is why I have begun to feel the weight of responsibility for what kind of sexual information readers find between my covers. The covers. Of my books.
What is our responsibility concerning awareness now? Because we have a pretty extensive cultural conversation going about AIDS and syphilis and all the other diseases and how to keep from getting them, , as well as how to prevent pregnancy, are we off the hook? Or is that like saying, when the light is no longer shining on Ethiopia, that those people must no longer be starving? After all, there are still many people not engaged in those conversations.
To get some inkling of an answer, first I tried to get a pulse from readers. In online discussions, basically there are two consistent camps: they hate it when an author presents condoms or the pill because it reeks of political correctness. “It’s so inauthentic,” they say. The other camp is, at least for contemporaries, that not mentioning safe sex at all is irresponsible.
Well, at least we have clear directions. *sigh*
Next I turned to us and reviewed several different recent books of all heat levels to see if I could figure out what our trend is and, granted my test pool is limited, it doesn’t reveal much in terms of an answer, either. An erotic historical mentions condoms (my hat goes off to its writer! That’s some impressive work) but a contemporary doesn’t, and then vice versa. Many sweet romances, who would never have to broach the subject, mention the presence of one before their space break. And then in many romances of all heat levels they don’t exist. No one trend was evident.
OK, so what are they saying in the mainstream media? Although fairly universally panned, one thing 50 Shades of Grey is consistently lauded for, and something I ran in to again and again, is its ever-present use of condoms, written into the contract the two main characters sign, and the pill. Consider this article: “Research suggests that good erotica can be educational and that eroticised depiction of condom use can actually raise the likelihood that someone will practice safe sex in real life.”
This is from Nursing Times, of all places; not a magazine generally involved in discussing books or their impact. That’s pretty thought provoking. The fact that any discussion is happening in the media infers we carry some responsibility for educating readers. The implication is that it could be that our mention of a condom is responsible for informing someone about safe sex who wouldn’t otherwise get the information. Is it, therefore, negligent not to do so?
Just about every argument I encountered, for and against, was touched upon in one post by a woman named CD in the All About Romance Novels forum. It’s from 1997, but what she says is as relevant today as it was then. The biggest argument for it being fine to leave condoms out: it’s fantasy! What are we so worried about? CD: “I started out reading historicals, where all the heroine presumably had to worry about was the pregnancy issue. Well, of course we all know by now that that was probably the least of her worries…they probably should have been more terrified at the prospect of STDs and the lack of any kind of medical treatment whatsoever should they contract such a thing. And yet, no one seems terribly concerned that the hero/heroine doesn’t consider this at the blessed moment of consummation because, after all, this is only fantasy, right?”
The next biggest argument, which CD also states beautifully: just because they read something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it—or not do it. “Let’s take your average nineties woman—be she a teenager, a college grad, divorcee, older widow, whatever…. Is one reader more likely to go out and have unsafe sex than any of the others? Is that teenager who reads historicals and feels those hormones start to race going to rush out and leave her condoms behind just because those books didn’t remind her? ….I would never, ever, come hail or high water or raging hormones, have unprotected sex simply because the book neglected to stress the operation. Just like I would never go and gun down a convenience store clerk or participate in a drive-by shooting just because I saw it on T.V….”
This argument is harder to credit, as it goes against the scientific findings mentioned in Nursing Times. But scientific impact isn’t the only, or even the biggest, reason to pause before making a decision based on the above two arguments. CD reveals the biggest argument for using them: ultimately, you are morally and ethically responsible for what you write. CD: “Now along comes the contemporary. Must we consider this something more than fantasy? Are writers of contemporary romance morally and ethically required to promote responsible sex? Is the main object of any kind of art or entertainment to teach, elevate, enlighten, or preach?”
This is the deepest consideration and it reveals another: the reader’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. To know the difference, you have to know what comprises reality. And if a reader has never heard of condoms or the pill or safe sex, then her reality is going to be based only on what she’s read in her “fantasy.” It seems, even with the arguments giving us the freedom not to mention them, we can’t shake the ethical/moral thing. There really are people out there who only know what we tell them.
I can only think of one avenue left to explore. What role does personal authorial choice play? Should it play a role at all? I know that when I’m writing a scene of high heat level, I think it breaks the mood to have the man reach for his wallet, or the woman into the nightstand, and rip open the little packet. I just personally don’t want to write that in, and yes, it’s mostly for two reasons—one, I can’t do it without feeling like I’ve got some sort of hidden “BE SAFE, YOU OUT THERE!” agenda, which means it’s going to be about as subtle as an air-raid siren in the middle of your nap. But my other reason is, if you’re writing on the hotter edge of the spectrum, sometimes people are just having sex, as in: what if the two people in the scene had no intention of having sex, it’s just happening, the way death and taxes happen, and they’re in an elevator or at the top of the Space Needle, you see where I’m going. I mean in terms of protection, not…
How believable is it the guy or the girl is walking around with condoms in their possession, just in case they happen to, say, be wandering the aisles of the Safeway and, right over a jar of three-bean salad, lock eyes with someone and know they’re going to run off, right then, to the restroom to engage in hot, random sex? “Good thing I had this condom!” “Yes, it sure is! Be prepared!” Awkward. Artificial. Inauthentic. Reeking of Author’s Intended Message. It also says something inaccurate about your character; namely, “I am the kind of character who has random sex all the time.”
Ultimately, though, my personal preference can’t impact my moral and ethical responsibility, which is the way it should be—they’re not even on the same level. Does this mean our hands are tied? That we are actually irresponsible if we don’t mention condoms or the pill? That has the ring of Big Brother, which can’t be right, either.
So what is our responsibility with regards to how we portray sex? Does our moral responsibility trump our freedom as writers? Can there be any kind of middle ground? If so, what is it?