Aren’t We Past Condoms in Fiction? Apparently Not

A while back, I noted a thread from romance authors responding to readers who were insisting there was no need to include mention of safe sex. Reasons for this included couples being in established, monogamous relationships; a lack of condom indicating deeper trust and intimacy; and, perhaps the flimsiest excuse, that it was boring, awkward, and didn’t need to be in there because “everyone knows about safe sex.”

Even some romance authors chimed in, suggesting they left mention of condoms and the like off the page so as not to ruin the suspension of disbelief for the readers.


I say these are flimsy excuses because they are. They ring hollow and false. Not “everyone” knows about safe sex; to suggest it speaks to a position of privilege. And going bareback doesn’t immediately indicate a higher level of trust or intimacy.

Declining Condom Use among Gay Men

A recent study in Australia backs me up on this. The results of the study indicated gay men were now foregoing condoms in higher numbers. The study suggests it’s because of the availability of PrEP, an anti-HIV drug. A lack of education could be another issue, as could a potent mix of forgetfulness and overconfidence.


The decline in condom use among this particular demographic speaks to a certain forgetfulness and a certain overconfidence in PrEP. After the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, gay men were exhorted to use condoms. The importance of condoms couldn’t be overstated, particular during the height of the panic. You have to remember that AIDS, when it first appeared, seemed to be something “limited” to gay men. Most of its initial victims were indeed gay men, or men who have sex with men.


This is why MSMs are still banned from donating blood in many countries. There’s a fear, left over from this era, that the blood with be contaminated with HIV/AIDS.


Memories Fading

We now know AIDS can be spread like any other sexually transmitted disease. It can infect heterosexual and bisexual people. Many of today’s AIDS victims are women and children, especially in poorer regions of the world where access to medications and information may be limited.

A map showing the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in any given country.

A map showing the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in any given country.

AIDS as a “gay only thing” has gone by the wayside, because it was never true. But that doesn’t mean gay men and men who have sex with men can’t contract HIV/AIDS, and not using condoms is one of the biggest risk factors. Even with PrEP in play, using a condom is a good idea.


For heterosexual couples, other forms of birth control may be more effective, but condoms are one of the only forms of protection against STDs in any sexual relationship.

Overconfidence and Myths

The other issue at hand here appears not to be a lack of information, education, or access. It seems to be overconfidence and myths, some of which are perpetuated in the arguments of romance readers and writers alike.


Declining condom use among any demographic suggests a sort of overconfidence, an “it won’t happen to me” attitude. The availability of PrEP likely perpetuates this attitude. The question, of course, is why would you trade one safety mechanism for another, instead of using both? PrEP is effective, but a condom can give additional protection. And it can also protect against other STIs.


The other issue at hand is likely the perpetuation of certain myths. The intimacy myth is a particular favorite among writers and readers. Only when a couple is truly monogamous can they ditch protection. Ditching protection, it’s reasoned, indicates deeper love, intimacy, and trust.


That’s stupid, and fie on any writer who lets that myth inform their writing.

Staying Safe!

Some couples do indeed ditch protection once they become established monogamously. Others prefer to keep it, and some, particularly where one partner is infected with an STI, have to keep using it for their own protection.


Not talking about birth control and protection in romance novels is harmful to readers. It may seem tedious to readers who read a lot of these novels. And writers might find it “awkward” or repetitive to write.

A picture showing assorted condoms.

Just … write ’em in there.

But it’s important. You never know who is picking up your book for the first time, as one of their first romance novels. We were all precocious teens, and many of us know we were introduced to sex scenes through fade-to-black loving in Harlequin novels.


I’m not endorsing writing sex scenes with some curious fourteen-year-old in mind, but we do know kids pick up these books. And we do know teenagers and many young adults who read them as well. And, finally, we also know that education isn’t always what is where we live or where you went to school.


I mean, I sat through some pretty horrific sex ed. sessions—sixth grade, seventh grade, and ninth grade, and we got to learn about condoms and other forms of protections each and every time! So yay Canadian public school education.


I hear stories from some of the US states—our neighbors to the south, an allegedly modern democracy—and kids there are receiving “abstinence only” sex ed., the kind they were given in the 1950s, y’know, when it was illegal to spread information about birth control because informational pamphlets were seen as obscene and condoms themselves were seen as sexual paraphernalia endorse the worst kinds of kinks and sinful hedonism.


YES, We Still Need Rubbers in Books!

So, given all of this, the answer is no, we’re not past rubbers in books. We probably never will be. We absolutely, 100 percent need condoms in books!


I don’t care what you do with the scene. Try to make it original. Make it funny. Make it awkward. But mention it. Write it in there. Explicitly. Tell the reader your characters are being safe, that they’re protecting themselves. And for Pete’s sake, don’t buy into this stupid myth about barebacking being more romantic or more intimate or something.


There is nothing inherently more romantic about it, especially not if you end up with syphilis or gonorrhea or AIDS or something at the end of it. (BTW, gonorrhea is going to be one of our next superbugs; we’re on the last known drug that cures it and it’s already mutated to the point where it’s stopped responding to treatment. So it could very well be irreversible if you catch it in the future.)


Please, please, please let your characters have safe sex! They may not be real. They may live in a fantasy bubble where STIs don’t exist. But your readers don’t, and for some of them, your sexy-time scenes may be the best sex education they ever receive.


I mean, I went through all that public school training and I still learned a helluva a lot more from the Internet and really raunchy fanfic. So thanks to those authors who did make condoms a big deal, who did think it was important to demonstrate that.


Let’s keep it going.

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