by Kiersten Hallie Krum
This seems to have been my week for sex articles. First was this Wonk-o-mance piece from Cara McKenna, Herpily Ever After, about STIs in romance and the lack thereof. Then I read this in-depth investigative article by Slate We Should Have a Better Condom by Now. Here’s Why We Don’t.
The condom article is well worth the long read as it’s fascinating and at times deeply disturbing. In it, the author cites a 2014 study that concluded most people most people do not like latex condoms. I’ll admit that discomfort and latex allergies etc are valid issues with regard to condom quality. But consider the alternative. And then there’s this:
In the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the largest-ever nationally representative sexuality study, 45 percent of men and 63 percent of women who’d most recently had sex with a “new acquaintance” hadn’t used a condom. More alarmingly, 75 percent of women who weren’t using a back-up birth control method reported not using a condom the last time they’d had sex. Adults who’d had anal sex in the past year—the highest-risk sexual act with regard to HIV transmission—said they’d used condoms only 20 percent of the time.
What fool doesn’t wear a condom?! What woman doesn’t make sure her chosen fool of the moment is wearing a condom? But wait, there’s more.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a correlation between not liking condoms and not using them: The authors of a 2007 study of condoms and sexual pleasure wrote, “Men who believed that condoms reduced pleasure were less likely to use them.” And in a 2013 study in which researchers interviewed men who used condoms inconsistently, “By far the most frequently reported downside of using a condom was diminished physiological sensation.”
And then there’s this bit from last February in The New York Observer, which claimed that Almost No One in New York Wears Condoms
A whopping 68.2 percent of residents polled said they did not wear a condom the last time they had sex, according to some numbers just released by the Department of Health’s Community Health Survey for 2012. That correlates to 1,408,000 people using protection as opposed to 2,669,000 that prefer to just cross their fingers.
Cross their fingers. You are freaking kidding me.
I take safe sex very seriously. I grew up in the 80s; I remember the AIDS crisis very well. I remember how nobody knew shit for a very long time. My mother, the RN, used to give my sister and I uncomfortable updates on how not to catch AIDS in non-sexual ways, like telling us not to sit on public toilets seats, or at least lay down strips of toilet paper first, which is not a bad idea hygienically, but will do fuck all against AIDS, mostly because you don’t catch it from toilet seats, obviously. I also grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist community where sex before marriage was bad, bad I say!, along with the threat of how pregnancy would ruin your life because you weren’t strong enough to resist temptations of the flesh. I spent years getting my head around the moral and spiritual complexities of being a Christian woman who wasn’t waiting for nothin’. So yeah, I’m pretty damn serious about safe sex.
Every so often, someone will query on social media whether or not readers notice if and when contraception is used in a romance. I 100% do. I’ve been known to go back into a sex/love scene looking for the condom moment or some acknowledgement by the heroine as to at least being on the pill or having an IUD (which doesn’t account for STIs but at least it’s something.) I do not care if it “ruins the moment” either on the page or in real life (and there’s an Irish soccer instructor out there somewhere who will attest to that fact.) As a romance writer, it is my responsibility to have my characters practice safe sex in a demonstrable way or to at least acknowledge if and when they don’t and why.
It makes zero sense to me to exclude some acknowledgement of safe sex in romance novels. Contraception has been around for centuries though harder (heh) to get in some than others depending on your social strata and your gender. I’m seeing more overt acknowledgement of condom use, specifically, or a reason for it’s lack (dystopian future where everyone is infertile, which, again, doesn’t address disease) and even matter-of-fact conversations between partners upon realizing they forgot that crucial component. I remember them because they’re still the exception to the rule, not the norm.
Sure, some readers only want an escape in their romance novels. I respect that. Interjecting a moment of reality while the hero gloves up might pour some cold water on all the fantastical gasping and thrusting. But in an age with studies like those listed above that show people still find reasons not to practice safe sex, when we’re writing novels that focus on love and (to varying degrees) sex, we have a unique platform with which to remind people of how important and relatively easy it is to adhere.
Romance novels are feminist fiction. For years, they have been platforms through which social issues concerning women have been illuminated. Romance novels have explored everything from marital abuse to marriages for reasons other than love to being a single parent to healing familial discord to any number of societal issues. Nowadays they explore feelings of self-worth or lack thereof and disparages in income in the modern world. Romance novels are known for inspiring their readers personally to expect more for themselves, to be the heroine of their own story, to find an inner strength they may not have ever known they had before to tackle whatever hurdles may exist in their real lives. Safe sex is part and parcel of all that and I for one am confident that it can handle this dose of reality as effortlessly as all the rest.
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