April 13, 2015

Gloving Up in Romance

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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  • Post authorchristineblackthorn

    I was shocked by the statistics, though possibly without reason looking at various recent articles in the same lines that have come along. I am one of those readers who actively feel turned off by the LACK of protection in books – I prefer my heroes and heroines to be intelligent.

    I did not grow up in the 80s but am a generation after that – a generation which has come up with very worrying comments recently. Apparently we think HIV is not an issue anymore – and we say that we have had unprotected sex so often that we are also not that worried about pregnancy as the chances of becoming pregnant are so low. I am not even sure what to say to this.

    One thing possibly – our daughters will read erotic romances too, just as we do. Do we really want them to walk away with the message that protection is not a necessity?

    Reply to christineblackthorn
  • Post authorRos

    “That correlates to 1,408,000 people using protection as opposed to 2,669,000 that prefer to just cross their fingers.”

    Well, presumably some of those 2,669,000 are (1) on other forms of bc and (2) in stable relationships and possibly even (3) trying for a baby.

  • Post authorJanet Lee Nye

    I don’t get the ruining the moment issue either in regards to books. It doesn’t have to be an in depth conversation. “Protection?” “Yes.” “Thank God.” That’s the condom discussion from my book.

    Honestly, unless you are in a high risk group or practicing high risk sex, HIV is pretty hard to contract. Herpes however, is rampant. As are gonorrhea and chlamydia. Between what I see in my job and what my fellow sees at his job all I have to say is “wrap that puppy up”.

    Reply to Janet Lee Nye
  • Post authorKel

    So… condoms are important.

    They’re important if you don’t know your own status, your partner’s status, or their partners’s status(es). They’re important if you have or potentially have a communicable condition.

    They’re really horrible birth control.

    Seriously. Any woman who wants to not have children shouldn’t be relying on a condom. Those things break. They break when they’re put on wrong, when they’re shipped wrong, when they’re stored wrong, when they get too hot or too cold, they’re ineffective when you get pre-ejaculate on the outside because you’re rushing … you get the idea.

    The pill is 99% effective if taken correctly. So is an IUD.

    And you can still use a condom. For when you don’t know your partner well enough to trust your life to them.

    But then… why are you *touching* them intimately?

    Sex is messy. You’re going to get their fluids on or in you if you’re doing it right, even if it’s just kissing.

    Better get those STD tests.

  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I think the dirty little secret is that a lotta men can’t keep it up while wearing a condom. I was shocked, shocked I tell you the first time my friend told me about sex with her guy and that she was mega-into him, but the sex was meh because of the condom thing. So she was going on the pill ASAP.

    Now combine guys who can’t keep their flags a-wavin’ while wearing a condom with guys who are drinking a lot — which again, deflates some guys down to half mast. It’s a problem, I tell you.

    And I bet that to a great degree this is why — other than plain just not having one around — a lot of people don’t use them. I’m not saying they’re being smart – I’m just trying to provide a ‘what are they thinking’ explanation.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorKiersten Hallie Krum

    Yeah, I still call bullshit. I don’t care why. You bang without being tested, or knowing your partner’s sitch, you glove up. Period. Pregnancy, disease, whatever. If you’re “adult” enough to bang, then you’re enough of an adult to be smart about it. I tell young women preparing to begin being sexually active that if they’re too embarrassed to buy their own condoms, then they’ve got no business having sex in the first place. It’s like the idea that if you’re not prepared to be a parent with the person you’re shagging, then you shouldn’t be shagging them, just in case. I’m not saying that stopped anybody, but it’s a good yard stick when evaluating the attractiveness of a prospective partner.

    Yes, booze affects (and not just the men) and there’s a level of drunkenness beyond which you’re not capable of making *any* decisions, which again, is why you shouldn’t be doing it at that point anyway. It’s not a moral judgement. Bang the entire offensive line of the NY Giants for all I care, just make sure their all using condoms. I really don’t see any reason why sexually active people can’t be smart about it without it being a BFD. You just do it. And then you do it. Heh.

    As for novels, there’s gotta be some acknowledgement, of the risk of doing without if nothing else. Not every character, like not every person, is going to do it. But every character, like every person, should make the decision on the page, even the bad one of doing without.

    Reply to Kiersten Hallie Krum
  • Post authorM. L. Brennan

    Excellent, thoughtful points, and fascinating statistics.

    The “what were they thinking” reminds me of a study that was run when I was an undergrad at my university, and that a few of my friends participated in. You showed up and were given a laptop, then put in a private room and told to answer the questions on the screen. LOTS of questions about sexual situations, and whether you would be open to stuff. Sex w/o condom w/ a stranger, sexual contact w/ animals, EVERYTHING. The participant would fill it out, get ten dollars, and go home.

    The next part of the experiment was a few days later. The participant was brought back in, given the laptop and the private room again, except this time the laptop was filmed in plastic, and the participant was told that to participate they would need to masturbate just short of the point of climax, then answer the questions again. They were promised forty dollars if they could complete the part of the experiment, so they did.

    Guess what the two sets of data revealed?

    When aroused, we get MASSIVELY more open to a whole lot of things that we normally would never consider when unaroused. Sexual contact w/ animals? Why not? Sex w/o condom w/ a stranger? Hell yeah, just let me get off somehow!

    The results from this study and a few others basically showed that (surprise!) we make crappy decisions when we’re massively horny. What they also found was that the people who were still insistent on condoms when horny were the ones who had been the most rigorously instilled with the mantra that they could *only* have sex if they had a condom. Anything less and that condom was more likely to be ignored.

    Reply to M. L. Brennan
    • Post authorMadeline Iva

      That is just *fascinating*. Wow. See, this is why I think there should be a pill for men. How much would unexpected pregnancy go down? Half I bet. At least half.

      Reply to Madeline Iva
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