A few weeks ago, Tamsin Flowers wrote a thought-provoking post about whether or not erotica authors have a responsibility to incorporate safe sex in their fiction. A reviewer noted that Tamsin’s characters hadn’t used condoms, and that this seeming disregard for safe sex nearly ruined the story for her. Tamsin’s articulate response was that erotica provides an escape from real world concerns of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, and her fiction is in no way intended to be educational. She argued that whether or not to incorporate condoms in erotica should be up to the individual author and relative to the work itself, and plenty if not most erotica authors and sex bloggers agree with her. Remittance Girl, K D Grace, and Molly Moore have written their own takes on the topic, making various points to reach the same conclusion.
I’ve wanted to write my own post ever since I read Tamsin’s, because I get the sense that this debate could use a different perspective. But to be frank I’ve been scared shitless. To do this complicated topic justice I have to address the very different vantage point from which I see safe sex in erotica—not just as an author but as a person with experiences that color my understanding of sex itself.
As a reader I agree with Tamsin—erotica is a place where our wildest fantasies can see the light of day on the page, and binding them down with earthy concerns seems a misunderstanding of the genre. I’ve never once read a romance novel or an erotic anthology that mentions a yeast infection, and for good reason—there is nothing sexy about a cranky vagina. I think we’re all trying to forget how Fifty Shades incorporated menstruation. With the exception ofAbigail Barnette’s savvy and bold series The Boss, pregnancy scares and abortions just don’t happen in erotica. It effectively kills the mood. Most people come to mainstream erotica to fantasize, not to agonize, and I have no beef with that. You do you, escapists.
As a social justice kid, I think erotica has real educational possibility as well. We all love to talk about how erotica can make marginalized sexual practices less stigmatized. Erotica offers inspiration to bored couples and helps readers explore their latent desires. By extension, I’d argue that erotica can also model less sexy sexual behaviors under-represented in mainstream media: conversations about consent most obviously, but also dialogue about boundaries, safety, and yes, condom usage. Erotica doesn’t have a responsibility to educate readers about sex, but it has the opportunity to if it wants it. At the end of the day, that comes down to the author and their own goals.
But as an author, safe sex is always at the forefront of my mind. I cannot think about sex without also thinking about discussions of condoms and STI test results. That is because I, as a real life lady person, have herpes. According to social stigma, no sex I ever have will be safe.
An innocuous but incurable STI, herpes is woefully misunderstood. Statistics about how many people live with herpes are fuzzy because most doctors do not want to test you for the virus if you haven’t shown symptoms… meaning most of the population probably walks around with the virus in their bloodstream (I’ve talked at length about how the virus works here). I have had a herpes outbreak only once, and I may never have another. The risk of me transmitting herpes to a sexual partner is next to zero, and on an average day I don’t think about having it. Unless, of course, someone makes an ignorant joke about herpes and then I’m known to fly off the handle—not because I’m offended, but because I remember all too well the psychological trauma of being diagnosed with a heavily stigmatized virus (a stigma such jokes perpetuate). The pain of herpes isn’t its symptoms, it’s the simple burden of knowing.
My generation knows we need to use condoms even if we don’t always do so, and even if we don’t understand why we need them. We grew up with abstinence-only sex education and cobbled together real knowledge from each other, the Internet, and yes, porn (I learned what a clit was from reading Harry Potter fan fiction). I worked for Planned Parenthood through my teen years but even I was flabbergasted when I got diagnosed: I had been told to “just get tested!” but no one ever prepared me for what would happen if I got positive results. I had not learned the skills of how to tell partners that I had an STI, or what having herpes meant for my sex life, or if anyone would want to sleep with me ever again. I figured those skills out thanks to a raucous herpes support community on Tumblr and because I had to, and eighteen months later it’s just another aspect of who I am—not shameful, not scary.
That being said, getting diagnosed with an STI was crushing. Because here’s the thing: if you define yourself by your sexuality, by the fact that you write about sex, by being the go-to person to talk to about sex, and you get an STI… that shit fucks you up. I felt like someone had just shot me in the chest every single day for those first six months. I nearly canceled writing my senior thesis about feminist erotica, because who was I to tell anyone about sex? I was dirty, damaged goods. I should sit down and shut up and think about the choices I’d made. Right?
Eventually I realized the voice in my head telling me I was less than was the result of a powerful, invisible stigma about STIs I had absorbed without noticing all of my life. Getting herpes was all the more reason to keep writing and to keep fucking. I had found a new flaw in the universe and I wanted to correct it. And I was the perfect person to correct it.
It’s a personal goal of mine to talk about safe sex in my erotica. Not in every story, but most. That project goes beyond normalizing condom usage to having partners talk about their most recent STI test, discuss their boundaries, and get to know each other as people even if they’re not romantically involved. Because for me, sex is rarely spontaneous. I will never pick up a stranger at a bar without at least mentioning having herpes before we close out our tab, even if the risk to them is nonexistent—it’s just not comfortable for me ethically. It is hard to separate the deeply ingrained way I understand my sex life from the sex lives of my characters, and I don’t think that’s a problem either. I think it’s a strength. My erotica is cross-genre New Adult realistic fiction anyway, and my ideal reader is a college student just starting to figure out what this crazy sex thing is about, and what kind of sex they want to have. My characters aren’t intended to be role models; they’re peers. And they discuss the issues real kids might be afraid to talk about in the communal kitchen or at a hall meeting, in the hope that it will make it easier for them to have those conversations in the real world.
Remittance Girl might call this propaganda: information disseminated with the goal of making readers act and think a certain way. I totally admit it is, in that sense. I do want people to have smarter, safer, better sex. I want to normalize very hard, or at least awkward, conversations. But my characters drive my fiction—I never sit down and decide ah yes, this story will make everyone want to use dental dams. A political agenda rarely drives good fiction, especially good erotica. Saying that all erotica authors must always incorporate condoms won’t change the culture around safe sex, it’ll become just another checklist item in the editing process, unnatural and not helpful. But engaging directly with issues of safe (and unsafe) sex has potential as challenging subject material.
Because I’m not saying I never write about unprotected sex, don’t get me wrong. Unprotected sex is deeply intimate and exciting and transgressive for me as a person, making it incredibly hot subject matter to write about and explore. The rare occasions that I don’t use a condom are immensely meaningful: it says something about my partner that his desire for me is more important than the social stigma he too has internalized about STIs. The way I feel about unprotected sex is how many people feel about all sex: it’s an act of love. I don’t write about it lightly. When my characters don’t use protection, they know it.
I realize this post is risky. I’m surprised to find myself writing it. In this community there are lines between erotica authors and sex bloggers and sex educators, division that has always confused me as someone with roots in all three realms. For erotica authors to push sex education over onto the sex educators seems strange—challenging cultural attitudes about sex has always been a cross-industry project. During the HIV/AIDs epidemic, artists and writers and actors and all sorts of non-educator types took up the challenge of raising awareness and mobilizing for change. Current erotica is intended to shake up how we view female and/or queer sexualities, since mainstream everything gets it so wrong. Condom usage is another issue of sex that could benefit from smarter representation.
No author has to participate, and incorporating safe sex should not be an obligation. To Tamsin’s snooty reviewer, your preferences are your own problem, not the author’s. Calls that require condom usage are missing the point: it’s much more useful and interesting to engage with why we sometimes fail to use protection than it is to present a fantasy world where we’re always responsible all the time. So I guess I’m reaching the same conclusion everyone else has on this topic: no, condoms should not be required in erotica. But the defensive pushback against why we might want them to be is strange to me. I’ve never seen this as an issue of censorship or stifling free expression. It’s about being brave and wrangling with the uncomfortable, unglamorous aspects of sexuality some authors would prefer to pretend don’t exist.
I don’t have that option, and frankly I’m glad. Those uncomfortable, unglamorous aspects of sex don’t scare me anymore. I write erotica for that discomfort, not against it, for the terrified girl I was at twenty and for every man who has wanted me since. I don’t want my erotica to be an escape from the world—I want my erotica to change it.