My Characters Care About Safe Sex Because I Have To

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.

Having HSV1 has not harmed my love life.

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.

Posted by

Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

29 thoughts on “My Characters Care About Safe Sex Because I Have To

  1. You’re awesome! I also blog about my experience but incognito. My hope is one day to be as confident as you and share my experience with people. Thank you so much, can’t believe I’ve almost had my little herpes friend for a year and am just finding your blog now!!

  2. Great, great post. But I’m scratching my head at one statement:
    I have had a herpes outbreak only once, and I will never have another.

    How do you know you will never have another?

  3. Utterly love this piece – thank you for writing this. There is such a need to discuss STIs more in general – both fiction and nonfiction – and I want to link this to everyone! I grew up in a country where sex education isn’t part of the curriculum at all and sex knowledge is woeful and abysmal and I often wish posts like yours where these things are frankly discussed could be made available to high school kids.

  4. This was vulnerable, passionate, practical, and refreshingly frank. Thank you so much for sharing yourself here. I really, really love the way you write – both fiction and non-fiction.

  5. Hello Ella,
    What a great post. What concerns me about publishers and groups who pressure erotica writers into writing safe sex (and other ‘best practices’ say, for instance, in fictional depictions of BDSM)is that it turns erotica writers into propagandists. Although propaganda may make for excellent social reform, it usually makes for very poor fiction.
    Meanwhile, the use of condoms in erotic fiction can be incredibly erotic, it can help develop characters, it can telegraph sex, it has substantial semiotic value and it can underscore realism.
    I make a decision on whether to use condoms in my fiction or not depending on the worldspace of the story or how much I want the fictional eroticism of the story to be coloured by the greater world in the story. What I mean by this is that some of my stories are written to be very mentally claustrophobic; so bringing in the quotidian realities of the world – like condoms and paying the cable bill – would be inconsistent with the mood I’m after. Meanwhile, some stories are specifically about realistic interactions with a complex world. In those types of stories, an absence of condom use would be a message in itself, that the character got off on risk.
    I’m one of the approximately 50% of the sexually active population who has, at one point, had HPV. Like herpes, it is not continually infectious, but never clears the blood. When I started writing erotica, my characters always wore condoms because, I think, I was essentially always writing myself into stories. I’ve stopped doing that as I became bored with myself as a character. I got interested in the life-experience of characters who were entirely not me. I think that is when my decisions regarding the inclusions of condoms became more contingent on who the characters were, and what worldspace I was seeking to create in the writing.

  6. I’m so glad a friend on Facebook pointed me towards this.

    I write general fiction and erotica, and I strongly prefer to write safer sex scenes for a number of reasons. I want my readers to be as involved in the story as possible, and for myself and others unsafe sex cracks suspension of disbelief about as much as a sudden introduction of a dozen dancing venomous flowers singing “You Are My Sunshine”. That’s one reason.

    Another is that I know too many people who don’t consider the need for safer sex to be a reality. Remittance Girl may say acting on my awareness of that is distribution of propaganda, but I think that’s an egregious misnomer. Is it propaganda to write positive sexual erotica? If so, many would argue she writes pro-sex propaganda.

    No, it’s not propaganda. We’re artists, and we express ourselves — our opinions, our hopes, our beliefs, our very selves — in our art. I refuse to accept that I’m any less invested in the totality of my art because a story of mine includes a sex scene as detailed and crafted as the conflict scenes before and after it. My inclusion of safer sex practices isn’t propaganda any more than the inclusion of soma was in Brave New World. It’s a detail. It’s art.

  7. Thank you so much for this wonderful post! Working with non-heterosexual, non-monosexual characters… and having friends who have Names quilt panels, writing safer sex practices into my writing is just natural to me. When it isn’t political agenda, but simply our perspective, I think we can do great things erotica. That said, I’m horrible at including dental dams in erotica- just doesn’t work well for me as an IRL sex practice.

  8. Greetings, Ella! Thank you for your articulate and courageous post.

    What stands out for me in this post is how much each erotica author is shaped by his or her own experiences. I became sexually active in that golden age after the Pill and before AIDS. For me, part of the joy of sex was its spontaneity, its unpredictability. It has been difficult for me to adjust to a world where sex has to be “safe”. During my horny sex goddess years, it *was* safe, at least as much as any other activity.

    Whether I include condoms in my erotica in my stories depends very much on the characters and the genre. In contemporary erotic romance, I almost always mention condom use, at least between newly partnered couples, because, as Kara says, it’s not realistic or plausible otherwise. On the other hand, in tales based more in a fantasy world – either paranormal fantasy or transgressive sexual fantasy – I’ll write bareback sex.

    I don’t view myself as educating readers about sexual practices – only sexual attitudes. I want my readers to come away from my work with a sense of satisfaction, feeling good about themselves and about sex in general. Safe sex and negotiation can be part of that. For me, though, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

  9. I came to this article through Twitter and I have to say that I’m very glad I read it. In my writing I tend to default to safer sex, just because it seems normal to me. I’ve never thought much about how it might affect the eroticism of a piece or any statement it might be making, it’s just the way I’ve always done things.

    I was lucky in that my school didn’t teach abstinence-only sex education, despite being from a very small, conservative town. I vividly remember being in middle school and the boys and girls being split into separate rooms to talk about changing bodies and physical hygiene and also safe/safer sex, STI/STDs, pregnancy, and later different kinds of cancer. It might have been all lumped into one “health” class, but we got the information nonetheless, and I’ve always been thankful for that. My parents, too, were very open with talking about various forms of protection and I remember a horrified conversation after my mom discovered I was sexually active that ended with her telling me “I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t end up pregnant.” Thanks, mom.

    But I also think, in the name of realism, there are situations where the individuals in a sexual relationship won’t use protection – either because it’s been negotiated beforehand, they’re in a committed relationship, or the concerns one would usually have for using protection are a non-issue. It’s not usually difficult for me to fill in that information in my mind as though it happened off-screen (off-page?). In my own writing, there are situations where protection won’t be used, but I hope that I’m able to explain why or at least establish a reasonable background for why, before getting to the sexy bits.

    Long story short: I love your article. It gave me something new to think about when sitting down to write, and I’m very grateful for the perspective that you have. It’s good to make people think, I think. You’ve definitely done that for me.

  10. What a thoughtful, courageous post. I, too, have often wondered who crept in and drew all these lines between topics that are okay/not okay for erotica writers and sex bloggers to touch upon (even though erotica writers are expected to blog and if we’re blogging about sex, it makes sense that we might include topics like safe sex and STDs). I enjoyed Tamsin’s post and her argument for fantasy-based erotica, too. However, I wholeheartedly agree that one of the perks of writing erotica is it gives us the opportunity to address complex and often difficult issues, including why our characters might choose to forgo protection and the implications of that decision. Fantastic article.

  11. Brilliant, Ella. Considered, persuasive and massively powerful. There is room in erotica to do many things, from entertain to educate. Authorial intention drives the genre’s potential, and your take on safe sex and your relationship to it, both as a writer and as a person, are a powerful example of an author’s individual intention carrying much broader weight.

  12. Unsafe sex snaps me right out of the fantasy unless it’s unsafe for a story-based reason. At the very least, it needs to be addressed after the fact, in terms of a health/pregnancy scare. Everything I write, whether fanfiction or my professional writing, includes either safe sex or the consequences, because I write realism. From an informal poll I did, my readers feel the same way. They want their characters to respect and care for one another, and that includes being safe.

    Now, if I were writing paranormal/sci-fi romance? That might well be a different story, if there were spells, nano-tech, 100% foolproof inoculations, or the like. Historical fiction, too, has its own issues. But for contemporary romance, safe sex is the only way to go.

    I’m passionate about this to the point where I actually developed and presented a class on Consent & Condoms to the Northern Arizona chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

  13. I love this piece, Ella! I agree that erotica shouldn’t be required to portray safer sex, as I think that’s missing the point, but I think if an author does choose to include it, it can be beneficial in many ways. It can be challenging, it can help de-stigmatize safer sex practices…and when done well it can be sexy as hell! Thanks for this brave, thoughtful, important post.

  14. What a wonderful, brave and reasoned argument for including safe sex in erotica – and certainly, I whole heartedly agree that you’re right to address these concerns for the audience at which your work is directed. Erotica is a wide genre with plenty of room for fantasists and educators – even across my own body of work, I have pieces of total fantasy that enthusiastically celebrate unprotected sex and more realistic pieces in which the characters use protection throughout. The main thing is for writers to think about this and engage in the debate, so thank you for this great response to my post!

    1. Thank you so much, Tamsin. I’ve had this one noodling around for a few weeks, and disclosing having herpes for a few months, so… thank you for giving me that final push without even knowing it 😉

    2. this is a very powerful look into a world I have never thought about in my own writes. I have incorporated safe sex in a few of my fictional works but not very often. I applaud you in stepping up to the plate and bringing a new fresh view on this. We all hope to not get some STD but if it happens what then if it is one of the dreaded insurable ones?
      Well said and rock on, I think you are sharing what needs to be heard and understood.

Leave a Reply to ellacydawson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s