Unsafe Sex and the Representation of Ideals

by TheStrange87

by TheStrange87

We’ve been having a very vibrant conversation on twitter about whether or not a writer of erotic fiction has an obligation to write their sex scenes as ‘safe’, i.e. with the participants wearing condoms.  In a way, this is somewhat related to an earlier post I had on the pressure to write sex-positive erotica, to represent all queer characters as good guys, etc.

This is my take on the issue. This is not what I think other writers should do. It simply explains my thinking when I write. There are a couple of issues that cross over.

Firstly, it is my opinion that writers should not be conscious propagandists. The word propaganda is usually perceived negatively but I am using the term to mean any promotion of an ideological position, whether you consider it to be a good or a bad one.  I’m making a rather subtle argument here, so bear with me.

As a woman in the 21st century, I am very supportive of sex educators, health professionals and public information that promotes the use of condoms and safe sex practices.  It is the promotion of a way of thinking about sex and of encouraging best practices. It is information that is disseminated with the purpose of making people act and think in a certain way. This is a type of propaganda. I don’t think it is bad propaganda, but it IS propaganda. There is an agenda to its dissemination.

I do not believe that fiction writers have an obligation to participate in the dissemination of propaganda. And, in fact, I find it a little disturbing when they do.  Because the agenda of a writer should be to tell a story – not to change people’s behaviour. The story may be a persuasive one, and it may cause a reader to reconsider their thinking on something. That’s fine. But when a fiction writer sets out to ‘sell’ a point of view, that disturbs me.

Secondly, I have very little interest in writing stories where people are safe. My interest in the erotic lies in places where characters are, in fact, not safe. This may be a physical danger or a psychological one. But for me, good stories have conflict. If all your characters are safe, you have none.

It is worth remembering that sex has never been safe. Before birth control and modern medicine, the percentage of women who died in childbirth was staggering. Until the invention of antibiotics, people died of syphilis and gonorrhea and urinary tract infections.  Until the mid 18th Century, women seldom had a say in who they married, and technically spent the whole of their married life being ‘raped’ by the definition we use now. Most did not consent to sex because they were not asked or expected to consent to it. And please don’t forget, for a quite high percentage of the world’s population, this is still the case.

We have come to a place in Western society where we have an overwhelming urge to represent everything we find pleasurable as safe, and to re-write safe activities as pleasurable.  But the truth is that sex is sometimes still dangerous. Many people still don’t wear condoms during penetrative sex. Few people use dental dams or condoms for oral sex.

Humans very often take unwise risks. Especially in pursuit of transcendent experiences. That’s usually what I’m writing about in one form or another, because that’s what I find interesting to explore.

When I write about cutting, I don’t have my characters pulling on gloves, although most BDSM practitioners do. On a very personal basis, I’m not interested in being cut by someone I have a casual relationship with. By the time I have let someone near me with a sharp edge, I’m a long way past needing to worry about infectious body fluids.  However, I also have to say that… people sometimes choose not to act safely. And this is a part of their personality. These are characters I find interesting to explore and write about. Not to make them heroes or villains, but just to explore them. Similarly, I’m not interested in writing porn because I’m not interested in writing about ideal sexual experiences either. It’s the complex, contextual and problematic ones that interest me enough to put pen to paper.

I expect my readers to be adults who understand that the function of fiction is not to model real life ideals, but to explore areas where, in fact, most real, sane people seldom go.

Now, that being said, you may have noticed that some of my stories do contain condom use, and some characters quite pointedly use them and discuss their use.

I think there is an eroticism to condoms. I think pulling them on is an unspoken admission that sex isn’t safe. I think there is a curious and sometimes very sexy semiotic to rolling on a condom. It says ‘I’m going to fuck you senseless now’ without dialogue.  Similarly, having one character tell other to “For god’s sake, put the fucking condom on,” is just as good as saying ‘I’ve been teased out of my mind, fuck me, now!’

It is entirely possible to write smoking hot sex scenes with condoms and I flatter myself that I’ve written a couple. But never with the agenda of trying to persuade my readers to behave in a certain manner.

However, I do like the juxtaposition of a character who may act safely from a physical perspective, but dangerously from a psychological one. But that’s just me. I like paradox.

  19 comments for “Unsafe Sex and the Representation of Ideals

  1. May 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    I agree with you completely. I want to get lost in the risk and danger.

    I will say I’ve gotten commented in a review about on my lack of protection in my non-fiction posts but for me it’s my business and not my job to educate readers. I’m not a sex educator and we are all adults.

  2. Forrest Franks
    May 21, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    Well said. People need to enjoy the stories for what they are and shut the fuck up. A writer shouldn’t have to hold the publics or readers proverbial fucking hand. Nor do they have an obligation to promote anything other than writing a moving story. Wait, let me geuss these propagandists want the writer to buy the condoms for the reader and put it on for them too? Would these be the same people that condemn erotic fiction, now say the writer has a moral obligation? Always a nose where it doesn’t belong, telling others what they should or shouldnt do 😉

  3. May 22, 2013 at 12:11 am

    It’s FICTION – that means I can choose to ignore things I might (and I stress might) be concerned wityh in real life. I’ve never written a condom into a story, for me it breaks the flow and introduces a lot of baggage related to ‘safety’ that has no relevance to the story I’m telling. Like anything else that doesn’t add to the plot or the understanding of the characters it has no place. I don’t go into long descriptions of scene or clothing for the same reason. Leave education to the educators, that’s not my job description.

  4. Forrest Franks
    May 22, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Exactly 🙂

  5. May 22, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Fiction writers have enough on their plate as it is, without trying to fit into whatever the latest politically correct manifesto is that rules the day. If the people who complain about how something doesn’t fit with their agenda have all the time and energy to decry against erotic fiction for “not doing it right”, then they can can go to all the trouble write their own literature that will serve everything they want it to. And we can wish them all the luck in the world in their endeavor to be everything to everyone.

  6. May 22, 2013 at 3:21 am

    I definitely agree that there are good and bad kinds of propaganda. I’m not sure I follow to the conclusion that fictional propaganda is a bad kind while nonfictional/educational propaganda is a good kind.

    A bad propagandist can “educate” in coercive ways. For instance, a person who lives in a restrictively conservative area may truthfully say that if someone is homosexual, they will bring shame to their family. They could present this as a fact supporting the idea that homosexuals should try harder to be straight. But this is bad propaganda because it uses cyclical logic to reinforce oppression. “You should not be homosexual because we all think you should not be homosexual because we all think you…”

    Inversely, a homosexual person in a restrictively conservative area, frustrated with their predicament, could proceed to write a novel based on their experiences. They want people to understand the view point of the oppressed people, but don’t want to villainize characters like their neighbors. So they portray a character suffering as they are, but take care to handle all characters with nuance and empathy. (For a real life parallel, consider the play Long Day’s Journey Into Night.)

    I would call that writing with a specific agenda. But I would not call it bad propaganda. Because it is not trying to tell someone what they’re allowed to consent to. Rather, it is purposely portraying a perspective that receives little attention, in hopes of pushing its readers to broaden their views, and question their own actions/habits of thought. As a writer I WANT reflective, questioning readers, and thus cannot view this as a negative authorial goal.

    To return this all to the topic of safe sex practices, I agree that writers should not be required to portray safe sex–for many of the reasons you’ve mentioned and others. But I think it is fair to ask writers to consider writing stories about characters who want to avoid the particular risk of pregnancy.

    An educator could tell as many people as they’d like that sex can still be fun with condoms. But if all people ever see in erotica, porn, television, the stories they hear from friends, etc, are sex scenes that skip condoms, their insistence will sound very out of touch with reality. It will SOUND like hollow propaganda, even if it is true for many couples.

    This doesn’t mean that every writer should slog through a safe sex checklist before letting their characters get to the sex. That is ludicrously restrictive. But it does mean that current media is heavily representing one perspective while other perspectives are not making it to the stage. Other views and character types deserve a voice, and it seems reasonable to ask (NOT demand) some intelligent writers to consider creating one through their storytelling.

    • Remittance Girl
      May 23, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      “I’m not sure I follow to the conclusion that fictional propaganda is a bad kind while nonfictional/educational propaganda is a good kind.”

      Hmmm. Well, propaganda hidden in fiction is not being honest about what it’s doing. Whereas a non-fictional article called “The Safe Sex Guide” makes its agenda clear from the beginning.

      It is a matter of being upfront about your agenda and not slipping it in like brainwashing it what in supposed to be a piece of fiction. In very much the same way that ethical newspapers clearly label ‘editorial’ or ‘opinion pieces’ as separate from news reportage.

      • May 23, 2013 at 10:42 pm

        That makes sense, and I agree to an extent. I think for me, the line between “harmless agenda” and “brainwashing” depends on the repetitiveness of reader exposure.

        For instance, if all writers were required to write safe sex into their stories, the reader would have no other alternative in their erotica. Other kinds of sex would be effectively censored, as authors were complacent in feeding their readers a single, unargued sexual value. That feels like brainwashing, and is creepy as hell.

        But often times I think authors can write an agenda that is relatively upfront to their reader. Orwell, for instance, is pretty straightforward about his dislike for totalitarian regimes and repression of thought. Animal Farm is blatantly allegorical, and even at 15 the majority of my high school class understood within the first chapter what he was doing. But we had other accounts to compare it to. We had read about Stalin in historical texts (of questionable bias, but that’s another rant), and had the opportunity to look up autobiographical works if we wanted first hand accounts. Orwell was selling us an agenda, but there were other agendas on the market; the job of our English teachers was to encourage us to be discerning consumers. You’ve mentioned before that you write fiction assuming the intelligence of your reader. I think that an ethically agenda’d author can write in an upfront way that does the same.

        I suppose I see the matter of safe sex erotica the same way I see plus sized models. If someone suggested that there were not enough plus sized models, so ALL magazines should use ONLY plus sized models, I would be put off. We would have moved from brainwashingly representing only one body type to brainwashingly representing only another.

        But some people have complained that showing models of only one body type, when there is a whole range of body types present in reality, alienates and pressures people who don’t fit the advertised mold. I think that erotica and porn are in a similar boat, where they are almost exclusively selling the picture of condomless sex (that is, there are authors like yourself that write exceptions, but they are a small enough population that many are unaware). The most discerning reader can’t seek out different portrayals of sex if those portrayals haven’t been written yet. For that reason, injecting some diversity into the way sex is portrayed in fiction seems like an understandable goal.

        • June 10, 2013 at 1:07 am

          I’m very late to this discussion, but I do find it an interesting one and wanted to say I really appreciate and feel resonance with your comments, wordsmithingimp. I also appreciate the perspective of the post, RG—it would be easy to say I disagree with what I interpret as the content, but I’m not actually sure “disagree” is exactly the right word. I see it differently, and such has been reflected in my own writing, but it certainly seems to me a case where each perspective seems it is true for the author, and there is not an irreconcilable contradiction in such.

          While I never thought of including condoms in my erotic fiction (which I have invariably done for couples who are not monogamous and/or have not been tested—e.g., I did write about a heterosexual couple that was married and used condoms for sex with other people but not with each other, as I presumed they had been STI-tested before they wed and were tested regularly since they had sex with other people) was necessarily propaganda, I won’t say I decry that label. Perhaps it is. For me, it has been more because using condoms when sexual intercourse takes place has been my reality, so it’s made sense to me for my characters to do that too. As a reproductive rights activist, I don’t doubt there may seem a bias there as far as wanting to represent safer sex in something that also may be seen as sexy. I strongly agree with this: “An educator could tell as many people as they’d like that sex can still be fun with condoms. But if all people ever see in erotica, porn, television, the stories they hear from friends, etc, are sex scenes that skip condoms, their insistence will sound very out of touch with reality,” and in my writing, it’s true that I have aimed to show that condoms are not necessarily “un-sexy” in some way (since I myself have never found them to be—on the contrary!).

          Anyway, thank you both for this discussion. 🙂

  7. May 22, 2013 at 5:35 am

    I don’t mention condoms in my stories, either. I think erotica is mostly fantasy, and people who read this genre know that. It’s the people who think they can handle erotica and know what it is who scare me. And yes, I do mention the use of gloves when I’m writing BDSM elements into my work, especially when sounding rods are being used, or a catheter is being inserted. Just my preference for that, I guess 🙂

  8. May 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Paragraph 5 says it all…and you are so right on. I found myself being rather annoyed at the last anthology of erotic fiction I read. So many of the stories lost their appeal through the unnatural interruption of condom application. I agree with you that it is not the writer’s obligation to sell his/her brand of propaganda through story. Some writers make that their business – which is fine. But it shouldn’t be an expected element. If it were – I’d stop reading erotica post haste. Not interested in someone’s agenda being pushed on me when I am just looking to be inspired and entertained.

  9. May 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    You write freely and that’s how it should be. There’s no need to spoil the story with quote, unquote safe sex. As adults the reader should know the story is freely written for the pleasure of the reader in mind!

  10. May 23, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I don’t have anything deep to add. Well written and I agree with this.

  11. May 23, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    When a character of mine uses a condom, it’s a reflection of what sort of person he or she is. I don’t feel obliged to include condoms in every story I write. On the other hand, in some cases it’s totally implausible that my characters would NOT use them.

    • May 26, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Lisabet, I have never used a condom in my life, and I am nearly 84. I am not some kind of villain or idiot; I have never been in a situation where one is essential. And that’s after having three marriages and five children. This is so hard for many people to comprehend that I have given up trying to explain. It’s nothing to do with religion, belief, prejudice, or health practices. It was just how things fell out in my life. I suppose it’s mostly because I never indulged in casual sex (almost impossible when I was a young man, and sex was forbidden except between married people.)

      • May 26, 2013 at 3:23 pm

        The fact that sex was ‘forbidden’ except between married people seems not to have stopped a great many people from doing it anyway.

        • May 26, 2013 at 4:19 pm

          Yes, Remittance Girl, but for a middle-class boy living with his parents there was nothing. Of course a lot of people were able to defy the social mores and have sex together, but for the inexperienced there was no way to learn. There was no way to start.
          My parents were themslves sexually unsophisticated, though they felt they were progressive.

  12. Forrest Franks
    May 26, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    The point is from the very beginning. I as the reader am not going to read something that has bullshit propaganda in the damn thing. If someone don’t know what the fuck a condom is by the time they are twelve ad something is wrong. My parents were ass backwards religious fucks(though I love them). And I knew what a condom was in grade school. I was smoking joints and drinking beer in middle school.

    If I wanted a fucking sex education book I would go back to school, and read one of those boring pieces of shit. Either wear a condom or don’t, the choice is yours.

    Writers, and we as readers shouldn’t have to hold your fucking hand, tell you you should wear one. I suppose we are supposed to go to the store buy them and put them on for you too.

    The author of this article made a valid fucking point. There is no debate unless you just like write fancy words and debate because that is your personality.

    Now, I don’t use a condom because I am married and had my nuts chopped. If however on occasion I were to find someone who I like very much and spend time with, and if the situation was right I might have sex with I would either go into the doctor and have us both checked or wear a fucking condom. I have fantasies like anyone else. I have thought of other women on occasion in order to achieve an orgasm, though my wife is beautiful. I would prefer to have I and this person if it happened go get checked. Because I don’t like condoms and like to give oral sex. I do not take it lightly, and would not want to hurt my wife or the other person. Its about a little common sense.

    So if your immature enoughto need somone to write a story with a condom in it go to the fucking library and read one. But don’t push your agenda and fucking morals on the rest of us.

  13. oleg
    November 13, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Yes, I agree, don’t fucking over think it.

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