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.