Are You Into Safe Sex?

discussionI’m borrowing both my topic and my post title today from this cool post on Rabid Reads. I’ve been thinking about writing something similar for a while now. If you’ve been around my blog these past months, you’ve surely noticed my penchant for going on romance reading binges (wow I clearly have a problem…). With romances, at least the kinds that I read, reading about sex is quite inevitable.

What I want to talk about today is birth control and protection in (romance) literature.

If you poke around my blog a little, you’ll also notice that I make a lot of lists and this post is no exception. I think it’ll be the easiest way to put my thoughts in order.


  1. Adult contemporary romances and erotica. I think these are the genres where mostly people take care of their safety. Quite often the two people hooking up are virtual strangers (or at least haven’t seen each other’s medical histories) so “a crinkle of foil” or some similar mention of condoms being used is normal. In fact, it’s weird if this is absent. I don’t think that “Trust me, I’m clean” is enough of a guarantee to have unprotected sex, so this is something I don’t like seeing. But then there’s the 50 Shades scene where Christian takes care of Ana’s birth control, which was weird. I don’t mind being told about protection, it doesn’t “throw me out of the scene” or anything – in fact, I find the absence of it irresponsible and unrealistic (though I don’t think people read romances for the realism, if you know what I mean…).
  2. Adult paranormal romances. As Carmel pointed out, these often feature creatures (vampires, demons, etc.) who are immune to sexually transmitted diseases and are often incapable of having children, which enables the characters to have crazy hot sex sans the pesky protection. Eh. Again, I wouldn’t mind them using protection. (Also: remember Breaking Dawn: The Cautionary Tale About Having Unprotected Sex With a Vampire? Not that Twilight is an adult book, but still.)
  3. Adult historical romances. Here, the characters are usually either married or about to be married and have unprotected sex all the time. Magically, none of the “very experienced” dukes and earls seem to have gotten syphilis while entertaining their mistresses and opera singers. The ladies, of course, are pristine. I HAVE SO MANY ISSUES WITH THAT. But I keep reading them anyway. What that says about me, I have no idea… *sigh* I have come across mentions of “French sheaths” and “sponges soaked in vinegar“, which are apparently methods people used back in the day but I have to say they gross me out somewhat, given the hygiene standards of the early 19th century and the available materials at the time. *shudder*
  4. Fantasy. This is a genre where writers could really let their imagination fly but sadly most of the contraceptives end at “special plants” or “potions” that the lady uses to prevent pregnancy. Danya mentioned a plant that men take that makes them temporarily sterile. It’s true that what fantasy I’ve read doesn’t feature that many sex scenes (or if they do, they’re less graphic than in romances), but I’d love reading about more imaginative ways of protection.
  5. YOUNG ADULT novels of all genres. This, I think, is the most important item on the list. When the group of kids that I led at our Scouts’ organisation got to the age of 15 or so, I sat them down and went through a basic sex ed talk with them because I had no idea what they learned at school. I don’t know whether their parents would have approved had they found out but I felt that I would rather face the parents’ wrath on this than see smart kids become parents prematurely or have to deal with disease, abortion or equally horrible stuff. It’s been several years since that talk and I’m still really glad I did it. I may be viewing all YA I read from an adult’s perspective but I think that writers of YA hold a certain amount of responsibility and should therefore take care when writing sex scenes. (I was horrified when I watched Star-Crossed, where a girl had unprotected sex with an alien and got pregnant with a mixed-race baby. Can you imagine what could have happened?!) Teenage years are the time when most people come across their first sexual experiences and while I don’t believe that fiction is the only channel through which young people learn about sex, it’s certainly one of them. What I’m trying to say is: I’m all for reading about condoms in YA novels. I’m glad when I read about characters discussing it among friends, glad when the couple discuss it before/during the actual sex scene, and very worried when it’s absent in the name of romantic idealization of sex (which is a topic for another day).



I’d love to discuss this with you so tell me:

What do you think of this issue? 

Is birth control sexy or not? 

  • I tend to go on romance reading binges too.
    I find it weird/irritating when the characters just jump to having sex without birth control. Especially in contemporaries. And it is annoying how those bad boys in historical romance never got STDs.
    As for ya… As you said, writers do have responsibility… But I do not like it when pregnancy is made into something that will kill you (although I understand the motivation).

    • Nah, I know teen pregnancy can be represented in a really bad way and I do wish that YA books dealt with protection agaisnt STDs as well as pregnancy.
      I would have thought that the 21st century was evolved enough to speak freely about contraception and such but apparently not!
      Romance binges are great for when I just want a break from everyday life but after a while, I have to read something more serious so my mind doesn’t turn into mush :)

  • It IS weird that safe sex isn’t mentioned more, especially in more realistic fiction. I get that in magical worlds, there could be a spell or potion to solve any stds but in historicals and romance novels, there really SHOULD be mention of using protection at least. And even still, I wouldn’t mind seeing fantasy books speak of safe sex in the magical community. Pregnancy isn’t the only thing people should be concerned about, I think stds are a much bigger issue that for whatever reason is ignored in fiction.

    • Yeah exactly. I don’t really understand this rule in paranormal fantasy that vampires don’t get diseases – umm WHY? This is totally illogical – they would just have a vampire version of them, wouldn’t they? I mean, I guess I DO understand – romance writers just want their characters to have “unburdened” sex but it still bugs me.

  • Maraia

    Hahaha, you’re awesome. Kudos for giving those Scouts a sex talk!

    This was such an interesting post, and I agree that, if books are going to talk about sex, they should make sure it’s safe. Especially in YA, as you said. I don’t think birth control IS sexy to most teens, but I think it could become more so if it were less of a taboo subject. I read My Life Next Door (YA contemporary) earlier this year, and I was so impressed with how sex was handled. Not only was there a sex talk with a parent (appropriately awkward but still survivable), the couple in the book actually talked about birth control BEFORE having sex. They planned it out, went to the store together, supported each other, and made sure they were prepared. It was pretty amazing. I’ve always thought that if you’re too embarrassed to say the word “condom,” you’re probably not mature enough to have sex.

    Fantasies do have the most convenient, least realistic birth control methods. I guess I’m glad it’s mentioned at all, since the alternative would be to completely disregard the subject.

    Hah, that’s an excellent point about Syphilis. It makes me realize that I can only think of one book off the top of my head where STDs come up. Pregnancy scares are so common, especially in YA, but STDs are completely avoided.

    Regardless of whether safe sex is “sexy,” I think it needs to be a more common topic in books. Real life isn’t always sexy, either. Showing young adults how to talk about and have safe sex is so important. I don’t know how it is in Slovenia, but there are many, many kids throughout the U.S. who aren’t getting proper sex ed in schools or at home. I have no problem with authors letting their YA characters have sex, but if they do, then I think they also have a responsibility to portray that sex in a safe way.

    • Well I can imagine that featuring unsafe sex in books can also have its point but I’d love to see it discussed in a way that doesn’t go: YOU WILL DIE (Twilight). Or that doesn’t ignore it completely. And I don’t think that every YA book that features sex should necessarily make a big deal about protection but all it takes is a small sentence in there “he put on a condom” (WOW, five additional words!) and they’d be home free if they didn’t want to go into this topic.

      And YES that’s a great point – if you’re too much of a chicken to talk about/buy protection, it would make sense to wait :D

      I don’t remember any STDs mentioned – I mean, there was this book I read when I was younger, translated from German, I think, that mentioned a girl who got HIV – but it was via a blood transfusion (which never happens anymore, I hope?!). You know this kind of books – a teen has a “problem”, they solve it, everybody’s happy and they cry a lot? (I ran out of reading material in the youth section of my library and didn’t read English at that point of my life.)

      I *think* sex ed is mandatory in schools but it depends on the teacher giving it. I’m guessing some of them do the very basics (Like if you have unprotected sex you could get pregnant.) but some do more. There are some voluntary services who do workshops around schools and cooperate with teachers – they are made up of med students and such – and they give more in-depth explanations. But I remember getting most of my info from books (non-fiction), we have a number of them in Slovenian that are written for teenagers and deal with this – but I guess not all kids go to the library to read these.

      • Maraia

        Oh, Twilight. If nothing else, that series gives us all plenty to discuss.

        No, I agree, it doesn’t have to be a big deal in every YA book, but as you said, it’s not that hard to slip in a small reference to birth control.

        Haha, I’m surprised you still love books if that was the kind of reading material you had as a kid. The book I read recently was My Life After Now, and it was also about a teenage girl who got HIV. She did get it from sex, but it was a “one mistake can change your whole life” kind of thing, which I didn’t like.

  • Yay for Tamora Pierce and YA SFF books that involve male birth control options! I completely agree, birth control/contraception/STD prevention should be more important in YA…and NA. For some reason almost every NA book I’ve read involves a couple who has unprotected sex with only a cursory “I’m clean, I trust you” speech in the moment. I mean, that’s nice I guess…but not very practical? Like even if there were no liars in this world, you could still have an STD and not show any symptoms. Not very sexy, but there you have it.

    As for adult romances, my #1 safe sex pet peeve is when people are giving/receiving oral sex without discussing sexual health. COME ON, PEOPLE. You’re adults, if you can’t talk about sexual health you shouldn’t be having sex. /ends rant

    I do appreciate an author who adds in the “condom crinkle” or what have you, because at least they give a nod to safe sex. It doesn’t usually take me out of the story – although I guess it can be jarring if the author’s writing isn’t that great. Very interesting discussion post, Kaja! I will be inspecting my romance novels for safe sex in the future, haha.

    • I always wonder when people say “I’m clean” in books – is it very common for people in the US to get themselves tested for STDs like twice a year? Because the only way I’d believe someone who’s a known “player” would be a doctor’s confirmation or something.

      This is going into detail, but still: how DO you engage in oral sex without checking (for sure) that someone’s clean? I have to say I have very little experience with one-night stands and such (I’ve been with my husband since we were 20) but this has to be a huge problem, no? (You don’t have to answer this, I’m only thinking “out loud”) :)

      Oops, now we’ll all be scouring the pages of our latest Entangled or Avon romances for condoms and such :D

      • At this point I’d say that everyone knows they should be getting tested after every partner, but something tells me that’s not happening. Especially in the US where many people don’t have health insurance and can’t afford testing/are unaware of less expensive testing options. But here in the Great White North we have universal health care, so STD testing is free…yet some people still don’t do it. Blows my mind. There are actually some apps where you can pull up a digital copy of your test results. Kinda cool!

        I honestly couldn’t tell you! I’ve been with my guy since high school, so I haven’t really sowed my wild oats (if you will). ;) From what I’ve heard, there are two common responses: either they give/receive without asking to see test results and just risk it, or they choose not to give/receive oral sex for one night stands/hookups and reserve it for relationships (in which case both partners will get tested). Personally I think both options are kind of dumb when everyone involved could just be getting tested and enjoying some quality sexy time, but there you have it.

        Just call us the safe sex police! :D

    • Maraia

      Sorry for butting in, but Tamora Pierce’s name caught my eye, and I cannot for the life of me remember what the male birth control options were. I remember the pregnancy charms the girls had, but can you remind me what the guys used?

      • Hey, no worries! You’re not butting in at all. :) The one that I was referring to is in Will of the Empress, and it’s an herb that Briar uses when he has casual sex. I don’t think it’s ever come up in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe, though.

        • Maraia

          Oh, okay, thanks! My memory of Will of the Empress is hazy, since I’ve only read it once. (As opposed to 10+ times, haha.)

  • I read almost exclusively historicals and very occasionally fantasy romance so safe sex is really not something that comes up as you mention. I think because of that it does seem like a mention of it, might take me out of the “romance” of the moment but it would be way MORE distracting if there was NO mention of it in a YA novel where the characters have sex. Again I don’t think I run into it very often because I mostly only read fantasy YA which often has romance but very little sex.

    Anyway, the point is, this is something I hadn’t really thought about and I will no being paying a little more attention. The apparent absence of syphilis in Regency Era England is something to marvel at. As is the fact that you gave a sex ed talk to a group of 15 year olds. You are brave and awesome!

    • Heh, thanks :) I was 23 or 24 at the time and we’d known each other for years so I figured they’d sooner talk to me than a parent or a teacher. It was awkward and there was a lot of blushing on both sides, though! :)

      Yeah, YA novels often just say two people had sex – there’s rarely any in-depth description so the issue of putting on a condom or whatever doesn’t present itself. But I think it should, anyway, at least like “I hope he’s bought a condom” or “I’ve started taking the pill” or whatever. I don’t know.

      In historicals you always get men who’ve had a series of mistresses who have also been with other men, some merry widows, and an occasional visit to the brothel – tell me, please, how they all managed to stay squeaky clean. Ugh! I know it’s unromantic but still, I wish they’d give it some consideration.

      • I don’t know what you’re talking about – I can’t imagine anything more romantic than the declaration of “I’ll love you forever darling…or at least until the syphilis starts rotting my brain.” ;) Seriously though – one way they could deal with it is to have heroes that weren’t always such rakes aka promiscuous dudes. Experience is fine but do they have to have made there way through half the women in London?

        • Ugh is that what syphilis does? I wanted to check on Wiki but changed my mind – for some reason they always include horrifying photos right at the beginning of such articles and I really have no wish to pollute my brain with them :/
          Yeah I agree with you there – perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’m prone to jealousy (not that I’ve had much cause for it but still) but I’d HATE for my husband to have THAT many women in his past. Ugh!
          I do remember one historical romance where the guy was a virgin and the woman was a former mistress – I think by Mary Balogh? But that’s the only one I can think of!

  • Benish


    I find it frustrating that so many books don’t practice safe sex. I understand if you’re married then sure dont use contraception but if you’re not and you’re condomless and you don’t have any contraception then that’s just sad honestly. It bothers me how authors think it’s okay and romantic to not use that. I hate it when the guy says “I’ll pull out in time” WTF!! I’ve seen this in teen novels as well, I agree that adult novels are more better with safety as well, new adult is awful with it though. okay I am done with my rant lol very thought provoking post! <3 Benish| Feminist Reflections

    • I love ranty comments, it means I’ve touched a nerve and the issue is important! :)n

      OH MY GOD “I’ll pull out in time” is THE WORST. Nope, no you won’t, mister, because you’re not getting any with that attitude! Ugh. I’ve seen it, too, also in historical fiction (where a couple has premarital sex which was supposedly a huge no-no at the time).

      I don’t really care if the couple is married – but if they’re not using protection I damn sure hope they’re a long-term couple, that they’re both acquainted with the other’s sex history + ready to have a baby (because that’s what happens when you have unprotected sex, people!) :)

  • Nicole Hewitt

    Totally agree with you about safe sex in YA books – it’s a must!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    • I’m really glad of all the comments this post has provoked – I really think that this is an important issue and that we should talk about it more.
      Thanks for stopping by, Nicole! :)

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