Thursday, 9 April 2020

The "I'm Clean/Condom" Scene

Okay, be forewarned.  This is going to be a frank discussion about my opinions on condom-use during sex and how it's depicted in romance novels.

Anyone who reads romance has seen variations of the scene I'm about to describe.  It usually doesn't happen with the first sex scene, but there are good odds of it happening later on.  The couple is ready to make love when they realize they don't have a condom (because they're on the run, or they've gone through the original pack).  There's a brief discussion that includes some or all of the following:

- I haven't been with anyone for <X length of time>
- I've been tested recently and I'm clean
- I'm on the pill/shots/am infertile so we don't have to worry about pregnancy

I'm not casting stones at any other authors.  I've adored and recommended books where this exchange happens.  But it has begun to bother me, especially when the main characters haven't known one another very long.  Pushing someone to have unprotected sex is not an expression of love and caring.  Blindly accepting someone's word on their sexual habits is not a sign of a secure relationship.  And I'm not even going to get into how it sets up an implied hierarchy of intimacy where unprotected sex is higher than sex with a condom.  Or how it implies condom use is a transitory phase in a relationship.

What really throws me out of the story is that I've only rarely seen a character even mentally question the other character's declaration of non-risk.  No one seems to ask "could this person be lying to me in order to have sex?"  It makes me want to shout at the characters: Look, **I** know everything is fine because he's a romantic hero who will be worthy of you before we reach the last page, but you can't possibly know that yet!  Have some self-protective instincts!  He's a hero, he'll support and protect you if you just ask him to!

I may have occasionally said these things out loud, leading to a number of awkward conversations and at least one incident where I was asked to leave that particular coffee shop.  A true hero will never do anything to put his partner at risk, so when I see those statements in a romance novel, I know they are intended to be true.  But without the protective framing of Once upon a time and happily ever after, that's not always a guaranteed thing.  Sadly, there are still a depressingly large number of real life men who will push their partners into unprotected sex and who are often not honest about their relative health or sexual history.

Another aspect of this exchange that I find troubling is that this discussion usually takes place when the couple is in the middle of a clinch.  One of the things we've become aware of is how sexual arousal affects decision-making.  Studies have shown that horniness impairs a person's ability to make rational and well-reasoned decisions.  The level of impairment is similar to being drunk.  Like, impulse buying a bunch of commemorative plates online at three a.m. level drunk.

This led me to a chain of thoughts: individuals cannot give consent to sexual activity when they're drunk, which means they also can't give consent if their mental processes are scrambled because they were in the middle of hot foreplay.  Particularly they shouldn't be expected to give consent to riskier sexual encounters than were initially agreed to.  Especially when the relationship is still in the getting-to-know you phase when the couple don't yet know about the secret agreement to sell her vineyard or the mysterious tragic backstory that keeps him awake at night.

As you can see, I have strong opinions about this topic.  I'm hoping that more romance authors are starting to think about this particular dynamic.  Consent is becoming a bigger part of sex scenes and frequent check-ins to make sure that all partners are good with what's happening are being modeled more and more on the page.  I'm really pleased to see that, but as a reader and author, I'm ready to take the next step.

Because of my strong opinions about condom use and consent, the sex scenes in my upcoming release, Division, are structured a little differently.  In one encounter, Vincent realizes he doesn't have a condom.  Annika is waiting for him to pressure her into unprotected sex (at which point she plans to reveal that she has already bought condoms and has them ready), but instead, he calls a halt and tells her that he will go out and get some before they have sex.

To me, that is a wonderful expression of caring for and respecting your partner.  There's no implied "if you really loved and trusted me, you would be okay with proceeding without protection."  Condom use is taken as a given and my hero will do what is needed to protect her, even when that action requires a lot of willpower on his part.

I also included a scene where Vincent waits until after he's given Annika an orgasm before he pauses to make sure she's still willing to have penetrative sex.  He wants her to choose to be with him without any distractions from her body or mind.  He wants her to choose him, not just be willing to proceed with any reasonably attractive guy.

In both of these scenes, the determination to protect his partner is part of demonstrating the increasing emotional connection between the characters.  They are falling in love and discovering the intensity of having a physical and emotional bond with another person.  It's honestly the best feeling in the entire world and I wish everyone had the option of feeling it every day.  It's why I write romance.  It's why I read romance.  I believe in the power behind those feelings.

Division is up for pre-order now and will be releasing in July.  My Lalassu series is set up so that every book is a stand-alone story, but there's also a overall story arc that runs through the series.  If Division appeals to you, feel free to jump right in.  But if you'd like to start at the beginning, you can pick up the first book of the series, Revelations, for less than two dollars.

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