Depicting bedroom scenes in a sexy and authentic way has necessitated that authors confront certain realities. In the teeth of the AIDS epidemic, authors and editors responded to public health concerns by rolling out scenes that showed readers how they might think and talk about condoms, despite the decidedly unromantic suggestion of sexually transmitted infections.
“I remember a conversation in the ’90s where contemporary writers were talking about, ‘Should we be using condoms? And if you use condoms, how do you do that without breaking the moment?’ ” says Cathy Maxwell, whose first novel, All Things Beautiful (Harper), was published in 1994.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, do I have to start addressing this in my historicals?’ ” says Loretta Chase, who, with fellow author Susan Holloway Scott, delves into romance-related historical research on their blog Two Nerdy History Girls. “What they had for condoms was appalling.”
The question underlying these decisions is whether what appears in romance novels is fantasy and should therefore be presented in a heightened way, without the awkwardness and concerns of real interactions, or whether it serves (or should serve) as a model for readers’ real-life relationships.
Dear Author’s Robin L. says that, though fiction is, after all, fantasy, “one of the longtime justifications for reading romance is to use it to spice up one’s sex life”—implying that readers’ expectations and behavior may be shaped by its depictions.
To include safe-sex precautions in a way that feels intrinsic rather than disruptive to the narrative, authors use an array of tactics. Some carefully add at least a passing reference to condom use.
“It’s just one line,” says Sarah Hegger, whose books include several contemporary romances. “If you don’t have that reference to the condom or whatever, or if you don’t have the conversation that negates the need for one, readers are so quick on that. They don’t like it.”
Dani Collins, in Prince’s Son of Scandal (Harlequin, Jan. 2018), lets her characters address their STI status by acknowledging the awkwardness of a broken condom—and of discussing it. “Did people really have these conversations?” her female lead wonders. “It scraped the romance off a wonderful evening.”
Jennifer Lohmann’s Love on Her Terms (Harlequin, 2016) includes an HIV-positive heroine, so conversations about safe sex are a natural part of the plot.
“You didn’t leave on Sunday because you’re afraid of catching the bug?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t know much about HIV, but I know the condom part. You tell me what else I need to know.”
“I don’t need to convince someone to be in a relationship with me just because I have HIV.” She’d fallen for the trap of settling for less before.
“I didn’t ask you to. I just want you to educate me about HIV.”
—from Love on Her Terms by Jennifer Lohmann
Nowadays, says Monique Patterson, editorial director and executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, conversations about safer sex are an extension of the genre’s central objective: creating characters who respect and care for each other. “These are natural conversations in the bedroom,” she says, “so it’s natural for them to be had on the page as well.”