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How Do You Put On Your Raincoat?

by Robin Covington 14 July 2011 25 Comments

I think I can assume that most of us write romance novels or at least fiction with a strong romantic element and that means one thing – sooner or later we write about S-E-X. Now, some of us write great scenes of sexual tension, have a kiss or two and then firmly close the door. And, some of us (myself included) leave the door wide open and let the reader in on every sweaty, naked, orgasmic moment.

Yeah, baby.

And, when we talk about sex we have to think about safe sex. And when we think about safe sex, we think about how to tackle it in our scenes without “ruining the moment” for reader.

So, I guess you’re wondering how I started thinking about this topic . . . sure you are. Well, this article has caused quite a stir within the romance writing industry. I won’t bore you all the ridiculous, specious scientific details (it’s total rubbish really) but the gist of it is that romance writers create unhealthy attitudes in our readers because we do not address the use of safe sex in our books and (it gets better!) our readers are stupid and will engage in risky sexual behavior.

What a load of  . . . rubbers. ; )

Now, sometimes we may write about characters who engage in risky sexual behavior and fail to protect themselves or their partners.  And that is okay – if if that is true to the character we are writing about and we want to portray them in a realistic manner. There are moving, thought-provoking books out there that deal head-on with the tough subjects and this is just one of them. But, I’ve never thought that the author was writing in an irresponsible manner or that their readers are dumb enough to think of it is an endorsement.

As an author who writes contemporary romance with smart, sexy heroes and heroines who respect themselves and their partner,  the inclusion of safe sex practices in my books is always a must-have.  The challenge is weaving it into the story in a way that rings true with the characters, their relationship and the plot. For me, that usually means that I will deal with it an straightforward and possibly humorous way. For example, in one of my manuscripts, I handled it this way:


Her reminder, forced him to let her go just long enough to paw through his suitcase for the condoms he’d packed as an afterthought. Rummaging around, he shoved aside his gun, grabbed the string of six blue foil packets and turned back to the naked woman in his bed.

Yeah, six might be enough.

Some authors weave it into the storyline and make it an essential element in portraying the characters journey.  Sloan Parker does this beautifully in one of my favorite books, MORE. In this M/M/M romance she weaves the discussion of  going bareback (sex without a condom) into the story and ties it integrally to the issue of trust.  Her character, Luke, isn’t ready to take that step with his partners and his journey towards that level of trust is breathtaking.

So, how do you, as an author, tackle this issue? Do you dread it? Keep it on the down low? Or do you think of it as way to crank up the heat level?



  • Lynne Silver said:

    Load of rubbers, hah! Great post, Robin. I don’t use protection when I write my historicals, but I always do in my contemporaries. As a reader it takes me out of the story when there is no condom use. I want it simple, foil ripping, rolling on condom. 3-4 words do it, but I want that nod to modernity.

    I do find the paranormal take on condom use interesting. Often, the hero tells the heroine he can’t get her pregnant (he can smell fertility or they’re not fully bonded) and he doesn’t carry human diseases. Most often the heroine agrees to barebacking it. I can suspend disbelief for this. Heck, I’m buying into werewolves & demons for the book, may as well go with it fully.

  • Robin Covington (author) said:

    Lynne – thanks for stopping by! I didn’t think of the paranormal “freebie” – it’s nice to be able to world-build and avoid the thinking about HIV, pregnancy and other diseases.

    Maybe I should try a paranormal . . .

  • Loni Lynne said:

    Tough subject but one needing to be addressed. I like how you handled it. I have to agree with Lynne too as condoms/protection is not something you find in most historical romances but a contemporary is a big issue and with paranormal–hey, we create the worlds–it’s fiction.

    I’ve read some stories where the author can almost make it sound orgasmic in the scene which I give big kudos too. I’ve also read some that the act of stopping in the middle of a great sex scene to protect themselves is written as an afterthought and it shows and I lose the connection.

    A bit of humor is always great- loved the scene you provided :), well done! I try for that in my writing as well or try to find someway to make it sexy depending on my characters and story line as I don’t want to bring them out of character.

    And as far as the issues and articles lately about romance novels, most of us know (and are intelligent enough to understand) that romance novels are fiction-that is how they are catagorized in any bookstore or library. We can seperate ourselves from what is morally right or safe and what is there to create a world of entertainment. Hey, we may dream of being Hugh Jackman’s leading lady in his next love scene too but we know it ain’t going to happen in real life. :) (Though I will make that ultimate sacrifice if the opportunity came up. LOL)

    It seems romance novels get a bad rap every few years (if not on-going) but if that is the case–why is it that romance is the top book seller year after year? I think it’s sour grapes truthfully.
    If it’s not condoms, protection, morality . . . it’s something else. I just think they got tired of blaming the music/gaming industry so they came back to pick on us for the woes of the world.

  • Trish McCallan said:

    Hey Robin,

    What a great post. I’d wondered how I was going to tackle this delicate situation myself while I was writing Forged in Fire. But somehow the whole condom issue ended up taking care of itself. The lack of condoms is actually what spurs the BBM and leads to the final resolution. It worked perfect for the book.

    I guess that’s my feeling. The whole protection issue usually seems to take care of itself, it slides in seamlessly depending on character and plot.

  • Elizabeth Kelley said:

    It always cracks me up when there are published article blaming the romance genre for one thing or another. The last article I read was about setting unrealistic expectations in the bedroom. Really? And, were do you think the authors got those ideas from. Don’t tell me the entire population abstains from S-E-X. Palease. I’m thinking if more guys read romance novels, the divorce rate might head south. Just a thought.

    So hats off to you, Robin, and your load of…rubbers. Roll on….

  • Carol Ericson said:

    Great post, Robin. The sex scenes in my Intrigues are not detailed enough to include that step a lot of the time. Sometimes I just skip it since my books aren’t meant to be public service announcements! Sometimes I use the humor approach, like one heroine wondering if condoms had an expiration date since it had been so long for her.

  • Sandy said:

    When I first read the article, I thought what a bunch of bull. But today after reading your blog, I began to think what if they’re really talking about all these unwed mother books with the secret baby, and the author is giving them a HEA. Could they be referring to them?

    If not, then I agree with everyone else. We are writing fiction.

  • Robin Covington (author) said:

    Loni: Thnaks for stopping by. Yep – we seem to be a lightening rod at times for all that ails the world. Too bad.

    Hi Trish! I agree with you. Usually my characters and the scene end up evolving into the perfect way to handle the whole issue.

    Elizabeth: Hey girl! I think that more men read romance novels than they let on . . .

    Carol: Your books always handle it seamlessly. And you’re right! We are not a PSA . . . it’s fiction.

  • Robin Covington (author) said:

    Sandy – Maybe. But, the books she cited for her “research” were so old that they pre-dated AIDS. And, like any craft, the romance novel has evolved over the years – remember how many rapes used to be in the older books? There’s a great discussion of this in the book, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms – The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels” by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tam.

  • Jill James said:

    Robin, great subject. I do love the leeway paranormals get in this area. I don’t have trouble getting the condom on the guy (I’m sure a pun is intended in there somewhere)I have trouble with the aftermath. In my contemporary I needed him to jump up after sex, throw his clothes on, and run out after the woman. What a hassle condom disposal is. LOL If the complainers only knew how much thought we DO put into our stories and every action our characters take.

  • Silver James said:

    Great topic, Robin. That article and the well-reasoned responses refuting the findings certainly heated up the internet for awhile!

    Writing paranormals make it easy to address the issue. In my romantic suspenses and contemporaries, the characters at least talk about it. In one book, set pre-AIDS, the heroine wasn’t on the Pill. The hero headed to the corner drugstore before things got any hotter.

    There are two ways to handle the whole sheathing process–make it humorous or write it as very sensual. I remember reading one book where the heroine slipped it on the hero using her mouth. I haven’t resorted to that. Yet. LOL!

  • Elizabeth said:

    Honestly? Unless there is a plot reason why inclusion or otherwise would hinge upon dealing with the issue, I don’t. And yes, I write erotica, and yes, I fully support sex education (and I mean real sex education, not this abstinence-only garbage.)


    I’m not writing a sex manual. I’m writing sexual fiction. Yes, I get the moves right. Yes, when I’m writing BDSM, I get the safety there right. I do that because to do otherwise can interrupt the suspension of disbelief (and because where BDSM is concerned, *someone* might just try it.) I admit, I do manage to get away with some things because I do largely write paranormal or futuristic.

    However, I draw the line at being forced to beat people over the head with safe sex messages. And, frankly, I really, really hate reading about condoms, probably because I hate them so much IRL. From the smell to the texture to the whole gross aftermath, there’s really nothing that turns me off more. And reading about oral sex after condom use? Ugh. Besides, half the time, the whole condom dance seems totally contrived and adds nothing to the scene.

    There’s a lot of ways to handle safe sex. Smart partner choices and open communication are going to be my choice over the condom.

    I’d rather just assume the characters were smart enough to do what needs to be done and have done with it — kind of like not having to describe every time a character goes to the bathroom.

    But as far as the article is concerned…bah. A flip of my nail to the bozo. Anyone that ill-informed about romance isn’t reading it and isn’t interested in giving the genre a fair shake, anyway.

  • Robin Covington (author) said:

    Jill – Yeah that would have been tricky! Maybe I need to try a paranormal . . .

    Silver – Ohh . . . I like that one . . . maybe I’ll try it. In a book, of course . . . *giggle*

    Elizabeth – You get no argument here. Well said!

    Thanks for stopping by ladies!

  • Shelley Munro said:

    Great topic. I have my own personal rules that I use. Historicals – I don’t use condoms. LOL Actually, I mean my characters don’t use condoms. Paranormals – My characters mostly don’t use condoms unless they’re with a human where not using them will give rise to questions. In sci-fi stories advances in technology usually mean my characters don’t use condoms. And with my contemporaries, my characters use condoms 99% of the time because it’s the sensible thing to do. Now and then my characters might get carried away.

  • Isis Rushdan said:

    Fantastic post, Robin! Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I write paranormal and have found ways around it. However, in one of my books when the heroine worries about pregnancy the issue does come up. In my urban fantasy, the heroine’s mother who is susceptible to disease is “active” and carries them in her purse.

    When I read a contemporary, I like to see the subject at least mentioned. I prefer not to actually read about it being put on. Clever innuendo or a quick reference works great for me.

  • Mona Risk said:

    Hi Robin, my heroes always use protection. I try to weave it in the story. I love the way Sloane Parker does it.

  • Lily said:

    1. Condoms are not the only method of birth control but for the last 25 years they’ve been back in fashion as the only sure method of disease control. They were severely out of fashion before that and would have been considered declasse if mentioned in a romance. A man who carried a condom was clearly not a moral man, not a hero. So no one mentioned them prior to the AIDS terror, which really took hold in the middle 1980s and would not have been a consideration in a romance that was published in 1981 or even 1986. It took years for the nation to wake up to the threat to everyone that HIV was. Still is.

    Also, the development of very detailed sex scenes did have a fairly slow build in the sweet romance part of the genre. It took some years to get beyond the thrill of talking about what used to be called “French kissing.” No romance writer or novel should be pilloried for not dealing with topics that were not on the social horizon at the time.

    2. Sandy, those secret baby books could also be called “sadder but wiser” books. The woman made a mistake in the past, usually at a young age, and has paid for it in the traditional manner by bearing a child with no father to claim it. If the descriptions of the years of financial and emotional struggle in raising that child don’t frighten a would-be sexually irresponsible teenager, nothing will.

    I have been disappointed to see that in some of those stories, the woman will have unprotected sex with the same man when they meet again, and get pregnant again. This clearly indicates a personal approach to life that is both haphazard and irrational, but then, some people are that way. The man involved has a lot of blame on his side, for sure. An author giving them a happy ending is a bit of a dreamer, no?

  • danielle said:

    Great post. I agree with Lynne – the condom i a must-have for me in a modern story. after all we are writing for and about women and condom use
    is critical for protecting women. A heroine who doesn’t care about that is TDTL in my book.

    I recently sent a story to a beta reader who felt that the use of the condo in a shower scene took away from the moment, so I wove it in with a comment about Boy Scouts and being prepared.

  • Robin Kaye said:

    Hi Robin – Great topic. I write sexy, humorous contemporary so condoms for me, bring some humor into the scene. There’s the great condom search in my book Too Hot to Handle where the heroine was staying at her sister’s apartment to dog sit during the honeymoon. She and the hero didn’t plan to have sex and are both unprepared so they start ripping apart the apartment looking for condoms and making use of a few other things they found in their search. Oh yeah, and they did find condoms.

    In the last book I wrote, the hero’s sister goes to visit him at his cabin which is an hour away from the nearest drug store. She buys him the book on dating he had asked her to pick up and a huge box of condoms just in case. It weirded him out that his little sister would buy him condoms, but he still put them to good use. (grin)

    Robin Kaye

  • Grace Burrowes said:

    As a Regency author, I sidestep the issue of condoms, but usually make it clear the parties are trying to prevent pregnancy through the other (admittedly imperfect) measures available. In the Victorian era, I won’t be able to dodge so far to the side in the name of history. Yes, there were condoms available prior to the 1850s, but they weren’t particularly sanitary or functional. I would rather forget that syphilis was the AIDS of the 1800s, and its results were an invisible elephant at many levels of Victorian society (though tertiary syphilis is anything but invisible).

    Maybe if there’s a silver lining to the otherwise execrable original article, it’s that it has gotten us talking and thinking about how we handle this issue in our books, and how we’re perceived as handling it.

  • Sandy said:

    I have to agree the heroine should be older and wiser, but the authors often fell to show the wiser part. Also, they don’t often show any hardship. If they do, they gloss over it. Smile. I agree some of these authors are dreamers.

  • K. T. Wells said:

    Love that we’re talking about this. Thanks, Robin.

    Condoms are a must in all my books where contemporary humans are involved.

    Most of the time I reference their usage straight on, often weaving it into the sex act, but occasionally obliquely when the story calls for it.

    As for ‘those people’ who blame romance novels for a whole host of societal ills, the Twinkie Defense comes to mind for some reason …

  • Robin Covington (author) said:

    Wow! I’m so excited that all of you stopped by!

    It looks like one thing is for sure – we, as writers, do think about safe sex practices and when it fits the story we weave it in a way that feels true to the characters. I’m thinking it might be fun to try a paranormal and not have to worry about whether the drugstore nearest my characters is open 24 hours! : )

  • Nicola McKenna said:

    Great blog Robin! To throw in my tuppence worth, I got the chance on national radio last week to defend the romance writer’s role on the points that Susan Quilliam brings up in this article. As a pre-published author who’s shortly pitching to Mills and Boon, I took care to reiterate to TodayFM’s radio listeners and to Miss Quilliam the following three points:
    1) the demographic of regular readers of Romance (category and otherwise) is wide-ranging and generally highly educated, and the lion’s share of readers are over 16 years of age (legal age for sexual consent in the U.K. and Ireland);
    2) fiction (of any genre) is intended to be just that;
    3) one’s moral, social, and sexual codes SHOULD be instructed first from much more important sources, like from within the home, or through the education system. I’m not saying codes ARE being instructed from within the home, or indeed that Sex and Relationship Education from school systems are successful in what they strive to do – only that romantic fiction does not serve as an instruction medium for either relationships or sexual conduct, nor has it ever purported to do so.
    It saddened me however that Miss Quilliam and her colleagues still meet patients whose level of sex education is so very poor, but come on, can we really blame a book for that?

  • YvonneEve said:

    What’s that old adage, “if it doesn’t move the story forward, don’t write it”? :-)

    I guess my books (written as Eve Summers) say something about my heroines (or about me), because I either skip the condom altogether or make a very big deal out of securing one, thus delaying gratification. Oh yes, and I once did use the mouth (the heroine’s mouth) to put it on!

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