CONVERSATION: Protection and Birth Control in the Romance Genre
READERS PLEASE NOTE: When we discuss the risk of pregnancy here, we are referring to individuals who can become pregnant, but not necessarily to M/F cis couples alone.
Janine: I’ve been pondering sex scenes in nineteenth-century historical romances and how it bothers me that birth control so frequently isn’t deployed there, despite the high risk posed by death rates and extreme social censure.
Married couples of the aristocracy needed an heir and a spare, but unmarried, aristocratic women were expected to stay virgins. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy could be disastrous—a woman could easily be exiled from her home so as not to taint the reputations of her female relatives. Yet even when unmarried, aristocratic couples in historicals rarely use preventatives.
Information about birth control wasn’t publicly disseminated early in the century and sheltered young women were often ignorant, but the means were nevertheless known to many and romance heroes typically have experience but no illegitimate kids. Clearly, some must know about it, yet they rarely help their lovers out here. Sure, many men of the period would not have, but they are supposed to be heroes.
Okay, so—I’d like to use this thought as a launching pad to a larger conversation not just about straight couples but also about queer ones, not only about pregnancy prevention, but also about protection from STD. In short, everything around how the risks associated with sex are dealt with in the genre.
How do you feel about the way not just historicals but also contemporaries, paranormals, and SFR handle these subjects?
What approaches do you like and which ones piss you off?
Do you like protection to be mentioned in sex scenes or is that a mood killer for you?
When do the characters’ choices feel inconsistent, either with the characters or with the larger world portrayed in the book?
Layla: Janine this is a very interesting and thought provoking topic!
For me birth control in novels is often unsexy. I’d love someone to prove me wrong or give an example of where it was sexy!
Jennie: I am pretty much on the same wavelength as Layla. Mentions of birth control can take me out of the moment. Sometimes in contemporaries those mentions feel shoehorned in to me, or even a bit performative. It’s better now than it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, which is when I first remember seeing such mentions become de rigueur.
Layla: I haven’t really noticed it much in contemporaries [relative to historicals]—maybe in scenes where a hero or heroine has condoms stashed away before sexy times? But since it’s such a routine part of our modern life I guess I haven’t taken notice of it much.
Janine: I’ve seen it handled in hot ways. Megan Hart had a contemporary where the heroine puts the foil condom packet between her teeth, sinks down and uses her hands on the hero, then takes the packet out of her mouth and rolls the condom down his shaft herself. She was slinky, confident, comfortable with her body and his. I like that.
Kaetrin: In a contemporary, I’ll be thrown out of the story if there’s no mention of birth control or sexual health. I don’t find it unsexy to discuss. It speaks well of the characters to consider these things. If there’s no mention then I’m expecting a discussion about the implications of not thinking ahead – or a surprise baby! If it’s just ignored I’m an unhappy reader. Contemporaries are set in our modern world – I’m on the side of thinking it’s irresponsible for an author *not* to consider sexual health and/or birth control in a book which contains sex – whether the sex is explicit or not. I don’t much care whether it’s a brief reference to a foil packet or whether birth control is integrated into the scene more fully but I want it to be there.
Jayne: In contemporaries, I want some mention of birth control. It doesn’t have to start with the appearance of the condom package and proceed with clinical detail through the hero donning it but I want something. If none is used, then I’ll settle for “I’m clean.” “Me, too and I’m on the pill (or whatever means she uses).” But some awareness of the possibility of pregnancy.
Jennie: I find exchanges of testing information even less appealing – both characters somehow have always been tested recently and come out negative for venereal diseases. I’d rather have a discreet mention of a condom!
Jayne: One book I just read, Season of Us by Pamela Sanderson, that had a condom scene used it for a little light humor as well as introducing how nervous the heroine was as this was the first time she’d even wanted to have sex since her husband was killed. This was a big step for her emotionally. The hero’s response is great. (I quoted the scene in my review).
Kaetrin: Where birth control is not an issue because of the sexual identity of the characters or they’re of an age where pregnancy is no longer a risk then sexual health still needs to be considered. In m/m romance it is routine and expected for the characters to discuss protection and use it, particularly in books set after the 1980’s. Current books might also add a discussion of PReP but of course PReP does not protect against all STDs, only (but importantly) HIV.
Exchanging health information and going condom-free is often a milestone in a relationship regardless of the gender of the characters.
Sirius: I agree completely that it is routine in m/m romances to discuss protection. In fact very often it verges on the point of ridiculousness to me – characters have a one night stand and they just happen to find protection in the drawer for example.
In this situation yeah it is way more believable for me if they didn’t use one (it is fine for me if one or both of them briefly think later on that they should have condom with them knowing where they went – something as long as it is well fitted in the narrative), even though overall I like that authors mention protection. But it is silly to me sometimes that protection mentioned not nearly as often in m/f romances as in m/m cis romances, when m/f unprotected sexual may end with pregnancy and m/m cis sex will not.
Janine: Re the frequency of condom use in m/m vs. m/f romances, I think it’s discriminatory to an extent. There’s a stereotype that gay men are promiscuous and careless of STDs and I think the use of condoms is so prominent in m/m romances to reassure readers who feel that way. Or maybe condom use became a staple of m/m partly because of that but then was simply assimilated as just another trope and not necessarily a bad one by any means? I’m not sure. It doesn’t bother me that much because I feel that as with pregnancy prevention, using protection shows care and consideration.
Kaetrin: I don’t think condom having in mm romance is about promiscuity, or at least I don’t interpret it that way. I think it was a response to the AIDS crisis.
In many ways queer romance has led the way when it comes to on page discussing of sex and STD protection.
I haven’t read a lot of f/f romance but from the little I have read I agree with Sirius that dental dams seem to be rarely used. But that could be my poor reading choices rather than a reflection of the entire genre!
Sirius: I think I agree with Janine – the authors may have the best intentions in the world but I feel like it is about promiscuity as well (Obviously I am not in the author’s head but silliness of some situations described let me believe that. Unprotected sex happens. Authors don’t need to promote it obviously but to stretch situation to absolute implausibility to me is just not good).
I just want to be clear – I don’t read much of m/f romance but what I have read I don’t remember much of contraception talk/scenes at all. I am sure it is being described in many m/f books that I have not read (to be sure – I don’t care if it is never described, this is not a romance topic I am passionate about at all), but as it stands my (hopefully incorrect) experience is that m/m authors preach about protection way more often than the authors of m/f romance do.
I am rambling I know – but the way use of protection described in m/m romance bothered me for a while I guess. And I am a reader for whom sex in m/m romance always was an icing on a cake. I never looked for sex scenes first at all and can do with sex completely faded to black too.
Jayne: In historicals I’d like to see someone be aware of the risks being run and period means to prevent them being utilized.
Kaetrin: I’m less bothered in historicals because unplanned pregnancy is such a common trope to bring about a marriage and discussion of sexual health *seems* to be somewhat anachronistic (whether or not it actually is). The historicals I tend to enjoy the most have a consideration of the potential consequence of pregnancy if there is sexual activity – sometimes that’s an agreement to marry if a pregnancy occurs, sometimes the couple is already engaged.
Layla: In my real life I think birth control is one of the greatest of modern inventions but somehow it takes me away from a story to read about it. Especially in historicals.
Jennie: I agree that birth control is a wonder of modern life but for me it’s a balance between realism and the appeal of the fantasy aspects of romance.
In historicals I don’t have a problem with mentions of preventatives if it makes sense in the story (like, I don’t necessarily want a sheltered virgin heroine to know all about the pessaries available at that time). I also don’t mind the hero pulling out, though perhaps I never read such a scene without “and what’s the success rate on that?” flitting through my mind.
The latest Charlotte Holmes mystery by Sherry Thomas had Charlotte gathering birth control methods, and given the way Charlotte’s mind works that made perfect sense. There was also a mention of her and her lover having non-penetrative sex when birth control wasn’t available. (FWIW, these mysteries don’t contain explicit sex scenes.) That can be a sexy and realistic way of dealing with the issue. Laura Kinsale’s Seize the Fire had the hero and heroine engaged in an “everything but” relationship for most of the book, and that worked well for me.
Kaetrin: There are some outstanding books where everything but penetration is used exceptionally well. Seize the Fire is an example but I’d add Jo Beverley’s St. Raven to the list. In St. Raven, the heroine wishes to explore sex in a safe and consequence-free way and the hero obliges. It’s very sexy indeed.
Layla: I do appreciate a hero who uses the pull-out method in historicals. Obviously not totally fool proof but still a sign of consideration caring and maturity. I remember in my favorite Meredith Duran novel Bound by your Touch the hero and heroine have a very sexy deflowering scene in a rainstorm in a boathouse, and there’s a brief mention of him pulling out and it’s a small touch but made the scene tender. It’s both sexy and an act of tenderness.
Janine: In Balogh’s Someone to Cherish, pulling out is one of many things that show Harry’s thoughtfulness and care for Lydia. It suits the story because they live in a tiny village where reputation is everything and Lydia’s independence is crucial to her. In contrast, Joel in Someone to Hold gives no thought to pulling out despite being angry that he was born out of wedlock, working every day with abandoned children, and connecting with virginal Camille, who has already gone through one very public fall from grace. I thought he was immature, self-centered, and blech.
I haven’t read any, but there have to be some similar situations for queer characters. To a trans character who may get pregnant, such a consequence would be disastrous in a historical setting. I wonder how pregnancy prevention is handled there. Have any of you read them?
Sirius: I had actually read such a book, yes. The Doctor’s Discretion by EE Ottoman. I don’t remember how protection was handled there, I tried flipping kindle pages and could not find it mentioned at all, but maybe I missed it.
Kaetrin: Cis gay men in mm historical either use condoms appropriate for the time or nothing in my experience.
Layla: I hate when heroes have bastard children but at same time it’s historically realistic. I hate it because the poor kids are often rescued by the father but don’t live with their mother who’s often a courtesan. I liked the way Laura Kinsale developed that plot in Flowers from the Storm.
Jennie: When it comes to promiscuous heroes and illegitimate children, I have liked books that deal with this as a real consequence of the hero’s behavior – Flowers from the Storm and Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels come to mind.
Again, I don’t mind everything being kept hazy otherwise; I prefer that to a positive declaration that the hero has had a thousand partners but somehow has managed to avoid impregnating any. I just have my doubts about pre-20th-century birth control methods, whether it’s pessaries or pull-out or herbs from a wise-woman or animal intestine condoms.
Janine: I actually like the unplanned pregnancy trope, particularly in historicals, precisely because of the high stakes. So I don’t need the method to be effective. I would just rather see the hero try and have it fail than disregard his partner’s possible fate. I want to see that he gives a damn about that.
Paranormals and SFR
Janine: In Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, the Psy once eschewed emotion in favor of cool logic, so they use negotiated genetic-compatibility procreation agreements. Not sexy, no, but it’s not meant to be. It fits the world, the characters, and the series themes. With the changelings, Singh is less effective. They need touch and sex yet have low birth rates and we’re never given a reason why.
Singh’s Guild Hunter series handles it better—it makes sense that vampirism brings on a loss of fertility, and angelic births are rare. We’re given a logical reason for the latter—it’s uncommon for angels to die so the species doesn’t need to be replenished often. And the angels’ attitude toward angelic children fits this reality–even otherwise cruel angels often protect them. Angels and vampires also have supernatural healing abilities so I don’t expect STDs to ever be concern for them.
Kaetrin: In science fiction authors have the option of using technology – JD Robb’s In Death series comes to mind – to remove STDs and unplanned pregnancy and this works just fine for me too. As long as it’s dealt with in some way I’m good. (Although famously the birth control in In Death is largely implied!).
It’s time to turn over the discussion to you, readers. How do you feel about the ways different romance subgenres handle protection? Which approaches work for you and which don’t? Is protection sexy or unsexy to read about? Have there been inconsistencies with the characters or the settings, either generally or in specific cases, that have bothered you?
One of the myriad reasons I gradually gave up on historical romance was the utterly anachronistic attitude toward out-of-wedlock pregnancy and illegitimate children—so often treated like nbd, when in actuality a woman was often “ruined” irrevocably because of a unwed pregnancy. One thing I liked about the late Edith Layton’s work was how realistic she was about the consequences for young women who “strayed” from the path of remaining a virgin until marriage.
In contemporary romance, I like a discussion of birth control, health status, and condom usage. To me they are “markers” of characters being caring and concerned for themselves and their partners. (But I really don’t care for the conversation if it’s basically, “It’s ok, I’m clean/on the pill/just got tested last week/haven’t been with anyone since my last test” and nothing is ever mentioned again.) I like the decision to get tested and stop using condoms to proceed organically as the couple’s relationship deepens. In contemporary m/m, I like the same sort of evolution (without the birth control aspect, of course). I just read Riley Hart’s m/m, OFF LIMITS, and it was the first romance I’ve read where, when discussing their health status, both heroes say they are on PrEP. This was a new element to me.
@DiscoDollyDeb: It is one of my big pet peeves that in many historicals today, “ruin” (loss of reputation) is treated like a big nothing. In reality, a young woman of the upper classes who was known to have engaged in out-of-wedlock sex (and sometimes even less than that) was often cast of her home completely and might never see her relatives again. She might also have to find a way to survive on her own in an era when few women were educated in a profession and few respectable positions were open to them. Even if she was lucky enough not to be disowned completely, she wouldn’t be unable to show her face in London after that.
In addition to all that, any of her unmarried sisters would also be considered tainted by society, and not only would she never see them again, but they also might never be able to marry. Ruining oneself would be an extraordinarily destructive thing to do, so the books where young women don’t want to marry and set out to get themselves ruined so that they won’t be forced into marriage are ridiculous.
If we’re talking about widowed or married women from the same social background, the situation could be very different, depending on the decade and on their social circle.
If they had already produced an heir and a spare, married women might find themselves free to choose other lovers. Pregnancy would not be as important a consideration for their husbands because the child wouldn’t inherit and could be raised by governesses and tutors. The father did not have to be involved in their life in any way, so some husbands were very understanding (and of course not faithful themselves either).
Such marriages were dynastic, not based on love (famously, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough–they had “the wedding of the century”–made her miserable). There were even racy house parties among the “fast set” where the hostess put little notes outside the bedrooms of the ladies (dangling off the door handles, I believe) to help the gentlemen find their partners for the night after everyone went to bed. Not something you see in a romance novel every day!
Widows were somewhere in the middle. They had a lot more freedom than unmarried young ladies and might know how to prevent pregnancy, but obviously, that situation too was not risk-free.
I’ve been reading romances for so long (since the seventies) that I can remember being shocked the first time I read a book that included birth control.
These days I appreciate contemporaries that mention birth control/protection though, like others, I’m surprised by how many individuals seem to have just been tested. I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever read a romance where someone actually asked to see those results. And somehow oral sex seems to be magically free of risk in most books.
Historical romances sometimes address the issue in creative ways; Elizabeth Hoyt in To Beguile a Beast used half a lemon in a sex scene. (This does beg the question of how many fresh lemons were available in pre-regency era England.)
That request would certainly kill the mood!
I guess that would depend on the size of one’s orangery.
@Janine Ballard: so true! Even well into the 20th century, the consequences of having a baby out-of-wedlock could be catastrophic for women. As I said, that is one of the reasons I like Edith Layton’s books. Sometimes she can seem cruel to her heroines, but certainly no crueler than the times in which they lived. In THE ABANDONED BRIDE, the heroine has to leave home after the appearance of being “ruined” (she’s not, but that’s neither here nor there) because her sisters are being ostracized and their chances at marriage are being destroyed.
@Kareni: In Cara McKenna’s WILLING VICTIM, the hero shows the heroine a copy of his test results. She hasn’t requested them, but he wants to show them to her. In Taylor Fitzpatrick’s m/m THROWN OFF THE ICE, one hero makes it a requirement of the other that they get tested and see the test results if they are to ditch condoms. The fact that I can only remember two instances of test results being shown indicates how infrequently that happens in Romancelandia.
This subject immediately brought to mind Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. Two of my favorite stories both have frank discussions of the repercussions of pregnancy and I love them for it. In A Kiss for Midwinter the heroine ended up pregnant as a young and knowledgeless teen; the town doctor is a strong proponent of prophylactics and visits one woman whose health has been ruined by repeated pregnancies. In The Countess Conspiracy (spoilerly) Violet almost died because her husband desperately wanted a son and kept getting her pregnant even though it was killing her. She and Sebastian eventually discuss that, and although he mentions prophylactics, he also says he’s perfectly content if they never have penetrative sex.
I dislike when unmarried (and not engaged) couples have encounters where the male comes in the female, precisely because it would lead to her ruin and it just makes me mad he isn’t be careful of her.
And in MF contemporaries if they don’t use protection I immediately assume she is going to get pregnant. And worry about one of them catching an STD.
In MM contemporaries I would be completely thrown out of a story if the couple didn’t use a condom, and as was mentioned earlier, it becomes a bit of a relationship milestone when the couple takes the step to become exclusive and no longer need protection.
Mind you, I tend to skim sex scenes but definitely want to characters in both historicals and contemporaries to take protection into consideration.
I can only think of one story off the top of my head that dealt with an STD, and that wasn’t a romance–in Lord John and the Private Matter he sees his cousin’s intended with a syphilis spot and that sets the whole story going. Otherwise, it might be mentioned in passing, but no one ever seems to have to deal with the consequences.
@Kareni: What you say about oral sex is so funny and true. It’s also interesting that I’ve never seen or heard of dental dams in an m/f romance context! Why not? It’s not like oral sex doesn’t happen in those books. That said (I know, this is bad of me), I think it would be hard to make a scene as sexy with them. Maybe because I’m so used to condoms in sex scenes, they don’t bother me at all. My mom once made (quoted?) a funny comparison–that using a condom was like eating a lollipop with the wrapper on. But I don’t feel that way.
I think I’ve read a historical with half a lemon. Maye Robin Schone’s The Lover? It was a long time ago so I can’t swear to it. I believe sponges were soaked in lemon juice, and also in vinegar, sometime in the 19th century. Later on, they used some other kind of solution. There was also an older (18th century, I think) French remedy that involved brandy. I’m not sure how effective any of these were, but presumably, any kind of barrier was better than nothing.
I didn’t have room to go into it in the post but Miranda Neville’s The Wild Marquis (set in the regency era) had a sweet moment involving a sponge. Juliana, a widow, uses a sponge and asks for a few minutes of privacy. Later (before they have sex), Cain says something that makes it clear that he has deduced she uses one. Juliana feels very shy about it. But when she realizes that Cain isn’t judging her for it as her late husband did, she relaxes. It’s a great bit of hero characterization that shows that it’s not just Cain’s exterior that is attractive, but also his liking for women and his acceptance and understanding of their needs and desires.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I should read that. The only Layton I have read thus far is The Duke’s Wager. I loved it back then (I have no idea if it holds up). Has anyone here read it? While the heroine isn’t ruined the entire plot hinges on just how much of a danger a “fall from grace” was to unmarried women and how carefully they had to guard their “virtue.” It’s a stark reality but I loved the book because of how powerful the heroine’s drive to have autonomy over her fate was, and ultimately her strength and determination brought the hero and the other guy (it’s a triangle) both to their knees.
I read Willing Victim (it was good) but that part didn’t stick with me. But it seems like something in character for Flynn (that was his name, right?). One of his best qualities was how upfront and direct he was with the heroine (I am blanking on her name).
@Janine: I do warn that THE ABANDONED BRIDE (originally published in 1985) has some problematic elements: first and foremost is that early in the book the hero slaps the heroine; he is immediately contrite, but the act is in no way minimized and the repercussions of it reverberate through the entire book. There is also a gay character who, while not evil, exhibits a selfishness that hurts the heroine badly. The book has a special place in my heart—it was the first Layton I read and it was one of the books (along with Mary Balogh’s THE OBEDIENT BRIDE) that brought me back to romance when I’d been totally burned out on bodice-rippers in the late 1980s—but there’s no doubt parts of THE ABANDONED BRIDE could alienate readers.
I think Mary Chase Comstock’s Regency-set “Fortune’s Mistress” handles the repercussions of loss of reputation quite well. The heroine, Marianne Gardner, was seduced and abandoned when very young. Cast out of her family, she has few options, and as she thinks to herself after being accused of having the heart of a shopkeeper: “Had she not schemed and calculated, had she not accepted carte blanche from protectors, she might very well have been forced to recourse to the streets”. When she wants to see her sister they must meet in secret. She cannot pretend that her relationships are based on emotion and accepts the gifts she is given. When Marianne becomes pregnant, she leaves London for Cornwall and tells her neighbors that she is a widow. Marianne’s downfall, its effect on her and her family, are far more realistically portrayed than in most other romances – but it is a romance, and she does find love in the end. Because I read this book early in my romance-reading career, it set a high standard. I’ve read books I’ve loved more, but it made me look askance at heroines who blithely want one night of passion to make memories to take into their anticipated lonely future or who turn down the hero’s offer of help because it somehow sullies their love.
@Random Michelle: I read both of those Milan novels. Neither is among my favorite Milans and I think in the case of A Kiss for Midwinter it’s because the book felt too educational. Sometimes with Milan’s books, I feel like they are written in a teacher-y mode. It’s hard to explain. The Countess Conspiracy was a lot better, but kind of heavy for me and I struggled a bit with assigning Gregor Mendel’s discoveries about plants and genetics to a fictional character. Probably because I am a scientist’s kid and attribution is so crucial in the sciences. I don’t know if that would bother me as much now, though. My favorite in the series is The Governess Affair and I also really liked The Suffragette Scandal.
Exactly! It doesn’t seem to bother many historical romance readers but for me it can be infuriating.
I can only think of one romance where a character had an STD (and in this case it was the main character). It’s Sarina Bowen’s NA romance, The Shameless Hour, #4 in her Ivy Years series. At the time I liked the book but the longer it has sat with me the less I feel that way. For a book that is about how harmful shaming can be, I felt it was pretty shaming of Bella, the (sexually active) heroine. Mostly it was the villainous kids who shamed her but I felt that to some extent it was the author too. I’m probably reading too much in but it felt like the author might have been thinking that Bella needed to be brought low to reach a level with the (younger and virgin) hero, Rafe, and also so that readers wouldn’t judge her too harshly for her sex life. But I didn’t want to see her brought low. I wanted to see her celebrated. The chlamydia news came after Bella had been through a horribly traumatizing slut-shaming experience she didn’t deserve and it just felt like more being piled on her. Maybe I would have disliked it in a different context too but it felt particularly unjust in that book. Bella deserved better. Nevertheless, I give Bowen credit for trying something different.
@Janine: The chlamydia came first in The Shameless Hour, then the truly horrific slut-shaming after she went to tell the guy about it. Unlike you, I didn’t read that book as Bella needing to be shamed to get an HEA, but as Bowen making the point through Bella’s various interactions and relationships that she’s loved, and appreciated, and has done nothing that she should be ashamed of – which she knows intellectually, but it takes time for her to really believe it. Also, it’s clear that Bella has been let down by various people in her life, and she deserved friends and a boyfriend who’ll be there for her (though I’ll allow that Rafe is a bit too perfect).
Re Willing Victim, it is very much in character for Flynn to present printed test results to Laurel. In the second book, Brutal Game, they deal with the consequences of failed birth control.
In addition to The Shameless Hour, I can think of another book in which a character with an STI is presented sympathetically, and it also ties in to the discussion of many historical romances glossing over how vulnerable women can be: in A Gentleman’s Position by KJ Charles, David Cyprian’s mother Ellie had once been a governess who believed her employer would marry her. He did not, and left her without a reference; she ended up working in a brothel for many years and caught the pox. By the time of the book, she’s married to a country rector (now there’s a romance I’d read), but there’s no way of knowing if she’ll experience the tertiary stage of the disease.
In MISTRESS FIREBRAND by Donna Thorland, one of the characters has syphilis and the consequences aren’t downplayed. The novel is set around the time of the American Revolution and the dangers of then-untreatable illnesses resulting from unprotected sex are an important part of the book.
I am currently a bit obsessed with this topic and a variation if it, “where did they go to the bathroom?” I feel I can say this here and not be thought weird! But seriously, I have almost become unable to read historical romance anymore because I simply can no longer suspend my disbelief about plumbing and lack of protection.
I agree with the “I want to be ruined!” trope as being absolutely idiotic and a quick way to take me out of a book. I am currently rereading one of my favorite non-romance books. “The Crimson Petal and the White,” and all that a Victorian prostitute would have to deal with on a daily basis in regards to unwanted pregnancy are spelled out. It ain’t pretty. Nor is what happens to an unwed or widowed woman in London in the 1870s. None of this “I’ll just be a governess/seamstress/etc.” It’s the factory or the streets.
I think one author who sadly isn’t writing anymore who managed to skirt these issues with creative characters was Cecilia Grant. By having a widowed woman who must be pregnant to insure she keeps her home in “A Lady Awakened” to a hardened prostitute in “A Gentleman Undone,” it made sense and I could believe the situations. I think that’s why her last full-length novel didn’t work for me; there was pre-marital sex that was a bit too wild and crazy for the characters to make any sense.
@Susan/DC: That sounds like a really interesting and different book. I have never read Comstock at all and I wonder if her books are digitized.
You, DiscoDollyDeb and others might like Elizabeth Kingston’s A Fallen Lady, a more recent book (last decade or so) that deals with the painful consequences of ruin in an unvarnished way. There is a happy ending but the book had me crying and sniffling my way through half a box of tissues. It’s very good.
@DiscoDollyDeb: Thanks, I appreciate the warning about the Layton. I may take a look at it anyhow. Balogh’s The Obedient Bride is one that I liked a lot at one time, but I think the last time I read it I was less enthusiastic.
@Rose: I apologize for getting that wrong. I think that book and I got off on the wrong foot when Bella propositioned Rafe and he turned her down because he wanted to be in a more serious and committed relationship before he had sex for the first time. Of course, there are guys like that, but did Bowen have to match Bella with one? It felt kind of like she was being lectured by the authorial choice here. I know Rafe wasn’t, himself, judging her, but juxtaposing their value systems and then their relationship ultimately play out according to his values, with all that trauma sustained by Bella in the middle being one of the things that convinced her–it felt like Bella was being “tamed.” I mean that in the narrative sense. There’s a history of narratives where a female character who is confident in her agency, sexualiy and freedom has to lose some of her independence through trauma or trammeling to end up in a committed relationship and I felt that this book was right in line with that structure of character arc. This was not the journey I wanted for her.
Further, I thought she wouldn’t end up with Rafe if she was in a thriving, flourishing state. Even in the epilogue, she is under the weather and Rafe brings her a glass of orange juice. He is a good caretaker, but the relationship doesn’t work as well outside of that dynamic, which means that Bella needs to be in a state of discomfort or worse for their chemistry to amount to much. Of all the couples in the Ivy Years series books I read (the first four–I skipped the one with the rape accusation), they are the couple I was able to least visualize together after college. As well, that nonsense about Bella going to nursing school seemed spackled on to place her and Rafe at the same location the following year. I didn’t think it suited her character at all. I would much rather have seen her train in physical therapy or sports psychology. TBH, I still like to imagine that she’ll still go for that kind of degree after she finishes nursing school.
I was in college in the early 70s when the living and sexy times were easy. Those days are long gone. I want everyone to be protected from everything. If an author were to add a note at the beginning of a book–all characters practice safe sex and pregnancy-avoidance at all times unless stated otherwise–I could be on board with that. Imagine not having to write those scenes where protection is used, but casually mentioning when the couple decides to forego it. Is that less cumbersome or disruptive? I don’t know.
@Tanya: Preach. Plumbing seems to be hand-wavy. Maybe we’re meant to accept that it happens, but no one says anything. Except in Outlander when Claire finds out first hand there’s a bucket and no privacy, then not mentioned again. Maybe it’s TMI. But, yes, I notice it too and you are not weird.
I struggled a bit with assigning Gregor Mendel’s discoveries about plants and genetics to a fictional character
The science was one of my favorite things about that story. :) Mendel himself was a fascinating character, and (IIRC) much of his work was destroyed by the abbot who came after him, which is why the discoveries really didn’t become public until much later. And I utterly adored the women using men to share their science bit.
But I digress!
I actually liked the lecturing tone of A Kiss for Midwinter, because I think it fit both the character and the story arc (since he was so passionate about birth control in part because he feared the previous doctor was trying to kill the pregnant girl). And because I remember there was a huge uproar where the older doctors refused to accept that they might be killing their patients (however inadvertently) so a doctor in his position would have been pretty strident.
It’s not romantic, but it wouldn’t have been at the time. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it all felt real to me in a way historicals rarely do.
A book without any on-the-page sex that I also thing managed to highlight so many of the dangers –and causes– of unprotected sex for women was Michelle Diener’s The Emperor’s Conspiracy The heroine was the child of a maid who got pregnant (via rape), was thrown out, and then did anything she could to survive, and died, leaving the young child on the streets. It ALSO has the heroine (in the past) having slept with her protector (another child, really) before being rescued from the streets. (Despite the unliklihood of the rescue, I adore everything else about the story.) It was pretty blunt about just how terrible life could be for women who became pregnant. (In the second story the hero overhears two housekeepers bitching about the son of their master who got a maid pregnant and then thrown onto the streets for being pregnant, and is actually horrified to learn this.)
I admit that I don’t much care for on-the-page sex. Or young virgins searching for a husband. Or rich and handsome dukes searching for a wife. So I may have avoided a whole lot of not using protection and to hell with the dangers story bits.
Which is good because I dislike it. :)
I know that a lot of people don’t like mention of STIs as well as the liklihood of dying during childbirth in historicals, because they say they are reading to escape, but considering the number of young teens who used to sneak read sexually explicit romances, it’s important to get it RIGHT.
In MM stories I’ve only read one or two books where the characters talk about PReP, and I admit I was worried about the characters, because it only protects from HIV and that leaves a whole lot of terrible things to catch.
I feel much better about everything if the characters use protection both because I’m a worrier and because protected sex is important to normalize, and the best way to normalize it is by making it the norm everywhere.
On a tangent, I find the emphasis of PIV sex in MF romances to be somewhat annoying. Both it being seen as the “ultimate” action a couple can take and that it’s the only kind of “good” sex and everything is lesser.
But that’s a totally different subject.
@Sydneysider: “Taking Liberties” by Diana Norman has two heroines with the English Dowager Countess’s husband having died from syphilis. Luckily he and she loathed each other and once they had an heir, he left her alone and partied with others.
Syphilis can be transmitted from an infected mother to her child through the umbilical cord or in the birth canal. Congenital syphilis was a terrible problem prior to the development of effective antibiotics—a person could have experienced no sexual activity at all and still be infected. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance where that was addressed, but it is a plot point in Ibsen’s GHOSTS. (Iirc, Winston Churchill’s father died of syphilis; I wonder if Churchill’s mother was infected.)
@Sydneysider: I had forgotten about the Thorland, you are so right. That’s my favorite of her books, too. I was more focused on central characters with STI’s and Bella was the only one I could think of but even a prominent secondary character with syphilis is good. I appreciate that the character in Mistress Firebrand wasn’t a villain either. Minor characters with syphilis were actually pretty de rigeur in older romances and sagas (the 1970s-1990s) but frequently they were villains. That’s a shaming stereotype and often a cheap shot.
In Patricia Gaffney’s mid-1990s historical romance, To Love and to Cherish, the heroine’s husband (not the hero) is presumed to have died in the Crimean war and then he turns out to be alive after all (separating her from the hero, whom she fell in love with while she thought her husband was dead). When he comes back, he has syphilis. He is a villain but a humanized one, not as lacking in dimension as some.
There is a scene I hated late in the book where, after he learns she has slept with the hero while she thought he was dead, he rapes her. It’s the only sexual contact between them after he’s back. She isn’t just traumatized by the rape, she’s also horrified that he may have infected her. But he immediately tells her that he is past the contagious stage of the illness. I had never heard that there was an end to the contagiousness of syphilis before I read that book. I wonder if that’s even true or something the author invented.
@Tanya: LOL re. plumbing! That’s why I prefer the later decades of the 19th century. By the 1880s there were indoor plumbing, flush toilets, telephones, toothpaste, even rudimentary electricity… I wish more authors would use that as a setting.
However, it’s not like contemporaries have a lot of details about using the toilet either. A lot of the more off-putting or obvious aspects of daily life are skipped over in almost all fiction, regardless of genre. I’m sure I’ve used this metaphor here before but–I don’t need to be shown characters tying their shoelaces either to know that the shoelaces are tied. This applies to everything from trips to the bathroom to the majority of epilogues for me. If it’s something I can infer on my own (their shoelaces are tied, they live happily ever after) then I don’t need to read about it.
Actually, that has not been substantiated. It was widely believed at the time that he had it and even Winston seems to have eventually believed it. It is possible that Lord Randolph himself may have. But the medical profession was preoccupied with syphilis late in the 19th century and many people were misdiagnosed with it, and the rumor was propagated by someone who felt some animosity toward Churchill. In any case, Lady Randolph, Winston, and his brother don’t appear to have been infected.
See this article by a doctor:
The same writer has another here, where he goes into his research methods in more detail:
Poor Lord Randolph Churchill. If he didn’t actually have it, to have everyone, probably including his son, think so is awful.
@Jayne: I’ve read quite a few books where the characters showed their test results to one another before going condom free. Sometimes it’s in the context of both going and getting tested, other times, it’s when there are recent test results available for one or other other partner. It’s not ubiquitous but I wouldn’t say it’s rare either. Of course, I can’t name any of them now!
@Janine: I loved A Fallen Lady too.
@Rose: I liked The Shameless Hour very much – my view of it is more like yours I think – but I still think Bella got a raw deal in terms of what happened to her and the lack of consequences by the perpetrators. What did eventually end up happening (I may be remembering this wrong but it may even have been in a later book?) was just not enough. I wanted some expulsions and/or legal consequences at the least. When contrasted with the outcome of the next book in the series – The Fifteenth Minute – (a book I enjoyed but struggled so much with due to the premise I couldn’t grade it) it left a sour taste in my mouth.
@Janine, that’s my favourite one of hers as well. It was also good about portraying how time spent on domestic work kept women from doing anything else during that era…sad, but realistic.
That scene sounds awful. I’m pretty sure that’s not true and the author invented it for the sake of the story. I am not a doctor, so take it with a grain of salt, but my understanding is that syphilis is most contagious in the early stages and less in the later stages…but less contagious doesn’t mean not at all contagious!
I don’t think Donna Thorland has written anything recently sadly…her books were good and I wish she’d write more.
@Sydneysider: I’d love to see Donna Thorland return to writing romance books as well.
@Kaetrin: I agree – Bella delivered her own brand of justice, but it wasn’t enough; some consequences were hinted at (Title IX investigation, possible legal ramifications) but what was done to her called for more.
I also agree with Janine that Bella would not have ended up with Rafe if it hadn’t been for her experience, but something extreme probably needed to happen for her to pay attention to him after their initial hookup. Maybe that could have been accomplished differently, but I don’t feel like there was any suggestion that Bella needed to be ashamed of anything she’d done, and the point was made repeatedly that she’s still the amazing person she’d always been. Bella can still be Bella in a monogamous relationship, and given her interest in Graham in the previous book, that actually doesn’t come out of the blue – unlike her decision to go to nursing school, which was neither in character nor necessary to keep her at Harkness. I’d have liked to see her pursuing a counseling degree or something involving advocacy instead.
What *is* weird with the Ivy Years books is that every one of them has one MC who’s either a virgin or very close to it. I don’t think Bowen would do that if she were writing them now.
@Tanya: I forgot to say–I miss Cecilia Grant too.
@Darlynne: I don’t think a note at the beginning would work for me. When I start a book I want to sink into the story right away. Maybe at the end?
@Random Michelle: The Michelle Diener book sounds good. I have the third book in that serious, A Dangerous Madness, in my TBR pile. Can you tell me if it’s any good? Jennie covered it in one of her reading list posts years ago and liked it.
I rarely worry about characters in romances. In other genres, yes, but with romance, I know things will turn out well. It’s one of the genre’s selling points for me. I think it’s good to normalize protection but not at the expense of consistency. As Jennie was saying, for a sheltered virgin in the 19th century to be aware of Dutch caps would strain credulity. So it does depend on how it’s handled. Mostly though I want to feel that heroes and heroines care about their partners! I am not at all opposed to the unplanned pregnancy trope but at least try.
@Kaetrin: I wish she’d write more in that vein.
@Sydneysider: Donna is a friend and we keep in touch occasionally. After she finished her Renegades of the American Revolution books, she worked on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina television series and the second season of Shadow and Bone, which isn’t out yet, I believe (both are Netflix shows). As far as I know, she hasn’t written any novels since then, but I could be wrong. Those Hollywood positions are time-consuming.
Since we’ve brought up Mistress Firebrand, there’s a great scene there involving an 18th century condom. It was hot but at the same time I tried not to think too hard about what that condom was made of.
I don’t know if it could or could not have with Rafe, but it certainly could have with another hero. I would much rather have seen Bella with someone who wasn’t a near virgin; the juxtaposition of their values was a big part of the problem for me. Maybe it stems with that virgin/near virgin thing you mentioned.
That was actually a big part of the problem for me. Why did that point need to be made over and over if the author trusted readers to embrace Bella as she was? To me it read like an authorial intrusion and the very fact that it was hammered so much suggested that she wasn’t totally acceptable as she was (without the constant insistence), or that if she was, then other women who’d made the same choices might not be. Would she really need that much defending if the narrative totally accepted her as she had been before?
Additionally, from what I remember (I hope that I’m not misremembering again) her work with the hockey team brought Bella a lot of joy and satisfaction, yet she dropped out of it after the assault. Did she ever resume it? Again, I’m fuzzy on the details but I have the impression that she never did. That suggested to me that she was no longer living her life as fully. Dropping something that rewarding and that big a part of her life suggests that she lost her mojo or that the author felt the need to rein her in.
The Michelle Diener book sounds good. I have the third book in that serious, A Dangerous Madness, in my TBR pile. Can you tell me if it’s any good?
I love the whole series and reread it regularly! I started with the second book, Banquet of Lies which is one of my favorites, but all three are good. No boinking, but there they each end with an HEA.
Here is a passage I love from the second book, between the cook (the heroine) and the housekeeper, about a very young maid.
She was far too thin, and Gigi wondered if she was being starved here. It hardly seemed possible, and she didn’t think Iris was someone who would stand for that, but the evidence couldn’t be dismissed.
“I don’t mind what I eat, Cook. It’s all good to me.” Mavis blushed at being spoken to directly, and fiddled with her straight brown hair. “Never had too much at home. Too many of us, see? Five brothers and two sisters. And me brothers, they took as much as they could grab. Never was much left for us girls.”
“We’ve been fattening Mavis up,” Iris said, and something in the way she said it made Gigi go very still.
If this was evidence of Mavis with more meat on her bones, she must have been a walking skeleton when she’d gotten here.
There’d been deep, cold anger in Iris’s voice, and she looked across at her. Their eyes met, and Gigi felt a sense of connection bloom, their mutual anger and horror at Mavis’s suffering binding them together.
Technically it has nothing to do with the story, and is little more than a throw-away passage, but it tells you a tremendous amount about both women and it allows you to (a few pages later) learn even more about the hero.
And the third book is also good, is based upon an actual historical event (the murder of Perceval, the Prime Minster, and trial of the killer), and ALSO has a ridiculous in-the-rain-confession-of-love scene that I utterly adore.
I rarely worry about characters in romances. In other genres, yes, but with romance, I know things will turn out well. It’s one of the genre’s selling points for me. I think it’s good to normalize protection but not at the expense of consistency. As Jennie was saying, for a sheltered virgin in the 19th century to be aware of Dutch caps would strain credulity. So it does depend on how it’s handled.
Oh, I worry about ridiculous things–even if I know the bad things aren’t likely to happen. I mean, in MM historicals I always worry unless one mentions they’ve locked the door, and stress out when the couple have sex in an inn, because ANYONE CAN HEAR! DO YOU WANT TO BE PILLORIED?!
And I agree that it’s unrealistic for virgin heroines to know about protection, but unless the hero is also a sheltered virgin, he should know, and if he’s not a cad, be looking out for her.
But, to be clear, I find sex scenes to be boring, so tend to skim them, while worrying about the emotional well-being of the characters. ;)
As is often the case, once I was thinking about this topic, I remembered a couple of other books that fit the bill:
One more book where the couple get tested and show each other their results: N.R. Walker’s m/m, PIECES OF US (part of her Missing Pieces trilogy—one of my favorite reads of 2020). The MCs have actually been a couple for more than five years, but one of them has amnesia after a severe automobile accident and remembers nothing about his partner. Even though neither of them has had any other partners in the past five years, one MC doesn’t remember that and, to set his mind at ease, the couple go together to get tested. PIECES OF US (which has to be read after the first two books, PIECES OF YOU and PIECES OF ME) is also the only book I can recall where we see exactly how the STD test for men is conducted.
I also thought of another book where the MC has had (and been treated for) an STD in the past: SO STEADY by Eve Dangerfield. The heroine’s teenage STD (contracted from her high school boyfriend), and subsequent shaming by the nurse at the clinic where she received treatment, have caused her to retreat into a “safe” persona where she never ventures out or tries anything new. Dangerfield does a great job of showing how traumatic an STD can be (iirc, she also implies in her afterword that she herself went through a similar situation).
@Random Michelle: I see that my library even has that entire Diener trilogy in digital format! And two of her books in her other historical series as well. I should give them a shot, they sound like something I would enjoy. I also really want to try the Layton and Comstock books that DiscoDollyDeb and Susan/DC recommended.
I get nervous when a gay couple leaves the door unlocked too. Recently I started Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series and in book three (not a fave) there’s a scene later in the book where one of the heroes walks in on the heroes of the prior book having sex because the room was unlocked. As he was approaching the door and hearing them (he misinterpreted the sounds) I was so stressed! Even though I knew he was gay and wouldn’t out them. They were professional hockey players on different teams and it was of paramount importance to them (one especially) to keep their relationship from the public. That scene was so stressful. Plus the whole time I was yelling at them in my head “WHY WOULD YOU LEAVE THE DOOR UNLOCKED?!”
@DiscoDollyDeb: Re STD diagnosis. It is stressful. A friend of mine went though a scare (it was a misdiagnosis) and it was really upsetting to her, understandably so. Society stigmatizes this so much. When I was young, I was tested for one and had to wait for the result, but because I had only been with my then-husband at that point and he hadn’t been with anyone else either (or so he’s told me—and we were really young) I wasn’t that worried. In hindsight, though, I should have been. He wasn’t as trustworthy as he seemed to be. So that’s another source of potential stress—you may find out that your partner has been cheating on you.
@Janine: I know someone who discovered her husband was unfaithful when she was diagnosed with herpes. Needless to say, they are no longer together.
In the Rachel Reid book you’re referencing (TOUGH GUY), Ryan walks in on Shane & Ilya making out. They’re not having sex, just kissing. Shane is flustered, but Ilya just shrugs it off.
@DiscoDollyDeb: How horrible for her.
You’re right re TOUGH GUY. But it’s not much less dangerous when the goal is not to be found out!
@Janine and @DiscoDollyDeb, finding out about infidelity through an STD is also a plot point in THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL by Sujata Massey. I wouldn’t call it a romance though, so I don’t know if it fits. I highly recommend the whole series.
@Janine, that was a great scene!
I see that my library even has that entire Diener trilogy in digital format! And two of her books in her other historical series as well. I should give them a shot, they sound like something I would enjoy. The Susannah Horbut (sp) series is also very good, and I love that it is based upon real historical people about whom little is known but their names.
I haven’t read any Layton books. Possibly I should remedy that.
@Sydneysider: I have The Widows of Malabar Hill in my TBR pile, so I’ll try to move it up. Sunita, whom you may remember as a former DA reviewer, liked that book, I believe and felt it was authentic to its time, place, and milieu. She had lived in that neighborhood decades earlier.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I forgot to add–I think part of why Ilya shrugged it off is because he knew Ryan was gay (he suspected it in Heated Rivalry). But yes, he was also always more relaxed about it (and about a lot of other things) than Shane.
@Random Michelle: I’ve only read two Laytons. One was part of a later series for Avon and I didn’t care for it, though I later got the impression from other readers that if I’d read about the heroine in the earlier books I might have liked it more. The second was her debut, The Duke’s Wager, which I loved back in the early to mid- 2000s. You have to swallow an odd conceit at the beginning but it’s a very powerful book and it does deal with ruin. The heroine has to struggle against two men (one of them is the hero) who wager that they can seduce her. I also want to repeat my recommendation for Elizabeth Kingston’s A Fallen Lady.
I’m going to refer you all to Jessica Cale’s superb podcast Dirty, Sexy, History, episode 1 where she talks all things birth control and abortion in history. Women did have birth control options as did men and some were more effective than others. To say that the discussion of birth control is anachronistic in historicals just isn’t true. For as long as people could get pregnant they sought ways to control it. I find that when a book doesn’t address these issues, it takes me out of it.
Oooh! I need that in my ears!
@MILLY: That’s what I thought. I didn’t contest what Kaetrin said about a discussion of birth control in a historical context seeming to be anachronistic because she qualified it with “whether or not it actually is” and because it does depend a bit on the characters’ background and social class. Two aristocratic virgins in the Victorian era might not have known what to do. However, I’m certain many men of that class did know and to withhold the information from their lovers is thoughtless if not callous–not exactly hero material. Historical romances need to catch up to contemporaries in this arena. I will look into the show you recommended; it sounds excellent.
@Random Michelle: Which one?
The Dirty, Sexy, History, podcast. :)
@Random Michelle: Yes, that sounds terrific.
(I figured out what you meant after you posted. For some reason I was thinking it was a TV show.)
@sirius: “I agree completely that it is routine in m/m romances to discuss protection. In fact very often it verges on the point of ridiculousness to me – characters have a one night stand and they just happen to find protection in the drawer for example.”
What? You don’t think it’s likely that a gay man in the Age of AIDS would fail to prepare for the possibility of a sexual encounter?
I had enough unprotected sex, back in the days before AIDS reached New York, that it still sometimes gives me the shakes. Fortunately, I caught gonorrhea only once or twice. But I was a piker: I only racked up two or three hundred lifetime sexual contacts, whereas friends of mine who were more outgoing had well over a thousand. (By contrast, none of my straight male friends managed to top 20.)
Fortunately, we’ve all learned to play safely—those of us who have survived, anyway,.
@PaulL: Hi Paul. I really appreciate your thoughtful and candid reply. It’s good to have this kind of input.
FWIW, I read Sirius as contrasting m/m romances with m/f romances and stating that the characters in the queer romances were a lot more diligent about having prophylactics on hand than characters in romances between cis-gendered, heterosexual couples. And I do agree with that point. It seems discriminatory to me in the sense that some of the male protagonists in het romances are “rakes” and such–men who have had many lovers–and some of the books are set outside of the AIDS era and in periods where diseases like Syphilis were a greater concern. So why hold these straight men to a lesser standard? Admittedly, I have not read enough m/m romances to be an expert, but many of the protagonists in the m/m I’ve read have only had a handful of lovers. It would be a different story, of course, if they’d had as many sexual contacts as your outgoing friends.
I found your comment moving and appreciate your opening up. Recently I read a book set in the milieu of Chicago’s queer community in the 1980s (The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai), at the heights of the AIDS epidemic, and it brought home how devastating the illness (and the government’s horrifying policies or rather, non-policies) were to so many. I can’t imagine living through something like that. I’ll be thinking of your comment for a long time.
My condolences on your losses.
Thank you for chiming in Paul. That tracks with what I heard when I listened to And the Band Played On about the AIDS pandemic a couple of years ago. It must have been so traumatic and difficult for you going through it and seeing so many of your community become sick and die. The book provided a glimpse of what it must have been like but it cannot be the same as actually living through it.