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?