So over on Facebook, Lisa from The Novel Approach posed this question about barebacking in m/m romance:
Okay, peeps, opinion:
Brand new M/M author, chapter one, first few pages, guys are already gettin’ busy. It’s their first time together, neither are virgins. They bareback, no mention at all of condoms or status.
This is a real-world contemporary, not paranormal, not fantasy.
Thoughts – irresponsible on the author’s part? Not a big deal? What?
This question keeps popping up occasion. Leta Blake has had a couple great posts about her research into why gay men bareback over on her blog, and it came up not long ago at Jessewave as well.
Yesterday, people on Twitter were doing a #UnpopularOpinion thing. Well, here’s mine:
The prevalence of protected sex in m/m romance is out of proportion with reality to the point of being a rather trite.
(/me dons flame-retardant suit. Any flames on this post will be unanswered and/or deleted)
I know WHY this is. M/M romance is written primarily by straight women, and we love the gay men we write about and we want to portray them in as positive and responsible a light as possible and never show them doing things which are, in popular opinion, Bad Things.
But we as storytellers have no moral or ethical obligation to show our characters doing the perfectly correct thing all the time. We do, however, have a moral or ethical responsibility to portray minority characters as fully rounded, complete, un-stereotyped beings. And that means letting them do things that maybe aren’t politically correct.
The Perfectly Correct use of condoms is another branch of the same school of thought that says 1-finger-2-fingers-3-fingers-fuck is the only way to gear up to anal sex, and that spit isn’t lube. Except some men–and women–have anal sex without any manual prep whatsoever, and some of them are perfectly okay using spit as lube. What we assume as gospel because our genre has been preaching it as gospel Ain’t Necessarily So. When you scream “SPIT ISN’T LUBE” you are basically telling real people who use it as their lube of choice with no difficulties URDOINITRONG.
I think the insistence on the Protected Sex All The Time Unless They Have The Talk trope in m/m romance is its own form of well-intentioned homophobia. First off, because most people don’t raise nearly as much fuss–if any at all–if characters in an m/f romance have unprotected sex. This reinforces the idea that HIV/AIDS is a Gay-Only issue, and yes, it is an issue in the gay community, except maybe there are members of that community who don’t perceive it that way. Who, for whatever reason, to not consider condom usage to be an Absolute Necessity in any and all circumstances. Maybe they’ve just decided it’s their risk to take, for whatever reason they want to risk it.
Secondly, it trivializes the other issues surrounding the choice whether or not to use condoms, many of which are emotional and personal and subjective to each individual. We like to over-simplify and make it a black-or-white issue, but it ain’t.
If we as writers are going to portray characters within the gay community, we need to give visibility to all its various schools of thought and behavior.
Someday I’m going to write up a blog post about Strain and why I chose the fuck-or-die trope for it. Let’s just say a lot of it has to do with subverting the idea that fluid exchange = death. But this #TeaserTuesday segment is about Saugatuck Summer and one of the many reasons why a character might willfully, knowingly, choose not to use condoms.
And this time I’m going to put it behind a cut because this is actually from Chapter 12 and features a rather significant conflict spoiler.
It was wrong. It was wrong. Wrong in every possible, conceivable way.
At that point, the appalled part of my brain just up and dissociated, looking on in horror and revulsion at what we were doing. But it was drowned out by an unreasoning, unfathomable need that just didn’t give a Technicolor fuck about right or wrong.
So, there I was, naked on Brendan’s bed with the light of the moon that rode over the waves of Lake Michigan spilling across my skin, and Brendan’s fevered body bearing down on me.
I could have opened my mouth and said something. He would stop, I knew he would, if I told him to. And if I had, we could have backed off, found sanity again, ended this before it went from unwise to completely fucking disastrous.
I could have said stop. But I didn’t.
“Topher…” he panted against my jaw, his lips and hands trying cover every square inch of skin they could access. He was maddened, beyond restraint, a being of pure hunger trying to consume me. Sucking, biting, gripping, groping. His breath was a little sour with wine but I didn’t care. I didn’t fucking care. I met those crazed kisses with equal madness, my mouth clashing against his, my fingers raking down his back. I gripped his ass and jerked him closer and spread my thighs to let the flannel covering his cock rub against mine.
The inner voice of my conscience screamed hysterically at me, but I tuned it out and lifted my hips, grinding against him.
His hands abandoned me to shove the pajamas and boxers down his hips with frantic pushes. And he was hard and thick and silky and slick and perfect, rutting against my belly, sliding alongside my cock in the sweaty space between us.
“Topher, please…I want…I want….” His groan sounded agonized, near tears. He might have been for all I knew. God knows I was. But he was straight. He’d never been with a guy, had no clue what he was doing.
We didn’t have any condoms or lube. They were upstairs in my room. If I’d stopped to go get them, which I knew I should do, it would have been over. I could have given him a handjob, sucked him off, frotted against him until we both came. But I didn’t want that. Because he was Brendan and he was sweet and kind and he treated me well and made me feel good, made me feel like I had value.
I wanted him within me. And it was stupid but then, this whole goddamn thing was far beyond idiotic so, really, what did one more gargantuan mistake matter? If we were going to be wrong, then we might as well be fucking wrong. I was already so deep in reckless disregard for everything I knew to be right and intelligent that seriously, who the hell could keep count of all the errors?
I pushed him away and rolled to my hands and knees, then I spat on my fingers and thrust them into myself. I’d never done it that way, the way Jace had liked it, with no prep. I’d certainly never done it with so little lube. It was going to hurt like fire, which — frankly — was a pretty damned appropriate metaphor for this whole fucked-up situation, wasn’t it? He was going to split me open and it was going to hurt and I didn’t fucking care.
This excerpt is, as usual, unedited. Saugatuck Summer is coming May 2014 from Riptide.
11 responses to “Belated #TeaserTuesday from Saugatuck Summer (#mmromance coming May 2014 from @RiptideBooks) inspired by a FB convo”
Perhaps another reason is in the fact that so many readers are straight women, as are many beta readers and editors. I have added condoms and lube, and extra-finger-prep, into scenes where they weren’t originally, based on the suggestions of my beta readers (who I love, btw). I didn’t think it changed the story either way, so I did it, mainly out of fear of attack by reviewers.
I agree, though, that it comes off as trite sometimes. I think it’s great to be responsible, and to set a good example of “perfectly correct” behavior, as long as it doesn’t become an unbreakable rule. And as long as it isn’t out of character (would someone who is careless/spontaneous/a risk taker in all other areas of life really consider no-condom sex a deal breaker? idk, but I’ve read a few stories like that)
I know, though, that leaving out that extra prep, or the condom, opens the door to a lot of criticism. I think in your snippet you got around that by showing the character’s acknowledgement of it as a “mistake”. (it’s an awesome scene, too!) 🙂
LOL thank you.
I think a lot does depend on how it’s handled. I think someone who habitually barebacks is probably the only sort of character who is legitimately in danger of not even thinking about it. But I think if we were being truly realistic, many, many characters (and this applies to m/f fic as well) would think “Oh, I should probably suit up–nah, fuck it.”
That could just be my personal experience, though. I’m never not mindful of what I know I should do. But that doesn’t mean I always choose to do it.
“I did it, mainly out of fear of attack by reviewers.”
This is why I put a disclaimer in every book where there’s unprotected sex. I’m very much afraid of getting berated for having bareback scenes. My disclaimer goes like this:
“The author does not condone sex without condoms between untested people. Despite that, she acknowledges that it happens every day in the heat of the moment, and sometimes because people carelessly decide to “risk it.” Most know what these risks entail, but for those who do not: unprotected sex can result in sexually transmitted diseases (and unplanned pregnancy if there’s a woman involved).”
I also like the idea of minimally prepped sex – there’s just something about the urgency and primal need to penetrate ASAP that fascinates me. Of course, it all depends on the situation, if it’s crazy hot urgent sex or slow loving sex.
Great post, Amelia, by the way 🙂
Thank you so much. I admit, I will never, ever put disclaimers on my books. If anyone is moronic enough to assume that just because my characters do something, I condone it wholeheartedly, I invite them to read my (hypothetical) forthcoming novel where the MC is a mass murderer.
I mean, seriously. Duh. I really can’t believe we are expected to spell these things out. Some common sense, please?
If they are published through a press, the press might do so and I’ll have no say in the matter, but I have a very strong caveat emptor ethic when it comes to book-buying.
This genre in particular is very strange when it comes to readers expecting to be handled with kid gloves. Maybe it’s because so many of them come from fanfic circles, where warning for any possible kinda-maybe-sorta objectionable content is the done thing. A lot of readers expect everything they might see within the book to be very plainly laid out ahead of time so they can decide if they will or won’t read it, and I just don’t agree with that. Stephen King didn’t warn of eleven year olds having sex in “It.” Marion Zimmer Bradley (or VC Andrews, for that matter) didn’t warn for brother-sister incest in “The Mists of Avalon” and “Flowers in the Attic.” Why should I have to warn because a character makes a bad decision–or just plain-out chooses to do something regardless of the consequences because dammit that is what he wants to do–that anyone with two neurons to rub together would know that I as a human being don’t condone.
I’ll write what feels honest and true to my characters. If someone wants to assume anything about my personal set of values based on that, they may feel free to stop buying my books, but I won’t ever apologize for it.
Very interesting points.
What I have a problem with is a contemporary with no fantasy, paranormal, or magical elements that depicts characters who not only don’t use condoms but don’t talk or think about it. That’s not what you’ve written.
Lack of thought or discussion about condom usage brings me up short and completely throws me out of a story. It’s my biggest complaint about Brandon Shire’s Afflicted, and while I may not have explained myself as clearly or at enough length, the response I received to my e-mail about it was flip and disingenuous. It was even more egregious since one character was an escort who for all we knew barebacked with clients, yet there was no mention of condoms anywhere. A time or two in the heat of passion, that I can believe, but I can’t believe that they would engage in a fullblown relationship without either using condoms or discussing why they weren’t using them and whether they needed to get tested. It was also inconsistent with the depiction of the characters otherwise.
Which leads me to what I really think is going on: Most authors, particularly ones committed to writing romance (I don’t think Shire is even though Afflicted contains all the elements of a romance), are aware of the good will readers invest in their characters. Leave aside the issue of responsibility and whether it makes the character too stupid to live; if a romance does what it’s supposed to, readers will root for the characters and want the best for them. Risking HIV and other STDs through unprotected sex is not the kind of outcome readers want to think about, but they’re going to if characters forego condoms without any discussion of it, whether it be in dialog or interior monologue.
Considering that in this country HIV primarily affects gay men, I think it’s a stretch to call it homophobia. It would be different if the stories were set in Africa, where transmission is primarily heterosexual. That m/f romance often foregoes condom usage is no excuse. That’s one of the many reasons I dislike most m/f romance, especially contemporary romance. .
It would be interesting for someone to write a book in which both or one of the MCs bareback from the start without undergoing testing first and without an expectation of monogamy, but I think it would have a very narrow appeal because too many readers would either be automatically turned off or would spend too much time wondering about transmission rates to enjoy the story. Maybe you’ve already read it, but Tim Dean has written an interesting and highly readable study of barebacking called Unlimited Intimacy. I had wondered if the ideology of barebacking, as described in the book, had inspired Shire, but apparently not.
I think you may be mis-remembering the events of Afflicted.
The first time the protags had sex (which wasn’t described “in the moment” but was recapped afterward, they used a condom but there was some narration when looking back on the encounter that said the top had been tempted to just rip the damn thing off. The second time, they started with a condom but DID remove it, and from then on began habitually not using them.
However, the MC’s BFF/assistant DID read him the riot act when she found out about that detail, because iirc her brother died of AIDS (and even before that, the MC has some thought that she WOULD give him hell if she found out) and the other protag was mindful of the fact that he would get fired from his escort service if his procurer found out he had barebacked.
So the barebacking DID come up as an issue in the books, several times, but it was made pretty clear through the text that the protags were mindful about condom usage, but that–for whatever reason that drew them together for that impulse encounter and kept drawing them together–they felt a desire for the kind of primal connection that fluid exchange often symbolizes for those who choose to bareback. They might not have discussed it with one another, but they did both at different times think about it and willfully choose it.
I agree that the choice to have characters bareback is not necessarily going to be a popular one with readers for a number of reasons. But I do think the prevalence of condom usage is overstated in m/m fiction and handled in formulaic ways that are in danger of becoming–if they haven’t already done so–trite. And I’m not a big fan of following the reader-dictated formula when the characters want to do something else for whatever reason.
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Interesting discussion, thank you. I tend to agree that the strict use of condoms in contemporary m/m is unrealistic to the point of being strangely patronizing. I would find it jarring if protags had sex without thinking at all about safe sex, but as in your excerpt, many people get caught up in the moment and safe sex flies out the window. It’s life, which is messy and imperfect.
Exactly. We have no obligation to present characters who set a Perfect Example of How To Do It RIght All The Time. I don’t know when readers started assuming we did.
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