September 27th was National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. A friend of mine who’s poz posted this blog post on that day with a plea for people to stop serosorting. I've been thinking about it ever since.
There is so much to consider about what he says, so many layers and levels and applications. Serosorting is one, but by no means all. I don’t think I’ll be able to parse through all my own thoughts and feelings for a long time to come, but I decided to start with looking at the article from the overlay of my job as a writer. Or, more specifically, my job as an erotic romance writer.
Condom use comes up a fair bit in this community. Sometimes it’s from editors. Sometimes from readers. Sometimes from other writers. Opinions are all across the spectrum. Some people, whether due to being part of certain generations or having certain life experiences or working in STD prevention fields or something else entirely, feel very strongly that condom usage should be part of every book and every ejaculation (anal and oral). Other people feel there is a raw sexiness to sharing fluids, in mouths, in asses, in asses and then in mouths. And yet others find themselves in any number of places on the spectrum in between.
I think everyone is right about all of those things. What we find erotic is personal to each of us and we will never all agree that the exact same thing is "holy fuck hot" and the exact same thing is "ewww". We’ll also never all agree that the exact same thing is “OMG danger!” and the exact same thing is “Oh, come on, who worries about that?”.
As a writer, I do my best to always know my characters. I consider my writing to be character driven erotic romance. That means characters are the most important part of my books. It means they'll have a romantic relationship that is the focus of the book. It also means they’ll fuck on page and, hopefully, do so in a way that readers find hot.
Now, saying I need to know my characters means I can’t write everyone. There are people I know well who can inspire me. There are people I know not as well who can inspire me. There are people I don’t know at all but who write something (like a blog post) who can inspire me. But there are just as many people who fit into all of those categories that I can’t write because I can’t get into their heads. There are also people who I can’t write because I don’t feel I’m at a place (yet) where I can write their story in a way that either feels true enough for me or feels appropriate for an erotic romance book.
I want to repeat that. An erotic romance book. I write fiction. My stories aren’t real. I try very hard to make my characters relatable. I try very hard to make my stories feel real (vampires and shifters aside). But the fact of the matter is, for me and the types of books I choose to write, realism is no more and no less important than romanticism.
I want to bring the aww moments. I want to deliver warm feelings. I want my readers to smile when they’re reading my books. I’m not writing the news. I’m not writing exposes on injustice. I hope I’m teaching things and sharing important things. But I hope I’m doing it softly, quietly, and with a whole beehive’s worth of honey.
So, how does that relate to the blog post I shared? Well, for starters, it means I will try to write about guys in a way that feels genuine to me within the construct of romance. I personally don’t know anyone who says they use condoms during oral sex. I just don’t. I’m not saying there aren’t people who do it. I’m not even saying I don’t know those people. I’m just saying, I’ve never heard them say it. And I’ve asked. Not before I started reading in this genre, but since.
When I first read a condom blowjob, I was surprised. Eventually, though, I saw it often enough to wonder. I have a giant wall between my writing life and my personal life, but I’m the same person either way so that means I’m not shy. I also know people who work in a variety of fields, including health care. And, more specifically, health care primarily focused on gay men, which means a sizable poz patient population. So I’ve asked friends, gay and straight, single and partnered/married, health care workers and “civilians”.
People I know say they don’t use condoms for oral sex. I personally don’t find the idea of latex in the mouth sexy. So the characters in my erotic romance books don’t use condoms for oral sex.
That’s the easy one, right? I mean, yeah, some people say glove up every time always, but an erotic romance character not using a condom when he’s going down on someone isn’t exactly controversial. But what about anal?
Harder question. Does stopping the scene to cover up take away from the heat? Does not addressing condoms at all worry the reader and therefore take the reader out of the story (which takes away from the heat)? Can condoms be part of the erotic act with the characters touching as they put them on? Can the initial use of condoms with a transition to not using them be used as a tangible means of expressing growth in a relationship so it can be a writing tool? Can using condoms allow for less mess post sex and easy clean-ups? Should characters discuss STD testing and what language should they use about it? Can forgetting a condom be a way to show “oh-my-hell I wanted you so badly I forgot”?
For me, in the context of the erotic romance books I write, the answer to all of those is yes. So I show all of those (and more) in my books.
Hardest question: What about poz guys in erotic romance? I’ve never written a poz main character. Not because I don’t have access to information. Not because I believe poz people can’t have romantic happily ever after relationships. Not because I’ve never thought about it. I haven’t written a poz main character because I don’t want anything but the romantic relationship to be the central focus of my book, I haven’t wanted to step into a health care manual in the middle of it, and I don’t want a dramatic debate after it’s published.
My to-be-written list is long so when an idea pops up that has complications and difficulties (like writing a story with a poz MC without making the story about his status or letting that take over the book or preparing myself for post-publication debates), it tends to get bumped in favor of other things, things that flow easier without the potential for messy drama about one aspect of one character (poz status) overshadowing the point of the book, of all my books (happy, warm, erotic romance).
My friend who posted the blog link on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day included this suggestion: “If you’re an HIV-negative gay man and you serosort but want to do something to help end HIV stigma, take a first step. Stop serosorting. Fuck a poz guy. Who knows, he just might be the man of your life.” I think it’s time for me to try harder to integrate that poz character on my to-be-written list into a story. After all, he just might be the man of my other main character’s life.