In a meeting last year in my local chapter of the Romance Writers Association, I was fascinated to hear some of the published authors discuss how much they hated having to write condoms into sex scenes. Some of them thought it interrupted the flow of the moment, others thought it was a pregnancy or disease reminder that the reader shouldn’t have.
But some of them, like me, were appalled at the idea that there would be sexual intimacy without them. Maybe it is the fact that I came of age in the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties, or perhaps it’s the fact that I majored in reproductive physiology, but if a guy doesn’t reach for a condom before having sex with a heroine, I classify him as a lunatic, asshole or shifter.
In fact, many of the publishing houses, particularly the ones specializing in erotica, actually have the issue of condoms in their writing guidelines or editors will informally push for their inclusion – you HAVE to write them in. While the inference is that their inclusion is to model safe sex, the reality is that this is simply pregnancy prevention. I have yet to read oral sex scenes involving either gender where a barrier is part of the equation. Dental dams should be used on women (plastic wrap works great in a pinch) and condoms should be always be used when performing oral sex on a man. When they aren’t, as much as I try and suspend my disbelief and enjoy the writing, the back of my brain is actually shouting, “What about gonorrhea of the throat?!” or “Hello, herpes!”
In romance writing, there is the automatic assumption that the protagonists of a romance novel are automatically disease free, probably because having diseases doesn’t seem sexy (even though I’m sure there are lots of sexy people who are living with HIV and having great protected sex with their partners). Even if the hero is a the master of the one-night stand and has them all the time, readers are given the distinct impression that he has never, ever been without a condom, even if he chooses to go without this time. My favorite books are the ones where, in the heat of the moment, the couple draws away panting to have a brief conversation about the last time they got checked at the doctor’s office (thank heavens for the military and their stringent medical screening – what would all those SEALs do otherwise for information?) and how they haven’t been with anyone since then. The heroine indicates she’s using another method of contraception and then clothes fly…let the hot sex begin!
Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal or, the Problem with Penis Size
Back when I was a teaching assistant for the class “Contraception: Today and Tomorrow,” the professor and I would naturally go over all the available methods of contraception while detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each. One of the biggest problems with condoms (and there are more, detailed in the next section) is that the best condom is one which fits the penis well. Ideally this would mean that the man would buy a size of condom appropriate for his penis size, but while your high school boyfriend might not have minded buying a Hanes for Men t-shirt in a size small, there are few men who are comfortable reaching for the small size in a box of condoms!
Condom manufacturers actually looked at the shrimp industry
*suppresses snicker* for sizing inspiration. The majority of shrimp sold are classified as Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal because, hey, shrimp people clearly have a wicked sense of humor. But it was still a no go. Kind of like me when I don’t want to look to find my size on the back of the Spanx package, men didn’t want the Trojans box to tell them they were merely Jumbo or the smallest size. Manufacturers stuck with one size fits all, only making an “extra large” size for the above average man.
Even that “extra large” size may be the same size or only a centimeter larger than the brands regular condom, so it’s not a guarantee of comfort and fit. Yet fit is vital. A condom that is too tight will not only uncomfortable to wear and decrease the ability to sustain an erection (and therefore be less likely to be used) but also is more likely to break in the midst of sex. Similarly, a condom that has too much room is far, far more likely to slip off (I had a friend in college who got pregnant that way). The need for condoms to match penis size is vital.
How Big Is the Average Man’s Penis and Can You Believe That These Research Conclusions Are Necessary?
Just two days ago, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study Erect Penile Length and Circumference Dimensions of 1,661 Sexually Active Men in the United States which asked men to measure their erect penises (yes, the men did the measuring). The erect penises ranged between 4 and 26 cm or, for you non-metric folks, 1.57 inches to 10.23 inches. Can’t you imagine men feeling better about giving the measurement in centimeters? It’s like vanity sizing in dresses for women. The mean erect penis (no, it wasn’t angry, it’s another name for the mathematical construct of “average” but average is a word you don’t want to use with penises either) was 14.15 cm or 5.7 inches and the mean circumference of erect penises was 12.23 cm or 4.8 inches.
Interestingly, the researchers wanted to note any differences between how the subjects obtained their erect penis (I’m not making this up) and determined that men who used masturbation or hand play with a partner had smaller erect penises than those who received oral sex from a partner. This reminds me a lot of those “academic studies” proving that college students like to drink beer. Doesn’t really come as a shock, does it?
The Problem with Condoms, or LOTS of Problems with Condoms
Since people of my generation and younger have a synonymous association with condoms and sex (I hope), it often comes as a shock when you suggest that the condom has major flaws. I’m in NO WAY suggesting that they shouldn’t be used but people often place more confidence in condoms than they deserve. Back in college, I and many of my smart women friends would insist on the use of condoms along with another method of contraception – condoms and the Pill, condoms and vaginal sponges, condoms and spermicidal foam – you get the picture. This is because while condoms have a theoretical efficacy rate of 98% if used perfectly, the real efficacy rate factoring in user error is closer to 85%.
A large part of this error has to do with ignorance regarding the male sexual arousal process, specifically around what in romance novels is called “pre-cum” or that small amount of semen exuded on the tip of the penis as the man gets an erection. When I would do the condom lecture, I liked to emphasize that if that condom was going anywhere near someone else’s bodily fluids, it needed a condom on it, because:
A man is like a basketball player; he dribbles a little before he shoots.
When you see the problems people encounter using condoms, this adage immediately becomes highly relevant. That pre-ejaculate may or may not have sperm in it (studies vary on this with results showing both conditions) and it certainly can carry disease like any bodily fluid. The other types of mistakes in condom use comes from fumbling with latex condoms and/or getting caught up in the heat of the moment and making a mistake. For example, common condom mistakes are:
- using them for only part of intercourse (never a good idea);
- starting to roll the condom on the wrong way, and then flipping it over rather than using a new condom depositing the pre-ejaculate on the OUTSIDE of the condom;
- not leaving room in the tip of the condom, which could cause it to burst;
- using a too small (breaking issues) or too large condom (slippage);
- not holding onto the condom while withdrawing.
Other more serious issues include a latex allergy or chemical sensitivity (to the lubricants used or to the spermicide on most condoms) or in many countries of the world, condom shortages which make them hard to get. With 15 billion condoms manufactured each year and 750 million people using them, that seems hard to believe, but it’s a major concern, particularly for countries still struggling economically or dealing with governments who do not support contraception or STI prevention.
The Condom of the Future
Enter the philanthropic team of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation. The Gates Foundation has my undying admiration for taking on all of the unsexy problems of the world (i.e., the ones that will never make money for anyone but affect millions of people) and tackling them one by one, approaching each problem with entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging outside of the box solutions. Because of the foundation’s intense focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and cures, condoms have naturally received a lot of attention from them. Back in March 2013, the Gates Foundation announced a $100,000 prize for the invention of a better and more pleasurable condom. Yes – more pleasurable – because the way to get people to use them is to make them feel good while doing it.
The current frontrunner is the Orgami condom. I know, the name makes me think of folded paper swans too, but their condom concept is brilliant. Rather than using allergy inducing latex, Orgami condoms are made with the far more stable silicone. Size is no longer an issue as the accordion pleats in the material expand or contract to whatever size necessary. There is no unrolling, just a quick slide and the person is ready to go. You’ll notice there are three pictured here: the male condom (made with a larger tip to eliminate reservoir pinching), the female condom (designed for female pleasure as well as disease prevention and contraception) and the RAI Condom which is for anal intercourse, a particularly vulnerable act when discussing disease prevention, due to the lack of lubrication in this area which can lead to microinjuries. All of Origami’s condoms are internally lubricated, meaning that the sensation provided to the penetrator mimics the heightened sensation of actual intercourse. Take a look at their informative video and tell me you’re not convinced.
Ms. French Manicure is a little naughty in this video, yes? Yet the brilliance of the product shines through. It’s hard not to imagine this condom feeling good for all parties involved, transforming it from a necessary toiletry to fun sex toy. That attitude change would definitely help sales and usage! What’s amazing is that Origami has been restricted by FCC regulations regarding television and radio from accurately advertising their product (when was the last condom ad you saw?), making it extremely difficult to get the word out. It’s hard to imagine a society where we can showcase sex in all its forms in video but can’t have a commercial advertising prophylactics, but that’s the United States. Origami’s condoms are expected to be available on the market in late 2014 or early 2015, pending regulatory approvals, according to their video press release.
Condoms in the Romance Genre: What’s the Future?
With condoms like this in the picture, designed to enhance everyone’s pleasure, I think the future is bright for the inclusion of them into the literature. Still common enough in novels, imagine how sexual partners would feel when the other person produces not just a condom but a super-duper pleasure inducing one? These condoms, which will undoubtedly be more expensive than the latex variety, will become de rigeur for the uber-rich heroes of the Harlequin Presents line (although there were be fewer secret babies), be issued along with a SIG Sauer to members of yet another elite professional security firm, or be the fantasy focus of that quiet heroine desperate to unleash her inner vixen.
While I would never recommend that authors write specifically to educate, I think we cannot deny the fact that romance fiction is likely to be a profound source of sexual education to its readers. Only 65% of high schools and middle schools taught about condom efficacy (see the above failure rate) and a mere 39% taught students how to use a condom. Keep in mind that these statistics are for the schools not adopting an abstinence only health education approach (about 23% of all schools in the U.S.) or the many private schools whose religions affiliation would also preclude this information. This is a lot of people who are becoming adults with NO formal health education surrounding condom use. I’ve always considered the romance genre to be one of the few outlets which encourages women to set high expectations regarding healthy relationships and sexual pleasure, but with numbers like the above I’m beginning to worry that popular magazines and our brand of fiction probably reach a larger number of readers who have gone without vital information about condoms and other aspects of their reproductive health.
So let’s keep this in mind, shall we, writers and editors? The next time you are confronted with a hero or heroine about to engage in sex, make sure that some thought of condoms are part of the equation. Having them think about them might very well help someone else also ponder that decision the next time they are ready for a little romance in their life.