French letters and rubber johnnies: Condom use in romance novels

Condoms Last week I discovered an absolutely wonderful blog – Romance Novels for Feminists. Though I’m proud to hold my hand up and shout that I’m a feminist, I don’t think you have to identify yourself as one in order to enjoy this blog.

Jackie, who runs the blog, published a very thoughtful post last week on the use of contraception in romance novels. She discusses a couple of articles in scholarly journals, including one which looks at contemporary romance novels that won the RITA between 1989 and 2009. (The article is “‘Whatever the Approach, Tab B Still Fits into Slot A’: Twenty Years of Sex Scripts in Romance Novels”, published by A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera, psychologists at the University of Ottawa, in the journal Sexuality & Culture in April of 2011).

Jackie takes a closer look at the article, so I encourage you to read her post. One of the study’s conclusions was that there was quite an increase in the use of contraception. Only 18.5% of the books they studied that had been released between 1989 and 1999 mentioned the hero and heroine using contraception. Compare that to 57.9% of the novels published between 2000-2009.

Now, granted, they were studying a tiny number of books. Only one book wins the RITA for contemporary single-title romance each year, but romance authors judged them each to be the best novel published that year. It’s hard to say whether these are representative of contemporary romance as a whole, but it got me thinking about all of the romance I read in those time periods.

I probably started reading romance around 1990. I stopped around 2002, since I was doing my own studies and didn’t have time for much else, but I started reading romance again (voraciously) in 2008 or 2009 – and I noticed a massive shift in many things, including the sex scenes.

Suddenly it seemed like everyone was using contraception – condoms, in particular. In fact, I’m surprised that only 57.9% of the novels in the study had contraceptive use, but again, it might not be the most representative sample.

I noticed that even historical romances had couples discussing ways to avoid baby-making (since no one wants all those randy lords to be pox-ridden in a historically accurate way). The more I read, the more my vocabulary grew (“What are these French letters?” I asked myself as I opened Google).

When I was a fledgling romance writer, one of my critique partners read the very first sex scene I had ever let anyone read. I was still stuck in the old ways of romance, which meant a rather passive heroine and no condoms. “They need to at least discuss condoms,” Roni wrote, and that opened my eyes even more.

I remember back in the 80s, many people complained that condoms kill the mood – though I can’t imagine anything killing the mood faster than a crying baby or an itchy wang.

Romance heroes these days seem not just ready but eager to use condoms. Years ago I asked my husband, “If we ever have a son, what would you say to him about using condoms?” He replied, “I’d tell him not to see condoms as an annoyance but as something great, something that means you get to have sex.”

Romance heroes these days seem to have a similar attitude. It’s often not even discussed. The hero just reaches into his wallet or nightstand when he’s about to get lucky. If the couple decides not to use a condom, it’s usually a sign that the hero and heroine are committed.

Not only do romance novelists seem more comfortable creating responsible heroes, but they also seem to use condoms to show their heroes’ virility. Heroes never struggle to roll latex over skin. They almost always have a ready supply. Have condoms become one more way for authors to show that their heroes are studs?

Have you noticed a change in how contraception is used in romance? Does the mention of a hero ripping open a condom kill the mood for you, or do you even notice it?

By Kat

Kat Latham writes sexy contemporary romance, including the London Legends rugby series. With degrees in English lit and human rights, she loves stories that reflect the depth, humor and emotion of real life. She's a California girl living in the Netherlands with her baby girl and British husband.

17 comments

  1. i think it’s a responsible attitude for the author who write contemporary romance to include condoms, now for historical i can understand why that doesn’t appear but they were way and condoms existist for longer that we often thinks so sometime sthey use it already or at least a version of it and i think it(s quite interesting

    1. I also think it’s interesting when it’s in historicals, Miki, especially when I learn something from it. It’s an interesting detail to sometimes include. It would seem strange to me if a lot of historical characters used birth control, but I do like it when I read about it.

  2. When hero & heroine “forget” to use protection, I always lower my rating. Contraception is a MUST in contemporary romances. In today’s world pregnancy can be the least of their worries.

    1. Natalija, I’m completely with you on the forgetting thing. I just don’t get it when characters are so swept up in the moment that they forget to take basic precautions to save their own lives. It’s one thing to make a conscious decision and discuss what kind of protection you’re going to use. It’s another to just forget.

    2. Agreed! I read a book recently that irritated me to no end because not only did he ask about protection, but she declined and was so surprised to end up pregnant. Really? In this day and age, there is no excuse for that kind of stupidity.

  3. I am currently read “Just One of The Guys” by Kristan Higgins (which is awesome by the way) and for the first time ever I took note of condom use. I think in today’s society it shows responsibility and young one’s reading the books might be swayed a little more to use them but it’s not going to effect whether I read a certain author’s books. I read because of quality in writing and I have discovered some awesome Authors in the past several months!

    1. I love Kristan Higgins, but I haven’t read that one yet, Wanda. Thanks for the rec! I, too, hope that condom use becomes more and more seen as normal, not just in romance but in real life.

  4. In my research (I write western historicals) I found that rubber condoms were invented in the mid eighteen-fifties by Charles Goodyear and were chiefly marketed in the US as Doctor Power’s French Preventatives. Prior to that, animal intestines, silk and linen sheaths were used. The Marquis DeSade even experimented with vinegar-soaked pads he would insert into his partners. And then there’s the time-honored rhythm method. Not particularly romantic, but there it is. I had a fun condom scene in my latest release–I assume they weren’t particularly flexible and might have been difficult to get on–so the scene turned out more hnumorous than sexy. I had a great time writing it..

    1. That is some awesome research to get to do, Kaki. Was this your Christmas novella (Miracle in New Hope) or Bride of the High Country? I’m falling behind and need to catch up – especially if there’s a fun condom scene!

      And if anyone needed one more reason not to sleep with the Marquis DeSade…vinegar. *shudders*

      1. BRIDE OF THE HIGH COUNTRY, Kat. It might not get your heart racing, but I can bet you’ll laugh. And vinegar douches were a common birth preventative back in the 40s and 50s. And a whale of a lot of fun, I heard. Not.

        1. Your books always make me laugh, Kaki. Intentionally, of course. Can’t wait to read it.

          And the phrase “vinegar douche” is not the first thing I wanted to read this morning. *winces* One more reason I’m glad I was born when I was.

  5. I’m not thrilled when it breaks the mood. I’d rather it be mentioned before time and then I don’t have a problem. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned in the historicals that I’ve read but I don’t expect it really.

  6. The first person who read/edited my story pointed out the lack of condom use right away. Not for pregnancy but due to the risk. The H&H had really just met, and that was dangerous enough without throwing in the risk of HIV. Now when I’m reading other stories, I notice right away if protetion isn’t used. Responsible writing means responsible sex. (Yes, having 3 teenage daughters might have something to do with that too.)

  7. I have noticed the use of condoms in a lot of romance novels recently. I am surprised when they don’t use one. It seems like pregnancy usually happens if they don’t use one. It doesn’t bother me at all to have contraception as part of the love scene.

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