Skip to main content

Why Writers Should Consider Including Safer Sex in Fiction

Citing rising public health issues and a previous example of fiction influencing real-world behaviors, Phyllis Zimbler Miller advocates for including references to safer sex in fiction in order to culturally normalize healthier intimate practices.

Citing rising public health issues and a previous example of fiction influencing real-world behaviors, Phyllis Zimbler Miller advocates for including references to safer sex in fiction in order to culturally normalize healthier intimate practices.

The May 7, 2018, Los Angeles Times article by Soumya Karlamangla entitled “STDs in L.A. County are skyrocketing” caused me to see red. It had been 25 years since I had tried—unsuccessfully—to get the entertainment industry to commit to portraying safer sex in films and TV shows. And now STDs are on the rise.

Before I continue, let’s establish a few ground rules:

First, I use “safer sex” rather than “safe sex” because, as health experts explained to me years ago, no sex is absolutely safe.

Second, I have never advocated portraying explicit visual scenes of condoms being pulled on. What I have been advocating for years is the creative inclusion of a reminder in a sex scene about “protection” (by which I mean a condom).

Third, why is this inclusion of safer sex in fiction so important? We’re talking about fiction, aren’t we?

According to the LA Times article:

Nationwide, STD rates have been climbing for the past five years. More people were diagnosed with syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea in 2016 than ever before.

Some blame underfunding of STD prevention programs, as well as falling condom usage. There’s also speculation that people are having sex with more partners because of hookup apps.

Another factor is the current 24/7 media consumption (including reading ebooks on phones) with a huge amount of that media presenting sex with no consequences.

Here is my personal belief: Many people experience fiction as fact. How many of us think of our favorite fictional characters, whether in TV, film or books, as our good friends? There are those of us who understand that, while a fictional couple just “hooked up” after meeting 10 minutes ago, they are probably not going to get any STDs because they are fictional characters—unless that's core to the plot (which it often isn't).

Sweet vs. Sexy: What You Need to Know About Writing Both

Yet for many, especially teens I suspect, what fictional characters do very much influences perception of real life. Hey, if two movie teen heartthrobs don’t use a condom, why should teens in real life?

Yes, it is possible that the fictional characters just aren’t mentioning that a condom was used. Yet—and this is the important point—why not use creative inclusion of the subject to remind real-world people that safer sex is being practiced even in fiction.

Let’s look at a similar life-threatening situation:

Many years ago the entertainment industry in the U.S. committed to portraying safety belt (seat belt) usage. In almost all American visual media entertainment that takes place in present day, if people are in the front seat of a car their shoulder safety belt usage is visible.

As the daughter of a man whose life was saved by early usage of a lap belt (an aftermarket addon to his car), I have routinely included safety belt mention in my fiction.

And now the entertainment industry keeps safety belt usage continually in the public eye. This ever-present reminder is something that no amount of PSAs could ever be expected to accomplish.

 Write Naked: A Bestseller's Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success

Write Naked: A Bestseller's Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success

Now let’s consider turning our written fiction into a public health advocate:

What if all novelists, short story writers and script writers would commit to creative inclusion of safer practices in sex scenes? Wouldn’t this continual portrayal go a long way toward making condom usage an accepted part of today’s zeitgeist?

Years ago a mystery writer told me she wrote a safer sex scene in one of her novels because of my interest in this portrayal. I asked what she thought after trying the scene, and she thought it added a layer of depth to her character.

As fiction writers and script writers we have so many creative portrayal opportunities at our fingers. For example, when a couple is having sex for the first time, one person can simply ask the other, “Do you have protection?” That’s all that’s needed.

(Even sci-fi writers can do this. In the near future sci-fi universe that I’m writing, the condoms are green, and they turn red when pulled on if there is anything that interferes with the condom’s effectiveness—you know, tears or pinprick holes.)

And let’s consider the opportunities for colorful safer sex portrayals. Who remembers the famous scene in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman when actor Julia Roberts offers actor Richard Gere a choice of several different color condoms? That scene could have been described in written fiction the same as it was filmed.

If we writers agree to include safer sex in all the fiction we write, think how much we could help decrease this STD public health crisis. And think of the public health funds that could then be utilized on other issues.

Will you take the “safer sex in fiction writing” pledge with me? Use hashtag #SaferSexInFiction to share examples on social media.

Image placeholder title

Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a book author and screenwriter. Although her military thriller Lt. Commander Mollie Sanders has no consensual sex scenes, if there were such scenes, protagonist LCDR Mollie Sanders would definitely employ safer sex. As a long-time feminist, Phyllis blogs on women’s issues, history and other related topics at PhyllisZimblerMiller.com

In the online course Writing the Romance Novel, discover why romance is the same, yet different from other genres, and how to create compelling stories using those principles.

Image placeholder title
Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch discusses how much of a fight's details to actually put into a story, and how even with fight scenes sometimes less is more.

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction, by Piper Huguley

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Author Piper Huguley shares her five research tips for writing historical fiction that readers love and writers love as well.

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Learn more about 40 Plot Twist Prompts for Writers, Volume 2: ALL NEW Writing Ideas for Taking Your Stories in New Directions, by Writer's Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer. Discover fun and interesting ways to move your stories from beginning to end.

Interviewing Tips | Tyler Moss

Interviewing 101: Tips for Writers

Interviewing sources for quotes or research will be part of any writer's job. Here are tips to make the process as smooth and productive as possible.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character work to eliminate a threat.

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

Gothic horror and its many subgenres continues to increase in popularity. Here, author Ava Reid shares 4 tips on writing gothic horror.

Lucy Clarke: On the Power of Creativity

Lucy Clarke: On the Power of Creativity

Novelist Lucy Clarke discusses how a marathon of writing led to a first draft in just 17 days for her new psychological thriller, One of the Girls.

A Conversation With Jaden Terrell on Writer Expectations, Part 1 (Killer Writers)

A Conversation With Jaden Terrell on Writer Expectations, Part 1 (Killer Writers)

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford continues his series of interviews with mystery, thriller, and suspense authors. Here he has a conversation with novelist Jaden Terrell about writer expectations and success.

Connecting the Dots vs. Drawing the Whole Damn Picture: A Veteran Ghostwriter Takes Back His Pen and Finds Something To Say

Connecting the Dots vs. Drawing the Whole Damn Picture: A Veteran Ghostwriter Takes Back His Pen and Finds Something To Say

Writing for oneself after a decades-long career as a ghostwriter is a challenge unto itself. Here, author Daniel Paisner discusses his career as a ghostwriter, how the process differs from writing his own work, and if the two ever intersect.