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.
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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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