Condoms: fictional contraceptive of choice

I’ve written several times (here, for example, and here), about why, in real life, I’d always rather be on the pill. I like semen. I like spontaneity. I like intimacy. To a certain extent, I think condoms interfere with the enjoyment of all those things. But in erotica? In erotica, I think they come in to their own.

There’s been a lot written by erotica writers about whether we have a responsibility to write condoms into our sex scenes, a responsibility to write safe sex. That is not the purpose of this post: this is less what about what we do through obligation to reflect best practice in real life, and more about how condoms can actually serve a fictional purpose.

In fiction, you can almost argue that the pill is the contraceptive of deceit and stability (almost, because right now, helpfully, I can’t think of any specific examples – I thought Gone Girl was one, only to be reminded that what Amy does is worse still.) It’s the form of contraception that women ‘accidentally’ forget to take, or the one they make an active decision to stop taking when they want a family. It feels, to me, more about conception than sex.

Condoms, and other barrier methods, on the other hand, are visceral – though condoms more than say, the diaphragm, since they’re on the outside of the body, not the inside. The pill, the coil, the implant – they’re intellectual decisions, made in a GP’s surgery, out of the heat of the moment, separate, really, from desire. The rip of that foil packet? It screams desire.

The sheer physical presence of the condom is a great device in fiction – I made my own attempt at writing that here, but it’s better shown, I think, in Kristina Lloyd’s Asking for Trouble, which is my go-to novel for demonstrating how to do stuff well – not least because unlike my fictional take on condoms, it has actual sex! Condoms recur throughout this novel – they’re symbolic…

‘Just a sec,’ I said, and scurried to get a condom from my desk drawer. That had been a real treat for me when I’d first moved in: hiding little condom stashes here and there, making every room in the flat a potential fuck zone. No more having to worry about other people. The whole place was mine.

… but that symbolism works on a very real level …

When he withdrew, I saw the rubber wrinkling on his prick, its teat drooping with liquid. I just hadn’t felt it. I guess my vagina wasn’t concentrating. Thank God one of us is in control, I thought.

There’s so much in those three sentences. The comedown from the out-of-control desire that fuels this sex scene is captured in ‘drooping’ alone, but the fact that Ilya, the hero, puts on a condom despite Beth not realising, and that she goes on to frame that as ‘Thank God one of us is in control’ foreshadows the way that she relinquishes control to him all the way through the novel, and it’s all captured in one perfectly written piece of latex.

Symbolic objects in fiction fascinate me. And condoms lend themselves perfectly to symbolism, whether your characters use them, or whether they don’t. It’s why a blanket insistence that we include them just to remind readers of the importance of safe sex denies the writer, and the reader, so much damn potential.


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30 thoughts on “Condoms: fictional contraceptive of choice

  1. Lately I’ve been trying to watch for the way perfect gestures work in writing, but now I think I’ll watch for those symbolic objects as well. Though I doubt they’ll be quite this much fun. (Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.)

    • Symbolic objects are tricky, i think – as a writer I always feel like I’m overloading the symbolism and it will come across heavy handed to the reader, but I think (hope!) that because the reader isn’t in the author’s head the symbolism is more subtle/less blatant to them, if that makes sense?

      • It definitely does. To me, it’s similar to the challenge of adjectives, which are so tempting when you’re spending time with an individual sentence, but when overused they’re excessive, pretentious, and distracting. Writing with these tools and toys is interesting to us, but how much can you play with them before they get in the reader’s way?

  2. Cracking post, and TY for zooming in on AFT. I have to say, I’ve never really thought about the symbolic aspect of condoms in erotica. I tend to incorporate them partly to convey the safe sex message (because as writers we have cultural influence and I’d like to use my powers for good in this area) but also because my fic generally has quite realistic, contemporary settings. To not incorporate condoms would, I feel, compromise the credibility of the world I’m trying to create on the page. Their absence would (to me, at least) be a reminder that the story is effectively sexual fantasy.

    But you’re totally right, and it’s really quite enriching to think of rubbers in more literary terms and to have them doing double/triple/quadruple duty. TY again!

  3. Great piece. I personally don’t find condoms sexy, but that is years of using them for fairly unsexy sex I think. I also hate the idea that erotic authors should use them in stories as a way of educating people. I think that implies that the reader is a fool and as general rule when they do appear (and again I know this is a me thing) they tend to jar me out of the moment but, having said that, not always. It was one of the things I liked about the beginning of 50 Shades, his use of the condom, sadly it all went down hill when he marched her to a doctor to get her on the pill.


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  14. I think even Hollywood, TV, and most fiction is leaning more and more toward real life instead of the dreamy ‘white hats vs black hat’ clear cut stories that used to be told. Erotic fiction is lagging slightly behind this trend, but ideas like this are huge steps in the right direction.

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