Kate (mskatej) wrote,

Let's talk about condoms

****This post contains spoilers for the season 2 Suits finale****

Following the Season 2 Suits finale, a few of us got into a very interesting discussion about condom use in fanfic in the comments of my episode review post, and now I want to get more of you involved. My awesome cohost for this discussion will be blackstar777, whose meta on the subject I'm sure you will find as fascinating as I did. She's also designed a poll for us, because polls are fun and revealing and you love them.

Before I repost Star's meta, a few words on what happened in Suits:

[Spoiler (click to open)]If you watched it you'll know that when Mike and Rachel banged angrily at the end of the episode, they did not use a condom. I loved it, because it was realistic, because barebacking is my kink, because condoms are a big turn off, and because the scene wouldn't have worked any other way. But a few commenters on my post expressed some discomfort with that, and we're interested to know how you all feel about fictional condom use (in both mainstream media, and in fanfiction). I'm going to assume that Rachel won't fall pregnant (because she's either on the pill or he didn't come inside her or it's the wrong time of the month or she's lucky) and that neither of them have an STI, because it's not that kind of show. In other words, there'll be consequences to their decision to fuck but they won't be related to their decision to fuck without a condom (unless S3 turns into a melodrama). IOW, Suits gave me my favourite kind of barebacking: still risky but (presumably) consequence free. (Thanks again, show. I love how you love me.)

And now for some meta by blackstar777:

Ok so let me just preface this by saying that I work in behavioral HIV prevention which is not to say I'm an expert but only to say that I spend an inordinate amount of my days thinking about people's condom use behavior. Probably why this is so interesting to me. I'm also relatively new to fandom/fanfic in general so some things that may be accepted practice around here hold special significance for me.

To start with, I guess I find the idea that safe sex plays such a large conscious role in fandom, pleasantly surprising? While "safe sex" has been an evolving concept and the use of condoms (in some form and with varying levels of efficacy) can be tracked back to relatively early in human history, the mainstream use of the latex/polyurethane condom is a relatively new development. Latex condoms were really mass produced for the first time for the troops during WWII because syphilis is a cruel mistress, but even then they were for use with the "working women" keeping our troops happy overseas. In general I think they still retained the stigma associated with that for the next three decades until HIV hit in the 80s when scientists and public health officials started aggressively campaigning for the widespread use of condoms to prevent HIV and other STDs. As a result of this, attitudes toward condoms have changed significantly over the past 30 years and it's so interesting to me to see that reflected in fandom.

I would argue that condom use in fic is the status quo. To the point where authors invent creative reasons and ways for characters to be carrying condoms (and lube in slash) with them. For example, the idea that Harvey would have condoms and lube in his desk seems a little far fetched to me. What possible reason could he have for this? In spite of all the office sex he's having with Mike in fanfic I find it hard to believe that he would have a reasonable expectation of needing condoms at the office. And yet, it's a narrative point that facilitates him being "safe" with Mike (which appears to be the ultimate) so we accept or overlook it as a necessary part of the story. Sometimes characters produce condoms out of thin air and if we really think about it, it doesn't make sense, but we often handwave it.

I think another example of condom use being accepted as the norm is that, during sex scenes, authors don't hesitate to give long descriptions of the process of donning a condom. The event becomes idealized and, I would argue, is based in fundamentally positive views of condom use. Lines like "Mike watches Harvey roll the condom down his length and feels a thrill of anticipation shoot down his spine", is eroticizing the act of using a condom in ways that HIV prevention researchers have been trying to do for ages. I think in real life, people generally think condoms are a pain in the ass. They reduce sensation, they interrupt the moment, they make people feel less "connected", the list goes on and on. But in fic they're inextricably linked to positive feelings and the anticipation of great sex. Even when fic does address the issue of condoms reducing sensation, it's almost always a good thing, as in it will help a character last longer. The bottom line is, I think if fandom could figure out a way to bottle this sentiment and then slip it into the drinking water, it would probably make my day job a lot easier. ;-)

In the context in which having safe sex is the gold standard, barebacking becomes deviant and as a result takes on special meaning. In my opinion, the deviance of barebacking in fandom is demonstrated very clearly by the fact that it's something that people are encouraged to warn about. To be clear, I don't mean deviance in a negative sense. Just that it literally deviates from the norm in the fic I've read and clearly exists outside what is acceptable to the mainstream. I think this probably varies from fandom to fandom because while Harvey and Mike tend to use condoms in most Suits fics I've read, in Teen Wolf fandom, Derek and Stiles do not (from what I've read). This may also have something to do with the fact that Derek is a werewolf. (re-reading that last sentence made me lol). ANYWAY, I guess for me, I think barebacking is hot because in first time fic it's risque and also includes an element of "I need to be inside you right now" which definitely nails it for me. In established relationship fic it indicates a level of trust and intimacy that I find irresistible. In first time fics that transition into established relationships I find the way authors handle the testing discussion to be very interesting in light of the positive views towards condom protected sex I mentioned above. The implication always seems to be, let's get tested so we can get to the good stuff while at the same time not naming the condom protected sex as the bad stuff. Clever. Also the idea that barebacking becomes acceptable once all parties have been tested because it's been rendered "safe" presupposes a lot of things about the characters' relationship and their commitment to one another that could be the subject of a whole other comment.

Lastly, I'm intrigued by what acts are considered to be "safe" in fanfic. While people seem to be wedded to the concept that safe insertive or receptive anal or vaginal sex has to include condoms, we play very fast and loose with barrier use during other sexual acts that hold potential risk of transmission. I think Needs Must was the first and only fic I've read in which a condom is used during a blow job. Protection also isn't typically used during cunnilingus or rimming. I suspect this is linked to the fact that very few people use protection during these acts in real life and since art imitates life ... Also I'm pretty sure that public health needs to go on a rebranding campaign because let 's be honest, dental dam? Just. No.

I've heard the full spectrum of opinions on this complicated subject over the years, and I'm particularly interested to hear from you about Star's observation that condom use in fic is the norm, because I read so narrowly and in so few fandoms I wouldn't have the first clue whether that's true, although I'd be extremely surprised if condoms ever featured in Merlin fic or in vampire fandoms (for example). I can't actually remember what was typical in Smallville - I can recall plenty of stories that featured condom use, plenty without, although I almost never had the guys wear a condom (he's Superman! There's no need! And because ew!). So tell us your experience - which fandoms are the most pro-condom, which the least? Why? How do you feel about condom use in fic? Are you squicked by condoms? Squicked by barebacking? Does barebacking do it for you, but only in certain contexts (say, if both partners have been tested for that very purpose)? I'm aware that barebacking is a common kink, but is safe sex a kink for anyone?

So let's kick off the discussion with Star's poll:

Poll #1900060 to bareback or not to bareback

How do you feel about barebacking in fic?

Yes, give it to me always
Sometimes, depending on the situation
I could go either way
I could do without it but don't mind if it's in there
No glove, No love

How much do you think fic influences peoples' RL attitudes toward condom use?

The World Health Organization should close up shop and just write fanfic
You'd be surprised
Maybe yes, maybe no
A little bit
Is that a joke?
Tags: fandom, meta, polls, tv: suits
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