Barebacking in M/M Romance … or the lack thereof by Rick R. Reed

Just peruse the men for men ads in your town’s Craigslist and you’ll find lots of guys looking for Rick Reed Gray Shirtother barebackers. And no, I am not talking about riding a horse here (but maybe riding someone who is hung like one). 😀 Check out #bbbh on Twitter (that’s the bareback brotherhood for those not in the know); check out (that’s the bareback real time hook up site). Hey, if you want to have sex without a condom, it seems there’s no end to the possibilities. If you want to see sex without condoms, turn to Treasure Island Media and their lovely documentary-style videos. Try Dawson’s 50-Load Weekend if you want to see a wholesome lad giving selflessly of himself again and again.

Once upon a time, all this barebacking stuff would have been unthinkable. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when AIDS hung like a specter over the gay community, dealing death and sickness relentlessly, sites and movie production companies like the ones above would have been viewed with outrage.

Then along came protease inhibitors, drug cocktails that almost magically changed the AIDS/HIV landscape, transforming a death sentence into an expensive but mostly manageable illness.

Men-In-The-Mens-Room-Justin-Monroe-5The fear dissipated. Men always had sex without protection, even in the heyday of the virus, but today, it’s so common it’s almost banal. Drugs like crystal meth have helped barebacking along its route to everyday usage.

Now, I am not writing here today to warn anyone, to judge anyone, or to debate the merits or drawbacks of having sex (anal sex in particular) without the benefit of a condom. But I am writing to comment on the use of condoms in gay romance.

From my own anecdotal reading experience (and my writing experience), it seems that sex with condoms is more the norm here in m/m romanceland, maybe even more than in the real world. Most m/m authors I’ve read have their characters wrap that Willie unless the time period would make it not make sense, or unless there’s some other mitigating factor (our heroes have both tested negative and decide to throw caution—and Trojans—to the wind).

Personally, I try and have my characters behave responsibly when it comes to safe sex. While my books are not here to educate or to stand on a safer sex soapbox, I do feel it’s my responsibility to present a world where my characters kind of naturally fall into safe sex rhythms. Even in my latest, Raining Men, reviewed here my man-whore main character, Bobby Nelson, uses condoms for anal, even though he’s pretty risky otherwise and none too choosy.

But the reason I’m thinking about this topic today is because something stuck in my head from the comments to my last column, which was all about the phenomenon of the ‘gay for you’ character. I’m not opening that Pandora’s Box again, but I will say that one of the comments I got, perhaps more than once, was that gay romance was all about fantasy. This ‘fantasy’ stance was used to counter my argument that ‘gay for you’ was rare in real life and I often didn’t buy it in fiction.

So, after the comments from that column died down, I wondered why m/m romance writers pretty much uniformly present characters who use condoms. If the romance is pure fantasy, why do some writers then feel the need to present their characters using condoms? Why not just go whole hog (or bareback) with the fantasy and have characters dispense with the condoms and enjoy skin-on-skin contact because, after all, in a romantic fantasy, there would be no consequences for such behavior?

But, in general, we don’t do that. We may have characters that fall in insta-love or become gay for you, but yet we still have them put on a condom when it comes time for some good old fashioned butt drilling.

I’m just throwing this out there because it seems like a bit of a contradiction and certainly not to criticize or suggest we dispense with portraying condom use in our romantic fiction. As someone who is intimately acquainted with the virus both before and after it was “manageable,” I applaud the efforts to include precautionary tactics in gay romance, but I’m just wondering how readers would react if we did away with the condom use in, say, a contemporary romance. Would you feel sympathetic toward an unabashed barebacker? Would you read stories in which the idea of a condom was not really even considered? That is true to real life for many these days and I suppose one could say, as some bareback filmmakers have said, that the depiction of unsafe sex is for fantasy purposes (and some even go so far as to suggest that it might prevent unsafe behavior by giving a safe alternative to actually doing it, but that’s another column).

What do you think? Does bareback sex have a place in gay romance? Could you love a barebacking romantic hero? Or would you shudder for him and worry about the consequences of his behavior?

I’m just curious. Let me know you think.

Rick R. Reed’s Contact Information:

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  • I’d far prefer not to read it unless they’ve both tested -ve. Then again, I’m Australian and born in the ‘6-s, which means I was just coming into my sexuality when the AIDS crisis hit and I experience a lot of paranoia about catching it from mosquitoes (they love me) until they figured out it couldn’t be transmitted that way.

    BTW, there’s an excellent documentary about how Australia approached AIDS, called “how a city stopped a plague”, and how we have a far lower HIV infection rate than the US. Sadly though, HIV infections in Australia are increasing again, mostly due to immigrants and almost unbelievably in mining communities following their lay off visits to SE Asia.

    Safe sex please. I don’t hold with the notion that potential exposure to disease makes for a good fantasy, particularly when it’s in a place with a far higher prevalence rate than here.

  • Hi Rick, I wrote a post on this very site with DJ Manly and Ryan Field on this same subject. When I first started writing M/M novels in 2007, it wasn’t an issue. My characters didn’t glove up until FEMALE readers and reviewers – even here on Jessewave made comments about it. In one book, The Book and the Rose, my protagonist is a hooker who is paid extra for no glove love and the reviewer here made a big deal about it. I said it before and I’ll say it here, it’s only my female readers who comment on the lack of rubbers. Male readers know it’s all fantasy and they enjoy the escapism. I mention rubbers once in a book, maybe twice, but it’s still not enough for some people. If the characters become long-term partners, which they always do in my stories, then I don’t make them use rubbers. Ryan Field made an observation in his post that readers have complained to him about his MARRIED couples not using condoms!
    I find it weird that the same issue is rarely mentioned when it comes to M/F romance.

    • I’m posting this comment for Rick Reed who had problems accessing the site this morning.

      Hey AJ,

      I just wanted to say thanks for your very thought–provoking comments. I think it’s very curious about female readers being the ones who are more up in arms. I wonder why that is??

      I would have responded on the blog, but could not get on this morning for the life of me.

      Hope all is well with you.


  • I’m a writer and reader. I completely understand how making sure there’s a condom involved in a m/m sex scene is like some code; hey readers relax, I’m taking care of my guys here and you can just enjoy the ride (along with them!). It’s almost a shorthand now, and in a way, the expected progression of what’s going to happen in an anal sex scene.

    I actually really dislike unprotected het sex scenes. So often it’s excused as “heat of the moment” and the lovers forego all consequences, and then it’s a contrivance to build a “romance” around. Or the woman is manipulative, or manipulated, and then as readers we’re led along a path of how this leads to them falling in love. Talk about a fantasy! It really puts me off (speaking as a woman) because unplanned pregnancy is a BIG DEAL, and can very often have negative consequences, but is made into a HEA plot device. One that holds no appeal for me.

    There’s so much conventionality in place for het couples (even if it’s solely the woman, or solely the man) to be as certain as possible that pregnancy (and STDs, to take it further) is prevented. For that, it’s always been way easier for me to turn of the “practical” part of my brain for same-sex couples when the exacting Steps To Anal Penetration aren’t ticked off, as a list, in a sex scene. But in the many discussions with other writers, and readers, I seem to be in the minority here.

    Maybe there’s some holdover prejudice or stereotyping involved? Loose women are definitely frowned on, but they’re not “putting a lover in danger” because they have a liberal sex life. The trope of a remote man who has heretofore been unreachable or unwilling to love (or the misunderstood / bad boy type) having a baby and that changing him for the better is an old standby. It elevates unplanned pregnancy to being a gift, a miracle, and something the couple will move forward with together and share. But unplanned STDs are not romantic, and the only thing they move forward with together is anxiety of spreading disease. Perhaps it’s just too much of an uphill battle to NOT include the condom in a m/m scene, lest your character(s) be branded in the minds of the reader all the negative connotations / repercussions from not being safe in the sack.

  • Rick,
    I think there is no contradiction between M/M romances being perfect fantasy and the MCs (generally) using condoms. Just the opposite – I think it’s totally in tune. Think about the words used there: ROMANCE, insta-LOVE, GAY-FOR-YOU (to stay forever not some experimental fuck). All of them point to emotional connection and bond, not lust. People who love and who care don’t put their lovers in risk for some extra carnal pleasure.
    That’s your perfect fantasy 🙂

  • This is a topic I debated a lot when I was writing my novella, Sedona Heat. The main character, Jasper, hooks up with two different guys. With the first one, they go through the regular routine using a condom. There was no discussion. It was a matter of course. With the second one and the situation they were in, I decided that stopping to use a condom interrupted the flow of the action and decided in that moment (in real life) the characters probably would not have stopped to grab a condom. There is a brief discussion about status, but then they fuck without the condom.

    I make no judgment either way, having lived through the 80s and 90s myself, I know the consequences, but I also know that people are doing it bareback more these days. I don’t think we have to make moral judgments or teach lessons with our characters all the time. It is fantasy, as so many have said.

  • Hi K.C.

    Now, Wave and Rick, when are we going to discuss cheating and/or open relationships? Fetishism? Consensual sex between an adult and a guy in his mid- to late-teens? Brocest?

    Are you about to start something? 😆 I already did a post on cheating (or I asked Tj to write the post). Either way, we did discuss it and all of the righteous M/M readers were up in arms and handed us our asses. 🙂 I have touched on twincest which is one of my secret fantasies. :whistle: As for the other topics, I do recall that you owe me a post K.Z. I’m still waiting. 😈

    • Like all Canadians, Wave, you’re evil.

      I thought you might’ve dealt with infidelity and twincest but I wasn’t sure. It’s just that Rick does such a good job of tackling these controversial subjects, and reader response is always so interesting, I figured I’d toss out some topics for future discussion. :angel:

      • Here’s the link to Tj’s post on cheating which was written in 2010. Maybe it’s time for a new one???? Let’s see what Rick thinks.

        I have no issue with cheaters in books. In fact one of my Top 10 M/M books is the first one I read in 2003 – Bareback by Chris Owen There’s that word again, and there was no glove in most of the book, so cheating and no condoms. 😆 WOW!

        BTW there were other posts about condoms years ago – I did one and I believe three M/M writers wrote another one, and each generated its own share of violent response. 😕

        That leaves you, my darling. When are you going to pay up? You sneer at us ordinary mortals but I want to see you get dirty in the mud with Rick and me (that conjures up a picture that I don’t know Rick would like Bruce to see) . :blush: You owe me, you wretch. Fetishism is still available as well as your other topic, older man perving on a young, innocent barely out of his diapers 18 year old. 🙂 I could throw out a few others but I’m drinking the milk of human kindness today. :whistle:

        • You are evil, Wave, which is why we have always gotten along.

          I am musing about cheating today. I may even write a blog about it next month.

          And KZ, you should take the bait. I’m dying to hear your take on fetishism, older/younger…anything you write, really.

          • K.Z. is incredibly funny. Here’s her fun post on Duelling Penises which was written WAY back in 2009 when I had my first blog :

            I’ve been trying since then to get her to get off her ass and write another one, but she said I have to pay her. 😆

  • I can go either way. Heh! If two guys have known each other for years, or even months, are pretty average guys and decide to go without, I’d probably not think much of it. Of course you don’t know 100%, you know enough about each other’s lifestyle to make a calculated guess.

    The times that I wince are when I’ve read a total stranger meet up with no condom. You have no clue who that person is or anything about them. Then I’m mentally screaming “wrap that sucker up!!!!”

    To be honest, I find it weird if virgins use a condom. Why? You obviously don’t have any STDs. And I can see a lot of the friends-to-lovers (coworkers-to-lovers/enemies-to-lovers) situations being bareback and it wouldn’t bother me in the least. It’s more the stranger-danger thing.


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I am never sleepless in Seattle, because there's always another book to read or another book to write.
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