Dec 1 2011 3:00pm

Responsible Romance: The 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day

Any self-respecting romance reader will tell you that power is sexy.

The TrumpsHarlequin has a whole executive line of stories about the powerful, wealthy, influential chief executive officer and his mistress/secretary/secret baby. They’re tried and true motif’s that are always scandalous and shocking, and fun to read. And then there’s the mainstream media:

<< Need I say more?

But I want to talk about another kind of power today, on this 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day: knowledge is power. And that power is sexy, too.

Romance authors and their publishing houses have shifted over the last decade to present responsible romance, which is a smart, sexy trend. Reading about mindless, meaningless sex with a stranger who our heroine picks up in a bar on the middle of a road trip with her best girlfriends is still just as exhilarating, impromptu and sexy when our powerful, well-endowed hero whips out of his pants a … condom.

A seemingly simple action, yet one that saves lives. Most romance authors belong to the national writer’s guild, the Romance Writers of America (RWA), who report that “romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.368 Billion for 2011,” and that “romance fiction was the largest share of the U.S. consumer market in 2010 at 13.4 percent.” RWA also puts a lot of stock in its readers. Did you know that “the core of the romance fiction market is 29 million regular readers,” or that “29 percent of Americans over the age of 13 read a romance novel in 2008”?

That’s a pretty big captive audience. More to the point, that’s a pretty big captive audience with the probability of being sexually active … one that reads and remembers and perhaps emulates at least some of the pieces of the character’s lives.

Remember I said before that knowledge is power? Well, I’m talking about socially conscientious knowledge of what the World Health Organization calls “one of the world’s most significant public health challenges,” HIV/AIDS. 

Magic JohnsonWould you believe that the number of HIV infections is still on the rise, 30 years later? Several factors contribute to the rise here in the United States, but one of the most influential is the better class of medications that allow individuals living with HIV disease to live longer, healthier lives. The most famous and most visible case of healthy, happy, successful HIV positive living is Magic Johnson, who announced 20 years ago that he was HIV positive. Last night, though, he appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan show to remind folks that AIDS is still prevalent.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection. The White House published a National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States to help determine a plan to deal with this communicable disease that can affect every single person. Everywhere.

HIV/AIDS has been part of my lexicon for so many years, though, that all of this is regular conversation at my house. My father-in-law was on the development team for the first HIV drug, AZT, in the early 1980s, and I spent the last four years working as a grant writer and public affairs officer for an ASO (AIDS Service Organization). The epidemiology reports and statistics I memorized and used as a sharp sword made me so sad, and I found great solace in the hopeful, happy endings of romance books.

But most of you are smart, savvy romance readers who see that regardless of who our characters are intimate with, or how many partners they have at any given time, condoms are part of the action (for the most part). But do you know why? Here’s a quickie HIV/AIDS 101 to remind you that even through the veil of fantasy and escapism in the romance genre, its authors still have a social responsibility:

  • HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infects cells of the immune system and destroys or impairs their function, making it hard for the body to fend off infections and diseases.
  • AIDS (Acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the most advanced stages of HIV infection.
  • HIV can be transmitted five ways: through unprotected vaginal or anal sex; oral sex with an individual living with HIV; during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding from mother to baby; sharing needles; or transfusions of contaminated blood.

Knowledge is power, and power is sexy. I like to think that when the sexy characters I’m reading about say to their partner, “I’m clean,” it means that they’d gone to their local health department or doctor, had their regular battery of HIV/STD tests, and were STD-free. It’s sort of like a little mental background script that passes quickly enough for me to read the passage smoothly instead of stopping and wondering, “What the hell?” Think about how Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone make love in Demolition Man, with no fluid exchange. In that future, sex is safely in your brain … to which Sly says ‘no way.’

Tell It to the Marines by Amy J. FetzerOne of my favorite condom scenes is from Amy J. Fetzer’s novella, Hot Landing Zone, an adventurous tale of Jake Mackenzie, who blames scientist Katherine Collier for getting them stranded on a remote island.

“Look what I found,” she said, breathless.

He chiseled the point. “Buried treasure?”

“No, evidence that we aren’t alone.”

He looked up, shielding his eyes. She held up a long piece of pale rubber.

“It’s a … a—”

“Condom. I’m sure you’re familiar with them.”

Her cheeks brightened. “But how would this get here? Intact?”

“It’s mine.”

She blinked. “Yours?”

“We use them to keep moisture and dirt out of the machine gun and pistol barrels.”

She looked from the limp condom, to him, then back again. “Interesting.” She paused for a heart-beat, then said, “Do you have … more?”

He choked on his breath. “Jesus, Katherine, don’t go there.”

I know this is a serious topic, but I thought that we could pause long enough to pay homage to the more than 33.3 million people in the United States who have died from AIDS-related illness over the last three decades…and to remember that 1.2 million are still living with HIV infection. Their lives are healthier, longer and happier than ever before. That’s actually a reason to celebrate today.

And remember that the romance books we read can be as sweet and romantic, or hot and sexy as we like, but with a bit of responsibility to keep us honest. As an HIV educator, I would tell people in my community to practice safe sexual behaviors like using condoms—every time. That knowledge is power, and knowing your HIV status makes you as powerful as Thor and Zeus and Athena combined. That it’s your responsibility to be smart, safe and aware for yourself, your partner, your family, and for your life.

And I challenge the romance industry to keep doing the same.


Dolly Sickles is a Southerner with a lifelong penchant for storytelling. Her Secret Squirrel identity is Dolly Sickles, but she also writes romance as Becky Moore, and in the spring of 2012, her first children’s book will be published as Dolly Dozier. She’s an avid reader of all literature, but she takes refuge in the romance genre, where despite the most grandiose, exhilarating, strange, and unlikely plot that’s out there, every story has a happy ending.

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Thank you for your modern take on sex, romance and being responsible for your actions.
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