Taboos, Heroes, Heroines, and “Social Diseases”

Used to be that few if any historical romances were set in France, particularly prior to the Revolution. I remember an article from the RWR a few years back titled along the lines of, “What’s Wrong with France?” If I recall correctly (and I likely don’t) the article talked about taking risks that could pay off – no one wrote about sports figures as heroes until Susan Elizabeth Phillips came along, so who knows if you’ll tap into the next big thing?

French settings for historicals, however, were different – because if you know your history, you know what happens to many of the royals of France. Same with other historical revolutions and tragic events. In the end of a romance set in Rome, the hero and heroine go off to live in Pompeii and my first thought was, “Y’all need to move!” It’s like throwing cold water on my nice warm fuzzy happy ending.

France and sports aside, I had an email from a reader who had an interesting question about a similar risk in characterization and setting. Emily asks:

I’m formulating an idea for romance novel at the moment, but I’m wondering if I’ve shot myself in the foot right out of the starting gate in deciding to make my heroine HIV+, and aware of the fact. Given that I’ve yet to see a romance novel that so much as winks at herpes or even something curable like gonorrhea, I was wondering if it was pointless to even begin to tackle the idea. I’ve heard of True Love overcoming all odds, and I’d like to see that theory tested. COULD love overcome something so massive as Lingering, Painful Death in a Thong and Holding Champagne? Granted I’d already begun working on how I would or could justify ANY sexual contact, and there’s definitely no simple answer in sight.
What are your thoughts?

 

My thoughts: HIV status and STDs are two different matters entirely, and oddly enough, in my opinion, the former that’s presently incurable is more of a possibility for a romance novel hero or heroine than the other, cured or not.

I think there are a few HIV+ heroes in gay romance, but in the gay community, being HIV+ is less likely to be read as an automatic Death Sentence. There are many who have been HIV+ for decades, and I’m willing to bet that there are some romances wherein one of the characters is HIV+.

However, no matter how you slice it, HIV+  status gets in the way of a guaranteed happy ending, because there’s an implication that the person will die and the reader knows the likely how and why.

That said, I know one of my very favorite movies, Jeffrey, starring Steven Weber, is about a gay man who finds love with an HIV+ man – after he decides that sex is too complicated in the age of AIDS and decides to give up on love and sex entirely. That movie had multiple couples dealing with HIV status of varying severity, and it is still a poignant but absorbing story with a wonder set of romances in it. And I believed in the happy ending without hesitation.

But as for STDs, like gonorrhea or chlamydia, I’d say that much harsh reality gets in the way of the happy ending even more, both in the sexual sense and the conclusion to the novel. The mental image of pus or weeping sores or a little burning when you pee? So not romantic. Even if it’s curable, even if it’s in the past, that kind of mental image wouldn’t work for me – and it would taint my perception of the hero and heroine.

This is all speculation, however, because I haven’t read a romance wherein the hero or the heroine had a tango with some antibiotics after a night with Mr. or Ms. Social Disease. I am curious what ya’ll think – is this an insurmountable romance taboo? Or has it been done and in the hands of the right author, anything’s possible?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Lissa says:

    I think a talented author could make just about any idea work. That said, as a person who generally does not like the kinds of romances that end up making me cry, I probably would not read a romance about an HIV+ person because I think it would be a tear-jerker and even if it wasn’t the shadow of HIV would definitely ruin the HEA. As for other STDs, I’ve never read it a romance but if it was set in modern day setting and it was a curable one it wouldn’t be a big deal to me.

  2. 2
    veinglory says:

    I don’t see any problem with an HIV positive heroine.  With a little luck and right treatment she has a long life ahead of her, just like a heroine with diabetes or a hero in a wheelchair (both of which appear in successful mainstream romances).

  3. 3
    kis says:

    HIV has largely been elevated above the status of an STD. Because of its lethal and incurable nature and the lack of seeping, oozing, burning sores in uncomfortable places (at least in the early stages), it seems to be viewed more like cancer than a venereal disease. A person with AIDS can live (or die) with a certain grace. There’s nothing graceful about ulcers on someone’s genitals.

    HIV also allows the hero to “risk his very life” to be with the heroine—something likely to be seen as noble—whereas risking your dick falling off would just be seen as stupid.

    But then, I’ve always been okay with a bittersweet ending.  So much of the stuff I read (not strictly romance, but maybe fantasy with romantic elements) is like that. I have a rating system based on how many pages make me cry. The higher the number, the better the book.

    Because of the lack of squickiness, the potential for tragic nobility and the fact that you can get it other ways than being an OMG SLUT!!!!, HIV in a romance would work for me, whereas herpes would just give me the willies.

    Although with all those Valtrex commercials that show sexy young couples talking candidly about how they cope with herpes while enjoying a somewhat normal sex life, you never know. Could a herpes romance be next? Perhaps there’s a whole subgenre just sitting there, undiscovered.

  4. 4
    Trollop says:

    Pearl Cleage has a wonderful book in which the heroine is HIV+ “What Looks Like Crazy in an Ordinary Day”. It’s not a romance but Ava (the main character) meets and falls in love with a man in the course of the book. There’s even a beautiful erotic sex scene that I thought was very well written.

    I have to admit, however, that I bought the book without knowing it was an Oprah BC selection *cringe* and with no idea the main character had HIV (bought this book at the airport between two really LONG flights and only bothered to skim quickly over the blurb). In any case, really happy I got it since it turned out to be pretty good :)

  5. 5
    Teddy Pig says:

    Being that I am HIV+ since 1989 and still I am not on drugs…

    The good ones die young but us old bitter assholes go on and on and on.

    http://www.teddypig.com/2007/07/04/sarah-black-wolf/

    Sarah Black wrote a horrible HIV+ gay romance for Torquere Press I ranted at in my blog.

    The HIV was handled OK but the characters sucked mighty wind.

    HIV+ brings up all sorts of interesting story lines and choices and ways to look at sex and relationships. Both the tragic and the everyday practices.

    How do you tell a perspective partner how do you handle a relationship with a   future that is not pleasant and uncertain?

    Good stuff with the right writer.

  6. 6
    Ann Bruce says:

    It’s been a while, but I believe Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John and the Private Matter (I know it’s not a romance) has a romance between two people infected with the clap (someone correct me if I’m wrong).  Personally, I thought it worked out quite well and I found myself rooting for them and believing they would have an HEA.

    So, I think it could work.  The writer just needs to handle it very carefully.

  7. 7
    Rebecca Reagan says:

    uh Kis?

    While I understand your point, I’ve seen a dear friend die of Aids.  Just had to respond in light of his suffering and experience.

    Nothing, unfortunately, was graceful about it.

    And there were ulcers in painful private places and in the mouth…not so private, eh? but crucial to trying to eat and drink to survive. There’s something that happens to a person’s spirit when they can’t even enjoy taste anymore, you know?

    Yes, much progress has been made, Thank God, in the treatment of this disease…but it remains a beast when unleased in it’s terminal form.

    So for me, I would see any hero/heroine dealing with aids through the lens off my personal experience…just as you do yours, I guess!

    Teddy Pig…congratulations on so many healthy years. Seriously!

    I do agree that making shiney happy commercials about herpes was something I didn’t think could be pulled off!

  8. 8
    Goblin says:

    I think in a comic romance, an STD still under treatment could be hilarious. The couple can’t have sex, and only one of them knows why – but won’t admit why.

    An STD caught in the past from teh ebil ex could be part of the hero/ine’s proof that the ex was ebil. I could see that working also.

    I would have trouble dealing with AIDS in a romance, although it might work as part of a subplot. The catharsis I want to experience from a romance novel is initial tension giving way to pleasure. A sufficiently serious matter will poison the end state and leave me unsatisfied with the novel.

  9. 9
    Liz C. says:

    I’m not sure about how the reading public would respond to a novel, and it certainly depends on how well written it is, but one of the most popular soap opera pairings today is Robin and Patrick on General Hospital and Robin’s been HIV+ for well over a decade. GH has a lot of problems with it currently but one of the things it’s always managed to handle rather well is Robin’s HIV+ness and the issues that arise.

    Anyway, my point is that while certainly romance novels and soap operas are different it is possible to create a believable romantic relationship between two people when one is HIV+ and people will enjoy it, and in fact find it the only redeeming aspect of an otherwise horrible show (but enough about my disgust with the current direction of GH).

    Still, whether or not I personally would enjoy the romance novel with an HIV+ character is dependent on if I like the characters, the story, and the writing. And I suspect that’d be the case for a lot of people.

  10. 10
    L. Francesca says:

    I think that when done right, an HIV/AIDS positive storyline could be one of the most poignant tales I might ever read.

    However, I don’t know of a storyline between protagonists with even a scare of HIV.

    I think, though, I would find it more morbid or too dramatic for my taste. Even if they engage in safe sex, there is still a chance the other partner would catch it, isn’t there? I haven’t had health in a long time. I’d feel too overwhelmed at the idea.

    I’d have to really see clearly light at the end of the tunnel for this storyline.

  11. 11

    Didn’t the heroine in “Out of Africa” have syphilis?

    I think an HIV+ character could work and be quite compelling, but at a guess I’d say it might be harder to sell to a publisher / agent as a romance rather than women’s fiction.

    Good luck!

  12. 12
    Scotsie says:

    Jenyfer, yes Karen Blixen had syphillis.  According to the film version, she got it from her husband who had been sleeping around.  She never mentions it in her memoir, Out of Africa, though the disease and her

    cure

    (mercury and arsenic) are mentioned in Shadows on the Grass.

  13. 13
    L. Francesca says:

    That doesn’t sound terribly romantic. o_O

    Sounds like it might be a great book, but not a romance.

  14. 14
    kis says:

    Perhaps I wasn’t as eloquent as I could have been. I likened AIDS to cancer, and I believe it is a fair comparison, although grace may not have been the perfect word. I’ve watched a loved one die of cancer, and though she endured hair loss, weight loss, constant nausea and vomiting, loss of bladder and bowel function, headaches that defied even morphine, and all kinds of other terrible things, she managed to maintain a fragile dignity through the long, painful process of her death.

    As for possibilities in fiction, HIV—like cancer—can give an author the opportunity to show a character, and her love interest, facing the disease with dignity and courage.

    Gonnorhea would give you all of the ick, with none of the opportunity for drama. HIV could be a catalyst for character development and meaningful conflict within a relationship. Herpes, not so much.

  15. 15
    Chrissy says:

    I think the stumbling points for me were:

    *HIV is not terminal.  AIDs is, and if the language is confused you are sending mixed messages and telling readers you don’t know your subject matter.

    *Cancer is curable. More curable every day.  Not all cancers look and feel the same. HIV is treatable.  AIDs is terminal.  Again, see above.

    As a survivor or cancer, someone with a much loved family member living with HIV, and a person with a terminal illness I can say I’d LOVE to see more books deal with death, illness, and the subtle dealings in relationships facing these issues.  But I’d also be positively beastly if it wasn’t done meticulously.

  16. 16
    rascoagogo says:

    I like the idea of that being part of the conflict characters have to work through, but I don’t think it fits into romance as a genre. A love story outside of the genre? Absolutely.

    With all the confusion people have about HIV versus AIDS, the onus of education would be on you to write it in such a way that people understand the differences.

  17. 17
    teddypig says:

    oh that old HIV does not kill you aids does is so splitting hairs to me. To me it’s silly semantics based on how ill you are and not something I personally would get into a hissy fit over in some story.  No cure for it whatever term you want to use.

  18. 18
    Acajou says:

    “My thoughts: HIV status and STDs are two different matters entirely, and oddly enough, in my opinion, the former that’s presently incurable is more of a possibility for a romance novel hero or heroine than the other, cured or not. “- SB Sarah

    I hate to come out with my public health hat but I have to here. Why is HIV different from any other STI? Sure HIV is a virus that can cause an incurable disease but so can infection with some types of HPV and with hepatitis B. Gonorrhea and chlamydia dont have to lead to pus and oozing. You may have some discomfort initially but a short course of antibiotics is a cure. Same can be said of syphilis. Herpes is a bit trickier- once you are infected you are so for life- but there are therapies like Valtrex to decrease symptoms and viral shedding.

    I think part of the issue is the lay public seems to have a lot of misperceptions about all sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Number one misconception is that you have to be sleeping around to get an STI. In regards to HIV the misconception is that HIV = death sentence. In many instances it can be a death sentence. But with monitoring and treatment, HIV can be a chronic condition with people living quite well for 20+ years.

    It seems that with all the heroines in contemporary Romancelandia getting horizontal without protection this would be an area of great potential for writers and readers.

    I remember reading Dark Salvation by Jennifer Dunne. Dunne creates a mythos where vampirism is actually some blood borne ailment/pathogen and the hero is using his considerable financial resources to find a cure. But his top secret lab draws the eye of an investigative reporter. They are drawn to each other and in the course of their love affair he infects her. By the end of the book she is coming to terms to what this will mean to her life. Cant be a reporter is you can only interview people at night, cant see your family easily etc etc.

    I wanted a sequel to this book to see the aftermath of I-Infected- You-And-Now-You-Are-A-Vampire Reveal. I really thought there needed to be a more in depth treatment of how the heroine reacts to the fact that the love of her life infected her with a life altering disease. I thought it was an interesting treatment of a paranormal romance. Cause I really dont get how all the romance heroines are so happy to be turned in bloodsucking fiends for eternity by their vampire boyfriends.

  19. 19

    Anything’s possible in the hands of the right author.  And some authors have dealt with STDs in a historical context.  My favorite book using that theme is Playing the Jack by the late Mary Brown, and Gabaldon’s Lord John and the Private Matter is also about a character with syphilis.

  20. 20
    Claudia says:

    Emily’s book might begin its life as an ebook or single title women’s fiction, but probably not romance in either case.

    STDs conflict with the HEA’s assumed barrier free, mindless boinking that’s one of the benes of finding The One.

  21. 21
    Charlene says:

    What gets me about illnesses in historical romances is that the heroine always comes up with some kind of herb that can automatically cure whatever the hero’s been afflicted with. It’s so damned unrealistic. If someone starts writing ‘STD romances’ they’ll just have the heroine cure syphilis with plants or some such quack nonsense.

    I’d like to read a book where the herbs didn’t work, or where adding the herbs (which were normally not boiled and full of bacteria and molds) actually caused the patient to get sicker. Now THAT would be realistic.

  22. 22
    Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the further clarification Kis.

    You made your point gracefully—I think with more grace than I made mine!

    I think Chrissy’s follow up post expressed my point of view better than I did..having seen this first hand..I’d want to read it done extremely well.

    It could still be too intense for me..I’m thinking it’s all a little too raw, still.

  23. 23
    Ann Aguirre says:

    No, not interested in any kind of book where the hero or heroine has an STD. I don’t care how well it’s written, it’s not gonna fly for me.

  24. 24
    Theresa says:

    I think it could be done, and I think the comedic element (they won’t have sex and only one knows why) could still be present, even for a while.

    Some romances I’ve read recently talked about that deep emotional wounding family dysfunction or broken love relationships can leave. At the same time, I still found myself laughing and holding my breath at plot turns. Maybe they’re not the same kind of issue, but I think they can still carry that kind of weight. I also think a HEA ending would still be possible, as long as the protagonists’ terms of it were clearly defined and satisfying to the reader.

  25. 25
    Jen C says:

    Hmm…

    I do think HIV would lead the readers, rightly or wrongly, to believe that one or both the HH are going to die younger.  For whatever reason, I tend to think my couples live to be in their 90s, no matter what year they live in- completely unrealistic.

    I also think that the only way an author would give her heroine an STD is if she had a mean evil ex who cheated, because heroines never have casual sex and hero have tons but never catch a damn thing.  I think it would annoy me to have that villian ex, because then it makes it seem like those people with STDs are bad and dirty.  And a huge percentage of America and probably the rest of the world has an STD or did or will.  So it is completely unrealistic that no couples in Romancelandia have herpes or anything.

    I have never read a romance with couple where one or both of them has a major health issue- wheelchair, sight, hearing, disfiguration, or anything terminal.  I haven’t saught them out, but I also haven’t run across them.  Though when I was a teen a read an author all the time where all the kids in her books had major terminal illinesses… anyone know who I am talking about?  They were often romantic.

  26. 26
    Liz C. says:

    Though when I was a teen a read an author all the time where all the kids in her books had major terminal illinesses… anyone know who I am talking about?

    Lurlene McDaniel. So very depressing.

  27. 27

    Jen C., I recommend to you a Harlequin Super Romance called A Man Like Mac by Fay Robinson.  The hero is a paraplegic and in a wheelchair.  The novel deals sensitively with sexuality, incontinence, self esteem and other issues related to the hero being disabled.

    I believe the novel also won the Rita.

  28. 28
    Jennie says:

    Jen, Catherine Anderson writes books with heroines with major health issues & has had heroines with blindness, in wheelchairs, having panic attacks, etc.  It’s a little icky sweet at times, but the romance is usually handled well.

    I think the STD part in romance that squicks me out is the issue of the yuck factor of the contagiousness of the disease.  It’s not just STD’s, I don’t like stories where the heroine is tossing her cookies or the hero has the flu from hell & is blowing his nose and hacking up a lung and in the midst of all that they’re playing tonsil hockey and boinking each others brains out.

  29. 29
    L. Francesca says:

    Lurlene McDaniel. So very depressing.

    Goddamn, yes.

    I read everything she wrote, though, despite the fact that everyone just had to die.

    That’s not really a spoiler, either, since it becomes standard after a few books.

    I take back what I said earlier about never being exposed to an HIV/AIDS storyline.

    This jogged my memory. There was a girl named Anne/Annie who had AIDS in a Lurlene McDaniel book. She gets a hundred thousand dollars to spend it however she wants and decides to go to a ranch. I think the guy she likes ends up…maybe or maybe not having non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

    I…still wouldn’t call that a romance, despite the relationship between Annie and- I think his name was Morgan.

  30. 30
    Chicklet says:

    I would be very interested in reading a romance where half (or all?) of the couple has HIV or an STI; it’s a growing commonality that affects many people.

    As for either of these scenarios “interfering” with the HEA…

    *puts on flack jacket*

    I don’t really believe HEAs for *forever*. Maybe it’s because my mother and father were divorced when I was young, or because I spend a lot of time reading fanfiction (where one of the major practices is speculating on what happens after the book/movie/TV series ends), but I read the HEA, think, That’s nice, and move on, without imagining the couple live to be 104, are still happily married, and die within a few hours of each other with no pain and with their umpteen children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren around them. I mean, anything could happen, you know? Car accidents. Death in childbirth. Influenza pandemic. The heroine’s TSTL tendencies lead to her falling down a well and breaking her neck.

    In short, if the couple are together at the end of the book, that’s good enough for me; I don’t need any kind of guarantee about their lives ten or fifty years on. Which is why I would be happy to welcome a romance involving HIV, although I think most publishers would shy away from it, because so many readers have Very Definite Boundaries. I hate to use the term balkanization, but that’s what it seems like sometimes. As a newcomer to reading romance, it seems like romance readers are more set in their ways than readers of other genres. “I’ll read paranormals, but nothing with vampires” or “I’ll read erotic romances BUT NO THREESOMES” or “I’ll run away at the merest hint of Teh Homosexx!” It seems like some readers spend their time trying to *avoid* so many subjects/stories/characters/whatnot, instead of trying to enjoy a variety of books.

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