Fiction, even contemporary or realistic fiction is not intended to be a replacement for education. I think we all agree on that. But even in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, there are things we want to feel real for our readers. One thing to note – while I think the info and points are useful to all authors, I am sure there are ways that my background in romance and YA are going to inform my position.
Of course, you might say, but that doesn’t mean that our characters make the best choices. And that is true, characters often make a series of bad or misguided decisions before they make better ones. However, there are things an author can do to signal to the reader that these are not the best choices.
Where am I going with this?
Well, let’s talk about where and how you learned about sex.
Was it from your parents? Your siblings? In a religious or faith institution? From TV or books? From classmates? In a comprehensive sex ed class? From porn? From fanfic?
Some of you may have seen the John Oliver piece on sex ed in the US. (Sorry, my non-USian friends, I do not have good data on other places.) He pointed out that sex ed is not required in most states and that even where it is taught, it is not always medical accurate. Which also means that there are ob/gyns who have never had sex ed.
Please think about that for a moment.
As such, this means you don’t know what information your readers are arriving at your books with. If your character makes a choice that you the author know is misguided, will the reader know? If so how?
Similarly, this means your characters may have arrived at the point they meet each other with very different sets of knowledge and information about sex.
Now, am I saying you need to check with the school that your character attended and find out what kind of sex ed was being taught at the time your character attended? Perhaps, if you are a detail nerd like me. But also, these are things you can ask yourself as you build your characters. Where would they have learned about sex? How might that have impacted some of their prior experiences? Or would that be why they have no prior experiences?
What does this mean for their comfort level in communicating their wants and needs?
Now, after all this thinking, could you decide that all your protagonists have parents and/or schools and/or religious institutions that provided comprehensive sex ed, clear and direct information about contraception, and practice about stating boundaries? Of course you can! But those choices should then be relevant to the scenes you write.