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The Uncomfortable Truth About Condoms

July 27, 2013

…is that they are not magic charms.

The sex scares of the ’80’s paralleled the bomb scares of the ’50’s, and “always use a condom” was our version of “duck and cover”. To many they have taken on an almost superstitious quality, magically eliminating all risk of pregnancy and STI transmission as well as the need for “uncomfortable” communication in one fell swoop. Due to the paranoia instilled in many impressionable minds, the thought of trusting another person with their life, let alone your life, is commonly abhorrent, at least with regard to the sensationalized risk of STI infection. But let’s re-contextualize this: we all take our own lives into our hands each time we get behind the wheel of a car, as well as the lives of our passengers and others, and we experience no adverse stress from doing so (even though we do know that people die in car accidents). Most of us could sleep through a long road trip, hurtling down highways at lethal speeds, mere inches from oncoming traffic, if we trusted the person who was driving.

I grew up in the 80’s and had the mantra “assume everyone has everything” (or, as I internalized it, “you can never trust anyone, ever”) drilled into me along with the rest of my generation, but I personally rejected it as sex-negative paranoia. My present guiding principle is that clear and accurate communication is a more essential form of risk management than physical barriers alone.

I started out as an adolescent knowing that STI’s were out there, that they were bad, and that I didn’t want to contract any of them. At the same time, I knew intuitively, even before I ever had sex, that using barrier protection felt unsafe, not to mention unsatisfying. I also knew that I wanted to be able to enjoy sex more than I wanted to be able to have kids. The second situation was easy to deal with by getting a vasectomy as soon as I was old enough, but the first one vexed me for a number of years, and even more so after I came out of the poly closet and realized that having non-monogamous sexual partners was an actual possibility.

What helped me feel that I had control over the situation was, first and foremost becoming a subject-matter expert on STI’s, then adopting a pair of scientifically valid premises about STI transmission and human psychology (in contrast to “everyone has everything” and “you can never trust anybody, ever”), and finally asking myself a series of logical questions.

I replaced my indoctrinated belief that “you can never know if another person is infected or not” with the belief that infection has to come from somewhere. I.E., it doesn’t spontaneously generate from uninfected people having sex, it is transmitted from infected people to uninfected people.  Furthermore, since no form of barrier protection is 100% reliable, the probability of contracting an STI from an uninfected partner with or without barrier protection is zero, while the probability of contracting an infection from an infected partner while using barrier protection is nonzero. This is universally true of all STI’s. I also replaced the belief “you can never trust anybody, ever” with the belief “You can trust whomever you decide is trustworthy.

I then began to construct my eventual philosophy by asking myself a series of questions. The first question was “would I have barrier-protected sex with someone that I knew was infected?” The answer was clearly “no”. Then I asked myself, “would I have barrier-protected sex with someone that I knew might be infected?” The answer again was a clear “no”. The next logical question I asked myself was “Then why would I have barrier-protected sex with anyone?” The only way I could figure it, there were only three statuses a person could have: definitely infected, definitely not infected, or unknown. In the case of definitely is or unknown, I wouldn’t have sex regardless of barrier protection, and in the case of definitely not, it would be not only undesirable but also pointless to use barrier protection (according to my premise that the infection has to come from somewhere).

When I tried to imagine myself fucking with a condom, all I could imagine going through my head was not “I’m using a condom, what could go wrong?” but rather “is it safe to be having sex with this person? Are they uninfected or not? What’s stopping me from asking them?” If the answer was “no” or “I don’t know”, I realized I would be in the wrong situation. And if the answer was yes, the condom was completely useless, not to mention counterproductive to my primary goal of enjoying intimacy and sex.

Of course, the only way that I could conceive of being certain that someone (including myself) was not infected would be confirmatory test results coupled with the ruling out of likely risk factors. To illustrate, if I tested negative for HIV, for example, and I haven’t had sex with anyone since, or encountered any other risk factors, I am presumably still negative for HIV. If I develop a sexual relationship with Kristin, who is in the same situation as me, then I don’t have to worry about contracting HIV from Kristin, or she from me. If I then develop a sexual relationship with Tracey, and Tracey and her other partner, Bob, have both tested negative and not had sex with anyone in the intervening time, then I don’t have to worry about contracting it from Tracey or from Bob (via Tracey), and Kristin doesn’t have to worry about contracting it from either of them via me. If at any point this chain of confirmation was broken, clear communication channels would protect everyone involved. For example, if Kristin told me, “I had sex with Jason this weekend, and we used a condom but we didn’t talk about our STI status”, then Kristin and I could back off our level of sexual contact until that situation was confirmed as either safe or not safe/unknown. Meanwhile, I don’t have to worry about contracting HIV from Kristin, and Tracey and Bob don’t have to worry about contracting it from me.

At first I concluded that this would necessitate the prohibitive micromanagement of the intimate relations of not just all of my lovers but in fact, my entire sexual network, but eventually I realized that if I was smart enough to prevent myself from becoming infected and principled enough to not infect my partners, and I believed that my lovers were at least as smart and principled as me, I could also trust them to protect themselves and me from becoming infected. So, by adopting the policy of only becoming sexually intimate with people who I thought were at least as smart and principled as me (a good policy in its own right), establishing a solid ground of communication and trust before developing a sexual relationship (also a good policy in its own right) and applying my premise that “you can trust whomever you decide is trustworthy”, I realized that I could maintain a “firewall” of active communication with my regular partners without any need for micromanagement whatsoever, just by sustaining an affirmative answer to the question “Is it safe for us to have sex?”  Though nothing is foolproof, this policy of trust based in open communication allows me to make conscious decisions about how to manage infection risks, rather than being in the dark and hoping for the best.

Bottom line: physical barriers are a personal choice that do not obviate the need for communication, trust, and good judgment, any more than wearing a seat belt validates reckless driving.

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From → Controversy, Sex

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