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Where Have All the Condoms Gone?

Being Smart about Sex Is Not as Easy as It Seems

Once upon a time, I took it for granted that everyone my age had been privy to the condom-applied-to-the-banana demonstration. I remember the socially awkward gym teacher who, for at least two weeks each year, had to put the rubber balls aside in order to show us traumatizing and graphic STD videos. We learned new concepts-like abstinence-and that gonorrhea wasn't a character in King Lear. The braver girls asked questions like, "Mrs. Jacobs, do you have sex when you're on your period?" Sure, the process wasn't perfect, but we got the gist and had enough sex smarts to navigate junior high.

Lately, though, I have started to realize that not everyone is as informed as I supposed. My friend Jenna, who teaches high school in suburban Montreal, tells me, in all seriousness, that several of her students thought HIV was a music store. It seems like a joke, but it's not. Another friend, Ana, is Italian Catholic to the max. She told me that in Italy information about birth control just isn't available. Being safe means basing your actions on hearsay. Ana really thought that jumping up and down after sex could "shake the baby out" and prevent pregnancy. Someone else-an acquaintance who teaches moral education at a Catholic school in Scarborough, Ontario-mentioned that she's not assigning a chapter that says birth control and abortions are bad. The school board frowns on this, but by having the chapter be optional reading, the kids can make up their own minds.

Even those lucky enough to have had sex ed realize that they are playing Russian roulette a lot of the time. I know a few girls who rely, if warily, on the rhythm method (coupled with its flakier sister, the withdrawal method). Why? Because these girls don't tolerate the pill. For whatever hormonal reasons, the pill can make some girls gain weight or feel like they are constantly not themselves (sick and sad). When I brought up the possibility of being fitted for a diaphragm, I was laughed at. Most people haven't seen one of those since that Steve Martin movie Parenthood. My friends generally feel that the diaphragm is an awkward and unreliable contraption that will eventually suffer the same fate as the IUD. There have been some murmurs and rustlings about the male pill, but most of the girls I asked about this said they wouldn't trust their boyfriends to remember to take it and that they wouldn't want to give up control of their reproductive destiny. So that's that.

So if such methods don't work for you, you're left with condoms (cue the inevitable sigh of discontent). It seems to me that condoms are generally disliked, but most people agree that they are a necessary annoyance to prevent larger sexual catastrophes. If you want to enjoy your sexual freedom and sleep around, condoms are really the only option. There is even a female condom, which performs the same function, only on the inside. Some friends and I once got a free sample, but we all found its size to be alarming and foreign. Hey, to each their own.

So, if condoms are the safest bet, why don't more people use them? A lot of people argue that the sex isn't as good-the pleasure is compromised for everyone by the rubber-glove-like sensation. Plus, people complain about the process of reaching for the condom, putting it on and losing the momentum-and sometimes even the moment itself.

But it's not just these technicalities that make condoms unfavourable. I read an article once by a social anthropologist who had spent time in the Philippines with cocktail waitresses. This was a special kind of cocktail bar where pretty girls talk to rich men. While the girls weren't obliged to sleep with the patrons, negotiations could be entered into if both parties were so inclined. In such cases, the girls would usually use sexual protection. However, if the circumstances changed so that the patron became a "boyfriend" (by way of emotional bonds, frequent visits, presents and promises), the woman would often choose to forgo the condoms. This was her boyfriend, after all.

This kind of thinking is really common-and not only among cocktail waitresses in the Philippines. When someone is deemed your "boyfriend," the relationship is taken up a notch, which often means there is a desire to be implicitly trusting and trusted. People are in relationships because they want closeness and togetherness in a literal sense as much as in an emotional sense. And as thin as the condoms come these days (Japanese condoms are quite popular in this respect), they still seem to act as a barrier to intimacy for some couples.

I've barely even mentioned infections and diseases. STDs are rampant and everyone has a horror story about a friend of a friend. The increase in the rates of sexual disease is alarming. Between 1995 and 2003, uncomplicated gonorrhea cases increased by 137 percent in the United Kingdom, while genital chlamydia cases increased by 192 percent. And these are just some treatable examples. The news has been profiling a guy in Windsor, Ontario, who has been accused of having unprotected sex with numerous women while knowing that he was HIV-positive.

A good friend of mine told me that having a condom on hand was like having a gun in the house-you have it for protection, but you could end up doing something you'd regret.

When the stakes are so high, it's hard to understand why people are forsaking their sexual health and even their lives. While the need for awareness is paramount, it seems that even the aware aren't really being all that smart about sex. Over dinner the other night, I chatted about this with a male friend. We were talking about his transition to condomless sex with his current girlfriend. I asked him how he had brought up the issue of testing. Apparently, when she asked him, he told her that he was "clean." Which would have been great had he understood what "clean" meant. When she popped the question, she was probably most concerned about HIV. He assumed that she was talking about chlamydia (possibly because he had been treated for that particular STD in university). He claims it just never occurred to him that she would be talking about HIV, for which he had never been tested.

Although I am sure that my friend (and by extension his girlfriend) are just fine, their behaviour reflects the common mindset of the moderately sexually active. This guy is educated. He didn't go to Catholic school. He knows the risks. And yet he gravely misunderstood a very important question. He considers himself low-risk, but it doesn't occur to him that he may have been exposed to HIV. It is easy to fall into this trap because being tested and facing the fact that it actually could happen to you (or to anyone) is scary as hell.

To make matters worse, even when you work up the courage to ask for the test, you can be persuaded otherwise. A girl I know wanted to be tested after an inadvertent incident of unprotected sex. The doctor was very reassuring (perhaps too much), saying she was sure my friend was fine, that she shouldn't really worry, that she was very low-risk. In the end, they decided together not to administer the test. I've heard of this happening to a few people, and while I can imagine why (low-risk patients are a burden on the system), it doesn't seem exactly right to dissuade someone from their sexual responsibility.

A good friend of mine told me that having a condom on hand was like having a gun in the house-you have it for protection, but you could end up doing something you'd regret. Maybe so. But while losing your self-control is a risk, it's not as risky as having unprotected sex. So let 2005 be the year that we all keep condoms next to our beds. If we want to forgo the condoms, let us make sure we communicate openly and don't use too many murky "clean slate" metaphors. In this time of New Year resolutions, we should really all try to be resolute about this.

Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.