Saturday, April 11, 2009

Making Condoms Asexy

"I want to live and I want to love. I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of."
--The Smiths, 'Frankly, Mr. Shankly"

I suppose it's as it should be: Even though I’ve never had sex, I seem to have a good handle on healthy sexual practices. When I heard that the third date is, supposedly, a common juncture to have sex for the first time with someone, all I could think was: “But aren’t you supposed to talk about testing for STDs, birth control and stuff before having sex? And isn’t the third date a little early for that?” I knew that people had sex without talking about these things, but my response was the old chestnut: “If you’re not comfortable talking about sex, are you really ready to be having it?” Maybe you are, but I maintain that it’s a good thing to talk about.

And at the risk of sounding like your high school gym teacher, that’s what we’ll be talking about today: Birth control and STD prevention. Yeah, I feel a little awkward writing about this, but, as someone with no emotional attachment to sex, I actually think I’m a good candidate to talk about how our culture views these things. It’s odd that while we see commercials for birth control every 15 minutes on TV, the condoms are locked up at Safeway, presumably because people keep stealing them, so embarrassed are we to admit we might be having sex.

Related to that, it REALLY bothers me when characters in movies and TV are constantly getting it on with no discussion or representation of safe sex. I know that these depictions aren’t supposed to be realistic, but people complain when someone smokes in a movie and it’s portrayed as “cool”…and isn’t having unsafe sex, especially with someone you haven’t had that “have you been tested?” talk with, pretty dangerous to your health? Hello, HIV, duh! Is it really going to derail the plot for a character to break out a condom? I think not. Maybe having sex without thinking of consequences is the sort of wish-fulfillment that we find in movies. I guess I come from this old “theatre should entertain and educate” school. But a lot of people don’t seem to be figuring out this whole safe-sex thing—it’s something we need to start seeing as integral to sexual activity. However, as any fan of This Film is Not Yet Rated might tell you, it might be the censors' apparent love of disembodied, "artistic" sex scenes that is partially to blame.

In her blog Ace of Hearts, the Impossible K recently asked, “I’m kinda surprised this issue [of birth control] hasn’t been discussed more amongst asexuals. Is it because it’s really such a non-issue for us?” And then, “I’m curious though - how do other asexuals view birth control, especially on a personal level? Would it be safe to assume we all favor the most effective method - not doing “it” - or are there valid reasons why other options need to be considered?” As someone with self-imposed blog productivity demands, I’ll bite on this—and pretty much any topic, to be honest. Sure, I could just comment, but expounding’s more my style.

I’m trying to think of my attitudes towards birth control as a teen, and I’m having a hard time recalling them. I was pretty sure, though, that everyone (female) started on the pill when they got older and inevitably started to have sex. I wasn’t crazy about messing with my body’s hormones (which, as far as I know, are completely normal). For me, something like sex wasn’t a big enough draw to make me want to go through even the slightest inconvenience. For me, birth control has always been a “let’s cross this river when we come to it” sort of thing. However, it’s always bothered me how the onus is completely on the woman. Sure, we’re the ones that actually give birth, but usually there is another person involved in the process. Apparently, hormonal birth control is possible for men, but it’s not marketable. So it’s cool for women to mess with their hormone levels, but men just won’t go there? I’m not down with that double-standard. However, even if there was hormonal birth control available for men, I wouldn’t want to convince men to take it when I would be resistant to taking it myself. Let’s not even get into the issue of health-related products not being available for anyone to use just because they’re not marketable to a large population. I get why they’re not, but it seems like a shame anyway.

So that’s pills. The only other form of birth control that’s commonly discussed seems to be condoms. In health class, we were taught about all these exotic methods (I remember female condoms, which sort of looked like those plastic showers you use when camping). However, in general talk (if there is any), these two kinds are pretty much all that’s discussed. It’s funny because even in terms of condoms, obtaining them is still seen as the woman’s responsibility. It’s also our responsibility to talk resistant male partners into using condoms. But really, think about it: If a dude refuses to buy condoms, and you have to use various strategies to get him to use one, is this really someone you want to have sex with? When you read literature about sex education, especially for young people, there’s all this advice on how to make condom usage sexy and romantic. Even I can see that this seems like way too much work; no wonder so many women go with the pill. Somehow, I doubt people are really as resistant to condoms as we’ve been led to believe. They are 99% effective after all, but only when used properly. And I’m guessing that a lot of the time, that doesn’t happen, considering that I also happen to be well-versed in all the things that can go wrong on that front.

I’ve never really understood the concept of abstinence as a form of birth control. “Don’t have sex and you won’t get pregnant” is logical, but as someone who is technically “abstinent”, it’s not a concept that resonates with me personally at all. If you’re not having sex because you have no desire to do so, does that make your abstention birth control? I don’t think it does. It seems like not having sex is always tied into fear of risk, when that may or may not really be the case. For some of us, the risk may be a mental one—but that’s an entirely different animal.


Anonymous said...

About the movies--word.

Last I heard, the male BC is actually going through the FDA right now, it's just not on the market yet because it's in the process of being approved. So I imagine some men will start taking that when it becomes available.

I don't think the responsibility for BC is entirely placed on the woman, actually. With regard to condoms, anyway. Because obviously, if she's on the pill, the woman has got to be making sure that she takes it every day. In my own experience, I have never had to go and buy condoms myself, because my partners either had already taken care of that, or did so as soon as we had made the decision that it would be a necessary precaution. After a quick poll of my friends and acquaintances, it seems to be that usually men buy the condoms, before the woman even asks. In a lot of cases, I think they plan it out before she has even thought of the relationship going anywhere sexual. The general consensus seems to be that it is the responsibility of both partners, and usually gets taken care of by whomever is more eager to have sex. I think this pattern usually holds true among all but the very young and the very uneducated.

Actually, I think to an extent, there is the opposite problem when it comes to condoms: the women rely too much on the men to take care of it. My sister just told me that she doesn't know how to put a condom on, because she has never even once watched her partner one on--I was flabbergasted. If she had had sex only a few times, maybe that would be more reasonable, but she has sex VERY frequently, and has done for at least two years now. He could have been doing something totally wrong (like double-bagging) this entire time, and she would have no idea!

I think it's this attitude that those safe sex campaigns are trying to counter--which is probably why it seems like women are being pushed to take all the responsibility, but really, I think they're mainly pushing for young girls (who most frequently hold this attitude, I'm sure--it goes along with that whole romantic notion of the perfect white knight taking care of his girl) to take at least SOME responsibility for something that they have a tendency to assume won't be a problem at all. Because of course, it's inconceivable to them that their boyfriends aren't perfect!

I think there's a huge difference between how adults handle condoms, and how teens do. Since teens have this sense that they're doing something wrong, plus the lack of experience with the consequences, they're much less likely to want to use condoms... so I gather that all that rhetoric is aimed specifically at teenagers. For some reason, most boys seem to learn that if they want sex, they'd better have condoms--in fact, it's expected that guys who are expecting to have sex should keep condoms in their wallets. But I'm completely astounded that girls don't push the issue! What are they afraid of? (Or NOT afraid of?)

pretzelboy said...

I have sort of mixed feelings on not having sex as a form of birth control. On one level, it does work, and I think there is something to be said for discouraging people from having sex if they're not mature enough to deal with potential consequences. On the other hand, it also encourages people to define sex very narrowly, and in order to "not have sex" they just do oral and anal sex, which, evidently, aren't sex. If you're goal is to avoid pregnancy, these do work, but you can still get STDs. Thus, the importance of condoms.

Lanafactrix said...

Male hormonal birth control, alas, has not yet been developed. Whether or not it's marketable is currently a moot point, because there's no funding to research it. (There's probably an argument to be made about that lack of funding , of course . . .)

A lot of women think that being prepared to have sex means they're obligated to have sex or that they want to have sex (and therefore aren't "good girls"). But being prepared for the possibility of sex is just like . . . keeping a fire extinguisher in your house. You may never use it, but you'd certainly regret not having it around.

My two cents are that everyone, asexual or not, should keep a handful of condoms around, just in case. (And, for women, some emergency contraception.)

Sarah Haskins did a hilarious bit on this, too.

Anonymous said...

Here is the most recent news article about male birth control that I found--so yes, they have had it in the works for a while now, and although I think they've had some trouble with funding, I would expect it to be on the market within the next decade.

Ily said...

"There's all kinds of ways to talk about birth control without actually talking about sex." Ah, Sarah Haskins once again hits the nail on the head :-) Thanks for all your thoughts folks!

The Impossible K said...

Thanks for the shout out, Ily! :)

It hadn't occurred to me before just how much of a double standard birth control pills are... my feminist side is not too happy about that...

Anonymous said...

Are really in California condoms responsibility of the girl? In my environment—I live in Spain—condoms are responsibility of the boy. In my environment sex and condoms are a pair as rain and umbrella. Boys are reluctant to trust girls for anticonception. There are boys who say that sex behind a condom is less pleasurable and they try to convince their partners to avoid condoms, but they suffer peer pressure and jokes about the children they are making. Only once I hear a boy claiming that condoms are responsibility of both members of the couple, and it seemed very odd, but a year later he came out as gay, so it doesn't contradict that condoms are responsibility of boys.

Ily said...

Well, I don't want to give the wrong cultural information-- it's really just an impression I get, and whatever people do in the moment is pretty much unknown to the rest of us. I'm a stranger here myself :-)

heidi said...

I'll have to agree with Isaac here - and this here is Texas! Even in IL, it seemed very much the male responsibility to have at least an emergency condom in the wallet, after all, why would a woman carry them? It does seem very much assumed these days that being on the pill is standard for any female over 15 though. No thanks.

Suz said...

I have to say the 'rules' of when to have sex annoy the crap out of me. You should have sex when you and your partner are both ready regardless of whether this is a week, a month, a year or never.

I dated a guy a few months ago, went on 3 nice dates. I'm not a touchy person. I rarely date. It takes me a very very long time to trust and feel comfortable with a person to the extent that I am ok with them being near me and touching me. So the dates were very platonic. Then fourth date he tries to make out with me!! No small steps of build up. We haven't done so much as held hands and he thinks it's ok to stick his tongue in my mouth??? Then get all cross when I'm not into it. Can you believe he said 'Usually I've slept with a girl by the 4th date!!'. Sigh. Needless to say I haven't heard from him again. Good riddance. I just don't get why everyone is in such a hurry these days. People don't even know each other and they are willing to do something that to be honest I think you should only do with someone you've known a damn long time.