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Mic.com recently approached me to answer some common questions that people have about condoms. (These were actual questions that people e-mailed in). Although I’m briefly quoted in the article, I figured I’d share my extended responses on my own blog.
I’ll start with some answers based on my academic knowledge…
Question: Is there anyone (specifically male) out there that doesn’t mind wearing a condom?
Answer: Certainly. While I have never met or interviewed any men who said they actually liked condoms, I have met and interviewed men who said they didn’t mind them. These men are not the majority, but they are not a tiny minority either. Several men I have spoken with greatly prefer to use female condoms, although these certainly do not work well for everyone.
Interestingly, contrary to stereotype, while the slight majority of men do seem to dislike condoms (at least in the U.S.), women are more likely than men to say that they hate condoms.
Question: Stopping to ask a partner to put on a condom can be a bit of a moodkiller, is there any way to make it less awkward?
Answer: Unfortunately, the easiest way to remove the moodkill here is for the culture to change. In the swinging and BDSM subcultures, condom use is simply expected, so no one ever has to really ask someone to use a condom. Mainstream culture doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet.
I had hoped that some experienced people would answer this very question for me when I set out to interview people about their contraceptive negotiations; unfortunately, I found again and again that the people who had had the most casual sex had only occasionally or rarely used condoms with their partners.
There are two major factors that make people feel more comfortable negotiating condom use: trust and power. People need to feel physically and emotionally safe with their partner, and also feel like they won’t be negatively judged for asking to use a condom. (Contrary to popular belief, sobriety turns out not to really be a factor on this one. Our perception is just very distorted by the fact that the kinds of people who have lots of drunken casual sex tend to be the kinds of people who have sex without condoms, regardless of their level of intoxication). So the short answer is: try to only have sex with people you feel comfortable with, and you’ll usually find that it’s not nearly as hard–especially if you make it clear that condoms are expected before you ever get to the sexy times.
…Since that may be unrealistic, the rest of this answer becomes gendered. For men, it’s generally pretty easy, since usually all they need to do is put on a condom. The women I’ve met who are allergic to latex usually carry alternatives (non-latex male condoms or female condoms) around with them. While I don’t doubt that it’s happened somewhere sometime, I’ve never professionally or personally heard of women trying to argue men out of using condoms.
For women, things are trickier. Unfortunately, even female condoms require some cooperation from the man to be able to use well, so even the theoretically simple strategy of just wearing one around (which you can do for several hours at a time as long as it doesn’t annoy you) will only get you so far. If you’re trying to avoid having an awkward discussion, just handing a guy a condom at an appropriate moment will get you a long way. If he tries to argue with you, then put your clothes back on, because how many other people do you think he’s done that with? Similarly, having sex with enough light to be able to see that he actually put it on is wise. Alternatively, learning to put condoms on yourself can be really helpful (with either your hand or your mouth) and reduce some of the moodkill.
Question: What are the odds she won’t get pregnant? i.e. how effective are condoms?
Answer: This question is a very tricky one. Contraceptive statistics come in two forms: “perfect use” and “typical use.” With “perfect use” of male condoms, only about 2% of users should become pregnant over the course of a year; those aren’t bad odds considering that the same statistics tell us that without any birth control, 85% of “users” should become pregnant over the course of a year.
Unfortunately, our “typical use” statistics for condoms are a lot bleaker, and we usually get numbers between 15-18% rates of failure in those cases. However, those numbers are very distorted by the fact that people tend to use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently across time. Indeed, in typical use, male condoms are only slightly better (18% failure) than withdrawal (22% failure). Our research indicates that that’s because a lot of people functionally are just using withdrawal when they claim to be using condoms (they put the condom on after they’ve already started having sex), and because many long-term condom users alternate between withdrawal and condoms.
It’s worth noting that despite their problems with pregnancy prevention, condoms tend to be remarkably effective at preventing the spread of most sexually transmitted infections (especially HIV).
Question: What about female condoms? What are they and do they work?
Answer: Female condoms are non-latex barriers worn inside a woman’s vagina. Current statistics on female condom use in the U.S. give 5% failure rates for perfect use, and 21% failures for typical use. However, most people don’t know how to use female condoms very well, so it’s hardly surprising that the failure rates are rather high.
The major problems with female condoms are that they can get bunched up inside the vagina during sex if you’re not careful, or the man can miss the condom and accidentally go around it. Some men report that it feels like they’re “having sex with a plastic bag.” However, there are some serious benefits of female condoms, not the least of which is that both men and women often report that once they get going, they can barely tell they’re using anything. They also almost never break, and they don’t need to be sized.
…Okay, from here on out, I’m going to answer questions based on educated opinion and personal experience, not academic research.
Question: I’m having exclusive, partnered sex with someone who’s been tested negative for STIs and I have too. And I’m on birth control. Should I still use a condom?
Answer: It all comes down to your and your partner’s tolerance for risk. The pregnancy related questions are: (1) What kind of birth control are you on? For example, the failure rate for the birth control pill is considerably higher than for an IUD. (2) How good at taking it are you? (A wonderfully irrelevant question with an IUD). (3) How disastrous for your lives would a pregnancy be? If a pregnancy would completely ruin your life, then you might want to keep using condoms unless they’re ruining your sex life. If it would merely be very inconvenient, then you’re probably going to be okay.
As for your risk of STI’s, it really comes down to how much you trust your partner. With the exception of a few things like HSV-1 and yeast infections–both of which you can get from all kinds of non-sexual activities and sexually transmit–STI’s pretty much by definition have to come from having sex. And if you’re both negative, they have to come from having sex with someone else.
Question: If you and your same sex partner are both clean, do you still need to wear one?
Answer: I’m going to assume that this question pertains to men having sex with men, since women having sex with women usually use gloves and dental dams for protection, not condoms.
As with the above question, this one comes down to risk tolerance: how certain are you that your partner isn’t having sex with anyone else (or if they are, that they’re using protection with them)? If you feel pretty good about that, then you’re probably fine.
Aside: It’s also probably worth taking a moment to consider the implications of the term “clean.” Do you really think people with STI’s are “dirty”?
Question: Can the type of condom make a difference in achieving pleasure? Do studded or not studded actually make a difference? Does ribbing actually make a difference?
Answer: To some women, yes. My personal favorite male condoms are a brand called Wild Rose, which are ribbed. I don’t think they make a huge difference, but they do make a small difference. But I’m a masochist who likes highly frictive sex, so I’m certainly not representative of the general population.
However, it’s important to note that the biggest factor in condom pleasure AND effectiveness is having them sized correctly, not whether they are ribbed or studded. Finding a condom that fits is what really matters.
Question: How do sizes actually work?
Answer: Unfortunately, they mostly don’t in the U.S. The reasons are much too complicated to explain here, but there’s a good in-depth explanation here on slate.
As a guy, your best bet is to buy a bunch of condoms and practice masturbating with them to see what feels best and fits best on your penis before you try to stick it in someone else. Or to get good at using female condoms.
Question: Are flavored condoms really bad for non-oral sex?
Answer: This depends on how much you like the natural taste and smell of vaginas or anuses. Unless they have sweeteners on them (which they certainly should not–sugar in the vagina causes yeast infections–but most of them unfortunately don’t come with an ingredients list), there’s nothing wrong with using flavored condoms for vaginal sex. There’s never anything uniquely risky about using flavored condoms for anal sex; personally, I prefer the smell of fake banana to natural shit, so I call that a win. It is true that you tend to end up with artificially fruity-smelling genitalia after having sex with flavored condoms, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
Question: Really, is there any way to have sex with a condom that’s as good as without?
Answer: Sort-of. As a woman, I can honestly say that the best sex I’ve had with a condom has been better than the worst sex I’ve had without one, and I’ve talked to many men who have said the same. Will the best sex without a condom be as good as the best sex with a condom? Probably not. But I think this is an instance when the perfect is the enemy of the good.
I love and hate the way poly people use condoms.
Before I go any further, I suppose I should explain that I spent years theorizing and researching the way men and women around the world make decisions about and negotiate contraceptive use; it’s what my dissertation was on, and I have written several academic papers on the topic. Amusingly, my academic background makes me at best only slightly better at actually negotiating contraceptive (condom) use with real people than your average monogamous person, and I’m definitely less skilled at it than your average poly slut. I manage it, but without much finesse. Instead of being helpful, my academic background just makes me very conscious of how profoundly mediocre I am at it, and leaves a voice in the back of my head continually affirming a theoretical paper that I wrote in graduate school arguing that contraceptive negotiations are all about power, trust, and pleasure.
When my husband and I finally set out to become practicing (as opposed to merely theoretical) polyamorists nearly six years ago, we did so outside the context of the BDSM scene and its strictures about condoms. Neither of us had ever slept with anyone else, and we weren’t sleeping with people who were particularly slutty. Since he cared a lot about the idea of me getting pregnant by someone who wasn’t him, I got an IUD right before we embarked on this poly excursion. And after that, for years, we were relatively carefree about condom use with our partners. We weren’t hooking up, we weren’t dating casually, we were only having sex with people we really liked and were forming relationships with. I keenly remember the first time he had sex with another woman–who was my girlfriend at the time, in a threesome. He was having condom issues, and she said, “Oh just don’t worry about it.” And he didn’t. And I didn’t. And she didn’t. Because she and I had been in a relationship for months, she knew he’d never had sex with anyone else, and we all knew she was using birth control.
And even though I think that decision was completely reasonable (I certainly did at the time, and I still do in hindsight), I hesitate to write it here. Because I’m afraid of the judgments that might rain down.
But eventually, he and I got immersed into the BDSM scene, and became more accomplished sluts. For better or worse, at that point, we started absorbing the sense that Condoms Are Very Very Very Important. And they are. Please don’t think that I’m suggesting otherwise here. Condoms save lots of lives, no question. But in the process of saving lives, they’ve accumulated an irrational symbolic value in our subculture that I kind of hate.
What I love about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene
There don’t have to be any condom negotiations. That’s what I love. Outside of this beautiful bubble, an astounding amount of heterosexual casual sex (I suspect the majority, based on my research) happens without condoms. Inside of the bubble, if a person with a penis says they want to fuck me, I really don’t worry much about whether they’re going to put something in between their dick and my pussy. I just take it for granted that they will. I think most people in the Scene would actually be a little insulted by any condom negotiation other than, “so which kind should we use?” I can just imagine the look on some guy’s face if he said he wanted to fuck me, and I said gravely, “well, you have to use a condom.” I think their response would be, “um, duh.”
I love that condom use for PIV/PIA is the norm in the scene, in public or in private. I love that it’s expected, and I love that it’s followed. I even, to a more limited degree, love the way that there’s some social pressure to enforce these norms. Responsible condom use feels like part of someone’s overall good reputation.
What I hate about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene
The default norm of condom use has some serious costs in the Scene, the highest being an anomic situation with regards to fluid-bonding. Anomieis just a fancy French sociological term for saying that we lack clear social norms to guide us in a particular situation, and that that lack of norms creates anxiety and uncertainty, often with a dollop of guilt and shame as well. Since I happen to have an extensive collection of fluid-bound kinks, I find it pretty annoying that my subculture of sexual deviance has so little social support for my kinks–kinks which aren’t even all that kinky, and are in fact shared by a lot of people.
People often create fluid-bound poly groups, but the social norms in favor of condom use are so restrictive that people almost never discuss those fluid-bound groups publicly. Indeed, people are often embarrassed to admit that they’re fluid-bound to multiple partners, even if they’ve been with those partners for years. As a result, there’s no sense of what’s “normal” in a fluid-bound poly group: how long/well do you have to know each other for it to be reasonable to become fluid-bound? How intimate should the relationship be? What rules should guide the behavior of people in a fluid-bound poly group? Without more open and honest discussion about poly fluid-bonding, I think we cause people a lot of undue stress as they end up constantly trying to anxiously reinvent the wheel. I posted my own poly contract long ago on fetlife in an effort to try to get more discussion going in the community, and I regularly get emails from strangers thanking me for providing them with something to go on.
I also hate the way that condoms become symbols of power and status in polyamorous dynamics (mainly through their non-use). The thing is, once you’re fluid-bound with someone, it’s reasonable to give them at least a little control over who you sleep with (in reality, they should probably have some say about your exposure to whatever pathogens you might transmit to them sexually, but people tend to lose sight of that fact). In hierarchical polyamorous dynamics, the norm is that primaries are fluid-bound (which is sometimes very ironic, since many poly people have more sex with people who aren’t their primaries). Consequently, a lot of fluid-bonding negotiations in poly life end up with husbands and wives trying to obtain the privilege of fucking their girlfriend or boyfriend without a condom. I’ve been privy to a lot of these conversations, and most of them are almost comically far removed from concerns about physical safety. Really, the real concern often seems to come down to primaries wanting to preserve their status as primary by ensuring that their partner doesn’t get to have unprotected sex with anyone else. Which is their prerogative, but I personally find it obnoxious.
The amusing corollary of this hierarchical power/status principle is that in anarchical polyamorous dynamics, people tend to assume that fluid-bound partners must be primaries–even if, in reality, you just happen to be fluid-bound to the person that was using birth control, or the person who hates condoms the most, or the person you have the most sex with. Anarchical polys often end up not being fluid-bound with anyone because they don’t want to give up or negotiate the kind of control that happens when you have to worry about someone else’s safety instead of just your own.
I hate the particular way that condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy (again, primarily through their non-use). Really, it’s the converse of this fact that I hate: if non-use of condoms is a sign of emotional intimacy, it means that using condoms is a symbol of emotional distance. Public health campaigns can tell us all they want that loving partners use protection, but we all know that not using condoms is a sign of trust… which inevitably seems to mean that using them is a sign that you don’t fully trust the other person. Or that your fluid-bound partner doesn’t (see above).
The idea that condoms symbolize trust is definitely prevalent in monogamous world as well, but in a very different way. It’s fairly common for monogamous couples to have sex about three times with condoms and then stop using them. But in poly world, that seems shockingly cavalier, since the relationship isn’t “serious enough” at that stage to warrant fluid-bonding. It rarely seems to occur to poly people that because condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy, not using them actually meaningfully contributes to the process of BUILDING intimacy and trust (whether we like that fact or not). Because of the way we treat condoms, we end up insisting that people try to establish relationships and then stop using condoms once they’ve trusted one another for a long time (with no norms about how long is long enough)… and we ask them to ignore the cognitive dissonance that emerges from trusting and loving someone and insisting that for some unclear reason, they still need to use this thing that not using would show that they trusted and loved the person. In short, I hate the way that we use condoms as symbols of emotional intimacy and trust and then try to ignore the implications of doing so, or just pretend that we don’t.
To summarize, what I hate about poly condom culture in the Scene is the barriers that it creates to normal sexual relationship building.
What happened to safety?
I’m constantly amused when I listen to people go on at length about the importance of having safe sex, and then go outside to smoke. Or ride a motorcycle. Statistically speaking, if you’re not in a gay anonymous anal hook-up, smoking and motorcycle riding are much more dangerous. But I realize that in poly life, unlike smoking or motorcycle riding, the safety associated with fluid-bound decisions isn’t just about you. You end up having to make risk calculations for yourself and other people that you love. And that can be really intimidating and frightening.
Let me be very clear: I’m not suggesting some radical shift in how we as a subculture deal with condom use. Not at all. I just want us to be able to have honest and sensible conversations about the non-use of condoms in long-term relationships without so much baggage. I want us to be able to take power and status and nervous shame and bullshit emotional feelings out of decisions about fluid-bonding. I realize that’s a tall order, but when you come right down to it, fluid-bonding is about two things: better sex and trust. You need to want to have better sex with someone, and you need to trust that they’ll follow whatever rules you agree on for having safer sex with other people. That’s it. There are lots of other things that are optional (I personally have no desire to be directly fluid-bound with someone that I’m not romantically involved with, for example), but those are the only things that are necessary.
And when my partners come to me wanting to be fluid-bound with someone else (thus resulting in me being indirectly fluid-bound with someone), my only calculations are these: do I trust that person to follow our safer sex agreements? And if I don’t see that person much, do I trust that my partner is in a position to ensure that person will follow our safer sex agreements? Can I still easily calculate my web of risk if I include this person? And if the answer to those questions is yes, then I say yes.
Because I don’t think we should use condoms as barriers to intimacy, or security blankets of relationship status. I think we should use them to keep everyone as safe as possible from sexually transmitted infections (and pregnancy). And at some point, we should be able to agree that we’re safe enough.
The trick is learning what “safe enough” looks like. We just need more subcultural support to figure that out.
People often wonder how the hell poly people manage that sticky business of fluids. A couple of years ago, my partners and I decided to create an official contract so that we could be comfortable being “fluid-bound” with one another–meaning that we were going to stop using condoms with each other. Since I figured a lot of other people could use a model for creating those sorts of contracts for themselves, I decided to post ours here.
- The “polycule” defined here consists of a fluid-bound group of [partners list].
- For the purposes described here, “fluid-bonding” includes functionally all bodily fluids, both sexual and non-sexual.
- All anal and vaginal intercourse outside the polycule should be protected with barriers.
- All members of the polycule should keep an updated list of people outside of the polycule that they define as “current partners” in a shared google document.
- All members of the polycule should email the shared google group whenever they have anything that could reasonably be defined as sex with someone who is not on their list of “current partners” or in the polycule.
- Any sexual partners of anyone outside the polycule should be aware that anyone within it might ask them about their current testing status and their current partners. And they should be happy about this because it means we value each others’ safety!
- If a condom breaks or goes amiss during intercourse with anyone outside the polycule, it should be immediately reported to all members of the polycule, as should the outside partner’s current testing status, so that subsequent fluid-bonding can be re-evaluated.
- If an unintentional blood-based fluid-exchange occurs (mainly from needles), it should be immediately reported to all members of the polycule for subsequent fluid-bonding re-evaluation.
- The polycule will try to schedule a once-a-month group processing session. If there is nothing to discuss, then we will try to watch a movie together. All processing sessions are to conclude in sex.
- This polycule is not defined as “polyfidelitous”; however, there is an expectation that members will be limiting intercourse with people outside the polycule.
- Members are expected to get screened for STI’s at least once every six months and to check on the testing statuses of any partners outside the polycule.
- This agreement will be re-evaluated and re-negotiated after [date], pending the preferences of all involved, with the default assumption that it will dissolve at that time.
They’re obnoxiously expensive. They’re awkward as hell. They’re so intimidating to put in that most people give up before they even try. They were someone’s misguided attempt to create female liberation on the safer sex front by providing women with a “female-controlled” method of sexually transmitted infection (STI) protection (sorry, folks, it didn’t really work out that way; female condoms definitely require a guy’s cooperation). They’re way too thick, and they occasionally make squeaky sounds when you’re fucking with them. I avoided them for years because they were so damned awkward-looking, and I only used them for the first time because I couldn’t think what else to do. I can’t for the life of me imagine successfully having sex in the dark with one (but that’s not really my thing, so whatever).
They’re incredibly poorly marketed. They’re supposed to keep women in control of safer sex, but they require total cooperation from men in order to work effectively; the name “female condom” understandably pisses off genderqueer folks, who usually colloquially refer to them as “internal condoms” instead; and the damned things work better for anal than vaginal sex and should be selling like wildfire to gay men… who, of course, don’t realize that they could even be using them, because why would a gay guy use a “female condom”? Worst of all, they’re terrifying to try to figure out how to use (especially when the risks are high), and the instructions on the package are no help at all. In fact, the instructions on the packaging are so crappy that I created a couple of internet videos to help people figure out how to use them.
And yet, after only a single personal use, I found myself online shopping for an affordable 100-pack of female condoms (your best bets are usually amazon.com vendors or condomdepot.com with a discount code). That’s partly because my husband’s girlfriend/my play partner is allergic to latex, and the female condoms sold in the U.S. are all non-latex. But it’s also partly for me. Because I’ve discovered that despite their myriad disadvantages, female condoms can be extremely handy. And being able to use female condoms or male condoms depending on the sexual situation turns out to be quite advantageous.
In case you’re wondering what advantages could possibly outweigh all those negatives above, I figured I’d write out a list of their advantages.
- They’re sometimes great for guys whose dicks are annoyed by male condoms. Guys with large foreskins and guys who feel like male condoms are cutting off the circulation to their dicks often find female condoms more pleasant.
- They’re not made of latex, so they can be great if either partner has a latex allergy.
You can put them in long before you have sex. No need to stop the sexy and make the condom happen. You can grind all up and down your partner before you ever fuck, and voila! There is protection. I’ve (consensually) woken up a partner in the middle of the night, put in a female condom the bathroom, then sat on my partner’s hard cock in his sleep. You can pull off a trick like that with a male condom, but it’s a helluva lot sexier to wake someone up by sliding your (protected) pussy down his cock than by putting a condom on him… unless you do it with your mouth.
You can (and in my opinion, usually should) get your partner to put it in for you. Ignore those dumb instructions telling you the woman should put it in herself. Moreover, unlike putting a condom on with your mouth, putting a female condom in with a finger is something that pretty much anyone can do. And thus the safer sex is naturally integrated with foreplay.
A guy can keep losing his erection, and your female condom doesn’t care. Sucking a guy’s cock or giving him a handjob to get him hard again is much easier when there’s no latex in the way.
In general, it’s easy to pop back and forth between fucking and oral sex. Female condoms don’t really taste much at all (I can’t taste them anyway), so both people’s genitals will just taste like whatever lube you used, not latex. This also means that it’s a cinch for a guy to pull out and cum in the girl’s mouth, on her chest, or whatever.
They’re extremely useful for multi-person sex. If two women want to fuck one guy, both the girls can use female condoms and he can pop back and forth between them with ease. And they turn out to be pretty fucking fantastic for coitalingus–which is where a guy fucks a girl’s pussy and someone else goes down on the pair of them simultaneously. Again, there’s no taste of latex, his dick is mostly exposed, and her clit is easily exposed.
They’re great for giving girls hand-jobs, especially if you’re trying to give multiple girls hand-jobs. You don’t have to keep changing gloves, because the girls pretty much already have gloves in their pussies! So handy! (Pun pun)
Unless you mess them up (which admittedly a lot of people do), they’re better disease protection than male condoms, because they’re somewhat better at protecting against skin-transmitted STI’s like herpes.
They are the only thing I’ll use for protected anal sex. Whereas male condoms have a terrible habit of tearing in tight poorly lubricated asses, female condoms are much less likely to break (although you do have to worry about them bunching up). On top of that, you don’t really have to worry about the santorum experience so much until you’re already done with the sex and have to pull the condom all the way out. It makes the whole anal sex experience waaaay cleaner, and it’s safer to boot.
They’re definitely not perfect. I’ve heard guys complain that they’re like fucking a plastic bag and they look weird. But they’ve got their uses.
Two cheers for female condoms 😉