Ah, the bloom of careless youth. We’ve all seen the after school specials and the popular high school TV shows that warn about accidental teen pregnancy because teenage boys don’t want to use condoms and teenage girls don’t insist on it or get tricked into believing one is being used. We know the struggle between safer sex educators and abstinence-only supporters.
Kids are impulsive, lacking in education, in the moment and they just don’t consider the consequences of not using protection for their sexual encounters.
Well, with the the release of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), we discovered, much to the nation’s surprise, that young people are a lot more likely to use condoms than adults. Under 18’s were twice as likely to have safer sex than young adults, and four times more likely than people over 40, totally going against the assumption of reckless youth who live fast... and get STIs. So what does this say, then, about adults? Are we projecting our own experiences around condom use onto the youth of today, who are actually proving to be more savvy than us?
I had to think back to my own exploration of sexuality. I was given excellent safer sex education by my parents, who were always available to answer my questions and bought me multiple books on teenage sexuality and puberty. Even so, I fell victim to the same prejudices I heard on those after school specials- “it ruins the intimacy,” I’d say, using condoms anyway but reluctantly. Guys told me all the time how using a condom totally desensitized them, and the proof was in the sausage- maintaining an erection with a condom was a dismal thing. The first time I had consensual unprotected sex it was because the condom had already broken earlier that night and I figured I’d deal with it in the morning. If I had gotten an STI, I reasoned, I had gotten it the first time, so what’s the harm? Obviously that is stupid 19 year old logic, and I was damn lucky I didn’t come home with HIV and a baby.
But I had fallen under the spell of, not just unprotected sex, but that act unromantically called “creampie”. Having a man cum inside me was amazing, though it took years before I realized it wasn’t just the psychological effects being triggered. Semen, as we’ve discovered, is chock full of antidepressents like serotonin and prolactin, mood elevators like estrone and oxytocin, sleep enhancers like melatonin and, the real killer, cortisol, which increases affection. Never mind that the vagina, filled with arteries and blood vessels, is basically the perfect way to get these drugs directly into your peripheral circulation system.
It’s a love junkie’s dream. And it’s addictive, which is why in the US I’ve found that relationships tend to hold trusting each other enough to have unprotected sex to be the goalpost.
Fetlife.com recently changed their sign-in page so it no longer says that putting in your password is “like using condoms- annoying but necessary”. This was one of those little things that was meant as a joke but really drove me crazy because it just confirmed this belief that condoms were unpleasant, unsexy and in the way. I posted about how happy I was they changed this on Facebook, and it started a huge, multi-day, international discussion about condoms, the sexiness or lack thereof of them, and whether or not they reduce sensation. I was really fascinated by the results, which are by no means scientific but culturally interesting.
It was my American friends who were the most outspoken about how condoms were necessary but made sex that little bit less enjoyable. “There is always more sensation for a male without a condom than with one. That's a moot point,” said one. That ex-boyfriend I referenced earlier, the first guy I ever had unprotected sex with, said “it makes sex worse for a man”. When I said, “wait a minute, I don’t think that’s what my British lovers or clients have said to me about condoms...” he replied that “maybe your compulsion is keeping you from realizing what sex could be if you didn't have to be afraid of getting a disease from a stranger on top of whatever your fee is.” It’s interesting that when I challenged this idea that condoms, when used properly, reduced sensation, it was the Americans who defended their preference for condomless sex. A couple of US based guys commented that they’ve gotten used to condoms, especially when they found a brand and fit that worked for them or if they were sensitive, but for the most part, circumcised or not, they reported that condoms reduced the sensations of intercourse.