Mary Rolfes: Unwrapping the conversation about wrapping it up

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 - 12:36pm

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My high school sex-ed experience wasn’t great — probably not a controversial statement. But living in a country where only 18 states require information about birth control to be part of the curriculum, I consider myself lucky to have received at least some information on how to practice safe sex, even if it was delivered by a guy who taught kickball next period. The education included the delightfully cliché pin-the-condom-on-the-banana demonstration in front of a group of squirming high school sophomores unsuccessfully attempting to stifle their giggles. This performance was nearly the sum total of the condom discussion: Don’t have sex, but in case you do, use a condom and use it correctly. Aside from the abstinence encouragement, I was satisfied with the knowledge provided. Condoms are a necessity for safe sex — use one every time. How much more complicated can it be?

A lot more complicated, as it turns out. As I took my education outside of the classroom, I discovered wrapping it up wasn’t as simple as I had believed it would be. I’ve experienced and heard countless stories of something Cosmopolitan’s Julia Pugachevsky calls “rubber-stalling”: hesitation, avoidance and even surprise surrounding the question of grabbing a condom. Eventually, this resistance became somewhat expected, despite how uncomfortable and insecure the behavior made me feel. I accepted this aversion to condoms as a part of my society’s particular sexual script. But looking back on my experiences and others’ stories in the wake of the #MeToo movement, I recognize how serious and unacceptable these behaviors are. In many cases, resistance to a partner’s safe sex requirements is a form of reproductive coercion — and reproductive coercion is a form of abuse. Furthermore, condoms are imperative to sexual health on a private and public level as they are the only form of birth control to offer protection against sexually transmitted infections. It is crucial to acknowledge the necessity of condom use and the implications of resistance to it, and to empower everyone to speak out against all forms of reproductive coercion in order to mitigate its effects and to prevent it in the first place.

While encouraging safe sex is important for everyone, it is especially pertinent to college students — after all, nearly half of newly diagnosed STIs per year occur among young people aged 15 to 24. Yet over 15 percent of college students report never using a condom, with another 14 percent only using them sometimes. This isn’t just a matter of monogamy, either: Those who reported always using condoms had the second-lowest average of sexual partners, while those in the ‘never’ category averaged the most. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having many sexual partners, but non-monogamy and unprotected sex do not make a cute couple. So why is it they are paired so often? For one, there are misconceptions and excuses surrounding condoms, including that they’re all the same, they ruin the mood and — my personal favorite — condoms are simply too small. The overall attitude seems to be they just don’t feel good. And while there is no denying condoms do remove some sensation, many of the protective measures we take to maintain a healthy lifestyle have undesirable side effects — case in point, hormonal birth control. Yet taking the pill does not face nearly as much opposition as using a condom does. In fact, it’s often used as a reason not to wear a condom. But having another form of pregnancy prevention in place is not a sufficient justification for going unprotected. Condoms are a necessary measure to prevent STIs that range from unpleasant to life-threatening. When it comes to promoting public sexual health and individual wellness, condom use is a no-brainer.

Of course, practicing safe sex is not just about using protection. Although it is rarely discussed in even the best American high school sex-ed courses, mental and emotional factors play a huge role in healthy, enjoyable sex. Defining and upholding a culture of consent is crucial to sexual health on college campuses. This is especially true at the University of Michigan, where a striking 34.3 percent of women in the undergraduate student body have reported non-consensual contact since enrollment. The physical and emotional aspects of sex are not separate, and condoms and consent often go hand-in-hand. According to the Sexual Assault and Prevention Awareness Center, U-M’s definition of consent includes that consent is unambiguous, mutually understood and freely given. This definition certainly applies to the decision to use a condom, and begging, pleading or guilt-tripping someone into sex without a condom is absolutely not consensual. These behaviors are not exclusive to men, either. In a 2017 survey by The Journal of Sex Research, roughly half of the women surveyed reported taking action to avoid condoms, including seduction tactics and manipulation. Everyone needs to be held accountable in practicing consensual sex, including when it comes to grabbing a condom — and everyone needs to be empowered to control their sexual health.

There are individuals who may genuinely struggle with condoms, which is completely valid. It is not valid, however, to use that struggle as an excuse to coerce someone into unprotected sex. There are many healthy, productive strategies for improving condom experience, such as trying out different kinds.  Condoms are not one-size-fits-all and it may require some trial and error to find the perfect match. Another approach is taking the condom outside of an intimate setting by masturbating with one, which can help break potential psychological associations between condoms and negative sexual experiences. And if external condoms really aren’t working out, do not fret. Internal condoms, sometimes called female condoms, provide similar STI protection. With that in mind, there certainly are circumstances where it’s OK to stop using condoms, but such a decision should be reached through conversation and consideration, not coercion. A safe, consensual sex life is a human right, and the experience of resistance or refusal to safe sex behaviors should not be normalized. By acknowledging rubber-stalling for what it is — coercion and abuse — we can empower individuals to speak about their experiences and prevent it from happening in the first place. Let’s wrap this up: wrap it up. It’s not that complicated.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.