Culture

How Do We Solve A Problem Like Condoms?

If we want to have a meaningful conversation about safe sex, we have to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: condoms - by far the best preventative measure - also kind of suck.

Late last week, an article was published in Australian LGBTIQ newspaper The Star Observer: ‘Throwing away the condom – Are we mad?’ It’s a passionate opinion piece by gay counsellor Gerry North, who bemoans the younger generation’s ongoing refusal to use condoms: “A new generation of gay men out there who have never felt the emotional pain of seeing multiple friends and associates die of AIDS,” he says. “All we have to do is wear a condom – a thin piece of protective latex. It seems absolute madness for us gay men … not to use a condom.”

In light of Friday’s findings that HIV rose in NSW by 24% last year, and reports earlier in the week of two more men seemingly “cured” of HIV, it’s hard to ignore that the rules of the game may be changing. But one constant remains: people still don’t like using condoms.

So what do we do about that?

Why Aren’t We Using Condoms?

Condoms are an almost universal solution to a number of sex-related problems. Don’t want to get pregnant? Use a condom! Don’t want to pick up an STI? Use a condom! Don’t want to pass on HIV? Use a condom! So simple, so easy, yet seemingly so hard to do.

So how about we all address the big old sexy elephant in the room: they suck. Condoms suck. I’m yet to meet anyone who believes condoms do not in some way diminish the pleasure of sex, mentally or physically.

Condoms have been around for some 400 years, and even though they still suck, they’re now better than they’ve ever been. (Shout out to ye olde brothers and sisters who had to use lamb’s intestine or tortoise shells.) It is seemingly common sense that we take advantage of our Western privilege and use these cheap, accessible preventative measures to stop HIV, other STIs, and unwanted pregnancies. And what could be sexier than common sense, right?

…Right. Sex, pleasure, human connection: all the things that make for a great rock’n’roll. Sex is powerfully “in the moment”; the reduction of our primal impulses into an earth-bound act that’s connected with love, and the primary driver for our existence. Those are pretty monumental forces to try to contain within the logical parameters of safety, wrapped up in latex and tossed away.

So how do you improve the reputation of condoms? How do you dispel the notion that to forgo them is a cool act of rock’n’roll rebellion?

Bill and Melinda Gates, global philanthropists and keepers of the Windows billions, seem to understand that the key to engaging everyone in safer sex lies in product development, not finger wagging.

They’ve issued a call out to ‘Develop The Next Generation Of Condoms‘, and backed it with funding. Movements like this acknowledge that the future of safer sex campaigns is not in fear, but in promoting healthy and enjoyable sexual activity that minimises risk, and eliminates infections.

Yet even with these super-condoms around the corner, how they are perceived — as disruption of or barrier to the natural act of sex — will remain an issue. So who do we target to break down that barrier?

As always in safe-sex discussion, gay men remain the highest at risk.

Condoms And HIV In 2013 

Full disclosure: I am an HIV-positive gay man who does not always use condoms when I have sex with HIV-negative men, and I am not alone. Regardless of how much this may shock you, it doesn’t make me a reckless individual hell bent on spreading HIV. Whenever that type of sex occurs, it is always mutually negotiated (DUH), and based on a number of factors — because I make the conscious decision to live outwardly with my HIV status, and because I value a particular type of sex. I’m adherent to my HIV anti-retro viral medications which makes me “undetectable”; that is, chances of transmission to my sexual partners is reduced up to 96%. I also implement a number of other risk-reduction strategies, which, when combined together, can reduce risk even further.

None of these strategies, including condoms, are “get out of jail free” cards for avoiding HIV transmissions or other STIs. My partner/s and I take that risk every time we have sex. But here’s the strange thing: like every generation that has gone before us — straight, gay, bi, trans, cis — we keep having sex, in spite of the risk. More importantly in the context of this debate, we keep having natural, unprotected sex, because we desire genuine physical contact, intimacy and pleasure.

This doesn’t mean I advocate throwing all your rubbers in the bin like some sex-crazed Gen Y-OLO; I believe they remain the ideal preventative measure for avoiding pregnancy and STIs. But if we want to have a meaningful discussion about safe sex, I don’t think we should be pretending that sex is the same with condom as without.

Are we so impressionable as a generation that simply acknowledging how annoying condoms are means we will all start barebacking until our wangs falls off? Until babies tumble from our wombs like cheese wheels rolling down hillsides? Until we’re all washed away in a tsunami of dangerous semen?

In the same way we cannot look to the elder generation and say, “Don’t stop me from having sex”, they cannot look to us and say, “Do as I say, not as I once did.”

From The Plague Era To Today

The important next step is to talk about what “safe” sex means today. It can’t just be “CONDOMS OR DEATH”, because as the course of recent human history shows, we ignore that message.

You’d be hard pressed finding an HIV positive man who doesn’t recognise the experience of the epidemic generation. The Star‘s Gerry North is correct when he notes that attitudes to condom use have changed (for better or worse), but he also romanticises a bygone era: “Us older gays, who attended countless funerals and cared for our very sick brothers, still hold painful emotional scars of that time. Our younger gay brothers are free of that pain and enter the gay scene with unknowing confidence.”

I cannot imagine during the AIDS epidemic that every homosexual was quick to adopt using “a thin piece of protective latex” anymore than they are now. Back then it was matter of life and death, given the gap between HIV and AIDS was all but immediate. But the rules of the game have changed now. HIV diagnosis is no longer a harbinger of AIDS. It is by no means an easy street, and believe me I’d prefer to still be on the other side, but fear of death has been all but eliminated (albeit with a new series of challenges and stigma).

Yes, this is grossly unfair to a generation of gay men now lost. No, we don’t know how lucky we are to not have weekly funerals and death notices in our newspapers. Today we calculate risk — we don’t ignore it — and no, that risk doesn’t always pay off.

I do mourn the loss of a generation of elders; I miss their wisdom. It is unfair that the small number of survivors of that era be burdened with the responsibility of keeping that history alive, but shaming us into “safe sex” is not the way to share this wisdom. It didn’t work in 1983, 1993, 2003, and it won’t work today.

We need positive role models, pragmatic elders and, crucially, a cross-over into the heterosexual community. Young women, especially in the developing world, need to be empowered with information and communication strategies. In ensuring they remain active decision makers in every step of safe sex dialogue, we help remove the burden of post-intercourse responsibility and shame.

Wrap It Up

In a wonderful response to the recent concerns regarding condom-free sex, US author Trenton Straube writes, “Gay men are just as entitled to fully realised sexuality as any other human beings”. In that same article, there is a notion that encapsulates one side of this argument: that some may see avoiding condoms as a “fetish”.

Therein lies a key to understanding the idea in 2013. Avoiding condoms isn’t really a fetish; it’s the natural way of having sex, and it’s been occurring since day dot. But this “thrill” of skin-to-skin sex is so taboo, especially for younger people just beginning to experiment, that it enters the realm of fetishism. From a health education point of view, perhaps this is where we start: remove the mystery, name the taboo, recognise the natural impulse. And remember: acknowledgement does not equal endorsement.

History is littered with examples of wise elders huffing and puffing at young people, to limited success. Engagement, discourse, and shame-free dialogue is a far better alternative than simply asking the other, “are you mad?”

Nic Holas mainly fills his time with the creative management of performance, media, and the arts. His writing has appeared in Hello Mr magazine and Cosmopolitan. You can find him on Twitter @longlivecanapes, or living out his fantasy life as a celebrity attache at utauberkoolja.com.

Feature image via LoveHDWallpaper.com