I've been having sex since I was 13 years old.
When I reminisce on my 16-year history of sweaty, tangled limbs, I don't always see condoms.
I took the same classes everyone else did in high school. I technically had the right information. But perhaps because my boundaries were stampeded over by a group of rapist fuckheads when I was so young, I was not at all emotionally equipped to set and enforce them surrounding condom use.
When I was around 15, I had a horrible boyfriend who would IM with his ex-girlfriend for hours while I hung around in his room reading "Transmetropolitan" or whatever nerd shit I could find on the floor until he got bored and decided to put his dick in me. He was good-looking, obviously. We didn't use condoms.
One day, he told me that he had been to the doctor and been diagnosed with a "urinary tract infection" and here, the doctor had said I should probably take these pills just in case. I felt fine, I told him, so I don't need to take any pills. He insisted. I demurred. A few days later he broke down and told me that his "urinary tract infection" was chlamydia and I really needed to see the doctor. Chlamydia in women often has no symptoms -- I felt fine, but I tested positive for the infection at the free clinic I went to with my girlfriend. The doctor there prescribed a course of antibiotics, which luckily is all it takes to treat chlamydia. I didn't even break up with the guy.
When I was in college, I had a couple of dates with a well-off older man who really hated condoms, turning every encounter into a tug-of-war over the issue of safe sex. He would try to push his naked penis inside me, I would squirm away and say "No," he would bust out the classic "But I can't FEEL it with a condom on" and I would eventually relent.
This wasn't a particularly unusual situation. I only remember it so clearly because once, angry after my repeated refusals, he blurted, “Don’t you want to have my baby?” in a tone of voice that suggested I was nothing short of stuck-up if I didn’t. (I didn't, except for the fleeting thought that letting a rich guy get you pregnant is in some circles a form of financial planning.)
Like I said though, this wasn't unusual. I can count on one hand the number of men I've been with who even volunteered to put on a condom. Most at least attempted to enter me without one, and while I usually managed to say "No," or "We should get a condom," they'd respond with "Shhhh," or "Just for a minute," or worse, wordlessly carry on like I'd never said anything.
And a lot of the time, I would just let it happen. I could manage to get the words out, but not to enforce them, like the parent who threatens to send you to bed without dinner but never does. No one ever listened to me.
I've been lucky to have never had an unwanted pregnancy and to avoid most of the STIs I laid awake at night worrying about, but I have had abnormal pap smears due to HPV, the virus that will lead to cervical cancer deaths for 4,000 women this year. I found it easier to let a dude potentially kill me with his dick than fucking speak up and insist on what I wanted.
I have always blamed myself for this -- for my poor decisions, my lack of agency. I have been ashamed of my spotty record of sexual safety, so unlike those I see represented in most women's media, where everyone seems to be a perfect paragon of sexual health and express abject horror at the idea of unsafe sex.
I have wondered why I couldn't just get it together around condom use, what was wrong with me that I kept screwing up so badly again and again. Never did it occur to wonder why it was that I was so often the sole person responsible for insisting on safe sex, why I was positioned repeatedly as the condom police, posed at the entrance to my vagina with a whistle and a handheld stop sign.
It's not as if only my health was at risk, after all. Even in the most casual of casual sex situations -- sex clubs, one-night stands -- men would try to cajole or plead or just play dumb to get their way. Often they had condoms that they wouldn't pull out until after I stopped them attempting to enter me without one. They all seemed to see it as my job to insist on safe sex; their default was to have unprotected sex with me if they could get away with it.
I got an email recently from a favorite reader of mine (she dressed up as me for Halloween), letting me know that she'd had a "bad experience" no actually a "date rape" no actually just a "rape" recently and she'd written about it and wondered if I would take a look. What happened was that she was having sex with a man and midway through he removed the condom. When she noticed, he told her it was "no big deal."
“I had a disturbing revelation the other day when I realized that [current partner] is the first guy I've slept with who is no nonsense, no bullshit about condom use. For whatever reason, there are a number of men who think they have permission not to use condoms, and it always ends up on you and me and some teenage girl somewhere who just wants to finish high school without a baby to insist on condom usage, and that is simply absurd. And until now, I thought that was normal. And it's not. It shouldn't be."
This isn't every man. Despite my bad experiences, I have also been with wonderful, respectful men who treated condoms as the price of admission, who brought and used them without having to be asked, who never acted as if my health and safety was less important than their sexual pleasure.
And goddamn if it wasn't fucking relaxing, to know that I didn't have to fight and enforce my way through our encounters. Goddamn if I didn't feel safe knowing that my boundaries would be respected just as much when their dicks were hard as when they weren't.
It seems obvious now, and it's probably another symptom of our fucked-up culture that it never occured to me before, but DUH: That's the way sex should always feel.