Femintimacy: Uncomfortable With Unprotected Sex

Femintimacy explores sex— and the many topics that word encapsulates— from a young feminist’s angle. She doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but will be talking about how culture and society have impacted sex and intimacy for young women, figuring it out with you.

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The first boyfriend I ever had sex with never really wanted to use a condom.

Throughout our entire eight-month relationship, I could probably count the number of times we used a condom on one hand. To be fair, it was a long distance relationship, and we only saw each other every other month or so, but during those short visits, I always felt a lot of pressure to “make up for lost time.”

So let’s just say there was no shortage of sex in our relationship.

The first time we had sex, he did use a condom. Same with the next couple times after that. But then I noticed that sometimes he wouldn’t reach for one. He wouldn’t suggest grabbing one from my desk. The question “should I get a condom?” stopped coming altogether. We would simply “forget.”

He started using the wholly inadequate and honestly kind of gross method of “pulling out,” which usually ended up in some sort of mess.  

I am not without blame. Yes, maybe I should have asserted my discomfort at not using a condom more. I should have insisted that we use a condom, despite the fact that I was on the pill. In situations like that, as a 19-year-old college student with absolutely no desire to become pregnant or contract an STD, it’s impossible to be too careful.

The High Risk of Contraceptive Mistakes

When I first started taking the pill, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I foolishly decided to begin taking them in between two particular classes, at around 3:25 every afternoon. I say this was foolish because, of course, my class schedule would eventually change, and I was stuck taking my pills in the middle of the afternoon rather than when I woke up in the morning or when I went to bed at night like a few of my friends did.

I always thought the whole morning/night idea sounded silly—I almost never wake up at the same time every day, and I almost never go to sleep at the same time either. What if I was out with friends and forgot to take it? What if I slept till 7 am one day and 11 am another?

When my class schedule changed the next semester, I had a lot more difficulty remembering to take my pills on time, and that difficulty has persisted ever since.

Birth control pills are meant to be taken at least within an hour or so of a pre-established time every day. But I’d often get caught up with work, or class, or extracurriculars, or lunch, or friends. Sometimes I take mine at 3:25 pm, sometimes at 7:00 pm, sometimes even as late as 11:30 pm.

I know this is  not very responsible, as I was greatly decreasing the efficacy of my birth control method during a time in which I was sexually active.

It made me feel like I was playing with my future.

I’m lucky enough to even have access to birth control in the first place, the means to protect myself from an unwanted pregnancy that could derail my future plans for my life, the means to avoid having to make the emotional and economic decision to have an abortion if the need arose.

So why then, was I being so careless with my body?

The first time I ever missed a pill was during one of his weekend visits. We went on an all-day hike about an hour from my campus, and I forgot to take my pills with me. When I realized, I was exasperated with myself and insisted I’d remember to take them when we got back to my room. But one thing led to another, and I never did.

I realized this the next day when I saw the previous day’s pill still safely in its spot. I couldn’t believe my stupidity. On the one weekend out of the entire month when I’d be having sex, I forgot to take my pill. I was so stressed for the next few days that my period was actually a few days late.

Since going on the pill, that had never happened.

Realistically, I probably wouldn’t have missed a period so close to actually getting pregnant, but I was horrified, wracked with anxiety. I didn’t tell him any of this.

When my period finally came, it felt as though I could finally drop the anvil I’d been carrying. But rather than feeling relief, it felt like I had dropped said anvil on my foot.

How completely irresponsible had I been? I could have gotten pregnant. What if an abortion turned out to be incredibly expensive? (I’d later learn that this really depends on factors like your health insurance, but I was too panicked to even look that up at the time)

I didn’t want to go through that. I didn’t want to even think about having a child.

The Burden of Preventing Pregnancy

As women in modern America, we have access to numerous different forms of birth control, and we are aware that pleasure is both expected from us and possible for us. But sex ed and popular culture teach us to just not get pregnant at all costs, that it’s our fault for being stupid and reckless if unintended pregnancy occurs. The burden of responsibility for contraception is placed primarily on us.

As this astute article in Medium points out, all pregnancies are caused by men. It is literally impossible for a woman to get pregnant without sperm, whether that comes from intercourse or artificial insemination. She can experience as much sexual pleasure as she wants without becoming pregnant, while male orgasm is tied to impregnation through the release of sperm. So it follows that all unwanted pregnancies must also be caused by men.

Women are fertile only for a very limited window each month, while men are fertile every single day of the year, basically from puberty until they die. But women are still expected to be responsible for birth control measures.

Birth control is an incredible invention which provides women with much more sexual freedom, but its side effects can be intense. Common side effects include nausea, migraines, weight gain, mood swings, decreased libido. More severe side effects can range from blood clots to strokes and heart attacks.

In contrast, the development of a new male form of contraception was shut down largely because of possible side effects. The most common side effects were acne and mood swings.

So it’s okay for women to suffer intense side effects on a daily basis due to their birth control pills, but not men? And women have to worry about becoming pregnant on top of that, while men don’t necessarily suffer any personal consequences by getting someone else pregnant.

“As a society, we really don’t mind if women suffer, physically or mentally, as long as it makes things easier for men,” writes Gabrielle Blair.

Obtaining birth control requires at least one doctor’s appointment and a prescription. And it’s not always covered by insurance. The Trump administration recently rolled back an Obama administration protection and will now allow employers to claim exemption “from providing insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.” Additionally, the pill can’t be bought at the last minute and usually has to be taken for at least a week before it is effective.

On the other hand, condoms can be purchased at drug stores without a prescription basically around the clock, they can be stockpiled, they’re cheap, and they work instantly. And they don’t cause any side effects. So why do men seem so averse to using them?

The Sacrifice of My Health for His Pleasure

When I finally resolved to speak up, to voice my discomfort with our lack of condom use, he insisted we’d be better. But still, every time, we “forgot,” we “got caught up in the moment.” Excuses were bandied around meaninglessly.

Then came the claim that it “feels better without a condom.”

So, a few minutes of pleasure was more important than my safety and bodily autonomy? My health, future, and peace of mind?

Sex is a shared action, two bodies coming together. But the potential burden of pregnancy, the lasting consequence of a sexual encounter, undeniably falls upon the partner with childbearing capabilities, if there is one in the situation.

Every time we didn’t use a condom, it felt like a disrespect, like a “my sexual enjoyment is worth risking a pregnancy that neither of us is prepared for.” And it’s not worth it. Nothing is worth that. Not a little bit more sexual enjoyment, not pleasing a partner, nothing. And no partner should ever make you feel like you’re inadequate or not satisfying enough for insisting he wears a condom.

And condoms don’t solely protect against pregnancy. They are important in all sexual relationships, regardless of the identities of the respective partners, because they also prevent the spread of STIs, which is especially important if you’re unfamiliar with your partner’s sexual history.

Obviously, I, as a cisgender female, can’t say whether there’s any veracity to the concept of a condom impeding sexual pleasure. But I can say that men using that as an excuse puts women in an incredibly unfair position. Insisting that your partner wear a condom when he claims it impedes his sexual pleasure makes you look like a villain. It’s equivalent to saying “hey, I don’t care about your sexual pleasure.” If she really did care, she wouldn’t make me use a condom.

Women are already taught to link their value with their sexual ability. And this excuse is a classic instance of manipulation and the exercise of male control over women.

What If the Burden of Unintended Pregnancies Were Reversed?

What if men were held solely responsible for contraception? For carrying and raising children? What if women didn’t have to subject themselves to severe side effects to avoid pregnancy? What if the medical industry focused on developing comparable forms of male contraception?

This thought experiment is likely a dream, but I recently watched a Buzzfeed video in which a group of men had to take faux-birth control pills for a month. They soon realized the burden that this method of contraception places on women’s lives. The men often forgot their pills and had to rush back and get them, and they experienced intense frustration and worry about taking it on time.

I also came across another video of men experiencing simulated labor pains. The men didn’t seem to comprehend the intensity of the pain they’d soon experience. One of them even said, ”I’ve gotten hurt lots of times, so how painful can this be?” So it was honestly pretty satisfying to see all their shocked faces and hear their screams in reaction to the simulation.

Although nothing compares to the reality, experiments like this shed light on the other side of the story.

How to be an Advocate for Safe Sex

Of course, the choice of whether or not to use a condom during sexual intercourse is up to both you and your partner. But even if you’re not the one who would be wearing it, you have just as much right to insist on what you feel comfortable with and protest against what you’re not. Some couples choose not to wear condoms if the childbearing partner uses a permanent birth control method such as an IUD. But this must be an agreed upon decision between both parties. Otherwise, one partner’s sense of bodily autonomy and safety is sacrificed.  

My partner and I were both heterosexual and cisgender. But whatever your anatomy, STIs or pregnancy are potential outcomes if you have sex.

Both partners, in any situation, have to agree upon the method of prevention being used, and both should be comfortable with the final agreement, whatever you decide to use or not use. No one should be bullied, coerced, or manipulated into not using something because they’re trying to please their partner.

I never did succeed in getting my ex-boyfriend to wear condoms. At the time, it seemed like something I could deal with. But upon reflection on our relationship, I realized how important it is to me to have as-safe-as-humanly-possible sex.

Here are a few tips on how to insist that your partner wear a condom, including some valuable ones found on verywellhealth.com.

  1. Tell your partner how it makes you feel when you have unsafe sex. Are you worried? Anxious? Uncomfortable? Expressing that can help them understand how significant this decision is for you, and if they don’t respect your opinions, this could mean that they care about their own sexual enjoyment more than yours. No one can have a truly enjoyable experience if they are anxious while having sex.

  2. If the condom causes your partner physical discomfort, maybe they are wearing the wrong size, or they don’t like the specific brand.

  3. If your partner says that condoms impede their pleasure—condoms with extra features designed to enhance pleasure are a thing! Explore those options at your local pharmacy.

  4. Get tested for STIs before having sex with a new partner. This will help ensure that your sex is as safe as possible and can relieve anxiety.

  5. Carry condoms with you or keep them in your room. That way, a partner claiming he doesn’t have them isn’t an excuse, and “forgetting” to grab one can be easily remedied.

  6. Here are a few places you can obtain condoms for free.

  7. Here’s where to find Plan B emergency contraception.

In sexual encounters since then, partners I have been with have been more conscientious about using condoms. But I know with near certainty that I’ll confront the same excuses and pressure at some point in the future. The difference is, now I feel more equipped and empowered to insist on my own comfort and personal health.