When I started having sex at the age of 19, ‘safe sex’ meant ‘not pregnant’.
I think I first used a condom in my 20s.
Something clicked then. Maybe it was the massive ‘condomise’ campaigns that were happening at the time or maybe it was my brush with herpes where the doctor proclaimed, in a bid to cheer me up, ‘Don’t worry, half of Cape Town is walking around with herpes!’
Turned out it was an infected hair follicle from waxing. But still.
Something had clicked and I was suddenly paying a lot of attention to this ‘safe sex’ business.
But the term bugged me. ‘Safe sex’? Safe from what?
Technically, ‘safe sex’ refers to using a condom or a dental dam to avoid the transmission of fluids between people during oral and penetrative sex.
However, we now know that there are some STIs that can be transmitted via kissing and heavy petting; we know nothing is 100% fail safe; we know condoms break and dental dams are difficult to find.
We know that sometimes we make bad life choices after a party night and infatuation can leave us feeling invincible to life’s realities. We know not all unprotected sex is consensual.
The term ‘safe sex’, or even ‘safer sex’, can’t hold these realities. They’re fundamentally disempowering terms since they’re impossible to ever action fully.
We need to move beyond this and get realistic, because this conversation is about a lot more than putting a piece of latex between two sexing body parts.
We need to think and talk in terms of ‘responsible sex’ – being ‘response able’.
This means being able to insist on condoms or to walk away from a man who refuses to use one; it’s about being able to choose who you sleep with and the capacity to make empowered decisions about your body and heart.
When condoms fail, it means getting the morning after pill if you’re not on contraception; it means knowing your rights regarding abortion; it means taking the time to get tested.
It means taking ownership of your health when (and how) you choose to have sex with someone – even if they say they’re STI-free.
It means surrounding yourself with people who support empowered choice.
But ‘safe’ sex?
Nothing about living is ‘safe’. It’s a risk-intense venture: you live a ‘healthy’ life and still catch your colleague’s flu cooties; you drive safely, but still get sideswiped by an arsehole on the N1.
Our taboos have isolated sex so much that we behave as if it’s something separate to our existing in the world, deserving of fear and shame.
Stress yourself to an early heart attack? Here’s a pill, take it easy. But pick up a bug from a sexual liaison and suddenly you’re a pariah.
The term ‘safe sex’ doesn’t help dispel these stigmas.
Let’s rather start talking about ‘responsible sex’ – educating around what this means and looks like, not just in the moment of sexual interaction, but around it.