Safer sex (redux)

Last night, I wrote about my relationship to “safer sex.” That post can be summarized thus: I get tested regularly, but probably should do so more. I use condoms, always, when fucking, and never for oral. And I don’t stress much.

That post got a few very vocal comments. The comments were thoughtful and, in one case, a little horrifying. But they didn’t (best I can tell) actually imply or suggest anything other than what I’m saying. Except (best I can tell) that I’m lucky I’m a guy, and so unlikely to have bad things happen to me directly because of an asymptomatic infection.

I had one other bit of thought that I wanted to share, though, and that’s this: somehow, I think we do the risk assessment for sexual activity wrong. We’re a people who think nothing of climbing into a 4-ton piece of metal and hurtling down the road at 90 miles an hour, knowing full well that it’s incredibly dangerous, but get our knickers all in a twist over the possibility of a little discomfort that lasts a few weeks and is treatable with antibiotics, or, yes, lifelong internal scarring, or infertility.

And yes, I know – there are long-term risks of cervical cancer for women, and of throat cancer for men from HPV. HPV is scary. For God’s sake, if you’re young enough, get vaccinated. But if you’re like me, too old to be vaccinated, or even to hope that you’re not infected, then what’s there (honestly) to do? I haven’t heard anyone suggest a behavioral change that feels palatable to me. If you are sexually active and you haven’t been vaccinated, you should assume you have HPV. Sorry. Moaning about the horrible consequences of cervical or throat cancer (and yes, the risks are far more probable for women than for men) doesn’t do anything….

So back to my point: I’d love to see a sort of “risk-adjusted analysis” of, say, the risks of sex as compared to the risks of driving. We undervalue the risks associated with driving for a host of reasons – its cultural centrality, its importance to so many aspects of our daily routine, the unpalatibility of alternatives to those of us who aren’t well served by mass transit. And for sex, even though it has some of the same characteristics – it’s pretty central, and there are no really good alternatives – for some very different reasons, I think we overvalue the risks associated with it.


Well, for one, because sex is so fucking emotionally complicated. We (Americans, especially) think it’s dirty. We think it’s shameful. It’s scary, secret. And so we inflate the risks (and perhaps also the rewards) associated with it. And no matter how “liberated” from these repressive tendencies we are as individuals, we carry around the detritus of our culture in our vestigial attitudes.

Second, I think we tend to think a bit magically about sex: we fear that our body will somehow reflect the stain that we deep down believe we may deserve if we engage in pure, hedonistic, sexual pleasure.

This is all reflected in the thoughtful comments to the last post: as I wrote, the only thing they seem to actually suggest behaviorally is… don’t have sex. Or, don’t have sex with anyone other than one’s committed partner. Or, in the case of Molly’s thoughtful comment, have sex with a small number of people. (She says she’s “careful” about those women; I’m not sure what she means here. I don’t think she means she’s putting latex between her tongue and their pussies. Presumably, everyone she has sex with has sex with people other than her….)

It’s ironic that, even among us sex-positive people – people who profess opennness to swinging, polyamory, non-monogamy, monogamish-ness, whatever – we still believe that the best practice when it comes to sexual safety is monogamy. Or at least, keeping the numbers down.

In the end, though, I suspect all this is just morality masquerading as “health concerns.”

Me, I’m just not buying it. Nancy Reagan told us to “just say no” to drugs, and conservatives have long preached abstinence when it comes to pre- or extra-marital sex. And sure – it is  safer not to do drugs, not to have sex. Just like it’s safer not to drive.

If you do drugs, the fewer you do, the safer you’ll be (but the less high you’ll get). And if you have pre- or extra-marital sex, the fewer people you have it with, the less risk you’ll have and, if you’re like me, the less fun you’ll have.

Sex is worth risking a lot for, and most of the dangers associated with it aren’t that awful (though some undoubtedly are). The sensible approach for me, then, is to protect against the things the risk of which exceeds the benefit (in my case, HIV/going bareback with people other than my wife; in your case, perhaps, the risk of chlamydia/engaging in sexual activity with anyone other than your partner).

And to get tested, early and often. Antibiotics are our friend.

And to hope for good luck. And good sex. Lots of both.


  1. Your posts on safe sex are informative and scary. I think(guess) luck unfortunately has a lot to do with it if anyone’s ever had unprotected sex. Counting on luck is never a good equation when having unprotected sex. Cervical cancer runs in my family(on the female side). I’ve had both my girls vaccinated. It’s a risk I was willing to take because cervical cancer at 19 wasn’t something I wanted them to experience. In talking with close friends, my experience has been that the boys generally are asymptomatic and the girls tend to get the shitty end of the stick. This is a generalisation.
    You’re correct N, growing up at the beginning of the onset of aids, and with me growing up in the Bay Area(San Francisco) HIV/Aids scared the living shit outta me. Having gay friends contract it and then wait for the death sentence changes ones perspective on unprotective sex. Thankfully today it’s not a death sentence. Why take the chance tho?
    I guess I don’t have anything constructive to add. I always appreciate your candor and I always learn something new, so thank you.

  2. Hmm… We’ve had this conversation some.

    I generally agree with your point of view, making sure, though, to emphasize that it’s a personal risk assessment for everyone.

    Men are better equipped when it comes to STD’s… Our internal parts are more vulnerable, so the risk assessment/ probability rubric is for women is necessarily different.

    Also, antibiotics are your friend… to a point. They’re also wrecking havoc on our body chemistry, as evidenced by the growing list of afflictions attributed to over-exposure to them.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t expose myself to something nasty with the thought that antibiotics will just fix me up in the same way I would never use the Morning After Pill as birth control.

    It’s good to know it’s there in case of emergency, but I’ll take steps to guard against needing it.

    And yes, you are less likely to contract an STD if you have fewer partners… So I do generally feel like anonymous oral sex is risky- but so are lots of things. And yes, I do believe, the best practice when it comes to sexual safety is HONEST monogamy. But that may not always be my choice.

    The big difference is the communicative aspect… If I want to eat crap and risk diabetes and heart disease, you won’t get those if we make out.. So in addition to my own health, I’ll think of my effect on you.

    The “communicative” word is big here- if I get something from you I feel like my trust in you has been broken… Probably part of the “dirty” feelings generated around getting an STD. You know, I’ve done something “dirty” with someone who is in fact dirty… And may have known it.

    We all take higher risks for the things we deeply value over the ones we merely like… But some of us risk others as well.

    As far as the cultural implications of “safe” vs. “unsafe” sex- well that’s just a huge subject… Full of religion and fear, familial and cultural conditioning, propaganda and agendas, psychological and emotional vulnerabilities….all sorts of juicy topics.

    Also, I like this sentence, “we carry around the detritus of our culture in our vestigial attitudes.”

    1. Thank you. This is so thoughtful.

      1) I hope you don’t feel you learned anything about my approach to STIs in these posts!

      2) “If I get something from you I feel like my trust in you has been broken….” Is this really true? Or is it only true if we haven’t had this discussion? Because if it really is true, then how do you explain that, especially if your answer to the question above is that you didn’t learn anything new? I think we’re harsher on STIs than on any other kind of infection, communicable or otherwise, with the possible exception of lung cancer, which we blithely (and cruelly) blame on people’s “decision” to smoke.

      3) I’m gonna agitate hard for abandonment of the STD label. I think it’s stigmatizing and wrong. Most “infections” aren’t “diseases.” And almost no STIs are. Words matter.

      1. 1) No, I don’t feel like I learned anything new about your approach with these posts.

        2) That was more a general statement- because I like to think (never having been in the position) that I would disclose anything communicable that I might have with a new partner before we got intimate, and that the new partner would do the same. Obviously that would be naive on my part- people lie all the time, but… I would disclose- just sayin’, and if he/she hadn’t I would feel like my trust had been betrayed, while still taking full responsibility for failing to protect myself.
        I want to believe in people though, I really do. Especially people I want to fuck ;-).

        3) Agree-ish about the terminology- and I would have changed it if I hadn’t already hit send, ’cause I want to be cool like that-
        But. Yes- it’s more accurate to say that most (all?) of these sexually transmitted maladies are infections- of either viral or bacterial origin… but part of me is resistant to the new term only because I think it was partially adopted to de-stigmatize the STD term. The infections, while mostly treatable with minimal chances of lasting (depending on gender and detection timing..etc, etc..) damage are still potentially *very* damaging… and in the case of HIV (yes, I know people live long active lives with it now) certainly as deadly as many diseases… and there are plenty of diseases that people live long lives with.

        I guess my long winded point is infections can suck just as badly as diseases.

        But sure, STI is more accurate.

  3. I can respect the honesty, but not the admission of futility or the apathy.

    A history of sex addiction, orgies, open relationships, and a long term history of visiting prostitutes, without using barriers????? ……….What’s left, sharing needles with an African monkey?

    Since you’re making educated choices…more power to you….but can you say the same of your partners, or their future partners?

    Why is it that so many of the so-called “sex positive” bloggers always engage in some of the riskiest sex, intellectualized or not? I get why these blogs are fascinating, and often sexy, but not why they would encourage a reader to want to fuck this guy who freely admits to dealing with addiction issues – or anyone with his history and attitude?

    What of the typical city resident, struggling to get laid a couple times a year, maybe even find a steady partner on their wavelength, who now has to worry that every person they meet might have had a one night stand one lonely night, with a guy addicted to hookers, or sex clubs, or used to attend one of Jefferson’s parties? What of the girl who answers the random Craigslist ad who doesn’t agree that STI’s are a fact of life she’s doomed with? What if I want to date in this city and not take on the risks you have?

    If you really believe you likely have herpes, isn’t the responsible thing to do (especially for a man dealing with the consequences of addiction) to conduct yourself accordingly?

    1. First, thanks for your comment.

      Second, yes – the responsible thing to do, given that I believe that I (and you) likely have herpes is to behave as if I (and you) do. I disclose my assumptions to virtually all sex partners – and to ALL with whom there’s even a glancing conversation about health/infection status.

      Third, working from the bottom up… what does the fact that I’m “a man dealing with the consequences of addiction” have to do with my obligations and responsibilities?

      Fourth, if you (or anyone) wants to date, you are a fool if you don’t assume that every person you fuck is infected with every disease you don’t want to catch, unless and until they demonstrate to you conclusively that they’re not. If you’re like most people, that won’t happen til you’re getting ready to move in together.

      Fifth, I don’t engage in “some of the riskiest sex.” I engage in unprotected oral sex. That is, definitively, not some of the riskiest sex. It is, in fact, probably the LEAST risky form of sex in which one can engage. After no sex. And foreplay. But it’s definitely one of the least risky forms of sex in which people regularly engage.

      Sixth, you seem to accuse me of behaving badly, but I’m not sure how. Is it by exposing the women who suck my cock to… my cock? Which they’re sucking? Or by exposing their pussies to my tongue? I just don’t get it.

      Last, and certainly not least, I’m not sure what the “African monkey” comment is meant to communicate other than racism and ignorance (which it communicates quite effectively), but honestly, I’m not a good example of sexual risk-taking. I have not ONCE had unprotected vaginal or anal sex in fifteen years with anyone other than my wife.

      I think that your opening betrays your basic point: you are something between jealous and angry that I have had a really rough history, and in my current iteration, have sex the frequency and variety of which make you envious.

      But none of what you say contradicts the basic point I make in these two posts: I behave as if everyone with whom I have sex is infected with every disease I don’t want, and I advise you do the same.

      Whether what you do on the basis of that assumption is the same as what I do is a whole ‘nother question, and I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell you how you ought to live your life. But I do think that I “conduct [my]self accordingly.” If you disagree, please, tell me what it is you’d have me do different.

      1. Dude. You have unprotected SEX with hookers.

        Oral sex is still sex. It’s risky when it’s with a sex worker.
        You have unprotected sex in sex clubs.

        You don’t think you’re being risky? You don’t think you’re still acting out and this blog’s followers aren’t enabling you? You’re a sex addict going to sex clubs, who has the audacity to pretend he is sexually responsible when it comes to STI’s? Think about that.

        The fact is, you’ve detailed stories when a fair number of your partners couldn’t know of your history. Perhaps it’s one of the details you’re leaving out. That means you are knowingly putting partners at risk, without disclosing it, and figuring it’s their fault and/or responsibility for not asking. You have no care for what you might pass to your partners.

        Nobody is envious that you get laid at sex parties or fuck hookers.

        As for your willful attempt to call sarcasm racism, nice try. Then again, some of your posts do lack a certain sophistication.

        I’m not here to tell you how to conduct your life, but someone had to call you out for that BS.

        1. More comprehensive response coming, but a few quick responses:

          1) I have not had unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with anyone other than my wife since 1997. And before my wife, I had unprotected vaginal intercourse with exactly two women – my college girlfriend, who broke up with me in 1988, and a high school girlfriend, whom I fucked once.

          2) I have not knowingly had unprotected oral intercourse with a “hooker” in over three years.

          3) I don’t think I’m still acting out (if, by “acting out,” you mean, “acting in order to avoid feeling,” which is what I mean by “acting out”).

          I do believe that I am responsible when it comes to STIs. I’ve laid out my thinking on that subject here. You seem to think it’s not possible to go to sex clubs and be sexually responsible. I disagree.

          Virtually every partner I’ve had in the last few years has known of my history. The only ones who haven’t have been in sex clubs. It’s pretty much the first thing I bring up on dates.

          Your claim that no one is envious of me is wrong. Certainly, I know of at least two people who are envious that I “get laid at sex parties.” As for the “fucking hookers,” part of your claim, see #2 above.

          Re: sophistication, I plead guilty. I’ve never claimed to be sophisticated. If there are sophisticated blogs on the subject of sex and sexuality that you can point me to, I’d be really grateful – I have a voracious appetite.

          As I said, more to come on the substantive question of whether I’m an addict acting out or something else – I do think that’s an interesting question, and I appreciate your raising it, even if I wish you were a bit less antagonistic.

          1. “2) I have not knowingly had unprotected oral intercourse with a “hooker” in over three years.”

            Are you under the impression that Herpes, Hep C, HPV, etc. have a statute of limitations?

            Also, why are you suddenly putting hooker in quotes now?

          2. I get tested regularly. What I did years ago is irrelevant to my current infection status for anything for which I’ve been tested – everything but herpes. And I address herpes at length in my posts. And I disclose everything.

            I put “hooker” in quotes because it’s not a word I use. I think it’s generally a term of disrespect. I also think it’s a term with an unclear meaning and so is generally helpful. For example – I’ve never had any sexual encounter with anyone who thought of herself as a hooker, or a prostitute, to the best of my knowledge. But you (and I) might disagree with at least some of the women I’ve encountered – and paid for sex. So I tend to use less controversial words to describe the parameters of the relationships I’ve had. There’s a whole ‘nother post to be written on semantics and sex work, but I’m tired.

            Suffice it to day, I think sex workers are people, worthy of respect. And I think you generalize about them at your peril. Oh, and read Maggie McNeill’s blog. She’s great, and has taught me a lot about sex work. I expect you could learn a bit too.

      2. Also, You apparently can’t fathom people out there who actually do turn down sex based on such health concerns thanks to attitudes like yours, or how finding a suitable mature partner can make a difference. The idea that someone struggling to find such a partner must be inferior or jealous speaks volumes, and I feel bad for anyone at the stage of their life that they would settle for someone with your blatant disregard for their well being, and future health.

        That said, not every grown man can get laid while wearing a Batman tshirt, or after arguing the validity of their obsession with “creep shots”, so sure, that’s some thing to be jealous of.

        One two more things… 1) being promiscuous doesn’t equate sex positive, and 2) if you’re worried about bigotry, you’re a man who describe a woman as tasting “Israeli”.

        1. And a quick response here, also with the caveat that a more comprehensive response is forthcoming:

          I don’t presume anything about anyone. I think only that people should proceed carefully with respect to sex, particularly if they are fearful of infection, because some infections – HPV, herpes – are so prevalent, and so difficult to prevent, that the ONLY means of effective prevention is abstinence. And that doesn’t appeal to me. Taking myself out of the pool of people fucking would have zero impact on this reality.

          You’ve read my blog carefully, and I appreciate all careful readers. I, for one, think I look pretty good in a Batman shirt. (My Spidey shirt is pretty hot too, though.) And I think I’ve been pretty thoughtful about creep shots. I guess you disagree. Oh well.

          I agree that promiscuity and sex positivity have little to do with one another. And to be clear, I didn’t say Mara tasted Israeli; I said that she tasted familiar, and that the taste was “Israel.”

          1. Of course people should proceed with caution and take responsibility for themselves…..AND YET…this doesn’t excuse your responsibility for disclosure, or explain your faulty rationalizations for simply wanting to fuck a lot, with disregard for any STI that isn’t HIV.

            Describing a woman’s taste as a taste you associate by ethnicity or nationality is misogynistic. Your comments about the Asian man you encounter as the sex club was equally as questionable.

          2. I’m not replying to anything else you write at this point, except this: you’ve now twice misread what I said about the taste of Mara’s pussy. I said it was a familiar taste, one I associate with Israel. Perhaps that’s racist or misogynyst. I don’t really see it, but hey. I’m sorry to any Israeli pussy possessors, or defenders of Israeli pussy possessors, I may have offended by my sensory, olfactory, taste memory.

    1. I could be getting laid right and left, and my opinions pertaining to sexual health issues as they effect the community wouldn’t change. How juvenile. I hope your potential partners reading this take note…and worry.

  4. I believe in getting a potential partner tested. I get regularly tested. It’s something that I wish to avoid (not enough for abstinence by any means); I value my partner for agreeing to the test. If I am not comfortable discussing getting tested with them, they’ve no right to be in my body. If they refuse to get tested, they are not the lover for me (but that doesn’t make them bad). I am damn well worth the test, and the short wait. While waiting for the test, I joke that this is “the getting to know you period”. It does not guarantee they will be faithful, or stay negative for things, but it makes me feel better, helps me make a more informed decision, and shows to my partner that I take the issue seriously.

    I do not believe my sisters share this, nor my friends (although a few have started implementing it since I discuss it). I do not judge them. It is their bodies. I am just doing what is right to me for my own body. I have not avoided people who were more “at-risk”.

    The safest route is abstinence, and that is not an option I would ever consider.

    I appreciate your honesty, N, even though I do not agree it is for myself (stress, for myself). I’ve read the others posts on this, but haven’t commented (it seems to be a hot topic). I respect both you and many of the commenters in the different opinions. It is what we feel strongly about, and it is clearly worth discussing.

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