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.