The sheer number of people who say they don’t wear condoms never fails to surprise me. I’ve had it happen to me—I’ve been with men who think there’s no need for such a thing. Maybe I’m simply a paranoid queer, still bearing the weight of the ‘80s AIDS epidemic generations later, or maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think that safe sex is hot sex. And that’s not a radical notion.
The last thing I want to do is lecture. But STIs are at an all-time high, and we all share responsibility. Hookup culture is becoming more and more popular; surveys show that nearly half of millennials participate in nonmonogamous sex. I am not shaming hookup culture. An active sexual appetite is healthy. One should feel free to have sex whenever and with whomever they want. I practice that right. Or don’t have sex at all, and wait until marriage. The great thing about sex is that it’s up to you. But it’s also up to you to protect not only yourself, but others.
There’s more to safe sex than throwing on latex or watching how much you drink—studies show that substance use is linked to unprotected sex— it’s also about educating yourself. A friend once told me he didn’t need to get tested because he “pulls out” when he cums.
That’s nonsense. Pre-ejaculate, the fluid that’s discharged from the penis when aroused, can contain and carry viruses like HIV. Many other myths permeate our sexual landscape—monogamy protects you from an STI, birth control prevents infections, STIs have an age limit. They are all false. I almost hooked up with a boy once, until he told me he was never tested because he’s only had oral sex. We all need to train ourselves in basic sex education.
But I get why so many people are clueless; American sex education is a laughing stock. If your high school was anything like mine—studies show that nearly a quarter of American schools are—it preached abstinence over all else. But that’s not realistic. The 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a revolutionary sex ed resource, reports that about half the 19 million new cases of STIs per year are from young adults aged 15 to 24. As a boy coming to terms with my queerness, I didn’t learn a single thing about gay sex when I was 16. Nothing that was taught applied to me, and I had to find out everything through Google and Judy Blume novels. Until that’s fixed we’re forced to make-do.
Condoms are the best-known barrier protection, whether they’re for penises or vaginas. It’s important to bring your own condoms, and they should be checked for their expiration date and for any potential damage. I was once involved with a boy who thought sex was more pleasurable without a condom, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise. I tried to point out everything wrong with it, that swearing off condoms is like not taking responsibility for your own actions. He didn’t listen, and we didn’t work out. People like that are people to avoid. Sex is not something to take lightly. As much fun as it can be, sex can also be scary, and impulsive decisions can have long-term effects.
It’s important to have the talk with every potential sexual partner. Yes, it’s dreadful, and yes, it’s awkward, but it is necessary. I’ve gotten to the point where the passion is so heated that the talk was the last thing in my mind, but I’ve found the idea is much more intimidating than actually coming out and saying it. If you’re going to have sex with another person, you should be comfortable enough to ask if they’re clean. In a perfect world of nonmonogamous hookups, you or your partner should be tested for STDs every few months. But everyone should get tested at least once a year.
Getting tested is your responsibility. Safe sex can only be safe if you and your partner are transparent with one another. Having sex with someone is like signing a contract—it requires clarity and mutual trust. If you’re not cognizant of your status, then you can’t rule out the factor of an STI. I won’t sugarcoat it: If you’re having sex unaware of your status, you are lying to your partner.
I have had friends laugh off getting tested. Or, they say they eventually will and never do. I can’t understand that. Sometimes I want to shake them and yell, “What? You’re not tested? Do you know how thoughtless that is?” STIs aren’t always physically apparent. Our Bodies, Ourselves reports that a top myth about STIs is that they’re unfailingly visible. But many STIs are what they call “silent diseases,” which mean they produce few, if any symptoms.
There are ways to overcome this. Emerson’s Center for Health and Wellness provides STD testing and counseling. But I also suggest making Planned Parenthood your best friend. The nonprofit organization offers confidential, nonjudgmental health services and free sexual education. They can also prescribe birth control and PEP/PrEP, a combination of medicines to help prevent HIV infection. And it all comes from trained—and in my experience, compassionate—medical professionals, who are more than willing to help.. Get to know your local clinic. In the long run, it’s for the best.
Sex can never be 100 percent safe. There are so many unanswered questions, and so many things to take into consideration. I hope I haven’t scared you—consensual sex can be a lot of fun, especially with the right person. But it’s your job to be safe about it. You owe it not only to yourself, but also to your possible future spouse, and to the stranger you met at the party last night.