No glove, no problem? Why aren't our friends talking about protection, and what would happen if they did?

Sex is often a topic of discussion in my daily encounters with girl friends, guy friends, gay friends and straight friends. Who is so-and-so doing, how often, when and where? Details aren't always omitted and conversations can get pretty steamy, but as soon as someone mentions protection, especially in the form of America's favorite barrier method, the discussion takes a turn for the awkward. Suddenly, it's "none of your damn business," followed by a round of uncomfortable giggling and eye-rolling.

What's so funny about condoms?

Condoms are inexpensive are relatively easy to find. Condoms come in a variety of sizes, colors, flavors and brands. Men and women can use condoms, as can same-sex and hetero couples.  Condoms have been around for hundreds of years, and lucky for us, they're no longer made of oiled paper, tortoise shells, or animal horns. Condoms help prevent diseases AND pregnancies!

Condoms fucking rock!

So why don't we talk more about condoms? Why are they laughable? And, more importantly, why aren't we using them (or are we)? I asked around.

Kelsey, 26, Sales

Describe your sexual activity level.

Kelsey: My husband and I have sex about 2-3 times per week.

Where / when / how did you learn to use condoms?

Kelsey: I don't really remember, but I'm sure the only condom education I had was through my health class in school because other than that the only formal sexual education I had was through my church. My parents never discussed condoms with me.

How often do you use condoms?

Kelsey: I started using condoms regularly when I became sexually active in high school. I used them consistently, and then became less and less consistent as I got older. My second partner and I initially used condoms regularly, and then started not using them once in awhile and eventually stopped completely. Since that relationship, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I used a condom. Six years ago I became active with the partner who is now my husband. We attempted to use a condom once, fumbled with it, discarded it and had sex without it, and never tried again.

What were your thoughts about condoms in general?

Kelsey: I only really ever thought about using condoms to prevent pregnancy. I started slacking on using them because I was taking birth control and I thought if my partners had something they didn't want to pass to me that they would grab a condom. I never discussed it with my partners. I'm married now, but was not married when the sexual relationship started with my husband. At the time I thought if he has something he doesn't want to pass to me, then he'd put a condom on.

What are your thoughts about them now?

Kelsey: Looking back, my husband and I both feel foolish for not using condoms.  We realize now that we barely knew each other and should have been more careful. I would (and do) advise anyone who is not in a committed relationship with a partner who has recently been tested to use condoms consistently.

Why do you feel foolish?

Kelsey: I feel lucky to be as healthy as I am considering how irresponsible I was with condom use. In 2004 I was no longer in a committed relationship and found myself having a casual sexual relationship with two different partners, neither of which I used a condom with. In 2005 I received a call from my gynecologist after my annual appointment telling me my results were "abnormal." Weeks later I found out I had contracted a strain of HPV. Not the strain that results in genital warts that I could see on a partner or on myself, but a different type of strain that men were merely carriers of and couldn't be tested for. I was told over time my body could fight off the disease, but if that didn't happen it could lead to cervical cancer. The worst part was, I didn't know who had given it to me. 

Do you use condoms now?

Kelsey: Pretty much the opposite. I'm healthy now so we're actively trying to conceive!

Jack, 28, Professional Student

Describe your sexual activity level.

Jack: Fucks like a bunny.

Where / when / how did you learn to use condoms?

Jack: I think I messed around with using them when I was 12 or 13, just to see how they work.  They're kind of a no-brainer.

How often do you use condoms?

Jack: Whenever I have sex with a new partner.

For what activities?

Jack: Vaginal, anal, water balloons.

Who brings them, you or your partner(s)?

Jack: I bring them, but my partners often have some.

What are your thoughts about condoms in general?

Jack: I use them more for lowering my chance of catching STIs than for preventing pregnancy.  For that I prefer to supplement with a different form of birth control. Also, I learned to shop around. The brands provided by my school are what I call 'rubber tires.' There are many better types out there, such as extra thin, ribbed, etc., that can provide an enhanced experience not just for me, but also for my partner.

So why don't people talk openly about using them?

Jack: Part of it is that lots of people don't use condoms, and it's kind of a stigma. You know you should use them, but often people don't, and don't want to acknowledge that to their friends.

Do you talk openly about using them?

Jack: I do if people ask. With girls, yes. Between guys, that stuff doesn't seem to come up. But if they asked me about it, I'd be open to talk about it. It honestly sucks that guys don't talk more. For example, different brands/types [of condoms] can be a lot of fun to experiment with. And talking about it to other guys might be a nice way to learn about that.

Darcy, 29, Artist

Describe your sexual activity level.

Darcy: Medium? I have sex about 3-4 times per month.  I am not in a relationship.

Where / when / how did you learn to use condoms?

Darcy: I learned to use condoms in high school health class. It was the old banana routine. This was repeated at my college orientation. I liked that. Not everyone learned in high school and you should sure as hell know in college

How often do you use condoms? For what activities?

Darcy: Every time I have intercourse. I do not use condoms for oral sex, although I know I should

Who brings them, you or your partner(s)?

Darcy: Usually my partners, but I always have someone on hand in case they don't

Have you ever had problems negotiating condom use with partners?

Darcy: I've had what I think everyone else has — a guy telling you he "can't use" condoms, or saying they're "not the right size" when I give one to him. You're not that big, and if this condom doesn't fit you, neither does my vagina because I've seen these things filled with enough helium to qualify as a children's birthday balloon. If your dick doesn't fit in that, it doesn't fit in me.

WOW. You say that? Do they comply?

Darcy: Yep, they do it. I am nothing if not charmingly persuasive [smiles and winks].

Mitch, 31, Musician

Describe your sexual activity level.

Mitch: Pretty consistent.

How often do you use condoms, and for what activities?

Mitch: Almost all the time, especially for sex. I keep meaning to use them for oral, but forget in the moment.

Have you always used them?

Mitch: No, in high school and college it wasn't consistent. I got a girl pregnant once; she ended the pregnancy and informed me as an afterthought. That was weird, and pretty sad.

How has that impacted your use?

Mitch: Condoms are a lifesaver, literally. My partners have varied over the years, but I avidly believe in condom use for sex.

Have you ever had problems negotiating condoms with partners?

Mitch: Not really, but I've been surprised and kind of put-off by girls who don't automatically ask if we'll use one. Sometimes we barely know each other. It's like, how can I trust that you care about your body and health if you aren't concerned about protection?

I've heard a lot of guys talk about how it feels different, or not as great.

Mitch: It is what it is. I'll take a tiny bit of difference in sensation if it means less chance of STIs and no babies. I'm not ready to be a dad. Plus, condoms can help prolong the act as a whole. That's an added bonus, in my opinion.

Mimi, 24, Teacher

Why do you think people will talk about their sex lives, but don't automatically mention condoms?

Mimi: Well, I wouldn't say it because I would hope that people already assumed that I have safe sex practices. However, if someone is talking about sex as a way of increasing social status or prestige, talking about condoms isn't cool because it acknowledges the inherent, potential dangers of sexual activity.

It's not so savory to talk about the risks we take.

Mimi: I would liken it to being a hipster versus wearing a helmet. It's cool to ride a bike, but it's not cool to say "and I wear a helmet!"

Riding unprotected vs. wearing a helmet. Nice comparison!

Research shows that access to information about condom use, through formal education, parent-child communication, and discussions with peers, increases the likelihood that condoms will be used in a sexual situation. Just because we are past the age where parents and educational institutions give us "the talk" doesn't mean we know everything there is to know about sex and protection.  We're also not exempt from diseases and unplanned pregnancy. So if you're sexually active and actively avoiding pregnancy and STIs, speak up! You never know who might benefit from your story.

Here's more information about male condoms and the new-and-improved female condoms.