The nitty-gritty of using condoms: a conversation we don’t have nearly often enough

“If you’re going to have sex, use a condom!” We hear it all the time: safer sex necessarily involves condom use, among other things. And it sounds simple and sensible enough, right? Just cover the penis when penetration occurs, and then take it off and throw it away afterwards. So simple – or at least it looks that way in public service ads and school sex-ed classes.

(PLEASE NOTE: there is some explicit discussion of the workings and mechanics of sex further on in this article. Just in case you aren’t up for reading that kind of thing right now. Otherwise, please proceed).

I’m willing to bet that the majority of people out there that read this and have had sex have run into situations in which condom use suddenly was not such an easy, simple matter. There are lots of what-ifs, for one thing: what if the condom breaks or falls off? What if your partner doesn’t want to wear one? What if putting on a condom kills the erection? What if the penis is bigger or smaller than average? What if the person wearing it claims it feels uncomfortable, or painful, or if they have a latex allergy? What if you don’t put it on correctly, can you take it off, put it back on, and still use it?

The fact that in-depth discussions about the workings of sex are often extremely hard to come by makes it very difficult for many people to find their way sexually. Sex is hyped up as this great activity, but society’s instruction manual for it is incredibly shoddy. And since condoms are on the front lines of safer sexual activity, it’s of great importance to talk about them, in a thorough and complete manner that goes far beyond “put one on.”

Not always so simple

In spite of the “put it on, ejaculate, take it off” narrative that predominates around condom use, I would venture that often, the sequence of events goes more like this: “get aroused making out, realize you might have penetrative sex, stop suddenly, jump up and get a condom, frantically rip it open, find the correct way to slide it down the penis, then unroll it and make sure it’s secure and comfortable.”

We haven’t even started penetration yet. Next steps:

“Get back into the mood. Clumsily choose a position to start this process. Begin penetration, but entry is too tight / penis is not erect enough, lube / masturbation needed to make this work! Pull out, apply lube, take a moment to get right, try again [perhaps in a different position]. Repeat as necessary until satisfactory results are achieved (how long should that be?), then hold the condom while pulling out, take it off the penis, tie it up and throw it away.”

This isn’t even all of the issues that can come up during sex with a condom. It’s only some of them. For one thing, the penis, vagina, and anus are all dynamic organs of the body. They change during sex – their shape changes, their viscosity (slipperiness) changes, their directional orientation changes; this also can affect condom use a great deal. It’s the difference, often, between whether the condom feels good or not, as well as how likely it is to stay on, slip off, or break during use.

Then there are the different kinds of condoms. Lubed, unlubed, ribbed, studded, latex, polyurethane, polyisoprene, lambskin, spermicide-coated, flavored, thinner, bigger, snugger, oblong-shaped, spiral-shaped, balloon-shaped, female condoms, etc. And a ton of brands, too. What’s best for what kind of sex? Some people are allergic to latex, spermicide, or even certain kinds of lube in a very few cases. There is no consumer advocacy organization out there that I know of that does control testing of different brands and varieties of condoms.

And finally, perhaps the biggest X-factor of them all: feelings and emotions. Because when you get that close to somebody [even when it’s only physically] and reality does not live up to expectations, things can become frustrating, and even depressing. We tend to associate lots and lots of good feelings – orgasm, especially – with sex, in most societies; that’s a lot of expectation to live up to. But orgasms are not all that sex is about. The great majority of a sexual interaction takes place without orgasms, if you think about it. The feelings and emotions that come up before and after orgasms are not to be denied; they very often color our memory of a sexual experience decisively, directly influencing our perception of how much we enjoyed the sex – no matter how good or lackluster the orgasm was, or even if no orgasm happened.

These feelings and emotions are very important in relation to condoms in spite of the way condoms are often thought of as nothing more than an annoyingly necessary prop in a sexual interaction. Sex educators often try to teach people to incorporate the condom fully into sex, rather than thinking about it as something separate from sex that you are forced to use in order to be safer. A society that is unable to discuss the nuts and bolts of using a condom, however, is not very well-equipped to integrate condom use smoothly into sex.

Safety – and not just against STDs and pregnancy

Condom use is about medical safety, that’s for sure. But it’s also about feeling safe generally. When one of the participants in a sexual interaction wants to use a condom, they will generally feel a lot safer if the other person either agrees right away or has some condoms of their own to be used. There is a sense of safety involved in being with somebody who does not put up resistance to the use of condoms – you know that their mind is in the right place.

When somebody does have thoughts about not using condoms, however, discomfort can often come up; the person wanting to use condoms can feel as though they are “imposing” their safety threshold on the other person, or “taking away their fun,” while the one who wants to go bareback might feel annoyed or inconvenienced by the request to use a condom. These uneasy, often ugly feelings when the issue of condom use comes up very often lead to negative associations in general with condom use. The subconscious thinking is, “bringing up condom use = awkward mood-ruining moment,” and it can influence otherwise careful people to often do some very careless things sexually.

Trust issues

In addition to safety concerns, trust issues can come up: some people who don’t like using condoms can view using them as a sign of lack of trust, as though the person insisting on condoms “doesn’t trust them.” The thing that these people need to understand is that very often, a person can have one of any number of STDs without actually having any symptoms; herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2, or “genital herpes”) is often asymptomatic – so much so that a large number of people don’t even know they have it –  but it can still be dangerous / difficult for certain people, especially those with weaker immune systems. Most strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) have no symptoms most of the time; a few can cause warts to grow on the genitals, while a few others increase the risk of developing cervical cancer – but these viruses are otherwise silent, and there is no consistent way to test biological males for HPV. We know that HIV, of course, is often a very silent predator for years and years. Even the curable bacterial infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can infect a person without symptoms for years on end, which can silently lead to chronic inflammation and infertility down the road.

And then there are some people who just don’t want to run any risk at all of getting [somebody] pregnant. Even hormonal or implant-type birth control is not completely infallible, especially if it involves taking a pill every day. It’s important that our feelings about these things be discussed, rather than lying hidden until they suddenly push through unexpectedly and uncontrollably.

Whether or not to wear a condom is not a matter of trusting the other participant anymore than wearing a seatbelt as a passenger in a car shows lack of trust in the driver. It’s a good safety measure, pure and simple, in situations where not all the variables can be fully known. In my opinion, trust should work the other way around; those who do have these conversations and bring condoms with them [even when sex is very possibly not going to take place] and insist on using them – these people are most deserving of trust, because they are paying attention, and are thus better-equipped to consistently take responsibility.

Get to know yourself

Like any other part of sex, one of the best things you can do in order to combat fear and nervousness around condoms is to explore with them. Buy different varieties, and take some time to observe how they feel. This is particularly important for those who need to put the condom on; if you think using condoms is going to give you some issues, try putting one on when you are not about to have sex with someone else. When you are masturbating, for example – that is a wonderful time to put on a condom and figure out what sensations you feel and how you feel them through a condom, in addition to how different condoms transmit those sensations. Things will of course feel different, but if you have the time and the headspace to just freely explore, you can get in touch with the ways in which pleasurable feelings can be felt with a condom on. If you are uncircumcised and have a longer foreskin, especially, when you are alone is a good time to figure out what the best method is for getting the condom on over the foreskin without taking away too much sensation. And if sensation is an issue, you may want to think about looking at different methods of stimulation. Sometimes, the emphasis might be different; instead of direct friction on the penis, for example, you might find that more of a pushing, tugging motion works – kind of like “forcing a joystick” a little bit, so to speak. There are many other variables, also. Fooling around in masturbation can lead to some really interesting discoveries.

Condom dynamics

One thing that is not nearly as well known about as it should be, in my opinion, is how the dynamics of friction change on a condom-covered penis as the sexual encounter moves along. The condom does not feel the same from beginning to end, my friends; there is a lot of variability in the sensation based on a number of variables:

  • How lubricated the inside of the condom is (the inner surface that is in contact with the penis). This includes sweat and secretions from the penis itself, which builds up on the inside over time. A condom that feels really stuck on the penis at the beginning of an encounter can often gradually accumulate fluid over the course of its use and turn into a wash after a while – at which point the sensation may not be as strong, and it may be time to put on a different condom. Many condom users also complain of condoms feeling too tight, in which case adding a bit of extra lube on the penis before applying the condom may be in order. However it works, this internal “lube factor” is central to the way a penetrative encounter feels for the person wearing the condom.
  • How much slack is available at the tip of the condom, which affects how much room the penis head has to slide around inside the condom; with increasing internal lubrication often comes an increase in the amount of slack. This obviously also affects how likely the condom is to fall off, in addition to the sensation felt.
  • The size and shape of the condom. Certain shapes transmit certain sensations better than others. One condom shape, the “balloon” style, has become more popular, because it offers more room for the penis head at the top to feel sensation while not sacrificing a nice, snug grip at the base of the penis. The condom can stay on without feeling like it’s choking the penis head (but of course this is not necessarily an optimal shape for all penises).

There are also different variables involved for the vagina or anus (or mouth) into which the penis shall be inserted. Everything from the type and quantity of lube on the condom to the condom’s thickness and texture can provide for quite different sensations. Often, having an extra non-oil-based lubricant handy works wonders for penetrative acts; lubricated condoms generally come packaged with juuuust enough lube to keep them from drying out and becoming brittle. Adding more is often a good idea.

The role of different emotional states, and how that can actually affect things physically

I think on some level, all of us know that our physical abilities and output can vary depending on our mood and overall state of being. What we often don’t realize, when it comes to sex, is that the variation can be quite broad; the thing is, when you are up that close to someone, interacting with them in that intimate of a manner, you will notice and be affected by a multitude of things that you might never have considered had you not been so close to them. This is why very often, sexual encounters even between the same two people can vary tremendously; one night, there may be no issues, while on another night, something comes up that was unforseen, without any obvious explanation.

And so, in that spirit, I’d like to offer a simple but rather key tip: if you think you may use a condom – bring along four or more of them. Because, aside from all the good reasons to carry more than one condom – multiple penetrative acts at different times, defective condoms, breakage, slippage, desire to take a break from penetration even just to go to the bathroom (no, do not put back on a condom you’ve already used), and so on – having, say, five condoms available to use can actually help the situation mentally and emotionally. After all, with one condom, if something doesn’t happen right, you’ve “blown it.” Having multiple condoms avoids this pressure; you are free to mess up, it’s ok if it doesn’t work right the first time, cause you’ve got backup. You can relax and do what you want to do, rather than what circumstances force you to do.

Extra points for having more than one type of condom, especially non-latex, if you think you may have a new partner. Different condoms have different effects in different situations – the more prepared you are, the better. And then there are female condoms. They are more expensive and it’s a whole different process to put them in and get used to them, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try them out if they could work for you. They are not made of latex, so they can be used in situations in which there are latex-allergy concerns.

And another thing, going along with why it’s good to carry more than one condom: you can put a condom beside the bed / underneath a pillow – and even rip open the wrapper – long before you get to “about to penetrate” territory. What this does is it prepares things beforehand – so that if or when the moment arrives, all you have to do is reach for it and put it on. Minimal mood disturbance. And much easier to do if you have many condoms, because you won’t feel as pressured to always have to use the condom in case you don’t do penetration, either – even if you already did rip it open (you are not supposed to use a condom that has been open for days, no – but if you have many condoms, sacrificing one for the sake of comfort all around isn’t so bad).

Sometimes, the condom has greater safety roles than just that of physical barrier; having condoms handy can serve as a good assurance – or insurance – that if it is necessary, you are doing what it takes. And guess what? Sex is often a lot more enjoyable just knowing that you’ve got your bases covered.

Beyond sex education; the greater lessons of condom use

This blog is not a sex-ed blog (although occasionally, like right now, it feels an awful lot like one). Google is your friend for getting deeper into the mechanics of these things. I wrote about this subject because I see it as one example of how critical things that we really need to be talking more about are not getting the attention they should. The simple act of using a condom is not always so simple, and we need to talk about that more if we want less resistance to condom use.

Some folks who read this may not be having lots of condom-mediated sex. That’s fine. This article is more aimed at folks for whom sex is an attractive draw in terms of getting into deeper topics around intimacy and safety and fulfillment. Because even what looks like a rather non-sacred act like throwing a piece of rubber on a penis still has a ton of intimate implications – especially given that this piece of rubber’s main goal is one of mutual safety. I find that incredibly important to talk thoroughly about! Most of all because the intimacy involved is generally very not talked about, and these little intimate variables are often what make the difference between a good time and a not-so-good time, eagerness to play safer and rejection of safer play, and so on.

Remember, everybody is different! What may work for one person may not for another. The only way to figure this out is to explore and experiment – go forth and try out different things, with an open mind. If you don’t feel good doing things one way, you haven’t failed – you’re succeeding. You’re learning – and that is that whole point. The more you get to know yourself, the more you will figure out what you like and the more second-nature certain adjustments will be. That’s the object of this process – to get to the point where condoms are not a hindrance because they are a part of the process – just like putting on clothes is not a hindrance to getting on with your day even though it may take a bit of time.

Further reading: Safer sex in practice: 15 risk factors that are not given enough attention.

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5 Responses to The nitty-gritty of using condoms: a conversation we don’t have nearly often enough

  1. beautiful mindset, i wish everyone felt this way

  2. Brilliant post, I think it is very rare that people venture beyond the typical ‘put on, ejaculate, off’. Personally, I have only tried using condoms once (http://overthinkingmind.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/review-flavoured-condoms/) and thought it was one of the most horrific experiences I have ever had to go through. I guess the fact that his penis was green in it didn’t really help things though…
    Anyway, I think that the point you make about trust is a really important one, people can have a variety of STI’s and not know about it, the key is to have that awkward conversation when you feel you’ve been seeing someone long enough to be monogamous and say that you will both go to the clinic and get tested.
    Again, great post :D

    • Yeah … there’s got to be a lot more talking about this stuff! I read your flavored condoms experience and left a pretty thorough comment :-)

      Trust … yes. Big one. In monogamous and non-monogamous situations, also. Hopefully with time these conversations will not be so awkward!

      • overthinkingmind says:

        Haha I know and thanks for that! You’re right, speaking is only going to help the issue! Yes, I think trust is important and as you say, even in non monogamous relationships as essentially these are more complicated so trust is hugely important!

  3. Thank u for this nice information about condom usage Keep it up

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