The real meaning of “safer sex”

One of the big problems with common use of the term “safer sex”  is that it is often used solely in the context of preventing STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), and/or pregnancy. Sex does not have to involve STDs or pregnancy in order to be unsafe; even if it is only for five minutes or less, sex can be a very bad experience if the context is forced or unwanted in some way. Such bad experiences – which include rape, but are definitely not limited to just rape – definitely qualify as unsafe sex. If we used a broader definition of safety in sex – one that includes emotional and physical safety, in addition to medical safety – it would be much easier to convince more people to have sex more safely. You may not be able to see or feel anything strange in the exact moment that a bacteria or virus infects you – however, very often you can perceive in that moment many other things that don’t feel right, and take steps to avert something you will regret later.

The vulnerability involved in a sexual act frequently makes the question of having sex a very loaded one, especially for people who are used to hiding their vulnerability (a common theme in modern societies). We often talk about sex as this sacred and incredibly pleasurable activity, and yet we put all kinds of obstacles to it, including

  • Rules about covering up sexual parts of the body;
  • Language that avoids talking about sex directly by pretending to be ambiguous (e.g., “sleeping with” or “hooking up with” somebody, for example);
  • Traditions and belief systems that deeply restrict what kind of sex is permissible;
  • Innuendos that shame people (especially women) for being openly sexual;
  • Taboos about talking to children about sex;
  • Laws governing sexual conduct in public and on television;
  • A very strong, persistent cultural bias towards monogamy;
  • An even stronger cultural bias against sex with a member of one’s family, even when both participants are mature, consenting, and of the same age.

However justified or unjustified you may believe the practices listed above to be, they continue to exist due to the fears people have of what can happen when sex is misused or abused. When entering a sexual situation, the stakes can often be very high – particularly when the participants haven’t been sexual with each other before and the encounter does not take place according to established norms. And indeed, though it may not always be quite as fashionable to mention as the good times, a bad sexual experience can still feel disgusting, menacing, or unsafe, even when we leave out STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and the horrors of sexual abuse and rape.

In this light, being safe takes on a whole different scope. It’s quite common to hear about a sexual encounter taking place that really should not have gone forward, but did anyway – even when it does not involve STDs or lack of consent. Maybe one of the participants isn’t truly ready, even when consent is given. Maybe one of the participants wants the sex much more than the other, which can cause a situation of passive coercion to develop – especially problematic when the two participants already had some other kind of existing non-sexual relationship prior to having sex. And then, even once an initially consensual form of sexual activity has started, there can be disagreements over how it develops (which acts are performed, what protection is used when, etc.).

Are sexual duress and rape the same thing?

Now, some people might say, “is plain old regrettable, bad sex really a question of safety? Aren’t you going a bit far grouping unease and discomfort during sexual activity together with things like STDs and rape, which can truly affect or threaten a person’s health?” But this is precisely where the problem starts: by not recognizing that sexual comfort is a safety issue, we establish a pattern of tolerance for sexual coercion, as long as the coercion isn’t too bad – which ends up leaving the door open to greater sexual violence. After all, debates continuously rage about what the line is between simply bad sex under pressure, sexual assault, and full-out rape – and the reality is, there is no solid black line denoting where one ends and another begins (kinda scary, isn’t it?). A subject such as safer sex must touch on notions of comfort, as well as consent and protection, if we want it to really live up to its meaning – and this safety applies just as much to a potential [sometimes accidental] sexual aggressor as it does to the victim.

I’m not saying that a little discomfort equals rape. I am saying, however, that the two are often very closely connected – lack of regard for another’s well-being during sex is well on its way down the slippery slope toward rape. All the statistics talk about how the majority of rapes are committed by somebody the victim knows, rather than a stranger. Rape of this sort, in which there is already some kind of openness on the victim’s part toward the aggressor due to their established relationship, can very often be rationalized in the aggressor’s mind to be permissible precisely because our social values around sexual safety are so inadequate – especially where there is an already-established power dynamic outside of the sexual realm in which the aggressor is wielding coercive power over the victim.

“It isn’t rape if s/he goes along with it” is then cooked up in the aggressor’s mind as an excuse to not pay attention to less-talked-about safety issues, and those who have indeed been raped but did not vigorously resist it (which is very common, actually) then are stuck feeling as though somehow it was their fault. They let it happen without putting up fierce resistance – and so how can you call it rape if the rapist did not “face a fight” over the sexual act? Well, if you didn’t want it, it doesn’t make a difference how clearly or not the rapist knew s/he was committing a rape. The result is the same. A proper attitude on this issue would not start off trying to nitpick about what kind of unwanted sexual activity does and does not constitute rape. Rather, we need to start from the point of view that unwanted sexual activity is unacceptable – point blank – and treat claims of rape with the same seriousness as we would treat a claim of robbery, physical assault, or any other violent act.

There are people who fight against expanding consciousness about rape because they don’t have a concept of partner’s responsibility to actively ensure that rape doesn’t happen to someone else besides themself. The thinking is “normal sex is not rape; rape is the extreme exception, so unless the person I’m having sex with acts in an extremely exceptional manner, it can’t be rape.” We need to shift the responsibility from being only on the potential victim to stop rape from happening, such that the person initiating sexual contact knows they also have just as much of a responsibility to make sure the activity is consensual. The trouble is that a fair number of people who initiate sex don’t even think this responsibility exists for them, let alone knowing how to take such responsibility. That shit’s gotta change.

A society that loves sensationalizing sex and displaying it liberally, which at the same time has basically no idea about how to have full conversations about safety and sexual comfort – this is the vacuum that allows sexual violence to get a foothold. How do we expect people to have sex safely when we don’t match all the juicy hype with equally substantial education on the subject? It’s like giving a young teenager a loaded rifle with only a few simple instructions to be careful and remember to use the safety mechanism, but no real training in comprehensive gun safety and proper usage. Very dangerous indeed. Yeah, our notion of sexual dialogue really needs to level up, big time. It’s serious.

So… let’s move on.

Why do we get into unwelcome sexual situations?

Part of the reason hidden pressures and discomforts can creep into the sexual encounter has to do with the implicit association made between sex and the primal animal instinct, and the conflict between this instinct and our more stable, rational desires. The way in which pleasurable physical activity taps into the “immediate response” parts of our brain often gets us in situations where, rather than thinking before we act, we just act. Or, even though we are still thinking, we go forward anyway and act before our mind is clear, because the situation pushes us toward a fight-or-flight response, rather than a well-thought-out response. Much of the regret a person can experience in the aftermath of such a situation has to do with how a poor choice is often made in an instinctive blink of an eye, and the unpleasant consequences that can follow.

Instinctive primal activity unregulated by thought is not always a bad thing (heck, when you’re having a good time, instinctive actions are awesome!). Nevertheless, in a modern social context that expects planning, we create a framework and set key limits to these episodes of primal activity. For example, instead of beating somebody up, one might be encouraged to take their aggression out playing sports, with pre-established rules that ensure safety and continuity for all participants. Some sports are more regulated than others; it’s the same thing for sex. The problem occurs when people overvalue the sudden, hot, primal aspects of sex while undervaluing the need for a secure, constructive framework for the fun to safely take place. And it’s no wonder we often get it wrong: this misplacement of attention to the fast, immediate, and primal instead of safety and comfort happens all the time in movies, TV, and advertising.

A central theme in kink / BDSM is that certain rules and guidelines must openly be agreed upon particularly between people that have never before engaged in BDSM together. The power exchanges inherent in BDSM “work” precisely because consent is made crystal clear beforehand – and withdrawal of consent is also clear and straightforward, a “safe word” being agreed upon that completely stops the scene when used by the submissive participant (more on how kink / BDSM works here). Although regular “vanilla” sex is generally quite different from BDSM, there’s no reason why one cannot pay the same kind of special attention to safety when it comes to sex as one would with even edgier activity.

An all-inclusive perspective on safety

Protecting for STDs and protecting against other possible dangers go hand in hand – they are not separate issues. Think about it: what is the biggest, most overarching reason why it’s so difficult sometimes to get one’s sexual needs met? Because we’re afraid – afraid of all of these potentially bad outcomes and consequences that could take place if we “open Pandora’s box” – whether it’s STDs, pregnancy, loss of emotional control, unpleasant pressures, violation of one’s boundaries, angering friends/relatives, whatever. The common denominator is fear. Well you know what? From now on, when we talk safety in sex, let’s address all the fears people have, and not just some of them. I’m pretty darn sure that if people were less afraid, we’d all [have the opportunity to] get laid better and more often 🙂

Ways to be smarter – and thus safer – about sex

  • Take your time. Don’t rush things. And if things are feeling rushed anyway? Slow them down. There’s nothing wrong with applying the brakes to a situation in which libidos start leaving heads behind. Or saying “see ya later” if you continue to feel uncomfortable.
  • Listen to yourself, your thoughts, your desires. Now that you’ve given yourself some time, what is it you really want? Both men and women quite often go and have sex when really they are in search of something else. Sex is powerful, but it’s not the only thing out there, and usually it’s far from the most important thing, also. What else are you looking for?
  • Listen to your [potential] sexual partner. Listen for the things that make them comfortable as well as uncomfortable. Listen for sexual attitudes and assumptions that you don’t agree with, and get clear on them before going further. Listen for context – where is this person at right now that they would have sex with you?
  • Ask questions. If the other person somehow makes you feel afraid to ask them questions, they’re probably not the safest kind of person to be having sex with in the first place.
  • Remember, and remind your partners, that at the end of the day, safety really is sexy – because once you know you’re being comfortably safe, then you can let go and enjoy the fun without having to worry so much about these issues.
  • Finally, check out this list of important safer-sex tips that are not very much talked about. A few recommendations on how to make safer sex even safer.
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6 Responses to The real meaning of “safer sex”

  1. Pingback: Safer sex in practice: 15 risk factors that are not given enough attention « Positive Juice

  2. Pingback: Seeing deeper « Positive Juice

  3. nickispies says:

    Brilliant post! Thank you Positive Juice. As a narrative practitioner and gender specialist who often work with sexual abuse, this article is very relevant. Thank you for your profound insight! Please see some of my articles on sexuality:

    • Thanks for stopping by. I read your article, and I think you are on to something: men indeed are not vulnerabilized like women are, and this leads to a whole slew of other problems. I’ve got some personal things to say about that here.

  4. Pingback: Why men are the sexual hunters and women are considered “keepers of sex” – and what can be done to address this imbalance « Positive Juice


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