Last summer, I met an elementary-school teacher at an insufferable Upper East Side bar. Within moments of registering his Montenegrin accent, I decided I wanted to have sex with him. Cut to the next scene: We're fooling around on his bed—actually, the pull-out couch at his brother's place. (We were both going through things.)
I asked if he had a condom, and he shrugged, saying he didn't.
"Dope, we're not going to have sex then," I said, rummaging around for my phone. He asked me if I was on birth control, and I said, "Um, yes, but I don't know your penis." He spent five minutes insisting he was "clean," which is also a word that is often used to stigmatize people with STIs. When he finally realized I meant what I said, because it's never enough for a woman to say something once, he said, "Actually, I do have a condom. I'll go get it."
That's right—this man tried to TRICK ME, which I found so despicable I aborted the hook-up. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Although wearing a condom benefits both partners, I find I must always act the vigilante. Obviously, condom-free sex feels better, but at what cost? The answer is "a lot of cost." Condoms work as barriers to protect you from infections transmitted via vaginal fluid, semen, and pre-cum, plus a lot of the skin-to-skin ones. The pull-out method offers zero protection from the STIs you can get from pre-ejaculation fluids. Getting an STI is by no means the end of the world, but it's not fun.
I think many people know this. Nevertheless, a recent study on unprotected sex conducted by the British pharmacy chain Superdrug had some sobering results: Of the 1000 Americans surveyed, 65.5 percent said they had unprotected sex—and 29.1 percent of those people said they had unprotected sex every single time. (Somewhat surprisingly, women responded this way significantly more than men.) But here's what shocked me more: A survey of 2000 people found that 68.4 percent never ask their partners if they've been tested before sleeping with them. Of course, you never know if someone's going to answer honestly. But should you be sleeping with someone you don't feel comfortable asking even the most vaguely awkward question?
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A guy friend who admits to having had condom-less casual sex recently tried to explain the phenomenon of bypassing these conversations.
"As you can tell from me and probably other dudes, drinking alcohol makes it super hard to come; throw in a condom, and it's borderline impossible if you drank enough," he said. "In my youth, I confess, I'd just go with the foreplay and if the girl didn't ask or say anything, I'd just be like, fuck it—never on some stealthing shit, though. It was always consensual. Some girls hate condoms, too, so it was a mutual trust in each other."
As for asking a partner whether they've been tested, many people are hesitant to pause foreplay to pose a question that feels quite personal—"does your body have diseases from fucking?"—even though it should be just as casual as the sex you're having.
Similarly, many people I spoke to said they were daunted by the idea of asking a partner to fetch one in the heat of the moment. As evidenced by my experience, some men will do anything to make you just say, "Uhhh, OK, fine." That's what upset me the most about my Montenegrin tryst—he was banking on the fact that I'd be too shy, tired, or drunk to keep insisting. Often, men will put pressure on women not to use one.
I felt that this guy didn't deserve, or wasn't worth the time, to have a conversation that deeply delved into the personal and what I felt was uncomfortable.
"I definitely understand being caught up in the heat of the moment, but I remember feeling a little skeezed out a few years back when I had a one-night stand and the guy basically pressured me into not using a condom," a friend told me. "I was drunk, but am pretty sure I asked him if he was clean in the moment, and then followed up with our mutual friend after the whole episode to make sure I didn't need to go out and get tested."
For many women, condom protocol varies based on how serious the relationship is, and a prolonged causal-sex situation can transition into regular unprotected sex, presumably once both parties are tested. But sometimes the sex goes condom-free after just a few encounters.
"When I was having casual sex, I would use it for the first two to three times with someone and then go to not using it after—like somehow by being responsible for the first few times, I got a hall pass to enjoy unprotected sex without worry," one friend told me. "Some of it was definitely not wanting to have that conversation with a guy, because I knew all these hookups were casual and wanted them that way. I felt that this guy didn't deserve, or wasn't worth the time, to have a conversation that deeply delved into the personal and what I felt was uncomfortable. I just wanted to have sex that felt good."
One friend told me she was too insecure to ask for anything when she first started having sex, so she would always just follow the guy's lead. (Usually, they did not reach for a condom.)
I would just follow their lead and do what I thought was the sexiest and coolest.
"When I first started having sex, I had really low self-confidence and basically just couldn't believe that these guys wanted to hook up with me, so I would just follow their lead and do what I thought was the sexiest and coolest," she said. "I couldn't imagine messing it up by asking them to wear a condom because then they might not think I was sexy or cool anymore. So if they wanted to I would do it and if they didn't want to, I wouldn't ask. I also wasn't really worried about it because they were always people that I knew pretty well and liked and I didn't think they could possibly be sick."
Another friend named Clare is frustrated by how few men she's slept with have initiated condom use.
"I'm shaking my head thinking about those nights when it was time for the guy to put the condom on, and he would say something along the lines of, 'Well, you're on birth control, right?'" she told me. "And I would turn into the Nick Young meme with all the question marks floating around my head. 'It's not relevant, boo, put the condom on please.'"
"Guys definitely try to push the boundary and wait for me to bring it up," another friend told me. "I've never understood why because, like, they don't know whether I'm clean. They always seem solely focused on whether I'm on birth control, as if pregnancy is the only risk." (Though the Superdrug study also found that, of the participants who said they would be "devastated" if they or their partner got pregnant, only 14.8 percent said they never had unprotected sex.)
As a sex positive, promiscuous-by-national-standards woman, I have always considered protection as essential to my health as my child-free lifestyle. A good way to start these conversations—even if you're wrapped up in the moment, or you're literally in bed with Drake—is to just fucking start them, knowing that a person who is resistant or manipulative is gross, dumb, and unworthy of the honor of boning you.
Editor's note: This article was updated to add a clarification on how the word "clean" can be used to stigmatize people with STIs.