Author’s Preface: I see each post in this series as one section of a single piece of writing, not as a discrete essay unto itself. As a result, while each section may contain its own argument, it is not really possible to know whether an issue that you feel is important will or will not be left out of the argument made by the entire piece if you’ve only read a part of the series. I certainly do not mean this caveat to be, in any way, an inoculation against critique, but given the modular nature of posting to blogs and of how blogs are read, it is a caveat I’d like you to keep in mind if you find yourself wondering, and commenting on, why I have not addressed something you feel needs to be addressed. Thanks.
To protect the privacy of the individuals involved, some names have been changed and some identifying details have been fictionalized.
Recent events in my life have started me thinking deeply, for the first time in many years, about condoms and what it means to use them. Not that I have failed to take condoms seriously. I have worn them when I needed to, refused to have intercourse when they were not available, and I have a ten-year-old son who knows what condoms are and why, all else being equal, everyone who has sex should use them. I am, though, also old enough to remember (and boy does it feel strange to use that expression) when safe sex was pretty much exclusively about birth control. I might have learned that using condoms would help keep me from catching or transmitting gonorrhea or syphilis, the only two STDs I knew about at the time, but I’m not sure. Instead, the focus in my sexual education when I reached puberty was on the need for a young couple planning to have non-procreational sex to do everything they could to prevent the woman from becoming pregnant, and that meant, for men, being willing to wear a condom unless the woman was on the pill, using a diaphragm or had an IUD.
It did not occur to me that there might be more to pre-AIDS male heterosexual responsibility than simply keeping a barrier between my semen and the body of the woman in whom I would otherwise have left it until I was having sex regularly with a woman I thought I was falling in love with–we were each in our early 20s and using only condoms–and I realized I did not know what she would do, or even what she thought she would do, if she became pregnant. Condoms, after all, do fail. I was as certain as I could be that I did not want to become a father, but I was also certain that the ultimate choice of what to do if she did become pregnant was hers. So, if a condom did fail, it suddenly occurred to me, and she decided not to have an abortion, I would be a father whether I wanted to or not. I knew I’d do my best to live up to the responsibilities that fatherhood would bring with it, but I did not think my relationship with that woman would survive. Not only would I have resented her for having made the decision that made me a father, but I did not yet know if the love I was beginning to feel for her was, as they say, a love that would last, and having to be parents to a child–forget whether or not we would have, or could have, gotten married–was not the circumstance under which I wanted to find out.
I will not retell here the story of what happened when I tried to talk to my girlfriend about my concerns, except to say that I was completely unprepared for her to tell me she had no idea what she would do if she got pregnant. It wasn’t that I expected her to know with 100% certainty what action she would take, or that I was looking for some kind of contractual agreement that would insulate me if she at first said she would have an abortion and then changed her mind; nor was I thinking that the only answer acceptable to me was the one I hoped she would give, i.e., that she would have an abortion. What I wanted, first and foremost, was that we should talk, openly and honestly, and then, once each of us knew where the other stood, we could make a decision about what we should do in response. It had never entered my mind, though, that the person who would be pregnant if pregnancy happened would even think about starting to have sex without some sense of what she would do.
Given that my girlfriend had not thought about this, or at the very least was unwilling to tell me what she thought about this, I did not see how we could continue having sex, or, to be more precise, how I could continue having sex, knowing first that our fucking put me at risk of becoming an unwilling father and, second, that if I did become an unwilling father, it would probably mean the end of our relationship. I’d been very happy with the sex we were having before we started fucking; I assumed my girlfriend felt the same way; and I saw nothing wrong with rolling things back to our pre-intercourse days until we were able to talk about this. I wanted to be with her, plain and simple, and that desire far outweighed for me the pleasures of putting my latex-covered penis in her vagina. So, more or less–at my insistence, not hers–we stopped fucking.
That “more or less,” of course, is important. Sometimes I was the one who initiated the sex we had, and sometimes she was; and I honestly don’t remember how many times “sometimes” actually means, but I am sure it was not a lot, at least not relative to how often we’d been fucking before we had this conversation. I also remember nothing of what we said to each other after these instances of “falling off the wagon,” though I am pretty sure that neither of us reproached the other. I do remember, though, that after each of those times I would tell myself it was the last one, and that I was disappointed in myself when that proved not to be the case.
Eventually–I don’t remember how much time passed exactly–my girlfriend told me she’d decided that if she got pregnant she would have an abortion, and we started having intercourse regularly again. Years later, however, in the fourth or fifth year of our relationship, in one of those let’s-talk-about-our-history-together conversations, she told me that she’d lied to me, that she’d always known she would not have an abortion if she got pregnant, and that she’d thought my plan had been to withhold intercourse as a way of pressuring her into having sex with no strings attached. She’d only said she would have an abortion, she explained, because she’d been convinced I was going to leave her if she did not eventually give me what she thought I wanted. She then went on to tell me that she’d realized a while back that she’d been wrong, that I had in fact been sincere in everything I told her, even if I had not always practiced what I’d been preaching. Indeed, given my behavior (I was not then, and I am not now, particularly proud of the “more or less” at the end of the paragraph before last) it’s hard to blame her for thinking the way she did. It didn’t, and doesn’t matter that I was not the only one who initiated the fucking we did when we were supposed to be abstaining. Every time I allowed it to happen, I was acting like the manipulative hypocrite she initially thought I was.
My girlfriend was right about one thing, though. I really wanted to mean what I said when I told her that it was more important to me not to put our relationship unnecessarily at risk than it was for me to have intercourse with her, and I really wanted to mean it when I said that stepping back from the fucking we were doing would not diminish either the pleasure or the meaningfulness of the sex we had. I was not a man who saw fucking as a way of accumulating notches on my belt; I did not, or at least I thought I did not, feel the connection between fucking and manhood that so many of my friends seemed to feel, whether they were out getting laid as often as they could or involved in a serious relationship. Sex, I thought I believed, was simply sex, a way of touching, of giving and taking pleasure in my own body and the body of my lover; and while genital fucking might be one aspect of that pleasure, it certainly wasn’t the only, or even the main way in which that pleasure could be shared. This, at least, was what I wanted my perspective on sex to be. Yet it very clearly was not, for I had been perfectly willing to put at risk a relationship I thought might develop into a real future so that I could fuck the woman I was in that relationship with. It didn’t matter who initiated it or that it was always consensual. It didn’t matter that when we did fuck it was a very rare exception to the rule of abstinence I had wanted us to follow; and , perhaps most important, in these terms, it didn’t matter that I wore a condom each and every time we did it.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.