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Safe Sex In The Time of Abundance

The first time I went to a gynaecologist about a sexual injury, I came away with the feeling that I was disproportionately paranoid about what was supposedly a fairly benign ailment – a miniscule tear somewhere along my vagina. When it was time for the diagnosis, I scanned the doctor’s face urgently as she reclined on a mesh-covered office chair across the table and swivelled slightly away from me. She looked up now and then from scrolling down Facebook on her phone, as she pronounced her opinion. Her nonchalance contradicted and quelled my paranoia a fair bit. She finished with an admonition to be ‘careful’ while having sex and punctuated this with a stern glance before going back to Facebook. A tiny, subconscious shake of the head escaped her before I thanked her and left the room.

I was quiet on the ride back home (with a quick stop at the pharmacist), deflecting my concerned best friend’s queries with laconic answers. I was trying to think of all the ways in which I might not have been ‘careful’. It had actually been my first time having penetrative sex, and I had very little of a standard to compare it to. I was not drunk at the time, so I had a fairly clear memory of everything. I really couldn’t think of anything ‘rough’ or unusual about the intercourse. My partner was a nice enough man, gentle. I did experience some discomfort, though, but I had dismissed it as being a consequence of being inexperienced.

See, it all looked perfectly normal, even in my memory. Only, it did hurt. And there was more than necessary friction. And I didn’t reach orgasm. And I had a tear inside my vagina now. And I had no way of breaking down the totally ‘normal’ sex I had to the moments of injury, enough to ensure that it would not be repeated. And any pleasure I had experienced was nowhere close to the intensity I had felt during non-penetrative sex with previous partners. This last thing, moreover, had to do, as I realised much later, with notions of safety that go beyond a narrow definition limited to medical concerns.

The majority of urban youth know what ‘sex’ looks like before they’re fifteen. Most of us form indelible associations of the word with certain images of penetrative, heteronormative sex fairly early in our lives. These associations are also, to varying degrees, defined by frameworks like obscenity, taboo, guilt, illicitness, and skulk about far, far away from concepts like safety, respect, care or even birth control. And all of this has occurred much before we actually engage in sex. ‘Passion’ looks like impromptu, rough sex on totally impractical, unhygienic surfaces (sans condom, of course). Lube is little more than a chemical concoction that hides behind expensive cigarette brands in the supermarket shelves, solely for equally invisible queer folk to find.

A friend recently confessed to me that her first boyfriend had never used a condom through the entire duration of their year-long dalliance. He had, instead, used words like trust, and self-control, the latter referring to himself, and the former something that she was consequently expected to give him the unconditional benefit of. We both agreed that it was something of a miracle that her trusty body still somehow managed to bleed every month without fail despite the danger she was in. I suppose I shouldn’t be so shocked when porn routinely features sex without condoms, essentially manufacturing the illusion that this is the way it is. ‘Safety’ as a medical or legal framework, the way we most commonly encounter it, cannot even begin to address the ‘danger’ I am referring to here.

Suppose you, like me, were lucky enough to associate sex with pleasure early on in life, how much thought did you spare to what physical pleasure feels like? It feels like sex, according to the mainstream media. Yes, I know. Remember all the times you faked it? Or, if you’d rather not, remember the last time you thought someone in a porno was faking it? What alerted you? Too much squiggling? Too loud? Disproportionate enthusiasm? Let’s focus on the particular moment of disconnection, between the actual pleasure and the faking of it – the idea that sex can look good, even when it’s not. You’re seeing the actor do the right things, make the right sounds, say the right things. And yet there is this sense that it does not translate into their physiology or psychology. And this idea that sex can look like sex, even when it is not, if we’re going by any definition that at all connects it to pleasure. Think of the very real ramifications this has outside the fantasy world of porn.

And yet this is the concept of sex that we are taking into our own bedrooms. When we have sex, it is these images that we act out, with the goal of pleasure and release vaguely hanging in the air somewhere, outside the realm of the corporeal itself. We encounter this disconnect when what we do in the name of sex just doesn’t get us there. This is not to say that we are automatons going through the motions. I will be the first to zealously fight any attempt to strip personal agency away from a sexually active individual; no, what I’m saying is that we ought to be taking frameworks of sexual regulation more seriously. Especially in this particular moment in history, when attitudes to sex have come a long way from suppressive paradigms, when sex is (finally) starting to look sexy, and often claims to be free from the repressive structures that be.

We inhabit a world in which sex, especially the casual kind, is almost inextricably mired in an economy in which ‘getting some’ is a priority that finds a spot fairly low on the Maslow Hierarchy, alongside uncomplicated needs like food and water. In her song “Do You Wanna Come Over”, Britney Spears, arguably the prototype of the sexually liberated millennial, sings, “Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be”, perfectly capturing the optimism of the modern sex economy. This is a space in which desire comes first and sex is an antidote, a quasi fantasia in which one’s desire is seemingly reducible to a potential partner’s height or the curvature of someone’s rear, and the acquisition of it is but a matter of means.

I want it, I got it. Right? Except, what I often get is some approximation of erotic pleasure, which has more to do with my own conditioning about what good sex looks like, and little to do with my body’s erotic mechanisms. This very peculiar condition is often lumped under ‘sexual frustration’, when it should really be addressed under safety. With all the talk about ‘safe spaces’, isn’t it incredible that our own bedrooms often fail to house this concept? We have literally learned to have sex a certain way, and this template has obscured the truth of our own eroticism, caused us to sabotage our own attempts at discovering the wonderful mechanical intricacies of our bodies. All too often, what we do in the name of sex is to uncritically reinforce and re-propagate the definitions of sex learned from representations that were created to serve unequal power structures, representations of sex that are not about sex at all. We are currently facing a stunning lack of vocabulary with which to talk about the micro-aggressions perpetrated against our own bodies in our own bedrooms. The failure of medical and legal frameworks puts the burden on the individual to take responsibility for the violence experienced.

My confusion about the injury that took me to the gynae came out of a very specific association with guilt. Guilt over not taking care of myself, among other things. Guilt that was exacerbated by the fact that penetrative sex wasn’t exactly the wonderfully enjoyable escapade that I was primed to expect. You see, what I was really asking myself was – was it all really worth it?

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Faustina Johnson is a freelance writer and editor interested in philosophy, porn, religion, and language. When she is not working, she is cooking elaborate meals and gardening.

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