a battle we can’t afford to lose*

*I originally posted this on May 14, 2006. At the time I was living in Montreal, I had been with a male partner for just over two years, and I’d just hooked up with a new female lover. Since then I’ve encountered many dykes and trans folks who use latex, particularly in Toronto and particularly in group sexual spaces (such as the Toronto Women and Trans Bathhouse and various private sex parties). But I’m still almost always the one to bring up the question of safer sex, and I’m still not convinced that dykes have safer sex outside the bubble of the small communities that dedicate a good chunk of their social lives to sexual exploration.

The post below is a bit of a rant. Although I didn’t write it at the time, it was in part inspired by something I read about gay men saying they’re “tired” of wearing condoms, as though it were something they could do for a little while until that pesky HIV virus disappears and then get back to happily barebacking. Hearing that made me want to tear my hair out – how many women complain of being “tired” of condoms, fer crying out loud? Pregnancy isn’t going to magically disappear anytime soon! And yet, in the conversation I had with my friend M referenced below, I sort of understood how a certain weariness can creep into the experience of safer sex. It’s not that I think unsafe sex is okay, but I do understand that the emotional cost of insisting on safer sex at all times is not always an easy one to pay.

Even in sex-positive communities, safer sex is not always a priority. A woman I know was recently diagnosed with a digestive-tract parasite that’s usually transmitted via analingus (rimming), and it turns out she’d passed it on to at least one other woman in the same manner – both of them educated, aware, sex-positive queers. Dykes do get sick from sex, folks; it’s not just the boys who need to be concerned.

On that uplifting note, I give you the following…

***

I had brunch with my friend M today. M is a wonderful, warm, witty and intelligent fag in his early forties, the kind of gay man that has a hearty appreciation for good cleavage (walking down St-Denis with him in the summer you’d think he was a frat boy) and who can talk about anything without a trace of shame.

Somehow we got onto the topic of safer sex, and it was one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had on the subject, though in a way it’s hard for me to say what I learned. I think maybe it’ll take a little while to sink in, but I’ll try to explain a bit.

Safer sex, in theory at least, has always been a complete no-brainer to me. In a sense, I think it was easier for me than for some queers because my first sexual experiences were with men, and I had a deathly fear of pregnancy, so if anyone even looked at me the wrong way without a condom, I’d have a bird. And I came of age in a time when AIDS was in the news all over the place; simply put, I have never known a world in which having sex couldn’t kill you. So as a teenager, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of unsafe sex – the thought was utterly ludicrous.

My past decisions to the contrary have only ever served to reinforce my feelings on this. At one point as a teenager, I was on the Pill and my boyfriend (of 2 1/2 years) and I stopped using condoms because we were monogamous – or so I thought. He cheated on me several times with his ex, which to me was just as good as playing non-consensual Russian roulette with me on the butt end of the gun. When I found out a year after the fact, I broke up with him. I got tested. I was clean. I got tested again and was clean again. I vowed never to have unsafe sex again, no matter how much I trusted someone, ever.

Five years later, I had a short-lived fling with someone. He told me he hated condoms, but he swore to me he got tested regularly, and showed me his test results to boot. I was still on the Pill. I went for it. It was the single stupidest frickin’ thing I have ever done in my entire life. Afterwards, I remember thinking to myself: With the ex-boyfriend, he was a dishonest schmuck and he put you at risk when you thought you were making safe choices. This time, you’ve got it laid out in front of you, and you took the risk yourself. If you catch something from this man, it is entirely, 100% your fault. You complete idiot.

I stressed out something fierce. I waited the three months you’re supposed to wait before you get tested. I got tested, the full battery. I was clean. It was a day for celebration. And that, my friends, is the last time in my life I ever had unsafe sex. Seven years ago now.

Well, sort of. It depends on how you define unsafe sex.

Aha. Here is the issue of the day.

My two experiences with unprotected penis/vagina sex happened before I ever found the queer world, before I ever slept with a woman, before I was polyamorous, before I ever started working on Gay Line, and so on and so forth. I’ve gotten an enormous amount of safer sex education over the past seven years; I am now intimately familiar with information about how to have safer sex in every conceivable gender combination, including acts that half the world probably doesn’t even know exist. I am the proud owner of big boxes of latex and nitrile gloves, condoms, a dozen or more non-porous silicone and metal sex toys, washable SM toys, four kinds of water-based lube, and about fifteen different manuals that explain every kind of sex act, what its risk levels are, how to mitigate them and how to have a good time while you’re at it. And I still get tested regularly, just in case.

And yet… and yet. I am not perfect. There is no way to reduce your risk to zero. Especially in a queer world, where sex acts are not uniform and easy to predict. Especially in a world where people haven’t done research to find out whether or not what we do is safe.

Take female ejaculate, for example. Nobody knows if it can carry HIV or other diseases. The medical profession is still debating whether or not girls actually can ejaculate at all, and half the time, the ones who think we do think it’s just piss. (Fact: Girls ejaculate, and it’s not pee. Trust me.) So if I’m with a girl and one of us is a gusher, who the fuck knows whether or not we could be transmitting stuff to one another? That shit can spray!

Not to mention that the messages we get in our safer sex education materials are really quite different. For example, most materials about safer lesbian sex (on the rare occasion that such materials come into existence at all) mention that you should use gloves for penetration and dental dams for going down on one another – but I’ve never seen safer sex educational materials aimed at heterosexuals say anything about these options, and last time I checked they had mouths and hands too. For them, it’s all condom-focused, pretty much to the exclusion of all else.

Does het sex automatically and exclusively involve the interaction of a penis and a vagina? What about oral sex? When it comes to guys, I don’t think most men out there have even heard of a dental dam, let alone would think of using one. What about the kind of technically heterosexual sex I tend to have with male partners, which often involves anything and everything but “standard” acts? If I didn’t have access to queer educational materials, it might never have occurred to me that it’d be a good idea to put a condom on my silicone cock when butt-fucking a boy and boil it afterwards to sterilize it, especially if I wanted to use the same one later on someone else.

The ways different communities internalize safer-sex messages are different as well. For example, it’s lovely that lesbian safer sex guidelines include the use of a dental dam during oral sex. Except… where the fuck can you buy a dental dam? I can name one place I know of in the entire city. One. And let’s assume you haven’t heard of this one place, but you have heard of other potentially good methods, such as cutting open a latex glove and spreading it out over your partner’s genitals. Great idea, but who the hell has a pair of scissors and a latex glove or condom handy at the moment you want to dive into some hot girl’s crotch? (What dyke carries condoms at all?) Or a piece of Saran Wrap-brand non-porous plastic wrap (whose apparent safety was proven in one study)?

I’ve taken the habit of carrying condoms and gloves with me at all times, but crikey – safer oral sex is simply out of the question unless there’s some serious planning time involved beforehand. In my world, this has mostly translated into me not performing oral sex on girls at all. My last long-term female partner and I agreed, after discussion and testing, not to use oral-sex protection with one another, but to use it with others, and it just never ended up happening – we stuck with hands and toys with our other partners.

And never mind dykes having access to a) the information and b) the supplies. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that, in Montreal at least, women do not have safer sex with one another. We just do not. It’s not part of our culture. I have never once encountered a woman who uses dental dams or gloves – except at SM play parties, which are attended by a ridiculously small proportion of this city’s dykes, and even there I’ve only seen gloves used, no dams, and my sense is that we may behave differently in this respect in public or group settings than we do in private.

And not only do women in Montreal not have safer sex with one another, we don’t even talk about safer sex. It doesn’t even come up in conversation. In my own experience, if safer sex comes up at all in conversation, it’s usually me that brings it up, and I’ve never used a frickin’ dental dam. Women who have gone down on me have never asked me if I have a dam handy, or if I minded if they used one. In fact, with women or otherwise, with perhaps two exceptions (one being my honey, bless him; one being a girl I dated a while back who had herpes and was wonderfully up-front about it), I have always been the person to bring up safer sex, period.

It doesn’t help that our realities don’t show us any particular reason to be careful. While I know there is such thing as diseases one can pass from mouth to genitals, or from genitals to open cuts on a person’s hand, or whatever, I’ve only rarely encountered dykes with STI stories to tell. I guess we just don’t see anyone suffering, so we assume there’s nothing out there to catch – but who’s to say if it’s happening and we’re just not talking about it?

I’ve often wondered if the lesbo/queer world will ever encounter its equivalent of AIDS in the gay male one, and if so, what that would look like. I think, culturally speaking, the dyke world is way, way behind the gay and even hetero worlds in terms of safer sex, and culture is damned hard to change.

For all I know there could be a genital herpes epidemic among Montreal lesbians, but nobody’s researching our safer sex practices or rates of STI transmission, because we don’t have the almighty penis, so we must therefore not have real sex at all, and if we did, oh, it’d probably be fine, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.

And the not-talking thing is hardly reserved for lesbians. Queers in general aren’t always very good about this. Over the years, various people have taken my cock into various orifices, and not a single one of them has even asked me if I’ve sterilized it, or even washed it recently. Of course, I have, but what… they could tell by looking at it? Or at me? For all they know, I could have removed it from someone else’s asshole half an hour before, wiped it with a Kleenex and tossed it right back into my bag. I’m flattered at their trust and all, but is that really what’s going on?

I think that a comment from M, at brunch today, inspired this whole line of thought, and it suddenly gave me much more sympathy for fags. He said, “Safer sex is a constant battle. First you have to fight your own internal battle -” By which I assume he meant deciding that you really need to prioritize safer sex and be consistent even though it doesn’t feel the same with latex and you really just want to feel your skin on someone’s skin.

“- Then you have to fight the battle with your partners.” By this I’m guessing he meant the challenge of talking about safer sex with someone when you’re in the throes of passion; being the one to bring up and in a sense “enforce” that thing the “authorities” tell you you’re supposed to do, when it’s a source of cultural pride for queers to be rule-breakers; having the protection with you; knowing how to use it, and use it in ways that keep the sex hot; having enough of it with you that you can have sex more than once in a night, or with more than one person, and stay consistent; dealing with people’s fears that, if you bring up safer sex, it must be because you have a disease; and so on, and so forth.

You know, all of a sudden I got it. It is a burden. It is a load to bear. Or it certainly has the potential to be.

I’m realizing it all the more lately. My honey and I have been together over two years now, and we’re pretty comfortable with our safer sex rules: condoms for penetration between the two of us, but no protection for oral sex or hand jobs unless we’ve got open wounds or something. With others, the rule is condoms anytime a cock is involved, for penetration or oral sex; gloves for more extreme forms of hand penetration (fisting) or if one of the people has an open wound of some sort; dental dams for oral sex on girls. People can go down on us without protection if they want, except if we know someone has an oral STI (herpes, etc.), in which case latex is de rigueur. All fine and good; these are rules I fully agree with and like. They’re aren’t a perfect guarantee but they’re pretty solid.

But one of my unexpected birthday presents this year was a lovely make-out session with a very hot girl, which was followed up a few days later by an exquisite all-night romp, with a repeat performance first thing the next morning. It looks like this may become a habit for the two of us in the next little while.

So it’s got me thinking. It’s really easy to avoid oral sex for a one-night stand, and thus stick within the rules. But even though she and I have just been together twice now, I’ve gotta say, the thought is on my mind for future encounters. Do I really want to figure out how to use a dam now? Do I want to have this conversation with her, when dykes don’t talk about this stuff and all I really want to think about is how incredibly hot it is to wrap our bodies around one another and fly? When we’re all covered in sweat and come, is that when I want to have to break out a square of latex to separate us? Chrissakes, I’m a dyke – one of these days it’d be nice to have girl juice on my face, y’know?! Is that too much to ask?

Well, maybe it is too much to ask. So all of a sudden today, sitting at a table with a man who’s a member of the most stigmatized minority of all when it comes to potential STI transmission, I realize that I sympathize with the fags. And in a sense, with everyone who’s ever wanted to just have sex with just their bodies, plain and simple, no barriers, nothing coming between us and our lovers at all, no heavy conversations, no thinking about potential disease and death in a moment that’s supposed to be all about life and passion and lust and intimacy.

Maybe, by now, we should all have gotten over the idea that it’ll ever be safe to get that physically close to another human being. Maybe that thought, that possibility, should be off the radar. Maybe it is too much to ask.

I, for one, am going to keep having safer sex, because I want to be around to have sex until I am so old I can’t do it anymore, and then I want to do it some more anyway. I’m not going to let a piece of latex stand in the way of that possibility – in the balance, if the latex wins the safer sex battle in my own head and I in turn win that battle with my lovers, in the end we all win the battle of staying alive long enough to fuck each other senseless for years to come. And that is one battle I refuse to lose.

But I am, most definitely, asking why the fuck it ever had to come to this in the first place.

8 Responses

  1. And, I have to add, this battle is doubly hard when you’re allergic to latex. Latex condoms are easy to come by (heh) cheap or free, lambskin condoms are animal products, which bothers a lot of people, and don’t protect against STIs to boot. Polyurethane condoms are increasingly common in drug stores, but cost 3$ per condom. Even ordering them by the gross online they’re almost 2$/condom.

    And gloves and dental dams? That’s nearly impossible. A few drug stores will carry vinyl gloves, but there’s generally only one size and they’re not very stretchy. The only place I’ve seen that sells nitrile gloves is MedStore and they dont’ sell to individuals. And I’ve yet to encounter a non-latex dental dam.

  2. Sex Geek, I feel that there´s one comment missing from this blog, which is the education (or lack of it) dykes receive about sex. I know there´s a ton of information out there for safer sex between females but given the overwhelming message that we receive from doctors and the mainstream world, that girls simply don´t have sex, and when we do it´s just a bit of cuddly-type intimacy with no risk at all (Because, of course, it´s only penises that equal sex, and therefore carry STIs.) it´s damned hard to make that decision and make it every time you have sex. I realise that we all have to take responsibility for our sexual health, but in a queer dyke culture where safer sex just isn´t done, it can be very emotionally damaging to take that responsibility upon oneself, as you suggest. After all, we all just want to get laid.

    I´m sure you´re aware of this context, but I wanted to put it out there.

  3. Jake – you might want to try Starkman’s – they’re a medical supply store that, as far as I know, is open to the public and sells to individuals. I imagine they’d have some. I’m making a trip there for scalpels and needles sometime soon, so I’ll check it out and let you know.

    Lipstickterrorist – Hawt name! :) Lack of education – thank you for making that explicit. It’s quite true, and well worth mentioning. Cuddly. Yeah. *sigh* I hear we also read poetry to one another in bed before chastely tucking ourselves in six inches apart and sleeping with our nightcaps on.

  4. I recently ended up teaching an impromptu session of safer sex education at a birthday party, after a male friend asked what one did about oral safer sex.

    I sort of looked at him in horror, and broke out the saran wrap, and another friend’s hand to illustrate. In retrospect, I can’t say I’m that surprised: if I had not fallen in with the BDSM crowd, I probably would not know about such things, either.

    And even then, I, a very bisexual girl, tend to fall on the end of skipping oral sex altogether on girls, because it is such a production.

    But sex education for heterosexuals needs some help, stat. And dental dams should be right next to the condoms.

    As for latex free stuff: In the States, Walgreen’s has recently started stocking nitrile gloves, which I love. I’ve also noticed that planned parenthood, and other health clinics now provide latex free options, if you as.

  5. Thank you SexGeek for writing this post and drawing attention to this issue. It’s good to see you talk about this because I think it will help other queer women talk about this too, and find out more about this, and use more protection. I’m definitely going to try to get some dental dams now. :)

  6. Great article.

    More info needs to be available for the young’ns.

  7. Avida Healthwear sells all kinds of gloves (and other medical gear) in bulk to whomever wants them :-)

    http://www.avidahealthwear.com

  8. The difference between the level of knowledge & discourse on this topic is leagues above what I just experienced on another website.
    This was at a mainstream “sex positive” site with typical hetero angles, lots of fluff, not that there’s anything wrong with that…
    In one column there was a prompted discussion of having sex during your period, pros & cons. Lots of opinions about using tampons, “keepers”, oral sex, etc and not one person addressed the key and obvious issue here- BLOOD!!!! Finally a healthcare worker posted and made this observation & was roundly ignored. I found this whole free-for-all debate maddeningly ignorant, and posted to support the one health aware individual, gave some facts, etc. Well- I was called patronizing, uptight, told I didn’t understand that some people equate latex with lack of intimacy, and that I was “lambasting” peoples’ activity choices. I of course had to counter that I had plenty of experience with friends dying of AIDS in the 80’s & 90’s, and said they ought to just realize that it’s still out there, not to mention the myriad STD’s, & heteros are not magically immune. I mean, the idea of a man (implied at this site) having unprotected oral sex with a menstruating woman? Really now. I also mentioned that nowhere in the posts had anyone mentioned any sort of prophylaxis, etc. I said I was just offering up some advice that I hoped could save some lives. I was told that was “self-important”, and that I seemed judgmental and that if they had an STD they wouldn’t feel comfortable telling me for fear of chastisement. WTF???????!!!!??? So now health is secondary to tone and delivery? If someone doesn’t like your attitude they will withhold STD status and fuck you anyway?

    I also watched a webcast with Betty Dodson (whom I also have issues with) where she point blank said there was no way to get “sick” from unprotected analingus!!!! In a written version of the Q/A she does say well, maybe ask your doctor about STD’s. And this is a supposed sex authority??

    Talk about clueless…

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