This story is part of a special Slate Plus feature package on “Why Don’t We Have a Better Condom?” Be sure to check out the other Slate Plus exclusives related to this story, including a full audio version of the piece and a behind-the-scenes conversation between writer L.V. Anderson and editor Allison Benedikt.
My first week in college, at a mandatory health fair, I visited a booth that invited students to compete with one another to see who could correctly put a condom on a dildo the fastest. At this point in my life, I had never seen an erect penis in real life, let alone put a condom on one. But I had paid close attention in health class, and I more or less knew what I needed to do. I quickly bested the dude I had been assigned to compete with, who failed to squeeze the tip before unrolling the condom onto the dildo.
The point of this story is not that I am amazing at putting on condoms—like most people, I’m pretty bad at it under noncompetitive circumstances. But even before I’d had sex, I had thoroughly assimilated the primary message of sex ed: Use a latex condom correctly every time. (I was very lucky to have access to comprehensive sex ed when I was growing up. Not everyone is so lucky.)
For most of my adult life, this message has served me pretty well. I discovered in college that hormonal birth control didn’t agree with me, so condoms became my primary contraceptive. Much is made of the birth-control pill’s revolutionary effect on sexual mores and women’s self-determination, but in the post-AIDS era, condoms are arguably as important. Latex condoms have allowed me—and many other single women—to have a sex life without accidentally getting pregnant or contracting a potentially life-changing STI. (Shout-out to the HPV vaccine, which has also helped.) Sure, a few condoms have broken, and I’ve had to rely on the morning-after pill to save the day. But I owe a great deal of my health and happiness to latex condoms.
But at some point I realized that, nonetheless, I’ve never actually liked latex condoms. I used condoms because I felt like I had to, not because I wanted to. For a long time, I never really talked about, or even thought about, the disconnect between my actions and my desires. In hindsight, it seems strange that I never questioned why I thought I had to use condoms without complaint. I think I had a vague sense that to cast aspersions on condoms would be to come across as anti-science, sexually unenlightened, indifferent to the ravages of AIDS. Surely only a maniac would complain about the minor inconvenience of a product that saves lives.
I think this attitude is still somewhat prevalent, and I suspect that some people will read my story and rebuke me for denigrating latex condoms. After all, the standard approach to sex ed is to insist on the necessity of condoms without acknowledging their drawbacks. That approach certainly persuades some people—it persuaded me!—but it doesn’t persuade everyone. I interviewed a woman who almost never uses condoms, who said that in the heat of the moment, “The idea of STDs seems so far away, and pregnancy too … unless you’re one of those really uptight people that believe everything they tell you in school and sex ed.”
I think that the Gates Foundation’s grant program is a harbinger of a new era in public health. We’re starting to realize that simply trying to cajole people into using condoms by scaring and shaming them isn’t working. (It only works on the really uptight people like me.) For many, the drawbacks of latex condoms are simply not a trade-off they’re willing to make, no matter the risks of unprotected sex. It’s better to offer those people options, even if those options aren’t as safe as latex. Keeping people safe is important, but latex isn’t a hill worth dying on.
Since I started working on my story, I’ve wondered whether we’re entering a new era of thinking about condoms. In the post–sexual revolution but pre-AIDS era, condoms were a joke, a waste of time, a relic of the past. In the AIDS era, all right-thinking people had to be in favor of latex condoms. And now? I think it’s becoming more acceptable to acknowledge that people have sex for pleasure, and that wanting to preserve and maximize that pleasure does not make you a bad person. Latex condoms will always be an important part of the effort to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies—but maybe other types of condoms, and other harm reduction methods, can be part of that effort as well. I hope that by the time I have kids, they’ll take sex-ed classes that teach them that keeping yourself safe during sex isn’t an either-or proposition.