I lost a lot of important things over my eight-day hospital stay this summer.
The best thing I lost was a blood clot, which had been waiting to form in my left arm for years. That I won’t miss.
Of the things I did lose, I will miss my left first rib, which was removed in order to increase blood flow to vein that clotted off. I lost my nipple piercings. My nurse removed them minutes before I was wheeled into the operation room for surgery. The piercings were closed by the time I got out. I also lost sleep, my tan, and my appetite.
But the biggest loss to me was my birth control pill.
I’d been taking an oral contraceptive for almost three years. The pill and I had a functional, cooperative, healthy relationship. I didn’t suffer from any side effects, I never had to switch brands, and I never missed a day. My birth control pill made me feel secure. I never worried about its effectiveness because I was meticulous and took the pill every day, at the right time.
Needless to say, I was disappointed when my doctor told me I couldn’t take oral contraceptives anymore. Even though my blood clot was due to my collarbone and first rib pinching down on a vein, the estrogen and progesterone in my pill made getting a blood clot more of a possibility. Only 1 in 1,000 women per year will develop a clot due to the oral contraceptive, but the combined factors of the pill and my bone structure made my probability of getting one higher than the average.
I’ll likely be able to start up again in the future; but as long as I’m on blood thinners, the combination means risking another blood clot.
My boyfriend of two years took the news better than I did. Since we’ve been dating, we’ve always depended fully on the pill without using a backup contraceptive. We trust each other and in our agreement to monogamy, so barrier-free sex was a personal decision that worked for us.
The disruption of our sex life was what worried me most after my surgery. I felt guilty that my body was forcing this unpredictable change on our relationship. As much as I valued my health, six months of condom-only sex scared me more than losing my rib.
While condom stigma isn’t a formal name, it’s a relevant issue for many people. Condom stigma transcends straight sex, also affecting the LGBTQIA community. But for the purposes of this piece, I’ll be discussing my personal experience with heterosexual condom stigma.
My boyfriend was at my bedside every night, listening to my worries and questions: What if our sex isn’t as good anymore? Don’t condoms ruin the spontaneity? Will it be as intimate?
Between spoon-feeding me ice cream, tucking me in when I couldn’t move, and clearing his nights to watch Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in my hospital room, he assured me condoms wouldn’t be catastrophic to our sex life.
His love for me was so undeniably evident over those eight days. His dedication to my family and me was unwavering. That’s not to say the situation didn’t take a toll on him; but this was not a person who would love me any less with a rubber between us.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling anxious about the switch. Despite knowing my partner wasn’t worried, I couldn’t help but feel like condoms were jeopardizing not only our sex, but also my sex appeal.
I didn’t only dread that condoms would make our sex less enjoyable, but that they would make me feel less sexy. As confident as I was in our relationship, I was overwhelmed with insecurity: If our sex isn’t as good, does that mean I’m not as good of a partner anymore? How hot can I be if every time we’re in the mood, I have to dig through his sock drawer for protection?
This stigma around condoms is an arguably subtle though prevalent part of how our generation thinks about sex. In spite of a recent study that says sex is just as pleasurable with a condom as it is without, many women worry that condoms cause a loss of sensation for their male partners.
Many people are embarrassed to ask male partners to wear condoms, even if not wearing a condom means risking STDs and pregnancy. Additionally, I’ve heard some of my male friends applaud each other for “raw-dog” sex, while expressing sympathy and pity for condom-protected sex.
I’ve since come to terms with having to use condoms, and I’m learning that my health and that of my loved ones are worth this small change.
But through all my worrying, there’s a disturbing reality that I came to realize at the core of condom stigma: it’s all about the guy.
When I say that, I’m referring to this sort of exchange: a man’s “come on, I can’t feel anything with a condom,” and/or a female’s “I’m sorry I asked.”
For a woman to apologize to a man for wanting to protect her body implies that she anticipates that the man values his orgasm over her as a human being. And unfortunately, there are too many instances in which that’s the case.
But for a woman to feel afraid to demand protected sex—and in some cases for a man to pressure her into risking her health—reveals an ugly, unnecessary truth about sex in our society: the woman’s experience doesn’t matter.
Women continue to be hyper-sexualized and trained to equate their value with their sex appeal. I feel like I’ve seen literally hundreds of articles or blog posts with titles like 20 Ways to Make Him CRAZY! or Naughty Things to Do to Your Man! but articles directed at men (or women) about how to make sex better for their female partners are few and far between.
Before I was with my current boyfriend, I thought of sex like a performance. And before I was having sex, I thought of my sex appeal in a similar fashion. Even in middle school I knew what boys were supposed to like and consequently I knew what I was supposed to be like. So when I started dating, I did my best to emulate fantasy rather than try being comfortable as myself.
Women are trained to abide by a one-track image of sexy, while men are trained to desire it. If you think I’m exaggerating, Google how many women fake orgasms. According to NBC, it’s 80 percent. But with or without statistics, other search results will show a lot of women fake it.
Why is it that women at large would rather fake an orgasm with a male partner than admit to not finishing—let alone make suggestions to their partner to make sex better for herself? Even further, why are women sacrificing their health and pleasure over a myth?
Our society creates men who expect porn-star, magazine, moan-and-groan sex from every woman they meet. This, in turn, creates women who are afraid to defy that expectation.
That, of course, is a generalization. But if 80 percent of women are faking it, is it a leap to assume that’s rooted in fear? Fear of disappointment? Fear of not being desired?
I fell into this fear myself when I came off birth control. I forgot about the trust and openness my partner and I have, and—though temporarily—cared more about fitting the ideal sexy than I did about protecting myself.
I’ve since gathered that my worries were unnecessary, but more importantly I realized that any relationship—no matter how strong—can be subject to gendered and sexualized expectations.
Our culture breeds a fear of self: men who are afraid to have their sexual performance questioned and women who are afraid to ask for what makes them comfortable. We are so busy trying to be what we’re not that we risk our health, honesty, and trust in each other.
Safety, health, and comfort should always come first. If two people want to have sex, respect should be valued over all else. And if those two people happen to be in love, respect should be guaranteed.
Consent is never assumed, no matter the relationship between the individuals. Pressuring someone to not use a condom is an attempt to manipulate and strip consent from her—an attempt to steal an individual’s voice and right to protection. And condom stigma proves that our society attempts to redirect consent on a larger scale, making women hesitate to demand protection and making men feel condoms are a burden.
My time in the hospital taught me that there’s a lot to be afraid of, whether it be surgery, pain, or losing a rib; but I will never again be scared to protect myself. Safety and confidence are sexy—even wrapped in latex.
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