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Condoms Are Basically the Worst. Here’s Why I Still Use Them

Condoms Are Basically the Worst. Here’s Why I Still Use Them: © BE&W agencja fotograficzna Sp. z o.o. / Alamy

© BE&W agencja fotograficzna Sp. z o.o. / Alamy

The scene is a familiar one. I met a young woman and we ate at that restaurant and we had drinks at that bar and we got into that car and we rode back to my house.

Now our shoes and socks are on the floor and we’re grappling at backs and bra hooks, and it is time. I need to put on a condom.

I don’t want to put on a condom, of course. They ruin the mood. They make sex feel something like 48 percent less good. They’re not nearly as easy to use as the Trojan Man would have us believe.

Then there’s this little hang-up: remember that bar I mentioned? Well, I had a few drinks there. And sure, right now, I am—to quote Wreckx-n-Effect—feeling manly and her shaker is coming in handy, but what about after I roll over, rifle through my top drawer, find the little foil square, drop it on the floor, pick it up, roll back over, and try to put it on? By then, the situation around my midsection might be less Washington Monument and more descending side of the Gateway Arch.

So what do I do?

I roll over. I rifle through the drawer. I put on the condom.

Why?

Because I don’t want to die.


When I was 12, a woman from the county health department walked into my middle school Home Economics class and handed out cards in five colors. Then she said, “If HIV transmission rates keep going like they’re going, the people with red cards will be dead from AIDS by 2010.”

A fifth of us had red cards.

The woman went on to explain that there was only one way to protect ourselves. And then she slipped a condom on a banana.

An important detail about the woman who taught sex education to my home ec. class: she was my mother. As you might have divined —because you are a human and you were once in middle school—having my own mother teach sex ed. was a dreadful experience. But the story of my discomfort while watching my mother unroll a condom on a piece of fruit is for another day. What’s more germane to this particular tale is the convenience of my mother’s role as sexual educator; it made it easy for me to ask her what, exactly, they were thinking back then, when she and one other brave soul were in charge of the sexual education of the middle school-aged population of Jefferson County, Kansas (population: 20,000).

“We just didn’t know,” she said when I asked her. “It was 1990 and the HIV rate was skyrocketing. We were in charge of keeping you alive, and the best way to do that was to scare the hell out of you.”

Mission accomplished. Thanks to formative years lived under the assumption that condom-less sex led directly to pneumocystis pneumonia, I have become militantly pro-condom. If not for this coffee shop’s prudish stance on public penis display, I’d have one on right now.

A quick poll of some friends who also came of age at the height of the AIDS crisis revealed I’m not the only one.

“The only thing I hate more than condoms is the crippling anxiety that comes from my assumption that I’ll die of AIDS if I don’t use one,” said Jake, a 36-year-old musician from Chicago. “So, yeah, I use condoms.” Justin, a 33-year-old writer pal of mine, added, “I never got laid, so it was sort of like a fear of sharks: I had it, but I also knew I would never be in a situation where it could do me harm.”

But I wonder: is all this anxiety still necessary in 2014? Or is it just an outdated relic of the 90s, like Zubaz and the members of Hootie & the Blowfish who didn’t go on to surprisingly successful country music careers? (So, everyone but Darius Rucker.)

In the decade that ended in 2011, the overall HIV transmission rate in the U.S. fell by a third.

According to a study published in The Lancet in 2009, if I were to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive female, the odds of contracting HIV would only be .04 percent. (If our HIV statuses were reverses, the odds for her would increase to a whopping 0.08%.). Thanks to sophisticated meds, HIV is no longer a death sentence, and inhibitors that were once affordable to only the very-wealthy are now cheap enough for a significant portion of the HIV-positive population to live a mostly normal life.

And even more help is on the way: In 2012, the FDA approved a drug called Truvada which is 99 percent effective at keeping someone from contracting HIV when taken as a daily pill. This news that has been met with rejoice in the gay community—where most new cases of HIV still show up—over a future when anxiety about HIV might one day disappear.

And yet, there I was, with the girl from the restaurant, the bar, the car—dutifully strapping on a condom. Why? Well, in part because I’m a coward.

And in part because I care.


Despite all the statistical evidence that says (shouts) that the odds I’ll contract HIV are on the order of the odds I’ll get hit by a bus piloted by one of the members of Wreckx-n-Effect, a few minutes of latex-related indignity seems a small price for the clarity of mind that comes with knowing that I’ve probably spared myself a life spent dealing with HIV, no matter how much more manageable such a life has become.

But perhaps more important:

There was a time—before Magic Johnson and those red cards and before my mother began fighting bravely for the right to teach safe sex to the teenaged residents of Jefferson County—when no one knew that most of humanity would be forced to reconcile a sexually-transmitted virus that almost always resulted in the premature deaths of its victims.

Yes, today, HIV is less scary than it once was. Yes, today, it is harder to get HIV than we ever thought it would be.

But I don’t want to be the one who undoes the work of my mother and others like her.

Who’s to say what new dread disease lurks around the chronological corner?

Just because I didn’t want to put on a condom.


Paul Shirley is a Los Angeles-based writer whose mother is now the Director of the Center for Population Health for the Kansas Department of Health & Environment. Follow him on Twitter

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