How to SHAG: What is safe sex and are people even having it?

While spring typically laid the plot for people’s Hot Girl Summer, fornicating is about two meters away from many a single/non-cohabitating person’s grasp this year — at least it should be.

Lockdown has provided many people with ample time to reevaluate their relationship with their bodies and those of others. The sex-starved masses are eagerly awaiting the eruption of havoc that will ensue when lockdowns lift, but, even then, we should all excercise caution.  

I think back now to the beginning of my own journey. From the moment I started having sex, I was fucked.

Years of puritanical indoctrination from a household resounding with deafening silence on the topic of sex truly did me dirty. My desperate and restless 17 year-old self, free at last from the label of ‘someone’s daughter’ in my new home away from home, cherished no boundaries and was keen to exploit every kinky opportunity… albeit with one person for three years. Once I was fed up beating the dead horse that was my first relationship, numerous parallel encounters followed suit; my blasé dismissal of safe sex and numbness to humiliation magnified in scale. It was an addiction: with every new addition to my roster, I upped the ante, and it was a thrill, though a fickle one. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I was failing myself, not my upbringing. 

In pursuit of liberty, happiness, and some peace of mind, one supposedly finds comfort in ‘safe sex’, but having somehow dodged every bullet there is to dodge in these last five years, how and why should I suddenly change my ways now? I, of course, am aware of the worrisome fallacy behind this logic (and am practicing conscious abstinence), but irrational decisions and sex tend to collide behind closed doors.  

“Safer sex is all about protecting yourself and your partners from sexually transmitted infections,” said Planned Parenthood. “Safer sex helps you stay healthy and can even make sex better.”

“Because of the seriousness of the effects of STIs, the definition of safe sex should objectively [include] using at least one form of contraception that directly protects from STIs,” said the Queer People of Color Officer of the LSESU Pride Alliance. 

But safeguarding health and avoiding babies are not always at the top of everyone’s list of priorities, especially when their reasoning crumbles in the heat of the moment.

“For me personally, I think safe sex is also good sex,” said Nathalie Grigorenko, the Alliance’s Sexual Health Officer. “Lack of communication with whoever you have sex with is just only going to damage you. Safe sex for me is well-thought out practices and conscious practices.”

“Protection against STIs and pregnancy is part of it, but there is so much more,” said Marabel Riesmeier, the Alliance’s Underrepresented Sexualties Officer. “Safe sex means taking care of your body and mind.”

Protected sex bears its own risks. STIs can also spread through other means than penetrative or oral sex, and the use of protection does not mean that the sex is consensual.

“I like to phrase it as ‘safer sex’ rather than ‘safe sex’, because I think that ends up establishing a clear binary between safe sex and ‘unsafe’ sex,” said Kapono Asuncion, the Alliance’s Trans Officer. “In reality, there will always be risks associated with sex. I associate safer sex with informed and ethical consent; checking in with your partner(s) before, during, and after sex; communication about what kinds of things are enjoyable for each person’s body; communication about boundaries and comfort levels; and so on.”

Many people’s suggestions for improving education about safer sex revolve around expanding the conversation beyond the heteronormative.

“I mean first of all just talk about it, just say that it exists; how do you actually have sex that isn’t heterosexual?” said Grigorenko. “Dental dams are such a big thing because a lot of my friends identify as lesbians but they don’t use them. I think that comes from the fact that a lot of people aren’t aware of what can be trasmitted when [sex is not heterosexual].”

“I think there’s a long way to go with knowledge on LGBTQ+ spaces,” said the QPOC officer. “I think it needs to start with schools, and sadly I don’t know if we will ever get to that stage with debates around whether we should have homosexuality as part of the curriculum being highly controversial.”

“Excluding trans, inter, and nonbinary folks from the conversation makes them unsafe and increases stigma,” said Riesmeier. “We should also bring up mental health in conversations around safer sex and talk about kink more.”

Asuncion emphasizes issues such as preference bias, respect for all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation and transition, openness to different relationship styles, de-stigmatizing STIs, and disseminating more guidance resources.

“Unpack your preferences,” they said. “Make a conscious effort to unlearn and recognize when you’re making an assumption about someone else’s body. Trans or not, we should always have conversations about the words people are comfortable with describing their bodies, how people like to be touched, [and] the fact that invasive questions about genitals are never okay.”

With the absence of queer representation in public sexual health discourse and services, there are conflicting opinions within the community about whether or not safe sex practices are the norm. 

“I think a major issue with LGBTQ+ spaces is that, in my experience, most of them are drinking/recreational drug usage spaces, and hence under the influence of alcohol and drugs we are less likely to think about contraception!” said the QPOC officer. 

“People within my communities have less access to information and resources about sex that isn’t between two cis, able-bodied, straight people, and this can lead to people having sexual experiences that are difficult to navigate emotionally and physically,” said Asuncion.

Hardship notwithstanding, there are upsides to fraternizing in a community defined by embracing the spectrum of sexualities and gender identities. 

“I think when you identify as as queer, you have a particular insight into the topic because you’ve already started exploring yourself and what you want and what you like [topics] that many people haven’t even started thingking about,” said Grigorenko. “At the same time you’re also discredited in a sense because you don’t really fit the public idea of the ‘normal citizen’ who should be talking.”

People having straight sex garnered a special mention from the queer community.

“The wildest stories I know are definitely from straight people,” said Riesmeier. “A big thing is that people stop using a condom in a relationship without getting tested first. STIs are not about trust, anyone can have them and they often don’t show symptoms.”

However, the queer community also needs to be taken into consideration. 

“The queer community is not a one-off label for people; people can be queer but also don’t have the resources to fully grasp all of the intersectionalities,” said Jessica Chan, the President of the Alliance. “Have we been in the position to do all we can to help them and guide them?”

“There’s not even a dialogue of safe sex present in the LSE,” said Chan. “I come from Hong Kong [where] most schools have condom vending machines and most of them are free. So how come they can do that and we in London are not even doing this?”

Dr. Jonathan Hazon, a general practitioner at LSE’s on-campus clinic, St. Philip’s, wrote in an email that the clinic has been actively trying to address this issue by increasing their hours both in the morning and at night, improving the registration process, and having telephone appointments.

“We have been working hard to increase accessibility to St Philips and make the registration and booking process as easy as possible,” he said. “We encourage all students at LSE to register with St Philips Medical Centre as soon as possible. Hopefully most students stay well and won’t need to visit, but better to be prepared just in case rather than waiting and having to go through the registration process at a time when they are unwell.” 

He also mentioned that although the Clinic typically sees more negative results than not in sexual health exams, feedback from students demonstrates that they are more concerned about contraception than protection. 

“I don’t have any specific data about the proportion of students who practice safe sex,” he said. “I do consistently see that concerns focus more on pregnancy prevention rather than STIs and so when women use the pill/ius/iud/nexplanon for contraception the couple seem less preoccupied with using a condom to prevent STIs, which obviously presents risk.”

Students have expressed concerns about the Medical Centre, however, due to its lack of visibility, which may have implications for how the school prioritizes health. 

“I think it very much speaks to how sexuality is something that we’re not supposed to talk about,” said Grigorenko. “We never really talk about the sexual health aspect which does happen; it’s a university, absolutely people have sex, [and] it’s nothing that you can escape.”

On a campus teetering the line between being a monastery or a sexual wilderness due to the lack of official LSE sex education resources, Alliance members offered tips to those looking to become better ‘safer sex’ practitioners.

“Interact with sexuality, see what you like and don’t like,” said Grigorenko. “Get yourself tested if you haven’t been having sex. Read up about about the ways you can protect yourself based on the sex you would like to have.”

“Literally Google any questions you have  – avoid Yahoo answers and Reddit – and it will take you five minutes to gather the tools for a safe and successful and nutritious experience,” said the QPOC officer.

“Talk to your partner or partners about it before you’re about to do something,” said Chan. “In my idealized world nothing is too taboo to talk about.”

“Don’t be shy!” said Riesmeier. “Ask for that condom, dental dam or latex glove, tell them to stop if something doesn’t feel right, and talk about what gives you pleasure; if someone has a problem with that, it’s a red flag anyway and you can find someone better for sure. Thinking about how you can bring it up in a way that feels right to you beforehand can make you feel more at ease in the situation.”

Asuncion also recommended following sex education influencers on social media such as @shrimpteeth on Instagram to get a daily dose of new perspectives. I would also add @ihartericka and @shanboody to that list of people who have helped me decolonize and define my sexual and relationship desires and goals.

“[@shrimpteeth’s] account is dedicated to queer and trans inclusive resources on sex, information on different relationship styles outside of monogamy, and affirmation on all questions and concerns regarding sex and relationships,” they said.

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