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What my sex life has taught me about condom etiquette

WORDS BY SIENNA BARTON

“I consider myself pretty strong-willed, but for some reason, I struggled to advocate for my sexual wellbeing.”

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assualt

As a woman on the pill in her late-20s, I‘m well-versed in the excuses men come up with to avoid using condoms: “It doesn’t feel as good”, “There’s no point having sex when I can’t feel anything”, or simply “I’m clean”.

When I spoke to my friends about writing this piece, I was met with groans. They all had at least one story, ranging from minor nagging to outright gaslighting. One friend told me about a recent misunderstanding with her boyfriend.


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Before having sex for the first time, his dick went soft after putting on the condom. Not wanting him to feel embarrassed about needing more time, she blurted out, “It’s ok. I don’t care”. Horrified, he replied, “I’d actually prefer to wear one”.

When she relayed that story to me, she said “I’ve gotta give him credit for that, he was good about wearing a condom”. While it felt weird to give him a gold star for being proactive about his sexual health, it’s not something I’ve commonly experienced. I’d say that of the handful of people I’ve slept with, only 20 per cent of them didn’t try to negotiate sex without a condom.

My experiences

When I arrived at Max’s*, I’d noticed he’d only had two condoms left. Once we had sex, I made a mental note: one down, one to go. After round two, he asked me to have a shower with him. I rolled my eyes – I’d never had a shower with someone else that didn’t end up uncomfortable and pointless. As he went to get towels and I reached for the tap, he called out, “The water gets really hot, so be careful”.

It was too late, and searing hot water shot onto my back. I squealed and he jumped in with me, frantically adjusting the taps. I scooched out of his way and got stuck behind the glass door, laughing at my physical awkwardness. Once the water was comfortable, we talked, kissed, and he teased me because my mascara gave me panda eyes.

He laughed and used his thumbs to wipe away the makeup under my eyes, lightly holding my face. He was much taller than me and to meet his eyeline I had to stand on my tippy-toes while he hunched over. I smiled and we kissed again, all wandering hands and wet bodies. With puppy dog eyes he asked, “Can I put it in?”.

He smiled with his mouth agape the way one might after telling a risqué joke, waiting in anticipation for the other person’s reaction. I asked when he last got tested and he replied “Don’t worry, I don’t have anything”. I repeated my question, and he said that it was “really unlikely” he’d caught anything.

I wasn’t convinced and we got out of the shower, deciding to get more condoms from the supermarket. I was strangely relieved to hear his response because if he said he’d been tested recently, I’d have to explain why I didn’t trust him anyway.

It was New Year’s eve going into 2018 and I was 24. It was a balmy night and my friend let me tag along to a house party in the backstreets of Richmond. When Sam* came over to chat, I was surprised.

He was conventionally good looking, in a wholesome ‘I play sports on the weekend’ kind of way. I knew we had nothing in common, but it was nice to be paid attention to. We played flip cup in teams, snuck off to the front yard to kiss, and he asked me to come home with him.

His bedroom was neat, and he had two rows of empty record sleeves blu-tacked onto the wall, bands like The Strokes and The Arctic Monkeys. I asked if he was into music and he mumbled “Nah, not really”. I tried to make small talk but instead, he kissed me. We laid down on his bed and he put on a condom.

I don’t remember much about the foreplay, except that there wasn’t much of it, and he had to get lube because I wasn’t wet enough. At some point, and I can’t say what made me think to do this – call it women’s intuition – but I touched in between my legs and realised he wasn’t wearing the condom anymore. I felt a wave of nausea that made my face hot and cold at the same time. I gasped, “What the fuck!” and he pulled out.

I’d read about stealthing online and I told him how much he’d violated me by choosing to take off the condom without my permission. I laid on my back and he was still on top of me, swearing it was an accident. “It must have fallen off. I never would have willingly done that,” he pleaded. I didn’t believe him. The condom wasn’t anywhere near us, but I felt overwhelmed by indecision and his increasing claims that it was a misunderstanding.

I let him continue to have sex with me, sans condom, and it was so rough that for days it hurt whenever I sat down or stood up. Despite knowing what he’d done was wrong, and that I’d let it happen to me, I’d texted him the day after – only for the conversation to die, me having sent the last unrequited message.

When I ran into Sam at the next party, I felt frozen and awkward, unable to meet his eyeline and he didn’t want to meet mine. His housemate leered at me, “You’re the girl from New Years, right?” I looked down, hoping that if I pretended he wasn’t there then he’d just go away. He didn’t, adding “I bet he didn’t wear a condom, did he? You’d better get tested. He’s got a dirty dick.”

He laughed as he walked away, swigging his stubby of beer, and I felt sick. I went to the doctor and asked for every test available, waiting in dread for the results. My doctor gently scolded me for having sex without a condom, but the lesson didn’t quite stick and it wasn’t the last time I betrayed myself in pursuit of a man.

Then there was Jamie*, who I dated for nearly six months. We got full STI tests so we could have sex without protection, and I foolishly assumed it meant we were exclusive. It didn’t. We were driving back to his place when he mentioned something about the other person he was sleeping with, and I got that same hot/cold, numb tongue feeling from before.

When we got to his house, I was so overwhelmed that when I parked the car I couldn’t fit in between the lines of his parking space, instead straddling two spots. I asked if he was using condoms with the other person. “Of course not,” he replied.

He was of the school that if he had to be restricted by a condom, then he didn’t want to have sex. In his words, “There’s no point”. What followed was one of the nastiest breakups I’ve been through, as he accused me of trying to control him by asking that we practice safe sex.

The sudden change in his temperament gave me whiplash, and the disregard for my health meant it took me a while to feel safe dating again. I felt like I should have seen it coming.

I consider myself pretty strong-willed, but for some reason, I struggled to advocate for my sexual wellbeing. I wonder if it came from a place of worthlessness, or insecurity that if I told a man that he had to use a condom, then maybe he’d change his mind and not want to fuck me altogether.

As we walked back to Max’s from the supermarket, he told me he hadn’t been tested in over two years. I knew he’d recently had sex with strangers from hook-up apps, enjoying a sexual rumspringa after the end of a long-term relationship. I rolled my eyes and laughed, “So you actually have no idea if you ‘don’t have anything’”.

It might seem cynical but what I’ve learned is that the onus shouldn’t be on our sexual partners to prioritise our safety because often they’re choosing to prioritise their own pleasure. Despite this, I’m hopeful.

Surely there are other men like my friend’s new boyfriend, who treat condoms as a fundamental part of having sex. Maybe next time a guy asks if he can put it in, I’ll be able to set firmer boundaries without asking when he last got tested – as the old adage goes: no glove, no love.

* Names have been changed

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault you can call the national sexual assault counselling service on 1800RESPECT, or head to its website for support and advice.

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