As we get deeper and deeper into relationships, the presence of protection fades and fades. But with more STDs than ever before, is love putting us at high risk?
It’s an order of operations young Americans have drilled into them in middle school gymnasiums: Kissing, condom, sex. But for today’s generation of sexually active young adults in new relationships, that protocol seems to have gone askew. As the CDC reports more than 20 million new cases of STDs each year, the condom has begun a frightening disappearing act.
In a Trojan Condom compliance survey released today that included a sample of 1,000 adults ages 18-34 years old who were heterosexual, sexually active, either single or in a new relationship under two years, and not trying to get pregnant, Trojan found that the overwhelming majority (81%) say condom usage is incredibly important to them. That’s a promisingly high number who believe in practicing safe sex, safeguarding against disease, and preventing unwanted pregnancy. In theory. However, despite that, only 35% of respondents always use a condom while 41% said they didn’t use a condom at all the last time they had sex.
What’s the reason for this disconnect? Are legions of young adults simply not practicing what they preach? According to Matthew Hussey, Trojan spokesperson and relationship expert who launched the site Get the Guy, explains that part of that reason is, “In relationships, there’s a huge difference between logic and emotion. The logical part of ourselves is the part that answers the survey. But when emotion and passion comes into it, those types of logical decisions tend to go out the window. It’s amazing what a slippery slope it is.”
What Hussey might be referring to is what is lightheartedly called our lizard-brain, the basic instincts that take over our more thoughtful, nuanced knowledge of things — like perhaps that syphilis rates jumped 11% in 2012, or that there are now drug-resistant forms of super gonorrhea, or more personally, that our new lover might not have been to the clinic in three years.
In Trojan’s survey, they came across a distinct and interesting condom cliff — a point of time in the average sexual relationship where that good logic leaves us in pursuit of a latex-less, barebacked orgasm. And for most modern couples, the condom cliff drops after 2 months. The study showed that of those with repeat partners who don’t use condoms all the time, 50% stop using them by month one of dating. That number jumps up to 62% by month two. Most alarming of all, 43% of those who didn’t use a condom during their last sexual encounter did so without any kind of conversation about it. If the receding condom cliff in relationships is an issue, it’s a silent one.
When I asked why new couples might be throwing away their protection without so much as a comment about it, Hussey explains, “that’s an emotional decision. People cited that the top three reasons people come off of condoms is because of trust, exclusivity, and commitment. I think that’s funny, because to me, it has nothing to do with trust. The idea of ‘I trust you, therefore let’s not have a conversation about condoms’ is a complete non sequitur.” Though the second month of a relationship might involve meeting each other’s friends, weekly sleepovers, and a growing sense of love and bonding, that inherent trust has little to do with factual sexual health or status.
According to the research, of couples that had stopped using condoms consistently in their relationships, 60% indicated they had not been tested for STDs, two-thirds said their partner had not been tested, and more than 1 in 3 were not using another form of hormonal birth control. Non sequitur indeed.
“This is something we have to ingrain in couples: the onus isn’t on you to believe your partner, it’s on your partner to show they’re trustworthy,” Hussey says. “There doesn’t need to be a rush to come off of condoms. Why is it that coming off of condoms is synonymous with being closer to someone or being romantic? I don’t believe that reaching for a condom for three seconds has any impact on how romantic you feel in that moment. This doesn’t need to be a thing,” he adds.
Part of the reason for the condom cliff — apart from blind trust — might also be the backward way we package our condom use. We see it as a barrier to sexual activity and pleasure, a deterrent instead of a boon. There’s a huge gender disparity in who is picking up the tab with condoms. Of those surveyed, 83% of men said that they provided the condoms the last time they had sex. Women just don’t carry around condoms as much (in fact, in some states there are prohibitive laws that can impact that decision). This is despite the fact that the survey revealed up to 50% of women admitted they can’t fully enjoy condomles sex and the attendant stress about STDs and pregnancy as much as protected sex. With pressure on only one person to provide the protection for sex, it’s likely that the conversations about not using protection will be equally as imbalanced. “I think it’s the fault of both men and women. We need to reeducate men to think that a woman carrying around a condom isn’t a slut, she’s smart,” Hussey explains to me.
The survey also uncovered something easily overlooked — we’re not being fed the image of condom use through any of our media. Characters on television programs often go from love confession to mid-passion in one scene, leaving little time to actually portray the mechanics of most sex. 3 out of 4 adults say they cannot recall seeing a reference to a condom on TV or in a movie in the last year, and for those who do recall one, the condoms were often seen as goofy or funny. Take, for example, the following clips from television shows aimed at young adults. In South Park, condoms are a joke, in Boy Meets World condoms are a euphemism, and in Friends, they’re a funny competition.
Last year HBO’s Girls, known for its frank and open depictions of realistic sexuality, was criticized for its lack of condom depictions. Though, when we think about it, not many shows at all ever depict condom usage in a matter-of-fact way that they should be dealt with in real life. Entertainment, as we know, is not about verisimilitude. It will take more than one rap anthem about condoms to get kids to take prophylactics seriously, if not sexily.
While Trojan may be wondering how to retain its consumers for longer, that two-month condom cliff has a great impact on the trajectory of our own health and relationships. Though millennials may have been dubbed “the pull out generation,” many don’t realize the real costs of barebacking. Hussey suggests that if anything, people in relationships are more at risk through inconsistent condom use because they’re mistaking trust and rapport for their own physical safety.
Is condom use in dire need of a facelift? Perhaps one of the new condom models that arises from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s initiative will motivate the masses, but more likely it’s a continued dialogue about when condoms should and should not be entering the bedroom — Matthew Hussey suggests that be done casually, with the emphasis on our own personal safety rather than our partner’s status. Making that imperative conversation sexy? That’s on us.
Try as we might, love is no antibiotic.