Paradise Lost: Living in Latex

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Paradise Lost: Living in Latex  

by Liza Featherstone  


Getting It On: A Condom Reader  
edited by Mitch Roberson and Julia Dubner  
(Soho Press, paperback, 1999; 240 pages)  

not a good idea to read your lover’s mail. Apart from having to put up with a nagging conscience, you’re just
bound to find out something you don’t need or want to know. I learned my lesson ten years ago; while
going through my first boyfriend’s papers, I came across a letter from his faraway ex-girlfriend.
Skimming it, I quickly found what

I was looking for (my name, of course), but then, the bomb: “Yes,
condoms suck!” she wrote. “Suck” was underlined several times to
emphasize her sympathy, and their camaraderie in superior, au naturel sex. They were like
cosmopolitan tourists sending each other postcards from hick towns. He had complained about me, and
the sex we were having.


It’s been years since I’ve encountered a condom (or a penis for that matter; my lover of
three years is a woman). But I used to sleep with men quite often, and the notion of intercourse
without condoms seemed like a utopian, pre-AIDS fantasy. Something out of the Summer of Love, a gay
San Francisco bath-house in the ’70s or its equally fantastic antithesis, a ’50s-style, virgin
honeymoon. Yet I always knew that there were other people somewhere still having it. And that my
boyfriends had been — or would soon be — having it with one of those people: someone more
permanent, more adventurous, or with a more pristine past. This wasn’t paranoia. Most men would
come right out and say so — often, I thought, as a kind of disclaimer or apologia, implying that
their whole performance was much more impressive under less restrictive circumstances. Their past
girlfriends usually took on a slightly mystical quality, whether the rubberless sex was an indication of
the woman’s brave recklessness or honorable marriageability. Sometimes it was a surreal combination
of the two: the first man I ever had sex with was on the rebound from a latex-free, sex-in-elevators,

on-location-in-Rome affair with a woman whom he’d planned on betrothing. “She was crazy, though,”
he said nostalgically. “We were like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.”


For many of us thirty and under, heterosexual sex without a condom is nearly impossible to
imagine. Released just for us this Valentine’s Day, a poetry and prose anthology predictably titled
Getting It On (even the Trojan ads use this pun), edited by Mitch Roberson and Julia Dubner,
takes on the whole range of the latex experience. Despite unremarkable poetry, the collection is an
elegant homage to a sadly under-fetishized product. There are plenty of universal moments, like this
one in Hester Kaplan’s “On the Narrow Side”:

Park picks up a brand called Rovers, and reads that they offer maximum pleasure with a minimum of
effort. When I begin to giggle, he’s encouraged and reads awkward English from a box of Silk
Kimonos. Soon we’re both laughing, red-faced, shushing and bumping each other in a nervous flush of
growing embarrassment.

At the other end of the spectrum, T. Coraghessan Boyle provides something for that rare breed, the
condom aficionado, with his elegantly creepy “Modern Love,” in which a woman obsessed with hygiene
and disease wears a full-body condom during sex (“It’s Swedish,” she explains). Kim Addonizio
follows suit with “A Brief History of the Condom,” about jacking-off while wearing a rubber (“I
have, frankly, never encountered a human body which gave me as much pleasure as the simple,
unassuming condom”).


Unsurprisingly, a number of selections in Getting It On focus on male anxiety about
wearing rubbers. An excerpt from Martin Amis’ novel The Rachel Papers is the most evocative:
“After thirty seconds my cock was a baby’s pinkie and I was trying to put toothpaste back in the
tube.” (If you’ve ever tried to orally reinflate a flagging, balloon-flavored dick, you understand

the degree to which men are fragile creatures.) These humiliating moments, while perhaps no fun for
Amis’ narrator and his brethren, can be weirdly erotic for women. Amis likely had no idea what he
was doing for yours truly when he wrote “My rig, in its pink muff, looked unnatural, like an
overdressed Scottie dog.”


Back in the day, I sort of liked the wrinkly little gizmos. I liked that alien, rubbery,
nonoxynol-9 smell mixed with human come and sweat — there was something futuristic about it, as if
Close Encounters of the Third Kind had ended in an orgy. I liked finding them in a drawer —
my lover’s or mine — under a bunch of socks, and what that implied: that we expected to have sex at
some point in the not-too-distant future, and that one of us had actually been thinking about it
when we weren’t together. I liked pinching the packets, squishing the unseen rubber around in its
fluid. I even sometimes liked their suggestion of a kind of conditionality, an ambiguity about
commitment that added to the excitement. But I absolutely hated the way condoms implied a criticism
of one’s past; one boyfriend clearly felt that, unlike previous cunts he’d sampled unsheathed, mine
had been in too many places, places he somehow found suspect (“I just assumed you’d slept with gay

men,” he said finally. “I wish!” I laughed, wondering if his fears of contamination were only about disease).
But even more, I hated the unspoken sentiment that we were missing out on the Real Thing.


The idea that only unfettered, male/female intercourse is “real” sex has been famously unfair to
Monica Lewinsky, to the millions of us who fuck people with the same genitalia, and to anyone having
the kind of het sex that falls somewhere in between marital commitment and extravagantly heedless
French-movie liaisons. In Between isn’t good enough somehow. In Between doesn’t count. In Between,
of course, is a condom.


That’s why I find Getting It On’s most intriguing selection to be Stuart Dybek’s “We
Didn’t,” in which two technically virginal teenagers are about to give it up on the beach, but are
interrupted, first by a sandy prophylactic:

. . . I groped for it, found it, tried to dust it off, tried, as Burt Lancaster never had to, to
slip it on without breaking the mood . . . Your thighs opened like wings from my waist as we surfaced
panting from a kiss that left you pleading oh Christ yes, a yes grasped sharply as a cry of pain so
that for a moment I thought that we were already doing it and that somehow I had missed the instant
when I entered you . . . entered you as if passing through a gateway into the rest of my life, into a life
as I wanted it to be lived yes but O then I realized we were still floundering unconnected in the
slick between us and . . . we slammed together still feeling for that perfect fit, still in the Here
groping for an Eternity that was only a fine adjustment away, just a millimeter to the left or a
fraction of an inch further south . . .

Then the cops arrive to drag a drowned pregnant woman from the water, and the freaked out kids, who
have been making out all summer, never reach “that irrevocable moment for which our lives seemed
poised.” It’s the way that moment lives in our minds that interests me, and the way a condom — by
delaying it, complicating it or preventing it — can allow us to mythologize the moment even more.
In Bonnie Kirshenbaum’s “Brooklyn Ts” the couple ends up forgoing the condom, with just the results
you’d expect:

We went at it then, as if it were before, before the world became such a complicated and dangerous
place, when man and woman had no fear of communicable diseases, no self-consciousness, when there
was no original sin. We fucked as if we were in Paradise.


Myself, I’ve always thought that with all the fun things any two naked people can do, why so
much fuss over intercourse? But tonight I realized even I hadn’t fully escaped the allure, however
illusory, of the Real Thing. An old friend just called and happened to mention that he’d never

really had it work out with a condom. Here we go again, I thought. “I’ve never had hetero
intercourse without them,” I offered testily. “We did!” he insisted. I was stunned, and, I admit, a
little concerned about his memory. Was it the drugs? “We did? No way. How irresponsible! What did
we use?” “You used a sponge,” he explained. Gross, a sponge? I couldn’t imagine what other
girlfriend he was remembering — and then it came back to me. Sort of. The runny, toxic-flavored
foam, the sponge’s worrisome porousness. Apparently I had tasted Paradise, lived Burt Lancaster’s
Eternity, experienced that “irrevocable moment” for an entire summer — and forgotten. Perhaps the
dirty little secret about the Real Thing is that, rubber or no rubber, no one’s having it. Either that, or we
all are and we just don’t know it.

For more Liza Featherstone, read:

Going with the Flow
Shocking Fuzz
Paradise Lost: Living in Latex
Let’s Talk About Saving $8.50
The Art of Noise
Seduced by Casanova: The Psychoanalyst on the Lover
Circling the Threesome

by Liza Featherstone and Nerve.com