The ins and outs of discussing protection

By Ivana Susic

Each year in the United States approximately 8 million people under the age of 25 will contract a sexually transmitted infection.  Formerly known as sexually transmitted diseases, STIs result from unprotected sex practices.

Researchers have discovered safer sex involves more than insisting on condom use.  The fear of facing sexuality head-on  often keeps people from speaking up about protection.  How a conversation about safe sex is initiated  has been shown to have an impact on whether protection is used and how that person is viewed by their partner.

Michelle Broaddus, a postdoctoral fellow for the Center for AIDS Intervention Research at the Medical College of Wisconsin, led a study on the effects of condom proposal among college students.

“What we found is there’s this idea of gender roles and sexual scripts,” Broaddus explained. “There’s this double standard because women believe they’re supposed to be passive.”

Broaddus and her colleagues showed college students videos of a simulated sexual encounter, changing which partner suggested condom use.  They also showed three scenarios of the female suggesting condom use but in three different ways. What Broaddus discovered was that it did not matter who suggested protection, but how a woman proposed safe sex greatly affected how she was viewed by the female participants of the study.

In the first two videos, the woman either bluntly refused sex without a condom or explained to her partner why she felt using protection was a good idea. Broaddus said when the video showed a woman “eroticizing” the use of a condom by incorporating it into foreplay, the results were surprising: females in the audience saw the woman as “less nice and less mature,” but the male in the video was viewed as more promiscuous. One theory, Broaddus said, could be explained in economic terms.

“Men are seen as the consumers of sex and women as the producers or suppliers. They want to keep the value of sex high,” she said. “When women eroticized [the condom use], it can be seen as driving the value of sex down because the sexuality is so open.”

Dr. Arthur Nielsen, faculty member at the Family Institute at Northwestern University and the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis, said while people are willing to have sex they are not as willing to talk about it.

“I think the younger generations are much more comfortable talking about their sexual preference, but still don’t talk about what they like,” Nielsen said.

He explained that many people fear a negative reaction from their partner if they insist on a condom. That can lead to people sacrificing their need of protection for the needs of a relationship.

“People have a hard time being straight about what they want,” Nielsen said.

Dr. David McKirnan, clinical and social psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that some women are afraid their male partner may leave or become hostile if they insist on safe sex.

“Less blunt and absolutist may be more effective,” McKirnan said. “It makes it seem less like opposition, there’s no battle of wills.”

This is not as easy as it seems, he said. It is necessary to communicate clearly, a skill not everyone has. Having an argument during intimacy is a sure way to break it.

“People trade safety to not have to stop momentum,” McKirnan said.  “They need to make it arousing instead of, ‘Let’s stop for a minute to put this device on.’ Introduce it in the concept of getting laid.”

McKirnan echoed Nielsen’s concern for the disparity between being willing to engage in sex and the ability to talk about it. He recommended sexual partners of all orientations learn to communicate the desire to have sex.  This will lead to a greater ability to speak up and learn to say no when it’s appropriate, McKirnan said.

“Take responsibility for your sexuality,” he said. “Be sex positive. Know what your boundaries are. There’s a real responsibility here.”