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Breaking a No Condom Habit

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CuriosityCat asks:

I am 20 and sexually active. I don't have a long term partner but have had and do have various partners. I have an IUD so I'm protected against pregnancy, however I know condoms are still hugely important. My problem is that I am completely stuck for what to say to make a man put one on. At the moment, it's just getting carried away then really kicking myself later. I have to be more diligent with this, but please- do you have any advice for laying down the law? A non awkward, but still sexy way of asserting myself?

Robin Mandell replies:

In a sentence: you could just take one out of your bag, hand it to your partner, and say "Here, put this on." Or, "Let's get a condom on first."

Or, if you want to keep the touch between the two of you going without a condom-stop, how about, "Why don't I slide this on for you." Remember, you can put a condom on, too, and some folks find making putting condoms on part of sex, rather than having them be an interruption, sexy, playful and fun.

It really is as simple as any of that, yet I know it can feel a whole lot more difficult. Especially when you're not yet in the habit, so it feels out-of-place instead of typical. Once condom use and insisting on it is your normal, it really does feel a whole lot different, and can be very easy to be totally relaxed about. Bonus: when you're relaxed about it, your partners will tend to be too, so there's likely to be no muss and no fuss.

There are a few things I'm not sure of, in answering this question: Are these partners friends? Strangers? Something in between? Do you have some type of ongoing sexual relationship with them, just single encounters, or does it depend on the partner? Answers to these questions may impact how you negotiate condoms, but they don't have to have any impact on whether they're used or not. Where these sexual encounters take place can also affect the mechanics of how you incorporate condom use in a way that feels comfortable and still sexy for you.

No matter who your partner is, though, or where you are, using a condom really can be a hard limit for you, hard in that if a partner refuses, you can take that sexual activity off the table, instead opting to engage in other sexual activities that don't pose the same kinds of risks. And that doesn't have to be paired with any drama or ultimatums (nor should it be.) It can be as mellow as, "Yeah, I wanted to have sex, too, but I need condoms to be used for that. If you don't, that's cool, but not when it comes to sex with me. You'll need to find someone who is okay with that, then."

It can be tough to say "no" to something you really want, or to say "no" to someone you really like or are attracted too, but this is your health we're talking about. Theirs, too.

Taking care of your body is sexy as far as I'm concerned, and doing things that show you're caring for someone else's body is also sexy in my book.

The huge stigma society has built up around STIs and STI transmission, plus the very real dangers of some STIs, has made safer sex practices seem like a chore, or like the unsexy part of sex. There's even some cultural weirdness around just being caring about ourselves and other people when it comes to sex, which is pretty strange for something that's supposed to involve our humanity.

Really though, any action that ensures people's health and safety, whether it's checking with someone to make sure they're okay with a given sexual activity, readjusting positions to avoid a sprained knee, or, using barriers to make sex safer, can feel like a natural, normal, typical part of sex. Just like, say, "Does that feel good?" can.

The fact that we don't see these safer sex negotiations often happening in media representations of sex -- such as in movies, or how-to articles in popular magazines -- doesn't help matters; thus, basic courtesies in sex can feel strange and unfamiliar to us, or we might feel afraid that our partners will be turned off by them. Of course, it's not like someone feeling turned off now and then will end the world or anything, and that's bound to happen for one reason or another sometime, whether it's about asking for condom use or about doing something sexual in the exact same way the ex who broke their heart did. Partners-- or us -- experiencing a buzzkill now and then is also a typical part of sex in our lives.

Regardless of how casual -- or not -- a sexual relationship is, it's still okay to, and advisable to, discuss safer sex practices with partners. Using condoms is something you can introduce in casual conversation, even using a buffer like: "I was reading this article about sex the other day, and...."

It's also important to remember that in addition to making genital intercourse safer, condoms also make oral sex safer. Many STIs can be and are transmitted through oral sex--such as chlamydia, herpes, and gonorrhea.

It sounds as if up to now you've mostly been concerned with preventing pregnancy. It might be helpful to review STIs and their modes of transmission. It's also worth noting that for STIs transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact condoms offer less protection.

Regular STI testing is super-important for any sexually active person, too, whether they've had multiple partners or have been in only one monogamous relationship so far. But because one of the markers of STI prevention has been found to be limiting partners, it's especially important for people who have multiple partners to be tested consistently. It's also pretty important to discuss STI testing with partners; if you don't feel comfortable discussing this, or don't feel as if you are getting a straight answer when you ask about it, it's even more important to practice safer sex with the assumption that they haven't been tested or haven't been practicing safer sex in the past.

For ideas on communication strategies, check this out.

I'm not sure what your concern is with making the effort to use condoms. A few of the reasons we sometimes hear are: It feels like an interruption to the sex. The guy says he can't feel anything/can't orgasm/can't whatever wearing a condom. One partner or another says they don't have anything, so condoms really aren't necessary.

In spite of all the sexy, apparently romantic notions about sex, engaging in sex with another person, no matter what the nature of the relationship is, is inherently going to be awkward sometimes. Sticking bodies and people's deep stuff together closely is kind of awkward, after all. That's part of the fun of it, as we negotiate the random whims of our bodies and minds to hopefully find mutual pleasure and fulfillment. That said, while stopping to put a condom on can feel like a blip, it doesn't have to be an awkward blip.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Learn, with the aid of a banana, dildo, or willing partner, how to put a condom on yourself. Like I already mentioned, for many partners this helps the process blend into the sexual experience more. That way, too, you can understand that condom use also isn't about "making" a guy do something: it's about something people do together for each other.
  • When you get the sense that sexual activity could happen, take a quick break from what you're doing and pull condoms out of your purse, nightstand, or wherever you've been keeping them. You can say something like: "No pressure. Just wanted to get these out just in case we want to do something where we need them."
  • Just stop what you're doing and hand them a condom. Sometimes, you don't even have to say anything at all. I know it can feel awkward, but the more you do it, the more natural it will feel. The more whatever it feels, the more whatever you act about it, and the more whatever a partner often will, too. Many of us have things we need or don't in order to be comfortable with sex, or anything else, and those just become part of the deal.

As to whether condoms reduce sensation, they really don't have to. At least not any more than say, the birth control pill can change how someone taking it experiences sex: sure, there are some differences, but they are most often small ones. Yes, they feel different than when condoms aren't being used, but no, they don't have to be a mood-breaker or sensation-blocker.

Two tricks to getting condoms to feel good and comfortable are to put a couple of drops of water-based lubricant inside the tip of the condom before putting it on, and to make sure the condom fits well. Condoms aren't one-size-fits-all, and a condom that's too small or too big is much more likely to create big sensation differences than one that fits the wearer well. If you're providing the condoms, you might find it useful to have a variety of types and styles on hand so your partner can choose what seems right to them. Variety packs can be found online, and at some drugstores. be sure to include some thinner condoms, too: sometimes people think they need the thickest condoms or they will break, when in fact, breakage rates are no different for the thinnest condoms, and a thinner condom means less change in sensation.

If you make using a condom a requirement for engaging in specific sexual activities, the choices will become to either engage in that activity with a condom or to not engage in it at all. You really don't need to fall for the claim that condoms ruin everything. They don't hurt, and, if the fit and style suits the person, they shouldn't significantly reduce sensation for most people. Then too, orgasm never has to be associated with one particular sexual activity, though I know it often is. If a partner balks at using a condom for intercourse, for example, because he has difficulty reaching climax while wearing a condom, that doesn't make intercourse impossible. It just means that another activity, such as manual sex, will need to follow if he wishes to reach climax.

Unless you know for sure that someone has recently been tested, and you trust them to report the results accurately (or have seen the results report), it's safest to engage in sexual activities in ways that protect yourself. The absence of symptoms is not a clear indication, as many STIs are asymptomatic (without symptoms) for a long while.

In short, you can get partners to use condoms by providing the condoms yourself and being relaxed, confident and firm in your conviction that sex just also means condoms.

Here are some additional links to give you a boost with this:

written 06 Jul 2012 . updated 24 Jan 2014

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.