Unrolling a condom onto a banana should be a teenage rite of passage, but the most I learned about sex in school was via the medium of VHS, namely two outdated (even for the early 00s) cartoons rubbing up against each other in the shower until the woman’s belly suddenly bloomed with child. My prevailing memory of the experience was laughter, childish giggles catching like wildfire, bubbling up the steps of the music room as we teased one another: “that’s you and Sam!”, the classic pre-teen accusations of romantic interest, adult imitation still in its most innocent form.
It was sex education time and like Moses parted the red sea, our teacher had split the class in twain, girls to one side, boys the other. We’d been herded into what can only be described as a windowless box with a noticeable slope. There was a xylophone and rainbow rainmaker in the corner so everybody wanted to sit at the back, but the TV had been wheeled out – a very ordinary TV, by any standard, but somehow made more magical by way of belonging to the school – so our pursuit of percussion had to wait.
Looking back now, I wonder if the darkness of the music room was some kind of subconscious manifestation of the hush-hush attitudes towards sex on our teacher’s part. Or maybe it was nothing more than an unfortunate coincedence. There was certainly the feeling that the information about to be shared was very sensitive though; pubic hair and bloody vaginas are better discussed privately, with other women. If you’re next to a xylophone, even better!
The boys had been corralled by the apex of masculinity within the primary school environment – the P.E. teacher – and were elsewhere having their own specialised chat, somewhere with windows no doubt (at risk of sounding bitter, there was only one windowless room in the school, so unless they were in the cloakrooms, these boys saw light). No doubt their conversation incorporated boisterous curiosity around masturbation, too; we were around 9-10, on the cusp of high-school eligibility and probably more knowledgeable than as adults we’d like to imagine 9-10 year olds are. Boys were already talking about wanking. But for us girls, the central message was this: your period is part of your menstrual cycle, and your menstrual cycle allows you to get pregnant. Sex will make you pregnant. Good luck out there.
Little did I know, that was to be the sum total of my sex education within the school system. The more serious chat which are supposed to happen in your teen years – probably as part of some PSE lesson or bookended onto a teacher training week – never did, and so I never tore open a condom wrapper, awkward and red-cheeked, to ceremoniously roll it onto a banana. Or a wooden dick. I’m not sure which piece of equipment was more prevalent in the hey-day of 05 – 10.
Teenagers being teenagers, sex was discussed a lot.
Kissing with tongues (getting off! I wish we still called it this now), fingering, undoubtedly sad hand jobs, blow jobs, SEX! The real deal. It was okay to be fingered by a boy but it wasn’t okay to finger yourself. Giving a blow job was a big deal, but cunnilingus? She doesn’t even go here.
I don’t know when the delight of oral sex for women entered my pysche, but it certainly wasn’t sparked by the high school environment, with its stunted social rules around acceptable sexuality and slagdom. Boys rooting around in the pants of their classmates were given a pat on the back – what a lad! – but the girl in the pants would be called a slut from the other side of the school field.
Once that title had attached, it was difficult to shake off, even if the attribution was born of a vaguely recollected family holiday on the Costa Blanca. The non-existent boy, the silhouette of a holiday romance, still higher in social standing than the tangible girl in situ.
The Maddona-Whore complex was playing out in real-time, before our eyes, but we were clueless to the abilities of the bodies that carried us, let alone the explanatory terms for sexual inequality, alive and kicking. The perfect girl would be good at blow jobs but should never have given one. Not being ‘good’ at ‘sex’ would be embarassing, but it would be even more embarrassing if you’ve, you know, actually had it.
Or worse yet, if you got pregnant. Pregnancy was heralded as the pinnacle of pubescent fear, a tragedy, a life-ending calamity. Though it wasn’t explicitly warned, the insinuation was that you’d have to do it alone; few teenage boys would ‘step up to the plate’ to ‘be a dad’. So you’d be young, single, without money, and pregnant. If you wanted to protect yourself from that – and, considering the possible outcomes, you really should take precautions to protect yourself from that – you take the pill.
Before I learned about the clitoris, I learned about the pill. It would be many, many years still until I learned anything in-depth about female orgasm and ejaculation. It would be even longer until I started to educate myself on the complex science of female sexuality, the link between the brain and the vulva, the role of the sympathetic nervous system, the fluidity of sexuality, the fact that the whole thing is the vulva and not the vagina and for the bulk of my life I’d been misnaming my own genitals. But forget all of that, forget the sexual enjoyment and deeper understanding of our bodies. First, and definitely foremost: hormonal contraception.
Nothing heralded the not-so-unspoken endorsement of maturity quite like being on the pill. It was confirmation that you were one of the cool kids: you were sexually active. Or at least pretending to be. Now I’m in my late twenties, the idea of 13 & 14 year olds being sexually active is jarring – it seems so young! – but that’s the reality of horny teenagers. Sex is cool and unknown and ellicit and if we can shove our hands down each others pants, we will. I wore concealer as lipstick and two packets of 20” hair extensions so, unsurprisingly, I had no need for contraception until I was 18, but within my immediate circle it was very common, and 100% of the time, contraception took the form of the pill.
Never condoms. Even though they were given out for free and hungrily hoarded for sexual liaisons which would probably never happen, condoms were almost antiquated. And not always to be trusted, either – despite being 98% effective when used properly, it was generally accepted that teenagers couldn’t be trusted to use them properly. Even though that same teenager would need to burden the responsibility of remembering to take hormonal contraception regularly, on time, to a schedule.
Reflectively, the traditional ‘chase & be chased’ mentality is clear even within the fibres of our sex ed; boys were taught to do, girls were taught to protect. Boys initiate, girls receive. A key that opens many locks is a great key, but a lock which is opened by many keys is a bad lock. Boys sex brave! Girls sex shhhh.
But as most of us discover, contraception is a rocky road, potholed by headaches, nausea, irregular bleeding, mood swings, depression, anxiety, isolation, random body hair, discharge, weight gain, acne, erratic cycles, sore boobs and other bodily delights. The general consensus is that you have to try a few different contraceptive methods until you find the one right for you, whether that’s a different brand of the same pill or some other means of delivery. The doctors and nurses will tell you that, when you sit down in the sexual health clinic complaining that your implant has caused you to bleed almost non-stop for 6 months: “you just need to keep trying, you’ll find one that works for you eventually”.
What if I don’t want to keep trying, though? What if years and years of yo-yoing side effects have exhausted me and ignited a deep frustration with my own body? What if I’m ready to escape this carousel? Won’t condoms do?
“I’ll prescribe the pill for you anyway, just in case.”
I don’t know whether health professionals don’t trust us to use condoms properly, whether they genuinely favour hormonal contraceptives or whether I’ve been unlucky in my experiences, but despite my own clear directives (“I do not want to go on any other contraception”), always, always something else was encouraged.
When my implant stopped working, I was told the waiting list to have it taken out was 6 weeks, and until then I should go on the pill or use the implant to ensure I was still protected; what an odd turn of fortunes, to double down on hormonal contraception when I was trying to move away. Sexual health services are increasingly being strangled so although I was frustrated at the system, I was never frustrated with the people – they were doing the best with the time and resources made available to them. But this moment of difficulty was pivotal in deciding to go ‘cold turkey’.
A year or two into my current relationship, I decided to come off hormonal contraceptives completely and rely upon the OG, the sheath of excellence: the mighty condom. My moods are still at the mercy of my menstrual cycle but they occur with some predictability, and I never wonder if something weird my body is doing is the result of my contraception. It’s just something weird my body is doing. Having considered them before with some disdain, I’m now a out-and-proud condom rave-reviewer. I haven’t been single for a while so I’m not sure what is happening in the dating pools, but I believe generally, there still exists a certain stigma around condom use. Like it’s not quite enough to do the job properly, or it can do the job properly but awkwardly at best.
Well, listen up folks: interrupting the flow of sex to put on a condom is always a bit awkward. Even if you’ve been in a relationship for five years and you’ve had your tongue inside every orifice of your partner’s body (too much?). There’s the naked dash to wherever the condoms are stored, the impatient corner rip to get that little blighter out, the awkward fumble to unroll and secure and of course introduce some lube because nobody enjoys going in dry. It’s part of the ritual to accidentally catch each other’s eye and exchange an awkward, knowing semi-smile.
And, yep, you’re right, it doesn’t feel as good. It doesn’t! Skin to skin is seamless, and condoms aren’t always that. But for me, the downsides are marginal in proportion to the benefits, the benefits which I believe allow you to have a better sex life overall.
I’ll acknowledge here that not everybody can use condoms. And not everybody wants to use them. If that’s you, then please take a seat at the back and feel free to browse Reddit while you wait. For years my contraceptive choices were steered by the influence of others, so I don’t want to cause undue disruption where it isn’t needed – you know what feels right for you and what makes your mind and body happy. If you choose hormonal contraceptives and they work for you, you’ll find no judgement over here. Your body, your choice.
However, if you choose to take hormonal contraceptives and the side-effects cause you agg: girl, what is you doing? Today, I’m going to try and change your mind.
Employing my usual means of rigorous scientific research, I opened the question of condom-use up on Instagram Stories. Why did people choose not to use them? Here’s what was said and my pithy response:
Condoms kill the mood and don’t allow for as much spontaneity
Pretty much. You do have to interrupt the natural flow of things to deploy the condom and if you’re not in an environment where you have one handy, then the spontaneity is cut short. If you choose to use condoms only though, you get over this pretty quickly, and it doesn’t kill the mood, just delays it slightly. From my perspective, avoiding the side effects I’d experience from hormonal contraception makes a few minutes of interruption worth it.
Repurchasing & Expensive
They continuously have to be repurchased and they’re expensive
Unless you’re in a long-term relationship, then you only need to buy one pack every 6 months hahaha (sorry to my bf, I couldn’t resist the joke). This is annoying! I have no rebuttle. Condoms are expensive and you need to keep them in stock, which adds a layer of admin to your sexual experience. Hanx offer a condom subscription so you don’t need to think about popping into Boots before someone pops one in you, but they are pricey. Depending on where you are in the world and your age, you might be able to receive condoms for free too. Google!
My partner doesn’t like the way they feel and says he doesn’t want to use them
*deep sigh*. This upsets me. If you’re on board with this decision then ignore what I’m about to say, but if the only reason you’re not trying condoms is to satisfy the brief, fleeting pleasure of your partner, where is your happiness being factored in? What about your wellbeing? And whoever this partner is, they better be delivering the best P in V of your life, because if you’re not quivering in ecstasy post-coitus, why should you be so concerned about marginally improving his experience when the potential for you to feel better in yourself is taking a back seat? The consideration isn’t being reciprocated. The maths aint mathing.
Erections (Or Not)
Condoms affect my partner’s ability to maintain an erection
This is a totally different story to the scenario above. Fair enough, you know. There’s a lot of reading available to try and help this not be the case (making sure you’ve found the right fit, incorporating putting the condom on as part of foreplay, your partner practising putting them on alone so it’s isn’t a stressful fumble) but I understand if, as a couple, you’d rather avoid condoms.
Less Pleasureable Sex
I don’t like the way condoms feel and they make sex less pleasureable
There’s no denying that skin-on-skin is supreme, but again, from my perspective, the difference in sensation is neglible when compared to the difference in feeling I have mentally and physically, off of hormonal contraception. So it’s kinda worth it. And I haven’t stopped enjoying a good roll around so they can’t be that bad.
They have a weird smell
Honestly, I’ve never noticed this. Do they? I’ll smell one and get back to you.
Not 100% effective
I’m paranoid about pregnancy and the risk of condoms splitting, so other forms of contraception seem more reliable
Condoms are 98% effective when used properly. The pill is 99% effective when used properly. IUDS are 99% effective and can’t really be used any other way than properly.
I get it – there’s more involved with deploying the proper use of a condom as a means of protection. Not much more than the pill, though, which you need to remember to take without fail. And condoms are much easier to control; once your IUD is in, you need to book an appointment with a health professional to consider taking it out.
Again, I’m not trying to herald condoms as this great solution compared to all other contraceptives, because they aren’t. Rather, I’m trying to situate them within the context of available contraceptives and recognise the pros and cons because I think they’re too readily dismissed.
And in terms of condoms splitting, I know it does happen but it’s pretty rare, and usually because the condom has expired or is the wrong size. I’m not discounting condoms breaking as a valid fear, but I think the trepidation around it is often larger than the risk of it actually happening.
Ultimately, when we get down to brass tacks, all I want is for you to not write off condoms if you’re in the position to use them.
If you other forms of contraception work for you with no complaints, you know you best: stick to what feels right.
But if you’re stuck in that cycle of rinse and repeat with whichever new method your doctor has recommended, try going ‘cold turkey’ in the hormonal department. Try condoms.
You can get super thin ones, vegan ones, free ones and ribbed-and-bobbled-for-your-pleasure ones. It’s like a smorgasbord of sexual protection – pick your flavour.
(There are flavoured ones too, did I mention those?)
Maybe they’re not for you, but maybe they are. And maybe moving away from hormonal contraception helps you to feel a little bit better in yourself, mentally and physically.