My Tiny Hypocrisy: I Don't Always Use Birth Control
When I first started having sex with men at age 17, I assumed I'd always use condoms with guys, unless I was in a monogamous relationship or trying to get pregnant. That assumption stayed true through most of my twenties, but once I turned 30 I found myself involved with a new class of men who for various reasons weren't condom fans. This shocked me, not so much because of the specter of STIs, but because I imagined that if I were a guy, I'd be terrified of getting a girl pregnant. I wasn't so shocked, however, that I could refuse the novelty.
The first time, I felt like I was watching myself from afar, and figured this slightly older man must know something I didn't, must have some special way of protecting us. When we did it again the next morning, forgoing a condom seemed easier, somehow; I'd already done it once. The same thing happened when I dated another man later that year; by then the morning-after pill was relatively easily available, though not as easily as it is now. We were dating, and I felt grown-up and special knowing that he wanted that kind of intimacy.
I know I'm certainly not the only woman in my age group (I'm 35) or any other who's been there, done that—or is doing that. The recent brouhaha over xoJane health critic Cat Marnell's confession that she uses Plan B as her primary birth control shows that we are more than ready to get our claws out about other women's sexual choices. I'm not saying that we shouldn't encourage each other to do what's in our best interest, but where do we draw the line? How different is the judgment Marnell received from encouraging a vegetarian friend to eat meat, because you think it's healthier (or vice versa)? If I were to castigate every friend who's ever made a sexual "error" at some point in her life, whether around birth control or anything else, I'd be left with very few friends.
Piled onto this extremely personal, sensitive topic is the idea that because I write about sex for a living, I'm automatically a role model for others, and that I always make the smartest, best decisions for myself—and that when I reveal things about my life, I'm encouraging others to follow my lead. I'm not, and I'm pretty sure Marnell wasn't either. What this utopian vision fails to take into account is that I'm human too. My actions make sense to me the time, but my motivations have as much to do with my heart as they do with my head.
When I dated a guy who'd only used condoms, I wanted us not to use them because we were in an exclusive relationship, and for me it would have made the sex more intimate. I don't necessarily mean "better" in the physical sense, but I would have felt more bonded to him, knowing we were doing something he'd never done, and yes, while it would have included some risk that I might get pregnant, that was a risk I was willing to take. I respected his reasoning, that should something go awry, he wasn't ready to be a father, but must admit that I also felt slighted. When most men I've dated would've been eager for condomless sex, but deferred to my insistence on it if I wasn't on another form of birth control, his disinterest felt, rationally or not, like a sign of not caring as much about me as previous boyfriends.
Other times I've forgone a condom because I told myself the chances of my getting pregnant were slim to none, and in the worst case scenario, as my biological clock ticks away, would it be the end of the world if I became a single mom? I've skirted the edges of safety for reasons I'm sure many of us share: because I didn't want to think about the reality of the risks I was taking. In my rational mind, I don't believe you can know who has an STD just by looking at them, of course, but in the heat of the moment? That knowledge starts to slip. A confident man is a sexy man, in my mind, and if I trust a guy enough to engage in sex with him, there's a part of me that trusts that should a worst-case scenario ensue, he will be there, and if he's not, that everyone else in my life will back me up.
I know from experience that "my body, my choice" means, literally, that I am the only one I can rely on when it comes to what happens with my body. I was having a rather covert affair with someone, and I was on birth control during most of it, but one time I wasn't, and I told him this, emphasizing that we couldn't have sex, at least not without a condom. When he started to enter me, I decided to pretend that everything would be fine; I had no idea he would risk ejaculating inside me, but he did. I told myself it was no big deal, and that I could get Plan B, which I did; what I didn't realize is that money I had assumed would be in my bank account in plenty of time wasn't, causing me to wait, and worry, for a few days. I didn't share this with him because I didn't think it was his business; I'd taken a risk and I was the one who had to handle any resulting fallout.
I believe it's my job as a woman to take care of my body, including my birth control, and I take full responsibility for the times when I haven't used it. I can't claim that I will always use it when I should, though it's not something I'm cavalier about. I think we've in some ways conflated the autonomy feminism has given women around reproductive rights with dictating the way women use the "choice" we're so adamant about having. Irene Vilar documented her experience having multiple abortions in her memoir Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict; I don't think she was celebrating them, but they are facts of her life. The idea that any of us should be held up as model citizens, or shamed for our sexual choices, including our choices to use, or not use, birth control as we see fit, disturbs me. I'm not advocating other people going condomless, or denying the need for quality, comprehensive sex education for adults as well as teens, but on an individual level, judging and shaming people is both unhelpful and infantilizing. We all weigh risks every single day, and it's our right to make the decisions that suit our lives best at any given time. I don't walk up to smokers and tell them they're damaging their lungs; I'm pretty sure they already know that. Similarly, I would never question someone's right to make their own choices about their sex life.
I don't, as a rule carry condoms; perhaps I should, but when I'm not planning on having sex, I don't. I don't bring people home, so I'm usually going to their place or a hotel, and yes, I tend to assume that if they want to use a condom, they'll have one handy. I don't necessarily think the condomless sex I've had with men is any better qualitatively than sex I've had using a condom per se; for me, it's more about the meaning of the action. In the wake of Catgate, I've seen plenty of people saying "I always use a condom," which is great, but just because I can't say the same doesn't mean I don't have the right to make that decision for myself. Which I will, on a case-by-case basis.