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safe sex

Today, safe sex means the wearing of condoms for all sexual encounters except those between long-term couples who have remained strictly monogamous.  Without wishing to sound cynical, how can any of us be sure these days that our partners have not had sex with anyone else?  This becomes a matter of trust, but no exceptions should be made with casual partners, or in short-term relationships.

Health experts recommend that condoms are still used even after a couple have been dating for a few months, as one could still 'stray' without telling the other and bring risk into the union.  Some men and women entering new liaisons are demanding health certificates from the prospective partner, showing clearance from various sexually transmitted diseases.  Unfortunately, we know that AIDS, for instance, has a prolonged incubation period.  Therefore, these certificates are virtually meaningless. Condoms should still be used all the time.

These have been called many things over the years — French letters, rubbers, johnnys, gloves and sheaths — and, in years past, they were regarded as a bit of a dirty joke.  Men who used them were seen as slightly desperate and teenage boys kept them in pockets and dashboards of cars, hoping to 'score' someday.  They were the single man's answer to the problems of unwanted pregnancy, but, after the advent of the contraceptive pill, they were always thought of as a poor substitute.

Who could have imagined that one day the humble condom would be raised to such heights of importance and fame, be spoken about freely in polite conversation, advertised on TV and sell in a variety of colours, sizes and fragrances?  They are now freely available and many sex educators want them to be accessible to males and females of all ages, even teenagers in school who arguably need them more than anyone.

Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in attitudes regarding condoms is that they're no longer regarded as the sole responsibility of the male.  Once, it was always up to the boy to buy, bring and wear them and a 'decent' girl would never be seen dead with one anywhere on her person.  I went through my entire teenage life without ever seeing a condom.  I remember a boyfriend taking a packet out of his pocket once and, when I realised what it was, I was horrified.  Needless to say, nothing happened, and later he told me he threw the thing into the river as he walked home, full of self-disgust and remorse!  Such were the values in my circle in the sixties.  Boy, have things changed!

Now, females are encouraged to buy their own condoms so that, if they feel like having sex and the guy is unprepared, they still have protection if they choose to proceed.  Expressions like 'no glove, no love' and 'if it's not on, it's not on' are now commonplace and they provide a neat way for women to make it clear that sex without protection these days is tantamount to suicide.  I'm amazed at how many men, women and teenagers still admit that they haven't used condoms.  Panic sets in after the event and they ask me what their chances are of contracting particular diseases.  Next time, panic before, I say.

Any objections to wearing condoms usually come from men who claim that they lose sensation when they're sheathed.  However, some women complain that it's 'unromantic' and messy, taking away all mystique from the sex act.  My suggestion is to make the condom part of the action.  Guys have to be aroused before putting on the sheath, obviously, so why not let this procedure constitute part of foreplay?  The woman can roll it on seductively and both can derive pleasure from making a game out of it instead of regarding it as a nuisance.

Condom-wearing is not too bad when the two people know each other, but I'm often asked about the etiquette surrounding condoms, particularly with new couples or casual lovers.  Does one flash the packet over cappuccino, and if not, when is the right moment to mention protection?  There's a very good TV advertisement that says it all, really.  A man and a woman are going for it on a windswept beach, and suddenly the woman stops and asks the guy if he has protection.  It turns out to be a commercial for sunglasses because he pulls a pair on and they go on making love.  That is virtually what has to happen with condoms, as coldblooded as it might seem.  New couples should discuss them before they get to the heat of passion, because it's too easy to reach the point of no return and decide to risk sex without protection.  Even the word 'protection' is a good reminder of why we should use condoms in the first place.  It used to be protection against pregnancy, and now it's to safeguard sexual health, prevent disease and save lives.

I usually advocate waiting for a period of several weeks to several months before having sex with a new person.  This is as much for emotional as physical health.  In that time, the subject of condoms should come up and both parties need to make it clear that protection is expected, with no exceptions.  If both the man and the woman carry condoms with them, there should be no risk of impulsive breaches of this rule.

The two myths I'd like to dispel on this subject are: that a woman who carries her own condoms is signalling to any guy she dates that she's available and she's expecting sex; and that the easy availability of condoms leads to promiscuity.

Taking responsibility for one's own choices and well-being is the adult thing to do.  If a teenager of either gender intends to have sex anyway, isn't it better for him or her to plan for it by buying condoms?  They're going to experiment, whatever we say, and at least they're not running the risk of pregnancy and/or AIDS by rushing in without protection.  If kids want to use condoms, they're going to find them, whether or not they're in school locker rooms or public toilets.  Also, these days, girls should be equal in this as in other areas of life — why should it only be up to the boy?

What if he happens not to like wearing condoms?  Should she give in just to please him?  I am still often told of cases where girls are pressured into having unprotected sex, either by boys who refuse to wear a condom, or because a condom isn't available.  First of all, no-one should ever have sex under pressure or just to please another person.  In particular, now, with the health risks that abound, everyone needs to be more assertive.  I'm sure boys get pressured too in these situations.  They don't want to appear like wimps to their mates or girlfriends, and girls don't want to look like 'bad sports'.  I can only say, that whatever age you are, this matter is just too important to bypass because of ego, false pride or embarrassment.  Remember, each one of us is responsible for ourselves.  It's no use blaming another when we get sick or things go wrong.

So, it's just a matter of promising yourself you won't have protected sex, being honest about this with any sexual partners you may have, carrying your own condoms and making it clear that if you're a guy, you expect to wear one, and if you're a girl, you expect the guy to wear one.

There are now different types of condoms — which is good news for couples who crave variety.  Guys who are bigger or smaller than average need to check out size factors for fit and comfort.  Girls, buy standard ones till you get to know him better!  Certain lubricated condoms can cause irritation so trial and error may be required.  Also, there are now ribbed ones to add stimulation for the woman, different colours and ones that glow in the dark.  If you have to use them anyway, make it fun, I say.  The adult product shops usually carry a whole array of condoms and you can experiment till you find the one that suits you best.  Keep in mind that they do have a limited life so check the use-by date.  As to their effectiveness, the AIDS Council gives the statistic of 99.9 per cent — so that's not too bad.  Obviously, they can break, so be careful.  If one does break just as the man ejaculates, it might be advisable for the woman to douche immediately and for both to get up and wash themselves.  This will reduce the incidence of infection and STDs, at any rate.

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