Sex and SexualityUncategorized

No such thing as safe sex?

One of the joys of being part of a blogging network is that you get exposed to articles and such that you’d never have come across in your own sphere. Sometimes they’re enlightening, worldview-expanding, and perspective-altering. Sometimes they’re just tripe. This article by Matt Walsh, on why he’s not going to teach his kids about safe sex, falls solidly in the latter category.

Oddly, the headline itself contains some actual truth: “I will not teach my kids about safe sex because there is no such thing.” Correct! In fact, educators these days normally talk about safer sex. There is no safe sex just like there is no safe driving, no safe eating at restaurants, no safe walking down the street. No matter what precautions you take, something bad could happen to you as a result of doing these things. You have to decide what risks you’re comfortable with in order to get the rewards that come from doing the activity.

But, as it turns, out, Walsh isn’t even talking primarily about the non-zero risk of STIs and pregnancy that comes with sex. He’s talking about the emotional connections, or lack thereof, and making some confused point about safety based on some really left-field assumptions about how and why most people view sex. Let’s take this piece by piece.

But, when it comes to human sexuality, we’ll sip whatever chemicals we need in order to stave off the natural emotional and physical consequences of our behavior. Imagine the college students who have to chug 6 rum cocktails and 8 Natty Lights between them before they can anonymously copulate in someone’s dorm room. But they require more than booze; they also need pills and condoms and explanations the morning after about how this was all just for fun and it didn’t mean anything.

I’m not sure what alternate dimension Walsh has been peering into, but this does not look tremendously like the picture of young people’s sexuality that I’m aware of. First of all, if you’ve just chugged 3 rum cocktails and 4 Natty Lights you probably shouldn’t be having sex at all (and you should reconsider your drink of choice.) Second, he makes it sound like students are going, “I feel like I should be having anonymous sex in a dorm room, since that’s what we Young People do, but I just can’t bring myself to do it until I’ve drunk myself into a stupor.” Yes, alcohol + sex is a major problem, especially among college students, because of the way it confuses consent and impairs judgement. But most people who drink and then hook up aren’t drinking in order to override the wisdom of their hearts and unlock the “anonymous copulation” ability; they’re drinking to overcome social anxiety, to feel freer to do the things they already wanted to do, maybe to deactivate some of the guilt that people like Matt Walsh have created around sexuality. I’m not saying that alcohol is an awesome way to accomplish any of these goals, but if we’re going to tackle the problems of young adults, alcohol, and sex, we have to recognize the value that people are getting from consuming it.

Also, most college hookups, even casual ones, aren’t “anonymous.” They’re between acquaintances and friends, and even when casual they often aren’t just a one-time thing.

Also, note the scary pile-up of pills and condoms and explanations, like their presence somehow demonstrates that there’s something deeply wrong with this picture. Pills (I assume he means birth control) and condoms are excellent and responsible things to have around for those who don’t want pregnancies and STIs. Explanations about what exactly your intentions are, what kind of relationship or non-relationship you’re interested in, are awesome and should definitely be part of any first-time sexual encounter (ideally before, but that often doesn’t happen, and if it’s really important to you that sex be a prelude to a romantic relationship, you should definitely bring it up ahead of time rather than assuming your partner feels the same way.)

Why do we say that these people enjoy sex? The man who makes love to his wife of 20 years enjoys sex; these people only enjoy certain physical sensations. They enjoy masturbating with assistance — but sex is precisely what they’re trying desperately to avoid.

I, ummm… ok. I guess sex is a magical experience that only kicks in when you’ve been married for… how long I wonder? Is it sex right away on the wedding night, or does it only start being sex once the bonds of love and marriage have really been tested by some struggles? If a couple were living in sin before their wedding, is it assisted masturbation right up until the wedding day and sex afterward? When exactly does this mystical transformation occur?

No word on whether gay and lesbian couples ever get to enjoy sex, even if they’ve been together for 40 years, but I bet I know his answer.

Perhaps most absurd of all is that we call these alcohol-fused humping sessions ‘safe,’ so long as they involve a layer of latex and a dose of steroids. We tell young people to wear condoms to protect against ailments like hepatitis and AIDS. The obvious insinuation here is that there is a ‘safe’ way to fornicate with a diseased stranger.

 But diseased strangers are my favorite kinds of people to fornicate with! When I’m going about my corrupt and lusty ways, I usually think to myself, “I could do with some fornication this afternoon. Let’s see if I can find a diseased stranger to do it with!” Most people actually don’t have any STIs. Yes, even if they have sex. Yes, even if they have a lot of it with a lot of different people. But if I am going to have sex with someone that I’m not in a monogamous relationship, I would much prefer not to get hepatitis or HIV (AIDS itself isn’t communicable, Walsh, just the virus that eventually leads to is), and a condom is a pretty excellent way to avoid that.

Here, let’s see if I can apply his logic to driving (which, by any measure, is WAY more hazardous than sex.)

Perhaps most absurd of all is that we call these sessions of careening around in a metal death trap “safe,” so long as they involve a thin polyester strap and a puffy nylon bag. We tell people to drive under a certain speed and obey traffic laws to protect against accidents. The obvious insinuation here is that there is a “safe” way to operate a 3,000 lb. vehicle that’s swerving in and out around other vehicles controlled by unpredictable and erratic humans.

He goes into a little rant about what sex is “meant to be,” which makes sense if you believe in a personal creator who personally created sex and has informed you directly about what it was meant for. If you don’t, then sex isn’t “meant” to be anything. It’s a part of life, like eating, playing, and loving, and we get to decide what it means for us and how to honor our own ethical principles while doing it.

Sex itself isn’t safe. On the other hand, committed relationships, fortified by the vows of marriage and reaffirmed daily by both spouses, are safe — and it is only in this context that the inherent vulnerability of sex can be made secure and comfortable.

Hahahaha oh honey. Guess where the majority of abuse happens, both sexual and otherwise? In committed relationships, often fortified by the vows of marriage. Committed relationships can be wonderful and fulfilling, they can bring out all the best in us and help us grow to new heights. They can also imprison us, tear us down, weaken us and lead us to give up the things we value most. The vows of marriage are not what make a relationship safe or unsafe. Mutual love, sincere care, and respect are what do that. And even then, I’m not sure “safe” is the best word. I’m in a strong and happy marriage, and I’ve also had a number of casual, one- or two-time-only sexual encounters. Guess which of those things has brought me more pain, in my life? Committed relationships, like many worthwhile things, bring joys that are far greater than the pain they cause, but I’m just not sure “safe” is the right word.

And when the manmade barricades fail and a human life is tragically formed, both parties can, with a straight face, say that it was an ‘accident.’

This is like planting a seed in the ground and calling it a mistake when a tree begins to sprout because you thought the soil was infertile. You may have believed this, but still the seed is doing exactly what seeds are supposed to do, and you did exactly what a person is supposed to do if they want to make a tree grow. You may be a fool, but this was no accident.

Accident: an unintended event, usually unfortunate. Most people who experience an unintended pregnancy are pretty clear about what happened, and were pretty clear about the fact that it was a risk, however small, of having sex. But they weren’t planting seeds, they were engaging in a mutually fulfilling and enjoyable activity, that had an unintended consequence. Much like someone driving a car didn’t go out intending to kill a squirrel, but an unlucky (although predictable in the broad scheme) chance meant it happened.

Next, you cut down the sapling and toss it in the fire, and then you continue to plant seeds. Each time, you cry that all of these damned trees keep shooting out of the ground. When someone comes and tells you to stop planting until you’re ready to deal with a forest, you weep and accuse the person of being cruel and judgmental simply because they’re articulating the basic rules of botany.

Nope nope nope. “Articulating the basic rules of botany,” in this analogy, would be saying, “Hey, did you know that when sperm and egg meet, a zygote is formed, which given the right amount of time and sustenance will become a person? And did you further know that one of the most efficient ways to get sperm and eggs to meet is to inject sperm into a woman’s reproductive tract, via sexual intercourse?” Nobody is unclear on that. (Well. Almost nobody.)

What you’re saying, when you say “stop planting until you’re ready to deal with a forest,” is “deny one of your strongest natural urges until you’re ready to give up a year of physical autonomy and two decades of emotional and financial freedom, because I have decided that a small collection of dividing cells that is incapable of surviving unsupported is morally equivalent to an adult human, even though my own holy text never says this.”

The abstinence-before-marriage plan paints an affirmative and uplifting picture. It says, “this is something so good and so important and so joyful that you should leave it be until you grow up and find one special person to share it with.”

I was not aware that the number of people you share something with is a measure of how good and important and joyful it is! When I write something, I usually share it with a lot of people — sometimes hundreds! I guess my writing, or my identity as a writer, must not be very good or important or joyful. If I really valued my writing or thought it was important, I would only share it with the people closest to me. Maybe even just my spouse. That would prove how special it was.

The abstinence before marriage lesson gives greater comfort — it tells you about the fun of sex, but also the love and creative power of it. And abstinence before marriage has a better way to deal with the bad things — it tells you about gonorrhea and herpes and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but it assures you that you don’t need to live in fear of these things if you simply wait for the right time.

Thanks for perpetuating the myth that monogamous couples don’t need to think about STIs. Nobody needs to live in fear of those things — none of them will wreck your life — you just need to be aware of them so that if you get one, you can deal with it. And even committed monogamous couples are wise to get an STI panel every so often. (Let’s not even bother with the assumption that as long as you’re married, it’s always the right time to have a baby.)

Also, I know very few high school or college students who will argue that sex should be emotionless and devoid of any personal connection, or that if you start to develop feelings for someone you’re having sex with you’re doing it wrong. Among the college students I’ve taught and spoken with, most acknowledge both the emotional and physical intimacy of sex, and very much value its role in helping partners connect more closely and show affection or love physically. They just don’t think that level of intimacy needs to be reserved for one person in their entire life.

The rest of the article pretty much goes on the assumption that his audience agrees that kids shouldn’t have sex, and argues against the “but they will anyway, so let’s teach them to be safe” line of thought. And while we may all have different thoughts on when an appropriate and healthy time to begin sexual activity is (I haven’t written about that largely because I DON’T KNOW DON’T ASK ME IT’S COMPLICATED), I think most of us would disagree that his “only when you’re married” rule is too late. Our children will have sex someday, and they will hopefully do it at an age and time that is right and healthy for them, and the best thing we can do for them is 1) empower them to make that decision based on wisdom, self-knowledge, and self-care, and 2) teach them what they need to do it as safely as possible, when they’ve made that decision.

Featured image: Wellcome Library no. 675476i Photo number: L0054035


Ginny Brown is a writer, speaker, and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She recently completed her M.Ed in human sexuality and is figuring out how to make a career out of it. On Twitter she's @lirelyn.

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  1. Thanks!

    I was going to comment and say that usually I feel like it’s blogging courtesy to link directly to a piece I’m arguing against, unless that piece is egregiously hateful or abusive. Then I saw the headline of the most recent post on that writer’s page, which references Robin Williams in a pretty harsh and ignorant way, and all the charity drained from my heart.

  2. Given that the alternative is the sort of rampant stupidity of this guy, I sometimes think that, “at an age and time that is right and healthy for them”, should be when they say so, using the best protective measures possible, and possibly as part of a school lab project. No, seriously, why should education on the mechanics of sex need to, for everyone, either come out of bad porn videos, or experimentation, the later of which is, pretty much explicitly, not going to happen, if they listen to people telling them, “Wait until later!”, or, “Not until you are married!” That’s just nuts, and.. probably contributes to a bloody lot of the unhealthy relationships out there. Of course, there is about zero chance of such a thing, so.. its bad porn, some stuff of the internet, a bit of, maybe, experimentation, behind the backs of clueless parents, and a bid, should they end up at spring break, college, or some place else, to be the next, “Drunk chick is nailed.”, or, “Hazing at the sorority.”, films on some adult web site, or something similar. But, heh, at least they get lots of experience that way, right? Instead of under, by comparison, relatively safe, understanding, and non-judgmental conditions, where they might be able to ask questions, or something…

    Seriously, the thing that always amazes me about people pushing abstinence, and all the BS that goes with it, other than the blindingly stupid assumption that their kids won’t do it anyway, in most cases, is the fact that nearly every bloody thing they worry about happening (other than the sex itself) is preventable, but only when you don’t throw away all control over it, by first making it taboo, then not teaching them anything at all, then playing a game of three monkeys, in which you neither see, no hear, nor speak of, any of it, from either direction, in the hopes that, if you don’t notice it, it can’t possibly be a) happening, or b) going really, really, really, wrong, when it does.

    1. There’s a whole lot of middle ground between getting all one’s sex ed from porn and the internet, and having a school lab project dedicated to having sex. The latter is pretty coercive by definition, so I’m not going to get behind that idea.

      I think parents can go a long way toward creating safe, understanding, and non-judgemental conditions for a teen’s first sexual experimentation. If they are open about what sex is and how it works and that only the people having it get to make decisions about it, that sets the foundation for a young person to make responsible, self-caring choices.

      1. Yeah, ok. Maybe its overkill, in some respects, but its not much worse than pushing a kid into sports, or half a dozen other things we think they “need” (or at least some people do). The point being to have an option. One which actually teaches something. And, right now… unless someone ends up in bed with someone with experience, practically the moment they turn 18, they can get a) a lot of theory, b) a lot of bad advice, not just about the mechanics, but how to deal with their partners, and c) just screwing up badly enough, with neither of them able to hand the result, or find someone to explain what went wrong. Some things, like Lacy Green’s Sex+ definitely help, but its one thing to watch a video about how the whole hymen thing is nonsense, and the first time doesn’t have to be painful, and actually getting someone to have the patience, and sense, to actually put it into practice.

        Heck, there are bloody adults that go to specialists that deal with nothing but trying to get them from messed up, to sexually functional, and use sex as part of the process. Though, some people really hate the fact that such a practice even exists.

        So.. yeah, parents being more open, and sane, about it would help a lot. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some concept of practical education on it either, when/if they might opt to seek it out, instead of an endless sea of confusing gibberish, with bits of useful stuff, but no way to tell the difference, without trying to apply it anyway, out there. Society is so scared to death of the idea of kids doing it that they are perfectly happy to, say, make a kid take a class that gets their arm broken, but not one that might result in them even seeing each other naked, never mind going father than that. It seems insane to me. There seems to be a basic assumption that its supposed to be confusing, embarrassing, possibly painful, maybe not even worth the time, quite likely short, etc. To make it anything else would require doing “something” beyond just telling them its OK if they do it in the house, as long as they use protection, and someone is home (which a few parents I know where gasped at, talked about behind their backs, and called various unflattering things, including by my own parents, who thought very idea that they allowed such a thing was scandalous, and a good reason to never let their kids have anything to do with those “other” people’s).

        But, the biggest one is, how do you make choices without knowledge? And, is, just to be devils advocate, what is the point of that self knowledge having to come randomly, scatter shot, and by happenstance? The answer may not be what I, half jokingly, suggested, but.. its kind of hard to see where the “in between” is, which doesn’t only solve the “safe and responsible” part of the equation, while running away from the “understanding and experience” part, as though it was contagious, or on fire, or something. :p

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