“I feel like I'm an informed person, but in the heat of the moment, it's just hard to be like, let's use logic right now,” a 22-year-old college student living in Michigan told me over the phone last month, talking about her sporadic use of condoms during sex. “I know what I should be doing, but I still don't do that.”
Like many of the people interviewed for this story, this individual wanted to remain anonymous. The student, who is studying to become an engineer, is heterosexual and has sex with two regular partners, hooking up about two or three times a week. “With one of them, I always use a condom, and with one of them I don't. The one that I am not using a condom with, we have an agreement that we will use a condom with everyone else, if we're hooking up with other people, but between us it's OK,” she said.
Her sentiments echo how other people I spoke to feel about condom use, which has been declining, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The institute published a report last April documenting adolescent trends around safe sex from 2006 to 2019. The report found that contraceptive use overall had increased, but consistent condom use declined over time. This particular progression isn’t only unique among teens, as older adults have started flouting condom use as well, per a Cosmopolitan article from 2019. The gradual shift away from condoms as the primary means of protection against STIs and pregnancy aligns with individual stories from people I interviewed for this story. Some chalked up their irregular condom use to forgetfulness or a creeping angst about spoiling a hot and steamy moment, while others said it simply just feels better to participate in sex without a barrier.
But with declining condom use comes a steady increase in STIs. "Though 2021 case numbers for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are still being collected, there are worrying signs; initial reports show that gonorrhea cases have climbed, and the CDC reports that there were more cases of infants with syphilis in 2020 than in 2019," reported National Geographic in January. The upward tick “of STDs increased overall and across many groups,” according to the CDC, but “hit racial and ethnic minority groups, gay and bisexual men, and youth the hardest,” the report stated, and STI rates among Black people “were 5–8 times that of non-Hispanic White people.” And gay and bisexual men made up nearly half “of all 2019 primary and secondary syphilis cases.”
The pandemic has exacerbated the problems. With resources needed for COVID-19 treatments and a chorus growing of medical professionals becoming burned out, things like STI care and testing have fallen by the wayside. “Many people have a limited understanding of STI given lacking sexual health education in the US. Condom use, a core component of preventing STIs, is also in decline amid already low rates,” according to a Guardian article from last October.
BuzzFeed News published a callout in early January asking readers about their safe sex habits. Thousands of participants responded, with a wide range of beliefs and perspectives on the issue.
Toward the end of our phone conversation, the Michigan-based engineering student said she had “been researching rates of infection” and was “getting more and more worried.” Though she has two consistent sexual partners at the moment, she says moving forward, “when I am having sex with a new partner for the first time, I'll definitely be a bit more like, maybe we should use a condom, maybe let's both get tested before we decide on condomless sex.”
“I think back to my most recent partner, and the first time we slept together, which was months ago, I did not ask him about a condom, and I think a lot of it stems from fear of rejection.”
For some of the people I spoke to, a lack of adequate sex education made them reluctant to use condoms regularly. “I grew up mostly Christian, so I really didn't learn anything about sex until I was in like ninth grade,” a 23-year-old woman living in Ohio told me. “And we didn't really have any discussions [about sex] with my parents. I didn't really have a sex-based health class either,” she said. Consequently, she learned about sex from peers or from watching porn. She said she uses condoms about 50 percent of the time, though she is currently voluntarily celibate.
In college, she remembered using condoms “religiously” with an ex-boyfriend, and once rushed to take a Plan B pill after the condom broke. But as she got older, her sexual interests evolved. She entered a dominant/submissive relationship with a guy who had a breeding fetish. “He kind of introduced me to that, and I never really used one with anyone else after him,” she said. While her decision to shy away from condoms is tied up with specific kinks, as well as the fact that she has not yet knowingly contracted an STI, she did say there’s also a bit of reluctance for fear of turning the guy off. “I don't wanna put too much pressure on it. I don't wanna ruin the moment,” she said. This echoes how Colleen, 24, feels, too. “I think back to my most recent partner, and the first time we slept together, which was months ago, I did not ask him about a condom, and I think a lot of it stems from fear of rejection,” she said.
For Colleen, standing her ground can be difficult in the bedroom because of past encounters that she described as “nonconsensual,” telling me, “So now I just have this fear of bringing [condom use] up with people and I know better. That's the thing, like, I know better. And I 100% know that what I'm doing is dangerous and could have serious consequences for me and any future partners down the road, but in the moment I find it really hard to say, ‘Hey, this is my body and I'm not gonna let you do anything with it.’”
On the subject of feeling comfortable expressing your sexual boundaries, Raquel Savage, 31, a therapist, sex worker, and educator, said a great entry point would be identifying and interrogating systemic constraints that make one feel as if broaching the topic will somehow sour temptations. “So what would be the reason that a woman would feel uncomfortable advocating for herself with her cishet male partner? That's patriarchy, misogyny, that's purity culture, that's whorephobia,” she said during our video call. “That's all these systems at play that we have been socialized into make us feel uncomfortable, because realistically, we ought to not feel uncomfortable saying, ‘I don't want this. I do want this.’”
How your family either engaged or decided not to engage with sex and sexuality also informs the way you may navigate those topics as you get older. “That can often — and often does — lead to some kind of a trauma or negative experience that is compounded with the societal, and the cultural shit,” she said. “And then it becomes like, ‘Well, when I was a kid, I tried to advocate for myself in this way and I got yelled at, so I have this really ugly, uncomfortable body experience that I wanna avoid at all costs. So if that means just going along with the thing, I'll go along with the thing.’”
So there’s a trifold way of looking at this specific kind of discomfort in the bedroom — cultural, interpersonal, and traumatic. And if the person or people you’re sleeping with typify those things, it’s understandable why advocating for oneself would seem daunting. “It’s scary, it’s too much,” Savage said, but ultimately getting over this requires practicing boundary setting and investing in relationships that “feel ethical and safe and reciprocal, and that all of that is just so much fucking work so most of us end up in relationships where that’s just not happening.”
“If you're not feeling secure enough to insist he use a condom, then you probably shouldn't be in bed with him.”
New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder, author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, told me via email, “If you're not feeling secure enough to insist he use a condom, then you probably shouldn't be in bed with him.” He also suggested condoms could help with relaxation and offered a bit of advice about making the most of the moment. “Let's be honest — when you recall the best sex of your life, was physical sensation the biggest ingredient? More likely, it was the sight and feel of your partner's body — or the erotic connection between the two of you,” he wrote. “Don't let the presence of a condom distract you from those other things!”
Eddie, 24, lives in Seattle and works in leadership for an automobile company. He said he never had a problem with wearing condoms during sex — in fact, he would often be “adamant” about using contraception. Eddie, who identifies as pansexual, said he’s never experienced men who wouldn’t sleep with him because of his dedicated condom use, “but there were certain guys who would say, ‘Oh, I really prefer, you know, not to use a condom, you know?’ But I would say, ‘You know, that's fine. You can do that with other people, but not with me.’” Fear of contracting an STI compelled his allegiance to condoms, but since he started taking PrEP, an HIV prevention medicine, he’s begun having a more relaxed approach to sex. (PrEP does not prevent people from contracting other STIs.)
“I did not have sex for the first time without a condom until like, two and a half years ago,” said Eddie, who is now in a monogamous relationship. Before getting coupled up, he recalled “one particular sexual partner who I was just like ridiculously attracted to, and they preferred to not use a condom. Finally I said, all right, and that was the first person I ever had sex with without a condom, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is an entirely different experience,’” he said. Should he ever become single again, Eddie said he doesn’t know if he would immediately adopt his former condom-wearing habits.
Another person I spoke to, a 35-year-old Las Vegas resident who opted to stay anonymous because of the industry they work in, started using PrEP last summer and described it as “revolutionary.” They continued: “I don't second guess as much as I used to,” they said, recalling how they would be “sweating bullets” before going to get tested. A regular condom user, they added that there was a time when they were so riddled with anxiety that they didn’t get tested for eight years, fearing what the results might reveal. They take “calculated risks,” now using condoms for penetrative sex, but not for fellatio. (It’s still possible to contract STIs from giving and receiving oral sex.) “I'm a firm believer [of] don't swallow, unless you're in love,” they said.
A 2018 New York Times opinion piece titled, “The End of Safe Gay Sex?” noted a precipitous decline in condom use among gay men, per an Australian study that noted the sexual practices of 17,000 gay and bisexual men from 2014 to 2017. “While the number of H.I.V.-negative men who are on PrEP increased to 24 percent from 2 percent, the rate of condom use decreased to 31 percent from 46 percent,” the Times article outlined.
According to a 2019 BMC Public Health report that analyzed condom practices among HIV-negative gay men in Vancouver, Canada, men were less likely to use condoms, citing, in part, the rise in popularity of bareback sex and the sense that barriers used during sex inhibit pleasure and connection. “Some have suggested that three decades of condom-based prevention messaging and interventions have caused safer sex fatigue or burnout, leading to inconsistent condom use. New interventions that focus solely on condoms may be viewed as ineffective or unrealistic, and may therefore be rejected, particularly among older gay men who are tired of prevention messaging focused primarily or exclusively on condoms,” the study said. But with infections like antibiotic-resistant Gonorrhea, also called “Super Gonorrhea,” which is close to incurable, becoming more common among men who sleep with men, there’s still plenty reason to wrap up during sex. And if you’re someone who typically refrains from using condoms, you may want to consider talking to your primary care physician about getting an HPV vaccine, too.
“Condoms rub me raw,” she said. “ I prefer to use a form of birth control and stick to one partner at a time."
Of course, not all queer-identifying people have the same blasé attitude toward condoms, even with the popularity of PrEP, which has helped many queer men overcome trepidation about sex. Nick, 35, works as a painter and lives in Brooklyn. He uses condoms consistently, though he hasn’t made casual hooking up a priority because of the pandemic. In the past, he dealt with a minor health scare that turned out to be a learning experience for him. He hooked up with a guy on the dating app Scruff and later discovered upon rereading his profile that he was HIV positive. Nick said he “didn’t freak out a ton” and added that the two didn’t discuss their statuses prior to hooking up. He spoke with a friend who allayed his worries, providing him with resources that explained what it meant to be HIV positive and have an undetectable viral load. That means the virus is so low in a person’s body that it can’t be transmitted through sex. “That totally changed my whole idea of somebody that was positive and my interaction [with them],” he said. Now when he does hook up, Nick said his approach to wearing condoms is mainly about prioritizing his own well-being. “I'm not interested in going back on my health because they don't wanna wear a condom. If they say no, great, I'll find somebody else. I'm not that hard up for sex,” he said.
While condoms have proven to be effective in protecting against STIs, some people simply don’t wear them — or ask their partners to — because they are uncomfortable. “If I'm in a long-term relationship, I won't use condoms,” a woman named Audrey, 22, living in Tennessee said. Even with proper lubricants, she said, condoms don’t seem to be compatible with her body. “Condoms rub me raw,” she said. “ I prefer to use a form of birth control and stick to one partner at a time. It also doesn’t help that the first time I had sex with my current boyfriend, the condom got stuck inside of me and we had to get Plan B the next day.”
Like Audrey, Altair, a 33-year-old who lives in New Jersey, doesn’t particularly like condoms either but will wear them if his sexual partners desire it. “Condoms are uncomfortable; maybe I haven't found the right [fit] for me, or like the best condoms that could work,” he said.
While Altair, who identifies as ethically non-monogamous, knows the reason why he forgoes condom use — because it feels better and he has a network of established sexual partners whom he trusts — he believes the overall decline of protection could also be attributed to people simply not having as much sex nowadays. “I've read lots of accounts of people who have started periods of celibacy by choice, some people may be entering into monogamous relationships — or in monogamous sexual relationships — and they only have one partner and choose not [to use] condoms.”
There’s some research that backs this idea. Fewer people are having sex these days. “People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood,” the Atlantic wrote in 2018. And although fewer people are having sex, STIs have increased due to a few factors: One reason, of course, is condomless sex, but also because of “sexual behaviors associated with opioid use and addiction,” as well as cuts to funding from public health programs.
Savage, the therapist, looked at it another way, attributing reports about diminished sexual activity among younger generations to the ways in which queer and trans folks have disrupted longheld conceptions about relationships and sex. “Folks are moving away from cultural expectations to figure out what feels more authentic and affirming for them,” she said. “Meaning me as a cis woman, no longer having to rely on marriage and a man in order to do anything, I can do whatever the fuck I want. And so that means that in order to have a man in my life, they essentially have to be a luxury and men are in no way a fucking luxury. So I'm not gonna have 'em around and I'm not gonna fuck 'em, period.”
Even with STI infection rates trending in a direction that concerns medical professionals, a fair amount of people seem OK with some level of risk. When asked about her thoughts on condoms seemingly going out of style, the anonymous Ohio resident who was introduced to the breeding kink from a former partner told me, “I think people should do as I say and not as I do, for sure.”
The best approach, according to Savage, would be focusing on harm reduction. “I think shifting our language around sex practices to understand that there is no safe sex removes the moral piece to it,” she said. “No one’s having safe sex — we can all attempt to have safer sex, though.” ●