What do you think “safe sex” is?
No, I asked you first.
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You don’t want to define it incorrectly, because that would mean you’re having unsafe sex, right? Or sex that’s less safe than the sex that guy over there is having. Or maybe, if your definition is really wrong, we’ll all finally know that you’re not having any sex at all. Or perhaps if your definition of “safe” differs from that of the person with whom you’re having sex, one or both of you have been having unsafe sex without even knowing it.
“To me, there’s just no excuse not to be on a really strict birth control regime and use condoms every time,” Cooper Lewis ’11 said.
“Safe sex isn’t just about the physical relationship. There’s an emotional and psychological aspect,” Eric Rubenstein ’04, the founder of Sex Week at Yale, said.
“The only 100 percent safe practice is to abstain from sexual contact with another person,” Rebecca Schrier, the Student Health Educator at YUHS, wrote in an e-mail.
Safe sex, it seems, is a dilemma of semantics. As the discrepancies among these definitions reveal, we all have our own variations of safe sex — based on practical criteria, yes, but also on our genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds. The result of this ambiguity can range from emotional distress to physical danger, both of which, sources say, are not absent from this campus. The bottom line is perhaps surprising: Even here at Yale, sex may not be as safe as we’d like to think.
TOO SMART FOR YOUR OWN GOOD
A 2008 report published by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on the sex lives of New Yorkers found that tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants were having unsafe sex. A July segment on NPR’s Youth Radio by Pendarvis Harshaw claimed that sex without a condom is the new engagement ring. The widely read blog “Jezebel” sent readers into a frenzy two summers ago with semi-facetious questions like: “Wait, there’s something wrong with using pulling out as a method of contraception? Other than, you know, the chance it gets in your eye?”
Mass panic over the AIDS crisis has long since abated, and for the generation raised in its aftermath, sexual safety precautions are so deeply ingrained that it’s easy to take them for granted. We might feel bad admitting it, but using a condom sometimes seems like a mandate on par with flossing — we know that we don’t get cavities every time we’re lazy, but we don’t want to feel ashamed when we have to confront our dentists.
But we’re at Yale. We know better. Don’t we?
Students at this ivy-clad institution are above par intellectually, at least based on their SAT scores. But interviews suggest that test-taking skills don’t necessarily translate into sexual-health savvy. So are Yalies are having unsafe sex despite their brains? Or could the very sheltered bubble of erudition in which they live has given them a false sense of security?
“I was asked at Yale: ‘Is pulling out as a form of contraception going to keep working?’ ” recalled Alice Buttrick ’10, who is an active member of RALY, Yale’s reproductive rights organization, and has served as an on-campus intern for Planned Parenthood.
“Sex is not academic. It’s a different type of intelligence,” Buttrick said. “Here people tend to think too often: “We’re at Yale. No one has syphilis here, right?”
Although he was unable to release exact statistics, Yale University Health Services Director Paul Genecin said while the most common STD that YUHS sees is chlamydia, there are a few cases annually of gonorrhea and syphilis, as well as a steady occurrence of other sexually transmitted diseases and infections.
“We see students at Yale with HIV and AIDS at about the same rate as the general population,” Dr. Genecin wrote in an e-mail. “That is about 0.5 percent of the population; we see HIV in both Undergraduate and Graduate and Professional students, male and female, gay/bisexual and straight.”
HPV, he added, is likely as common at Yale as in the general population (about 20 percent) and herpes occurs so frequently that there are no statistics. It is probable that up to 80 percent of the young adult population (and Yale is no exception) have been exposed to Type I Herpes and about 20 percent to Type II.
Molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor William Summers, who teaches the infamous class “Biology of Gender and Sexuality” (“Porn in the Morn”), explained that — even in a purely academic setting — he consistently receives disturbingly erroneous answers on the class’s three exams.
“It surprises me how misinformed students are about what seem to be basic facts, what seem to be giveaway questions that everyone should get an 100 on,” Summers said. “A lot of students don’t know their own anatomy.”
Professor Summers described how, a few years ago, Artemio Jongco ’00, a Master of Public Health student, surveyed Yale’s Public Health School and Medical School students who were sexually active, and found that around 40 percent were having unsafe sex. Risky behavior, it seems, can take place even among those who have the best information that money can buy.
Although most Yale students have had access to accurate sexual education throughout their lives, Joshua Garcia ’09 said, especially in the moment, peer pressure and alcohol often trump intelligence.
“I think luckily at this point using a condom is at least something that’s a given as the ideal situation for a sexual encounter,” Garcia said. “But students’ level of achievement, perfectionism or intelligence doesn’t keep us from making bad decisions in the moment.”
IN THE MOMENT
There is an assumption at Yale that all of the students have type-A personalities: that we are all self-involved, aggressively competitive and obsessive-compulsive.
“People with knowledge of what we [Peer Health Educators] are talking about are also the very loud forerunners of the section asshole list,” Peer Health Educator Axel Schmidt ’09 said. “But section assholes over knowing reproductive health is in some ways a great thing.”
For some section assholes, though, sexual diligence can turn into sexual cockiness (pun intended) — false feelings of invincibility that translate into unsafe sexual practices.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous so she could share the details of her story, said she began to have unprotected sex with a summer boyfriend. It became difficult to stop, she said, despite the fear that it induced and the knowledge that she should have known better.
“It was solid that I didn’t get pregnant. Woot!” she wrote in an e-mail. “It sounds so flippant but every month I was a complete and total wreck until I got my period. It sucks to have unprotected sex but once you’re in the moment, bodies have a way of taking over.”
She felt she was acting irresponsibly, she said, and would cry from anxiety waiting for her period. After a while, though, she said she stopped fully comprehending how terrible it would be if one day her period failed to come.
“Once you have unprotected sex you’re really spoiled by it,” she explained, reflecting upon her experience in a different long-term relationship — when she was taking oral contraception and getting tested regularly. “When you really trust someone and you’re not scared of getting pregnant (the pill is the bomb) it seems sort of irrelevant.”
What’s more, before they strolled into the sexual Eden that is New Haven (Chloe, after all, didn’t do Harvard), the stereotypical Yale student spent more time practicing the clarinet and decoding genomes than they did doing the dirty. Sex may or may not be something that students encountered before coming to Yale, either in the bedroom (backseat of a car, back row of a movie theater) or in some kind of academic setting.
Lewis explained how he went to a very conservative Catholic high school in Wichita, where it was understood that discussing safe sex was synonymous with discussing safe sex after marriage. Students were taught that condoms are ineffective, he said, and that the only way to practice contraception was natural family planning.
“In high school I dated this girl — she was my first long-term girlfriend,” Lewis said. “I broke up with her two years ago and just found out she’s pregnant and of course she’s having it. She was using natural family planning. She’s the religious one … meanwhile her new boyfriend’s probably in the locker room bragging about how he never uses a condom. It’s disgusting.”
IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS (AND GIRLS WITH GIRLS AND GUYS WITH GUYS)
A couple who asked to remain anonymous spoke about their contraceptive choices. The boyfriend described how, because his girlfriend is taking oral contraception, they sometimes don’t use condoms. He is “risk loving,” he said, while she is “risk averse.” His girlfriend went on to say that they had both been tested since they started dating — only to have her boyfriend correct her. He interjected, somewhat warily, that he had in fact not gotten tested since before their relationship began. She seemed nonplussed.
Even within an intimate relationship, the gender divide can be difficult to bridge when it comes to safe sex.
The responsibilities involved in “safe sex” become more nebulous as each student adds their own set of qualifications. And the situation only becomes more confusing when one considers the risks specific to different genders, sexual orientations and sexual activities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, reported rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest among young women, and the long-term consequences of these diseases can be “much more severe for females” if they go untreated. Physical realities such as theses combine with cultural assumptions to create different expectations about sexual responsibility. Yale students, no matter how sensitive they may seem to be to issues of sexual politics, nonetheless shared stories that reflected gender biases.
“Men are the ones carrying the condoms because they want to make sure that a silly technicality doesn’t stop them from getting to have sex,” Jessica Abrego ’10 said. “Women are the ones who have to insist that the condom is used because a) they’re biologically more susceptible to STDs and b) they’re the ones about to get knocked up otherwise.”
Samantha Gale ’10 agreed: “Men seem to have no problem expressing their disdain for condoms and often just expect women to deal with birth control.”
Pregnancy may not present a risk in homosexual sex, but the threat of STDs remains.
“I sort of have this idea that a lot of STDs you can’t get rid of once you’ve gotten them,” Garcia said. “Pregnancy is reversible in a way.”
While a social stigma concerning the risks of homosexual sex may linger even more than a decade after the initial AIDS crisis, the reality is that risk transcends sexual orientation.
“Anal sex, regardless of the participant’s gender is in fact more dangerous than vaginal penetration,” Isabel Polon ’11 explained, “because the skin of the anal cavity is thinner, causing it to be more prone to breakage and disease transmission.”
And it is not only physical realities that affect both heterosexual and homosexual couples, but also questionable power dynamics and issues of emotional security.
“I’ve had sexual encounters before where we can’t find a condom and the guy is pressuring me to just do it without the condom,” said one anonymous source, a gay male. “There’s a power game there, an act of coercion. It’s also something that’s in the moment a matter of convenience.”
Assessing the challenges that different people face, Alice Buttrick concluded: “It’s just like anything else in the world. You have to take care of yourself, you have to be ready to take care of yourself.”
EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SAFE SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
At Yale, there are many people who can answer questions about sex — if not about exactly what safe sex means, then at least about how to have sex that is safer. Not only will you learn how to be safer in the sack, you will learn it Yale-style: with plenty of nerdy jokes, goofy zeal and free lollipops. One of the first organizations new Yale students encounter is PHE, the Peer Health Educators who conduct mandatory freshman workshops.
Colin Adamo ’10 — who is a Peer Health Educator, a high school coordinator of CHE and is involved in Sex Week at Yale — is a veritable safe-sex superstar on this campus.
“On Valentine’s Day and a few other times throughout the year, PHE distributes packages containing condoms, candy, lubricant, dental dams, tips and information about activities that don’t involve sex,” Adamo said. “The idea is to plant a bug in people’s apartments. People take the candy and leave the package in their rooms, then there’s no way they don’t have a condom.”
Sometimes, Peer Health Educators Schmidt and Adamo explained, students are resistant to information about sex and sexuality, either because they feel that they already know enough, or because they are shy.
“Some guys still think being tested for STDs involves a huge probe in their urethra,” Adamo said. “But I get tested for fun sometimes, quite literally. They give you a phone call back saying ‘Colin, guess what? No STDs,’ and I’m like, ‘Sweet!’ It’s the best phone call you can get.”
Then there is Sex Week at Yale, an event that believe it or not, started as Kosher Sex Week, which founder Eric Rubenstein planned for Hillel. The original motivation was to broaden the conversation from simply focusing on the spiritual and religious aspects of sex to one that could involve the entire Yale community. Sex Week is now an extravaganza in which porn stars take over Saybrook’s guest suite and pornographic materials flow like milk and honey. Rubenstein stressed, however, that sexual safety remains a major theme of many of the events.
“The message we would put forth is that safe sex needs to be practiced unless you’re in a relationship where you’ve been tested, trust each other and are careful about how you’re behaving,” Rubenstein explained.
Another lure of Sex Week?
“The vibrating cock ring — it’s actually illegal in seven states,” Adamo said, describing a freebie distributed by Trojan representatives. “Yalies crawled out of the f–ing woodworks for those rings.”
The Community Health Educators may tackle safe sex education in New Haven middle and high schools, but they also play a role as de facto sexual myth-busters on campus. Zai Divecha ’10, one of the co-heads of the Healthy Sexuality workshops in high schools, nicknamed TMI-Zai by her friends, explained in an e-mail that CHE indirectly benefits Yale students as well because the educators become experts in the fields that they teach.
“I spent eight hours this past weekend re-drawing six giant reproductive anatomy diagrams in my common room, and had four penis models (for condom demos) on my mantle,” Divecha wrote in an e-mail. “It sparked a lot of very interesting questions and conversations about sexual health topics that are generally taboo, even at a place like Yale. I find myself frequently answering questions from friends about sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, and STI testing and transmission.”
Members of Yale organizations that aren’t outwardly health-specific said they also try to encourage safer sexual practices. The Women’s Center for instance, sponsors talks on topics related to sex, sexuality and safety such as last year’s forum on the pill and the “Hotter Safer Sex” talk. Isabel Polon, the Center’s political action coordinator, described the latter lecture.
“The women in attendance learned that the anus takes two hours to fully dilate and practiced applying condoms on dildos with our mouths,” Polon said.
SAFE, SAFER, SAFEST
The truth is that a single definition of safe sex doesn’t exist. There are too many people having too many different types of sex — and no matter what type of sex you’re having there’s always something safer. The Yale Medical Group’s Health Information Web site reminds students that while “kissing is thought to be a safe activity, herpes and other diseases can be contracted this way.” And the YUHS Web site offers a list of “101 ways to make love without having sex.” It suggests that you, “feed the pigeons in Edgerton Park … help each other with the laundry … go fishing. .. tell your honey that you care … sip hot cocoa in your room with the lights off” and “share a lollipop.” (Obviously YUHS didn’t get the memo about the perils of kissing, because that lollipop thing sounds pretty unsafe.)
Rebecca Schrier explained that the only safe sexual practice is to abstain from any sexual interaction with another person (masturbation, though, is okay, she said).
“Safer sex” is now the preferred terminology,” Schrier wote in an e-mail. “You are decreasing some of the risks, but they are not entirely eliminated. Safer sex practices include regular testing (either annually or before engaging in any sexual activity with a new partner), the use of barrier methods (male or female condoms, or dental dams), the use of contraception, and the ability to talk openly and honestly with your sexual partner.”
Yalies continue to add to this definition of “safer sex” for themselves, because most college students know what tends to happens after 10 minutes of sipping cocoa in the dark. Students make it clear that a condom that is in the exact concave shape of your butt cheek from months spent in your wallet in your back pocket is no longer nearly safe enough.
“Safe sex to me makes both parties involved feel really good,” Alice Buttrick said. “It has to mean different things for different people because it has to do with comfort level, and you can’t call it safe sex just because contraception is involved. It means that you have a really healthy relationship with sexual relations before you engage in sex.”
The ambiguity of “safer sex” may just mean that a pivotal part of self-protection for Yale students is the alignment of definitions of “safe” before anyone’s pants hit the ground. Let’s just hope that Yale students don’t love arguing about semantics more than they love, well, loving each other.