Around six years ago, I attended my first academic sexuality conference in Washington, D.C. I had just entered the realm of sexual health and pleasure-based education, and I was stoked to be present.
To my delight, I made fast friends at the conference, and I was soon invited to a private sex party hosted by one of the reigning “sex celebrities.” Earlier in the week, I had been impressed by this celebrity’s informative and inclusive open-relationship workshop; she discussed nonmonogamy, different relationship structures, and, importantly, how to avoid sexual health risks when juggling multiple partners.
The crowd at the party was a very queer, intersectional, and well-renowned bunch. I recognized names and faces from the conference programming and products I sold at the feminist sex toy store where I worked. Everyone was flirtatious in a consent-oriented way, and there were bowls of safer sex supplies stationed around the room. The host thanked people for coming and laid out the ground rules, with a heavy emphasis on practicing safer sex. Feeling more like a voyeur that night, I settled into a corner to watch the festivities. Before I knew it, clothes were shed and bodies were writhing around joyfully on every available surface. The host was the star of the show, and I enjoyed observing her engage with a variety of different genders, ages, and body types.
It wasn’t until she was performing oral sex on her third partner for the evening that it hit me: She hadn’t once used protection. Bewildered, I thought to myself, “Does anybody here believe that oral sex is risky anymore?”
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The bowls of condoms, latex gloves, and dental dams looked full and undisturbed. I watched the hands of one acclaimed sexual health educator dive into the genitals of another; moments later, as he crossed the room to get water, he stuck those same hands in a passing woman’s mouth. Another woman was giving her male partner a vigorous blow job, and I observed a man approach them, introduce himself, and then put his mouth on the same penis.
The only time I witnessed someone reach for a prophylactic was when they were preparing to have penis-vagina (PV) or penis-anus (PA) penetration.
I was stunned and repulsed at such a flagrant display of “Do as I say, not what I do.” These people were experts in their field and role models. How could they preach safety in the classroom, but demonstrate the complete opposite in a hotel room?
As a sex worker, a polyamorous person, and someone who has gone through extensive sexual health training and takes sexual safety incredibly seriously, I fled the party and spent days deconstructing my feelings about it with other members of my community.
We’ve all heard about heterosexual adolescents who think that oral sex isn’t “real” sex or doesn’t come with its own set of risks—despite the fact it can transmit some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, and HPV. Still, I didn’t expect adults at the forefront of the sexual health movements to fall prey to the same risk-taking behaviors, let alone my own partners and friends.
After all, we in the sexual health professions are supposed to “get it.” We know about degrees of risk, and that the general consensus is that oral sex isn’t typically as dangerous as vaginal or anal intercourse. For example, the chances of getting HIV from oral sex are thought to be extremely low. But those chances still exist. Oral sex isn’t completely safe—no sex ever is—and there’s a lot we still don’t know about STI transmission, particularly through oral sex.
So why weren’t my colleagues practicing what they teach?
All of these feelings resurfaced just two months ago, when I ended a relationship with a woman I’d been seriously courting as a potential primary partner. The reason? She attended a play party while I was out of town on business, and although our only clearly articulated negotiation was for her to avoid fluid-bonding with any strangers, she called soon thereafter with an unapologetic disclosure: She’d allowed multiple partygoers to go down on her without protection. Her voice laced with ambivalence, she seemed to genuinely not comprehend the severity of her actions, chiding me repeatedly for “overreacting.” She emphatically and repeatedly pointed to the fact that she’d used condoms when receiving penile penetration. Her recognition of risk in one arena seemed to cancel out similar recognition when it came to a different sex act.
Once again, I was beside myself. First I encountered this in a community of sexual professionals, and now in the queer community? Was I the only one noticing this trend in self-proclaimed sexually progressive circles?
The more I articulated my dismay to others, however, the less alone I felt.
Hannah May is a queer woman and sex educator in Washington, D.C. She was refreshingly forthcoming about her adolescent ignorance about safer sex.
“I will shamefully admit that as a ‘baby queer,’ I had no safe sex practices regarding sex with women. Through the first couple years of college, I didn’t use [gloves, condoms, or dental dams] with women at all. It was only when I started teaching sex ed that I realized dental dams even existed! That being said, I still rarely use them, and I rarely see others utilizing them, either.”
She continued: “I would honestly say that most women don’t believe they’re at risk for disease when having sex with women, and I think that’s because the risks are [generally] inherently less than those in traditional heteronormative sex, so they end up getting downplayed. Even on college campuses, free condoms are rampant but dental dams and latex gloves are limited in quantity.”
May also shared the sentiments of an old flame. Her ex, another queer woman, candidly admitted: “Latex gloves are a total and complete turnoff for me. They’re very ‘surgical,’ and I’m not sure actually what I’d be using them for outside of having sex with a HIV-positive person and being afraid of hangnails or something. I would love to live in a world where using dental dams was commonplace, but honestly it really does impede intimacy in a way a condom doesn’t. I would only use a dam if I was, like, desperate, and the other person was really unsure about their STI status.”
My talk with May and her ex-lover’s misguided remarks around why someone might want to use gloves during sex reminded me of a 2010 study about safer sex among lesbians and women who have sex with women. It surveyed more than 330 Australian women who had had sex with a woman in the previous six months. Only 9.7 percent had used a dental dam, and 2.1 percent had used one “often”—however they defined “often.” Although women who practiced rimming (oral-anal contact) or had fetish sex involving blood were more likely to have used a dam, dam use was not significantly more common among women who had more partners or had casual or group sex. Latex gloves and condoms were used by more women and more often than dams.
The people I call “professional sexual progressives”—those who make a career out of prioritizing sexual liberation and the distribution of comprehensive, pleasure-based sex ed—typically spend a great deal of time focusing on reaching youth. And much of that time is spent trying to fill the gaping voids in sexual health education curricula. Selling youth on the erotic potential of safer sex supplies—when most kids are either oblivious to risk or treat protective measures as a surefire “bedroom buzzkill”—can be arduous. While I couldn’t agree more with the heart of this movement and its youth-centered focus, I fear that some adult advocates have let our own standards fall by the wayside.
Never should someone preach “Do as I say, not as I do” when it comes to sexual safety. Weighing the wellness of the people we care about with the perceived “uncoolness” of whipping out a dental dam shouldn’t be a difficult decision for those of us who know better. If we started treating our own bodies—and the bodies of our partners—with the same uncompromising respect as we urge those who attend our workshops and seminars to, we could all be living much healthier and more authentic lives. And remember: Someone may be watching.