In this week’s Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about when people complain about using condoms.
Q: Why do men complain so much about wearing condoms?
The “negotiations” that happen around condoms never seem to cease. Just last night, I was having a conversation with two single women friends who were complaining about the fact that the guys they’re dating didn’t want to wear condoms! I’ve also heard from gay male friends that their partners don’t think condoms are necessary because they’re taking PrEP, which protects against HIV infection. (The CDC recommends that people continue to use condoms even when they're taking PrEP, since HIV is just one of the STIs out there.) It’s a complicated and pervasive issue that, in my opinion, comes down to two things: comfort and patriarchy.
First, let’s talk comfort. I personally don’t have a penis, but I can imagine shoving it into a super tight stretchy latex feels… not great? And while anatomies differ greatly, they’re aren’t a lot of options when it comes to condoms. (Or rather, these options exist — but they’re not particularly accessible to the American market.)
However, I’ve also heard from plenty of people with penises that wearing a condom is really not that bad, and that if you use condoms that are the right fit for your personal anatomy, you barely even notice them during sex. I have to imagine that at least some portion of people who are complaining about the comfort level of condoms just haven’t done their due diligence yet. So I would encourage anyone who thinks they “can’t wear condoms” to try out a few brands before they throw the STI protection out with the mostly full box of rubbers.
I also want to point out that, as a woman with vagina, no, condoms don’t feel super great on this end either. Are they terrible? No. But they’re usually noticeable, and they certainly feel different than having unprotected sex without a condom. For me, though, the added comfort of knowing that I’m protected against most STIs and protected against pregnancy is worth a slight change in sensation. Which leads me to ask — why don’t people with penises want that added comfort, too?
A big part of that probably comes down to anatomy. Here’s the reality about STI transmission: People who are the receiving partners — whether it’s anally or vaginally — are more susceptible to many STI infections. That’s because of two factors: 1. Their bodies are more likely to tear during sex and, 2. Those body parts have mucous membranes that make it easier for infections to get into their bodies. Also, people with uteruses risk infertility if a bacterial infection (like chlamydia or gonorrhea) isn’t treated and leads to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). So when you’re having unprotected sex, the person with a penis that’s doing the penetrating simply isn’t at as high a risk for an STI infection as the person being penetrated. And I think that leads to some people with penises being less concerned about the risks of condom-free, unprotected sex.
Another reason for this constant complaint of guys not liking condoms? The burden of not getting pregnant has rested on the shoulders of people with uteruses for time immemorial, despite the fact that it very much takes two to do that particular tango. People with penises aren’t always men and people with vaginas aren’t always women, but a lot of the issues at play here have to do with specific societal gender dynamics, so know that the use of “men” and “women” from this point on is an intentional choice that will allow this story to signal to these dynamics.
Despite the fact that you need both sperm and an egg to get someone pregnant, women largely shoulder the burden of what’s called “fertility work.” Most of the effective, long-term birth control methods have to be implanted, ingested, or shot into women’s bodies. Women are held responsible if they “get” pregnant, with almost no acknowledgement of what got them pregnant. And while some of that burden is due to the fact that only our bodies actually get pregnant and carry babies, it also has to do with a prevailing, sexist philosophy about sex.
Up until fairly recently (and in many communities, still), women have been seen as the “gatekeepers” of sex. The idea is that guys “naturally” want sex more than women and therefore, it’s the woman’s job to domesticate and “tame” the man’s desires. But she can’t do that by having sex with him right away, because a woman’s value is wrapped up in the price she demands for sexual access — whether that price is a literal dowry or a husband taking out the garbage or three dates where the man pays for dinner. If she “gives up” too quickly, then, the thinking goes, the man won’t value her and she won’t get what she wants (security).
Not only does this approach to human sexuality completely ignore women’s desire and turn sex into a transaction (and a f*cked up one at that), the logical thread that follows is that women are solely responsible for preventing pregnancy. If women are the gatekeepers of sex, after all, then it’s their fault if they “give in” to unprotected sex and end up getting pregnant. Ultimately, that translates to situations in which men simply don’t care as much as women about pregnancy prevention, because it’s the woman’s job. So with all of that, why should guys care about wearing condoms?
Now, I know that these thoughts — that penetrating partners are at lower risk of STIs and a woman’s value lies in how much she resists sex — probably aren’t at the forefront of every guy’s mind when he tries to avoid using a condom and have unprotected sex. Let’s be real — not everyone got comprehensive sex ed in high school or took gender studies in college.
But they are a part of our culture in general, and therefore they do play a part in those interactions. And when we talk about issues like why some guys refuse to wear condoms, it’s not just about the feeling or even just about those two people negotiating their sexual situation. It’s also about the broader, cultural context that has for so long put the burden of sexual health and pregnancy prevention on cis women and other people with vaginas.
It can be really tricky to handle when you find yourself with a partner who doesn’t want to use a condom. But this is one of those points where it’s super important to advocate for your comfort, health, and future. If you’re okay with doing things other than non-penetrative sex without condoms, suggest that! But if your partner tries to penetrate you without a condom once things get hot — or they take a condom off during sex without your consent, a practice known as “stealthing” — both of those things are assault. And it's time to show that person the door.
So when a guy bitches about not liking condoms? Remember that. And ask yourself: Is that someone you really want to sleep with? I know what my answer is.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.