It wasn’t until I was walking to the clinic, wasting an hour of my day to get a test I shouldn’t have needed to get, that I went from annoyed to pissed. It wasn’t until I saw my blood filling a syringe, and willed it to not be infected, that I went from concerned to chest-clenched freaked out, realizing what I’d risked.
“You know better,” my friend said to me, when I confessed I would need to get tested to see if I had gonorrhea, or chlamydia, or syphilis, or the one that can kill you. He was right. I know better. I’m not a high schooler or a college student navigating the first wobbly steps of adult sexuality. I’m a grown-ass woman in my 30s. Standing there, on the sidewalk in the sunlight, I knew I knew better.
I was mad at myself, but also mad at the guy who’d asked me, in the darkness, if we could ditch the initially agreed-upon condom. Why had I relented, and why did the whole situation feel so off-putting?
No crime was committed. This wasn’t stealthing, where a man sneakily takes off the condom without his partner knowing, a move authorities are pushing to be classified as assault. So what was it?
It was his frustrated sigh and, “Ugh, this thing,” a whine about it not feeling good. If sex is about pleasing your partner, it was seeing a partner unpleased. It was another page in a history of people-pleasing, of stepping over myself to give others what I think they want from me. It was an excuse to do the thing I would have preferred, anyway, if I wasn’t thinking about STDs, because I never developed a kink for balloon animals, and, like everybody, I think sex feels better without condoms. When he asked if we really had to use it, it felt like the easiest thing to say, “Ok, fine,” especially as the kind of person who has a tendency to default to the easiest thing.
Right there, in his bed, in his house, in the night, during sex, I couldn’t Google what to do, ask my friends what they’ve done in similar situations, or take the time to think about it without someone I’d become vulnerable with staring at me, waiting for me to say yes to something he wanted.
I felt a pang of annoyance that he was even asking, now. I felt a need to not ruin the mood, and that the more time I took to decide, the more the mood would fade away.
“I honestly think that it should ruin the mood to have your partner try to renegotiate in the middle of sex,” said Jaclyn Friedman later. She’s the author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, the kind of woman you call when you need someone who knows a thing or two about sex in the 21st century. “I think you should say ‘We already discussed this,’ or have something really pissy already prepared…Are they thinking about pleasing you? Why are you pleasing them?”
I was starting to feel like the wimpiest person in the world when Friedman told me we had something in common.
“I was sleeping with a guy for a while who hated to use condoms,” she said. “I laid down the law and said, ‘I’m a condom girl.’ He was like ‘Sure, sure, sure,’ then once things would get heated up, he would pressure me. And sometimes I would succumb. I am not immune to this move...All of us are humans and can be manipulated.”
Not only are we manipulable, we’re unprepared. For all the situations I’ve been taught to defend myself against, I’ve never heard this one even mentioned. Even as a sex educator, Friedman said she hadn’t thought through the situation, and once her personal barriers had been breached, it made it harder to stick to them when he repeatedly asked later.
“I hadn’t even known it was a thing to talk about,” she said. “I just I thought it was this moment where I was weak that I felt ashamed of.”
Yeah, me too.
But after I dug into the science of why grown, know-better women like Friedman and me can succumb to saying yes to a mid-sex request to ditch the condom, I felt much less ashamed. I am now convinced that preparation for this kind of mid-sex pressure should be included in the core curriculum of all sex education.
My investigation led me to a behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. He’s researched the difference between how people act in what he calls a “hot state” versus a “cold state.” A hot state is anything like hunger, anger, or frustration, but he’s also conducted experiments studying the effects of sexual arousal. If you compare the attitudes of a person in a cold state vs. that same person in a hot state, Dan found that “prevention…disappeared completely from the radar screen.” More frighteningly, his study subjects “were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.”
Not only do we agree to riskier behavior when in a hot state, we underestimate to what degree we’ll ditch our cold-state values. In his experiment, Ariely had men mark if they agreed with something on a sliding scale of “No” at 0 points, “Maybe” at 50, and “Yes” at 100 points. When he asked, “Would you always use a condom if you didn’t know the sexual history of a new sexual partner?,” the mean answer from the cold state was 88, leaning strongly toward “yes.” But when the subjects were aroused, that number went down to 69, a 22 percent drop.
The experiment revealed not only that “we are all like Jekyll and Hyde,” but that “every one of us, regardless of how ‘good’ we are, underpredicts the effect of passion on our behavior,” Dan wrote in Predictably Irrational. “In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was.”
That means that not only are men more likely to ask in the middle of sex, but their partners are more likely to say yes.
“I would call it incredibly sad but also incredibly human,” Ariely said. “One of the things we know is emotion takes over. When emotions take over…we don’t think and have emotions, we just have emotions. And as a consequence we make lots of mistakes. One of them could be to ask to take the condom off. Another could be to agree to it.”
It’s almost like you stealth yourself, when the hot Hyde version of you takes off the condom behind the cold and rational Jekyll’s back. And when you’re back to yourself, you’re left wondering what the hell happened. For a guy, it’s more like nice-guy stealthing, because he can tell himself he asked and his partner said yes, so everything’s cool, right?
I got lucky. This time, my only consequences were the hour out of my day to take the test, the stab of a needle, and a week of waiting. Then my doctor, who said she’d only call if there was a problem, called, sending me into sweats, but just to say everything was fine. She knew how worried I was.
I keep thinking about those who got a different call, simply because no one readies us for what to say when we’re a naked Hyde being pressured to do something the clothed Jekyll would never do. Using condoms is a calculated decision. No one tells you that, during sex, your calculator is on fire.
So what do we do now? “When we have a rule,” Ariely said, “it’s easier to stick to it.” From now one, I know I’ll say, “We already talked about that.” Take it or leave it.
Paulette Perhach’s writing has been published in the New York Times, ELLE, Slate, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire. She writes from Seattle.