Reflections on what COVID-19 teaches us
about the practice of safe sex
They say that confession is good for the soul, so I’m going to give it a try. When you woke up this morning, did you wonder whether or not you had an STD? I did. Why? Because I’ve “been with” a lot of people and until recently I haven’t always worn protection. No, that’s not something I’m proud of — not just because of the personal risk I took but because it endangered others as well.
This would be a troubling confession if the STD I was referring to was a sexually transmitted disease. But is it any less problematic given that I am referring to a different STD (i.e., a “Socially” Transmitted Disease, namely, COVID-19, which as of this writing has claimed more than 90,000 American lives and over 300,000 globally)? Not that I have been infected. In fact, my first opportunity to be tested won’t occur until later this week. But I could be one of those asymptomatic or presymptomatic carriers who nonetheless is highly contagious. I just have no way of knowing; so I should be cautious.
I recall back in February when I first saw news coverage of South Koreans walking around the streets wearing face masks and thinking that that was a rather odd “overreaction.” But now, just a few months later, I have adopted a very different mindset. When I head out to the grocery store or to my “essential” job, I find myself obeying the American Express slogan (“Don’t leave home without it“) as I grab my own respiratory condom (i.e., face mask) so that I can practice safe social. My, how times have changed!
What has caught my attention are the varied and impassioned objections to wearing respiratory condoms in public just as some people object to wearing latex condoms in private.
“It wouldn’t be a good look on me.“
“I would if I thought it was important.“
“They are uncomfortable, inconvenient, annoying, etc.“
“I’m willing to take the risk.”
“I ain’t wearing no damned raincoat!”
“Condoms are for sissies.“
“I’m willing to take the risk.”
And my personal favorite, “How’s my little guy supposed to breathe?“ (I couldn’t help but wonder about this man’s ‘understanding’ of the physiological functioning of the male reproductive organ.)
Notably, on both lists, is a person’s willingness to “take the risk.“ But for whom? Risking your own health is one thing, but what about risking the health of people with whom you come into contact? With regard to the coronavirus, medical experts are currently informing us that the primary purpose of the mask is not to keep ourselves safe. All but the N95s do a poor job of that. The looser-fitting surgical and cloth masks are better suited to protect other people from whatever virus we may have.[i]The question then becomes, “Do we care enough about other people to take the necessary steps to protect them?“
If we really wanted to prevent the transmission of disease, there is no more effective way than to abstain from contact. But while abstinence is simple, it is not always easy. If you need proof of that, just ask a lifelong alcoholic who struggles on a daily, if not hourly, basis to refrain from taking the next drink. Or in the sexual arena, ask Bristol Palin, who, as a national spokesperson for the Abstinence Campaign, was also the subject of the 2016 Vanity Fair article, “Abstinence advocate Bristol Palin announces second unplanned pregnancy.” And, of course, with the current pandemic, the cost of the stay-at-home orders has, among many other things, been economically devastating.
So if we’re not viewing abstinence as a viable solution, at least in the long term, we are back to exploring methods of safe contact. But safety is not limited to just preventing the transmission of communicable diseases, or with regard to sex, preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Consider the example of a rapist who dons a condom to avoid leaving evidence for the authorities to collect. It would be absurd to contend that because of his use of “protection,” the victim had a “sexually safe“ experience.
Sexual safety also requires freedom from abuse and coercion. It requires us to have complete autonomy over our own bodies which leads us to a discussion of an often overlooked or misunderstood distinction between “consent” and “compliance.”
Consent vs. compliance:
One point of view is that consent is present whenever the person does at least one of the following: says “Yes“; doesn’t say “No“; or goes along with what the other person wants.
Apply those criteria to this situation: Imagine a stranger walks up to you on the street and points a loaded gun to your forehead and then quite politely asks you, “Would you be so kind as to give me your wallet?” You then say “Yes” and proceed to hand over your wallet. In this case, you’ve met all three criteria: (1) You said “Yes”; (2) You didn’t say “No”; and (3) You went along with what the other person wanted. Does that mean that you consented to having your wallet taken from you? Of course not. You were complying with an implicit (not to mention life-threatening) demand.
This distinction between consent and compliance can be applied to situations that have arisen during the current pandemic as well. For example:
Voting in a primary during the pandemic.[ii]
Imagine your options to vote are limited. Absentee or mail-in voting is not an option. Delaying the voting date until a safer time is also not an option. And the number of polling sites has been dramatically reduced. Does your decision to stay home prove that you do not want to vote? Alternatively, does your decision to stand in line for hours to vote, prove that you don’t care about your health and the health of those around you? Or in either case, were you forced to conduct an unreasonable cost-benefit analysis under coercive conditions?
Similarly, what choice do employees at a meatpacking facility have who are told that if they refuse to go to work (under what those employees understandably believe to be unsafe working conditions) they will be ineligible for the unemployment compensation needed to feed their families? Are they consenting to place their health at risk or are they being coerced to go to work?
So what is the difference?
*Consent is doing what you want to do.
*Compliance is doing what someone else wants you to do.
*Consent is when you feel as free to say “No” as you are to say “Yes,” but you want to say “Yes” anyway.
*Compliance is when the other person suspects that you want to say “No”, and they employ a strategy to get you to change your mind.
Consider the following scenarios and then judge for yourself whether or not these are consensual encounters:
- A mother agrees to be prostituted in exchange for money so that she can feed her children. It is her only source of income.
- ”I’m really tired.“ “But it’s our anniversary. I promise, you’ll have a good time.“ “OK.“ They have sex.
- They meet at a bar, really hit it off and decide to have sex together which they both enjoy immensely. One of them, who is currently asymptomatic, decided not to disclose a previous genital herpes infection.
Examples like these, have led to some rather interesting debates during trainings on sexual consent with the conversation invariably winding around to a consideration of some version of the Golden Rule[iv]. “Are the people in these scenarios treating others the way that they themselves would like to be treated?” I am also imagining (actually hoping for) a new pandemic-generated question for potential intimate partners to ask each other: “During the pandemic, did you wear a face mask? Why or why not?” And what, if anything, would the answer to that question tell us about the kind of partner this person would end up being both in the bedroom and elsewhere?
[i]COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? The Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-mask/art-20485449.Retrieved 5/18/20.
[ii]WISCONSIN'S IN-PERSON VOTING MAY HAVE LED TO 'LARGE' INCREASE IN CORONAVIRUS CASES, STUDY SUGGESTS, From Newsweek.com; https://www.newsweek.com/wisconsins-person-voting-may-have-led-large-increase-coronavirus-cases-study-suggests-1504801. Retrieved 5/18/20.
[iii]Workers in States Quick to Reopen Would Lose Unemployment Benefits Even if They’re Too Fearful to Return Yet. From Slate.com. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/04/meat-processing-workers-states-reopen-lose-unemployment-benefits-georgia-texas-iowa.html. Retrieved 5/18/20.
[iv]It’s in the Bible and a variant is in the text of every other major religion. Look it up! And if religion isn’t your thing, it’s just about being a decent human being.