St Patrick’s patch 1 consisted of a matter-of-fact guide for choosing the right condom and using it. In this patch 2, I will discuss why using a male condom is important in penetrative sex. Since this article is aimed at teenagers, I figure I need to begin by explaining what I mean by “penetrative sex”. Actually, I may need to explain “sex” to start with.
In current adult usage, “sex” is any erotically arousing activity between two or more persons with at least one party in contact with the genitals of the other party. This contact can be genital to genital, mouth to genital, or even hand to genital. If neither party’s genitals come into play, e.g. deep kissing, it is generally not considered sex.
“Penetrative sex” is a subset of “sex”. The term applies when one party’s penis enters the vagina, mouth or rectum of the other.
Ejaculation or climax is not a necessary condition for use of the term “sex”. Just because neither party reached climax does not mean sex did not occur, so long as erotic genital contact has taken place. But what’s important to remember is that just because there was no climax, does not mean there was no risk of pregnancy or infection. It’s the physical contact, not the climax that gives rise to risks.
Because of the intimacy of sexual contact, many microscopic things can pass from one party to the other during the encounter. These include spermatozoa, bacteria, fungi and viruses. When that happens, the result is pregnancy or infection.
Some of these microscopic things are essentially present only in body fluids (i.e. blood, semen, vaginal “wet”, precum, etc), therefore if the parties take the trouble to avoid exchange of body fluids, e.g. by using a condom, the risk is reduced to insignificance. But some of these microscopic things can also be present on what looks like dry skin, hence skin-to-skin contact may be enough to transmit the infection.
Thus, as a statement of fact, it is true that condoms do not prevent ALL sexually-transmitted infections, but it is also true that condoms do reduce the risk very significantly.
A proper understanding of this subject requires an appreciation that there are no absolute answers, nor foolproof guarantees. Just like riding a bicycle down a road, no matter how careful one is, there is an irreducible element of risk. Therefore, what follows below will discuss specific issues from the angle of risk.
For teenagers in heterosexual relationships, this is far and away the biggest risk. Pregnancy occurs when one spermatozoon from the guy’s semen finds its way to an ovum (egg) inside a girl. One spermatozoon is all it takes. When a guy ejaculates, that sticky whitish liquid is called semen. In those few millilitres of semen are millions of spermatozoa. In fact, even in precum (the lubricant that issues when he is aroused) there are small numbers of spermatozoa. Spermatozoa do not just float around — they are champion swimmers. Once one of them gets inside a girl, it can swim through her moist vagina and cervix to reach the womb.
If she’s in her fertile period, an ovum will be present near or in the womb, and voilà, a baby is on its way. It’s very hard for a girl to know when exactly she’s in her fertile period. The wise thing to do is to always assume she is fertile.
- Risk of pregnancy: High
- Consequences of pregnancy: Extremely heavy, lifelong.
Fortunately, spermatozoa are not shed by the skin. So long as exchange of body fluids is prevented by using a condom correctly (the cock has to be withdrawn with care, with the condom still tightly on), you can reduce the risk of pregnancy to virtually zero. That alone is why it is very important to use a condom of a fitting size.
What if the guy doesn’t use a condom and pull out of her just before he ejaculates? This is no solution. First of all, as I mentioned above, spermatozoa are found in precum and are introduced into her even before climax; secondly, if any microscopic bit of semen splatters on her vulva, these champion swimmers — the spermatozoa — can swim their way into her womb.
Use a condom.
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
- Pubic Lice
While some of them are treatable, some others, e.g. Herpes and HIV, have no known cure. Some of the treatable ones, like Chlamydia may show no symptoms, so you don’t even know you’re infected until the bacteria has started to cause irreversible damage to your internal organs.
What is the risk that your partner has one of these infections? It’s hard to say. Among young Singaporeans, it’s nowhere as high a risk as pregnancy unless one is having sex with a partner who has slept with lots of other people. Such a partner would have been exposed to a much higher risk and therefore would expose you to a high risk too.
Some people who infuse their religious motivations with sexuality education tend to exaggerate the risk of disease in the hope that they can scare people away from having sex at all. I’m never supportive of anyone playing fast and loose with facts. But I am not going to whitewash the facts either.
While the risk of infection may be low among teenagers, for some of these diseases, the consequences can be catastrophic. HIV leads to Aids while Herpes can lead to a lifetime of suffering, with continual, painful outbreaks of blisters and sores. And symptomless infections can still cause long-term damage if left untreated. In other words, please take infection risks seriously.
Can the male condom prevent infection?
It varies from disease to disease. For those diseases where the microscopic organism thrives in body fluids, the condom is very effective, since it provides a physical barrier between one party’s body fluids and the other party’s. This is provided that:
- you have the right-fitting condom
- it is new, has been stored properly and not past its expiry date
- it is not torn
- you have only used water-based lubricant, and
- you have put it on correctly
You will notice that these are precisely the things I stressed again and again in the earlier essay St Patrick’s patch 1.
The following infections are almost always transmitted through body fluids and so a condom virtually eliminates risk:
- HIV. . . .which can have catastrophic consequences
As for the infections listed below, they are more problematic, because the active sites are ulcers or growths on the skin, or lice in the pubic hair. The condom may not cover the active site(s), which anyway may be on the partner’s body, not on the one who is wearing the condom, and then you are unprotected.
- Herpes. . . .which has no known cure
- Pubic Lice
Does washing the genitals after sex eliminate the risk of infection? No, it does not.
Each person should spend some time reflecting on the above and make a decision whether he/she understands the risks sufficiently. This reflection should take place in a moment of calm, before you find yourself in a situation where you are subjected to the emotional pull of love or infatuation, or the “blackmail” of peer pressure. Patch 3 will discuss this further.
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This post is the second in the series.