There are a million things that people do on a daily basis that are risky. In 2007, my brother climbed a mountain that claims the lives of roughly 9 out of every 30,000 people that attempt to challenge it. My friend, Jeff spends his time practicing ways to stay alive when he’s running into burning buildings. I jumped off a mile high platform into a seemingly bottomless canyon after a very brief 20 minute lesson about how not to die. Yet somehow, in this day in age, these things often do not seem nearly as risky as engaging in a sexual relationship. Forget jumping out of airplanes, or speeding through heavy traffic at 100mph, the risks nowadays are not only about how many people you have had sex with, but how many people your partners have also had sex with. It’s like a pyramid scheme of one night stands, failed relationships, and booty calls. It seems that in an era when diseases spread quicker than news, people are risking their lives in a whole new way.
In the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, team manager, Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) signs a baseball for an adoring fan with the inscription, “Avoid the clap.” The youngster that he gave it to smiled at the comment, but in 1940’s USA, probably did not heath the words as solid advice. In 2007 the CDC (Center for Disease Control; www.cdc.gov) reported that nearly 19 million Americans were infected with a sexually transmitted disease. One of my monogamous friends told me that the major benefit to being in a closed relationship is that he does not have to worry about a blister showing up in a place that it shouldn’t or a rash that itches beyond control in his nether-regions. So when do the risks, outweigh the pleasure?
There is a major controversy about sexual education in this country. For years, schools have taught children about abstinence and its effectiveness in protecting our bodies from disease and pregnancy (and possibly our souls). To credit the abstinence theory, yes it is the ultimate tool in protecting oneself against some of the maladies spread through sexual contact. Unfortunately, abstinence only education does not seem to take into account the reality of the human condition, at least not at this place and time. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading facility that promotes the advancement of sexual and reproductive health and education, conducted a study in 2006 which determined that 95% of people engage in premarital sex. The study also indicated that this statistic has not changed much since the baby boomer generation entered the picture in the early 1940’s.
“It would be more effective to provide young people with the skills and information they need to be safe once they become sexually active—which nearly everyone eventually will”, says study author Lawrence Finer, Director of Domestic Research at the Guttmacher Institute. Given that people are now waiting longer to get married, it is believable that this statistic will not be going down any time soon; as long as there is nature, people are going to give in to sexual desire. Whether or not abstinence should be taught in school is a discussion for a future article. My point here is the acknowledgement that sex can be menacing and dangerous, despite the toe curling, smiling from the inside reaction that usually happens when it’s done (if you’re doing it right anyway).
In January, I briefly dated a guy who lives in my building. During a late night conversation I initiated the talk about being tested for STDs and HIV before any of the “good stuff” could take place. He appeared completely shocked and almost insulted that I would question him on such an issue. To be totally honest, I was turned off the minute that he got upset about it. I attempted to explain to him that it wasn’t meant to be an insult, but that I had no reason to trust the other people that he had slept with in the 5 years since he’d been tested last. The common answer for a majority of men (including my insulted neighbor) that I have talked to about this issue is that they don’t need to get tested because they don’t have any symptoms (i.e. weird stuff happening “down under”). Come on men…and ladies! If you’ve ever read an article about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, you know that often times people are the carrier of disease and not always the one that shows symptoms. Take HPV (Human Papillomavirus) for example; the CDC reported that HPV can show up years after having sexual contact with the person that gave it to you (2009); even if that person has no indicators. If that doesn’t make you think about the person or people that you’re sleeping with, then maybe talking about the emotional stakes that come into play with the inclusion of sex in a relationship.
Although I seem to be heading down the “sex is a health risk” path, there certainly is a different kind of risk-taking that is associated with sexual behavior. The emotional dangers of sex can sometimes outweigh the pleasure that you may get from it. One of the “gateways” to risky sex is the “friends with benefits” relationship that almost always leads to an emotional attachment that is not reciprocated by one party in the duo (or trio…depending on how you like it). A little loving, a few laughs, no obligation to attend family functions, no need to clear out drawer space, no need to stay the night – if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
While there may be benefits to a sexual relationship with a friend, the emotional attachment that is associated with sex can be a very perilous part about the whole situation and resultant behaviors. So how does one tell when you’re emotions are in line with your sexual actions? Do you have a light in your head that turns from red to green when you know it’s OK to take your clothes off in front of someone? Is there a clock the goes off when it’s time to feel comfortable telling your sexual fantasies to your partner? Do you have a timer that dings when it’s OK not to use protection anymore? I doubt it. The riskiness lies in that fact that these alarms don’t exist. It’s a matter of trial and error, maturity vs. immaturity, personal insight vs. emotional frivolousness.
It certainly is possible to know when you’re in a risky situation. I knew falling from that platform in into the canyon that I was doing something that certainly could have a bad result. The conflict came from also feelings completely exhilarated and totally liberated by fighting that risk and doing it anyway. It’s the same with sex; even if you feel like you’re not putting yourself near the edge of emotional chaos, you really have no way of predicting how your insides and emotions will flutter afterwards, become entirely unhinged, or make you fall madly in love or be completely disinterested. You won’t know it – until you try it. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, sex comes with more than one kind of hazard, and according to the statistics, you are bound to get burned from one angle or another. I’m not sure if one overrides the other; it’s just a matter of how and when and the kind of lasting impact that it will have on your life.
I’d like to say that I’m exempt from this kind of behavior, but we all know that none of us are. I don’t care if you’ve been married for 30 years or you have only thought about losing your virginity, you’re still susceptible to the risk of a sexual encounter that may change your world a little bit; whether it results in a permanent alteration in your life or merely distracts you for a bit. Like a 16 year old that just got their license, it can be hard to see that you are not invincible; not to disease, not to emotional sexual turmoil, and certainly not to the hazards that are associated with both.