“There is nothing safe about sex. There never will be.” – Norman Mailer
Safety is boring. Safety is a Volvo station wagon with more airbags than horsepower. It’s ordering the same thing over and over again so damn much that the waiter asks you if you “want the usual” before your ass hits the barstool. Safe people become chartered accountants and listen to Michael Buble records. They marry safe husbands and safe wives and go to live in the suburbs on streets named after a deciduous trees. When we say something is safe, what we’re really saying is it’s a fallback plan for people who don’t have the spine to go for greatness. Have you ever seen a teenager piss himself with unbridled joy because he only got into his safety school? If safety were a color it would be beige. With all our preconceived notions about safety, what do you think teenagers envision when we tell them to practice safe sex?
We have to think of a new way to sell “safe sex” to the masses and the first step is burying the phrase safe sex. It is useless, an albatross around the neck of the public health community that has begun to rot something fierce. “Safe sex” needs to be relegated to island of misfit labels alongside past their prime words like communism and mulatto. At a certain point, an idea becomes unsalvagable. The Germans realized this after World War II and banned a whole slew of words that were associated with Nazism. You can no longer name your child Adolf in Germany because they know that Hitler has forever tainted it. Anyone who is his inadvertent namesake only serves to remind those around him of the atrocities committed during the darkest period of their nation’s history. In a similar manner, there is no way to divest safe sex from it’s image as a pleasureless, mechanical act advocated by health teachers who you never wanted to think about having sex in the first place. We are a nation founded by people so uptight that they left Britain for the New World because the British were too promiscuous for them. That’s like storming out of a Pixar movie because it’s too violent. There are centuries worth of sexual and emotional repression constipating the American psyche and the same old “safe sex” line ain’t gonna cut it. If we take away the safe sex angle, what do we put in it’s place?
Last night, during a International AIDS Conference session on Making Safer Sex Sexy, I heard tens of examples of things that can fill the void that the departure of conventional sex education will leave. Tatiana Evlampieva, a presenter from the Russian HIV advocacy group Dance4Life, said something that I thought was especially prescient. While the message may be a bit scrambled as it was spoken through a translator and is now being given to you from my garbled memory, I believe that the crux of her point was that people don’t put a value on anything that’s free. In a capitalist economy, giving something away for free is labeling that thing as tainted or unimportant. Try and remember the last thing you got for free that has become an integral part of your life. In our society its not even free to have the pleasure of leaving your possessions somewhere (parking lot, coat room, storage unit). What message does it send to youth when they walk into a HIV clinic or doctor’s office and see condoms sitting in a bowl like a bunch of starlight mints?
I have talked to numerous people who say that they refuse—flat out refuse—to use Lifestyles condoms. They just won’t do it. And when you ask why, the answer you invariably get is some variation of, “those are clinic condoms.” Everyone knows that sex ed groups and abortion clinics and the like predominantly get Lifestyles condoms because they’re the cheapest. So, if you’re with your boy or girl and time comes to get busy, you can’t whip out a Lifestyles condom without advertising to your partner that you can’t afford to buy condoms. In a day and age when status symbols are everything and people buy Escalades and custom tailored suits while living in their mom’s basement, what you show people is in many ways who you are.
If that’s the way things are, then we’ve got to play by the rules of the game. Why not make condoms a status symbol like cars or clothing or jewelry? Diddy…Jay-Z…J.Lo…they’ve all got their own vodkas and clothing lines and perfumes that people eat up like fruity pebbles covered in coke. Hell, Kim Kardashian’s even got her own fragrance. People will buy any damn thing with their favorite celebrities name on it. You’re telling me folks wouldn’t want a limited edition Jay-Z Limited Edition Black (Album) Condoms? The advertising practically writes itself. Big billboards with slogans like “I got 99 problems and the itch ain’t one” or a magnum-style condom called Big Pimpin’. You could get Tommy Lee to plug a collection of “extra large” condoms as part of a Dr. Feelgood line. There could be TV spots with the more kosher bits of his infamous sex tape with the tag line, “Tommy tested…Pam approved.” The marketing potential is limitless. Absolut and Smirnoff and the rest of Big Booze plugs the drink responsibly angle, so why not do a partnership between Trojan and Grey Goose called “f**k responsibly”? I’m going to stop there because I go do this all damn day, but you get the idea. Condoms can be a luxury item that don’t actually cost luxury prices.
The last thing I want to touch on, ever so briefly, is how to ramp up “safe sex” education. Right now, our government is doing everything in its power to keep our children from learning about the naughtier bits of the human anatomy and what we do with them. Well, instead of trying to force a bunch of myopic prudes to change their attitudes toward sexual activity, why don’t we go around them and get in bed with some people who know what’s what: porn stars. Right now, a ballot initiative was just put on the books in Los Angeles County that would make it mandatory for all adult film actors to wear protection while filming. This is a phenomenal idea, but what if we went beyond having the porn industry set a good example and had them teach the general public a thing or two?
I think I can speak for most of the heterosexual male public when I say that we would have paid a lot more attention in sex ed if Jenna Jameson or Tera Patrick had been the teacher. My question is, why couldn’t they be? Why can’t some non-profit commission an instructional video for the “inexperienced” on how to make sex safe and sexy? You’re telling me a 14-year old teenager isn’t going to stop and watch if a former Playboy Bunny is in a barely there Pan-Am stewardess outfit showing how to prepare their cockpit for take off? Millions of teenagers already have informal sex ed in the form of porn videos. Do you think they would mind if some practical wisdom was thrown in there? It would be like Reading Rainbow for horny teenagers.
Forget safe sex. What we’re selling is satisfying sex and, when you put it like that, it’s not that hard of a sell.