Safe Sex (and Fear): mature themes & strong language advisory

by Kohleun

Sunday afternoon I slipped on a striped silk dress that makes me feel Parisian, wrapped my hair in a low chignon, painted my lips red, and stepped into black patent pumps. I felt, if I’m allowed to say so myself, sexy.

The pseudo-Parisian dress has had a few turns out and about, and that night the occasion was a banquet to raise funds for the organization Compassion First. CF is an organization based in the US and Indonesia that focuses on providing a safe haven and PTSD treatment for women escaping sex slavery. They are also working on programs to provide food and shelter to women and transgendered persons who are still working in the sex industry.

Story after story about women whose right to consent and decline sex, touch, and even attention was horrifying. These women are not safe in their own beds, in the workplace (because their occupation is nonconsensual sex), or in the outside world. They are broken emotionally by people who don’t see them as real persons-only parts- and physically by people who see male power manifested in breaking ribs while fucking a sixteen year-old. And when I heard about a young woman named Melati, who was forced to sing  worship songs in a brothel (before giving men oral), because that is all she could play on the piano, I, who roll my eyes whenever I hear the first few bars of Chris Tomlin, reveled in every song I had ever belted on- or off-key in church.

As I slowly nibbled away at heavy ravioli in mushroom sauce, and each speaker told the story of a brave young woman, my mind wandered to a poem by Donald Hall that my Intro. to Lit. class discussed the week prior. I get a little nervous each time I teach this particular piece, half afraid that my students will amplify my existing open-mindedness about sex by about a thousand and conclude that I think people should hook up with strangers, which is not my soapbox message at all.

Safe Sex
If he and she do not know each other, and feel confident
they will not meet again; if he avoids affectionate words;
if she has grown insensible skin under skin; if they desire
only the tribute of another’s cry; if they employ each other
as revenge on old lovers or families of entitlement and steel—
then there will be no betrayals, no letters returned unread,
no frenzy, no hurled words of permanent humiliation,
no trembling days, no vomit at midnight, no repeated
apparition of a body floating face-down at the pond’s edge
From White Apples and the Taste of Stone. Copyright © 2006 by Donald Hall. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

A poem about casual hook ups might be the most inappropriate thing to think of while listening to Amena Brown recite an original spoken word poem, but it was there nonetheless, because these women had never experienced safe sex in their lives, regardless of whether there was a condom. Or exercised the right to say yes or no or to ask someone to share the experience of sex with them. I half-jokingly told my class that “the only safe sex is the sex you don’t have” as we analyzed these nine lines, and after what turned out to be an excellent discussion, retellings of Hall’s poem came flooding in from students trying to express what they or their community defined as “safe sex.” One student wrote a poem inspired by a relationship that fell apart because they believed any form of physical intimacy was inappropriate and therefore never touched beyond the fabled side-hug. Others continued to throw Hall’s irony against the wall to see what would stick (something I think should be done with every poem).

I thought, “I’m young, I have Protestant guilt, I’m jaded, and I write a poem every day. Why not try my own retelling?” So I did.

As I wrestled with what to write about this concept of “safe sex,” of course everything I’d ever learned about STDs and NOT contracting them came to mind (banana, anyone?), as well as Hall’s poem, and the women of CF’s Ruth’s House. Our thoughts change over time, but for now I’ve concluded that there is no such thing as safe sex, whether you have it or not. There will always be the potential physical consequences, but more than that, the emotional and psychological consequences. I don’t think that they are all bad, though. Obviously, I am not one to bring the no-sex-before-marriage hammer down like an anvil from heaven. I know people who have had pre-marital sex who have the same ratio of screwed up to happy as those who have not. I also know people who, rather than experiencing the supposedly natural sensation of loss of self reported in some faith traditions, feel imposed guilt and shame for something that at the time they sincerely wanted to do. And some people who wait romanticize sex in their imaginations and have really high expectations of their future partner to be some sort of porn star right from the get-go. (Porn stars are actually normal people like us; their benefits package just covers more blood tests.)

The reasons listed above make physical intimacy sound pretty bleak, but they aren’t why I think there is no such thing as safe sex. Sex is intimate, it’s vulnerable, and it comes with all sorts of expectations. So why would you want to have sex with a person you don’t know you can trust to see you as a real person, married or not? (I know quite a few married people who don’t see their spouse as a real person.) Why add delusions of perfection or a lack of respect to an already precarious equation?

The true reason there is no such thing as safe sex lies in the problem–yes, problem–of having to be a real person: with scars, strange toenails, past heartbreak and mistakes, commitment issues, and fears of rejection. Attempting to be a real person with someone else who could walk away or not like who they see is scarier to me than being physically naked in front of people. I’ve had enough of those nightmares to learn how to roll with it. And Regina Spektor says I have a perfect body. But what if I told a person my minor and major indiscretions, or they caught me balling my eyes out to Hallmark movies, or I laid out all the times someone has used me to make a girlfriend jealous or never mentioned a girlfriend at all? What if I tapped into the full extent of my cynicism over dinner, or I mentioned my baking disorder + savior complex, or was overheard singing “Abide with Me,” which is my favorite hymn, in the shower? And what if they couldn’t accept that? That may be my greatest fear.

Blah, blah, blah, so the retelling. Ladies and gentleman, today’s poem, inspired by Donald Hall:

Safe Sex
(a retelling that has been told before
over and over again)
if she can emerge from beneath the comfort-
er, cotton sheets, chaos of laundry day, interrupted,
drink tea instead of coffee, feel better without mascara;
if he can dream on different streets with different people,
wake up early, wipe the sleep from his eyes, cover them with a hat,
or hood, or umbrella; if they never meet, talk, touch, or give
a shit about each other, then they might save themselves
the trouble realizing she looks better without mascara, he’s
a prime candidate for hat-hair, and they’re okay with that