Dispelling the myth: “Condoms are for single people”

We hear it all of the time on campus: “I don’t need condoms or other safer sex supplies; I’m in a committed relationship.”  In heterosexual partnerships and partnerships between two males, research demonstrates an interesting trend:  those in casual or non-committed partnerships tend to use condoms more frequently than those in long-term or committed relationships. Basically, once relationships get serious, people are less likely to use condoms.

This post is NOT about associating judgment with anyone’s choice about using a condom, but rather, to de-stigmatize condom use in all relationships and partnership situations, whether they’re committed, casual, experimental, long-term, short-term, opposite sex, same-sex, etc.

Why might people stop using condoms in committed partnerships?

The reasoning behind discontinuing condom use in committed partnerships can be quite varied, and might include:

  •   Not having sexual acts that necessitate condoms (example: two partners who decide to stop having oral, anal or vaginal sex; or in another example: two females in a partnership who only have oral sex, would use dams rather than condoms; related to this example – keep in mind that many condoms can be easily converted to dental dams for use during oral sex!)
  •   Pregnancy risk is not a concern (e.g., pregnancy is not a factor in the relationship and/or some other form of contraception is used)
  •   Condoms imply fear or non-awareness of STI status of partner
  •   Condoms imply fear or non-awareness of partner monogamy
  •   Proposing to use condoms is a breach of partner intimacy in a committed relationship
  •   Proposing to use condoms is a way of communicating one’s own infidelity or positive STD status
  •   The notion that condoms decrease sexual pleasure
  •   Condoms are uncomfortable for partner(s) (e.g., allergy, improper size)

It’s true that both partners getting tested (and treated, if necessary) for STIs/HIV is a way of reducing risk of transmission within a partnership. In theory, if both partners are negative for STIs/HIV and are monogamous, then there’s little to no STI risk in that partnership. However, this idea is complicated by the fact that many STIs are not routinely tested for in exams, and that the frequency and timing of STI/HIV testing matters (one’s status may change with each new partner, for example). All of that said, in cases of total monogamy and recent mutual partner testing/treatment, the risk of STIs may be lower.

However, most of the reasons for condom discontinuation noted above involve larger issues about how we conceptualize condom use. They highlight serious social norms and beliefs (whether factual or not) around condoms, and touch on themes of intimacy, partner communication, fidelity and trust.

Why might people continue to use condoms?

Irrespective of what type of partnership they are in, people start and continue using condoms for a variety of reasons:

  •   To continually safeguard against STIs, including those that are not routinely tested for like herpes and HPV
  •   If another contraceptive method is used, to provide additional protection against pregnancy in addition to STIs (contraceptive options like the pill, patch and ring have a typical effectiveness of only 92%)
  •   To protect against STIs, if STI status is unknown for one or both partners
  •   To protect against STIs, if STI testing occurred outside of a testing window period*
  •   Many prefer using condoms as the only prevention method
  •   Many like condoms because it can delay the time to ejaculation, and therefore keep sex going for longer
  •   Many may prefer condoms because they can increase pleasure for their partner (ribbed condoms, studded condoms, etc.)
  •   Many may prefer condoms because it allows for quicker and easy clean up afterward.
  •   Wearing condoms no matter the nature of your relationship helps reinforce the HABIT. Behaviors are habits, and the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

* Side note: Window period to a period of detection in which you can identify an STI on a test. For the rapid oral HIV test, the window period is around 3 months, so if there was an exposure within 3 months of taking the test, it may not show up on the test.

Let’s Make a Pact

Let’s get rid of the judgment and association of condom use just being for casual hook-ups or non-committed relationships! In fact, let’s open up the discussion even more: there is no one contraception or protective choice best for certain types of partnerships.

  •   Condoms are not just for those in non-committed relationships who are fearful of STI status or partner fidelity
  •   Hormonal contraception is not the only viable method of protection for committed partners
  •   The IUD is not just for women who are married or in serious relationships
  •   Hormonal contraception is not just for women who anticipate having multiple partnerships, nor does it make people more likely to engage in sexual activity

There are plenty of reasons why people choose different contraceptive and protection options during sex – and choice is a beautiful thing! The important point here is that thinking thoughtfully about options with a partner is key, as is challenging the norms we set around these choices.  Trained staff at UNC Student Wellness are available to talk through contraceptive options with you through our confidential C.H.A.T.S. feature (ONYEN required), or in appointments by calling 919-962-WELL. And, condoms and other safer sex supplies are available to UNC students through online request, through drop-in at Student Wellness, and through the condom dispensers installed on campus.


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