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The rules of engagement

Far too few people use a condom when they should. They boink people they barely know. They don’t talk about STDs. Sexploration offers some practical advice.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
/ Source: contributor

Before I get to the sex, here’s a quote from a doctor’s letter to a well-known medical journal: “For years, nurses … have told me that no other clinician in my multi-specialty group regularly washes his or her hands before touching patients, that none ever washes pens or pencils, and that no one has ever been seen to clean his or her stethoscope parts, which are often in contact with ill patients’ skin — all this despite a nontrivial body of published research supporting the necessity of such practices…”

Doctors know they are supposed to wash their hands. They’re doctors! You don’t even need a pricey med school education to know you should wash up. Mothers nag kids about it every day.

So what good is it going to do me to badger you about the results from the Zogby/ survey on sexual risk-taking? Far too few people use a condom when they should. They boink people they barely know. They don’t talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Look, I get how it happens. Really. There you are, having a drink, and there she is, a pretty stranger, smiling. You chat. Where did that third round of gin and tonics come from? Never mind. She’s cute and getting cuter, and the next thing you know you are standing outside her place hearing, “Don’t leave, come up.” And you without a raincoat. You think about this for half a second, then decide the fact you aren’t sure whether her name is Arlene or Darlene (or is it Marlene?) is less important than not looking like a sissy weenie and having to go home to watch amateur tornado videos on the Weather Channel.

We’re all human. So instead of a lecture, we here at Sexploration will share our four-step system for how to avoid this situation in the future.

1. Stop drinking
The poll shows that “more than 60 percent of those who agree that they do drink alcohol, report having unprotected sex while under the influence of alcohol.” Surprised? Me neither.

One of my all-time favorite studies was conducted in Scottish bars by researchers from the University of Glasgow. Researchers presented drinkers with color photographs of people. And guess what? Those who drank thought members of the opposite sex in the pictures were more attractive then those who didn’t drink.

Well, duh, right? Like frat boys say, “Dude, drink 'till she’s cute.”

But here’s where it gets interesting. “The likelihood of intentions to engage in risky sex increases as the facial attractiveness of the potential sexual partner increases,” the study authors wrote. In other words, even without booze, the hotter the other person, the more willing people are to throw caution to the wind. And since booze makes EVERYBODY of the opposite sex look more attractive, you can see the potential for trouble when all the Waldos in a bar start looking like Tyson Beckford.

So try nursing that drink. Or after your first one, order a tonic water with a lime and call it a gin and tonic. Keep your wits about you.

2. Do not judge the cover
Both men and women have told me they can tell if a potential snuggle bunny “looks clean.” One guy said the woman who gave him herpes was “really fit and healthy” so he didn’t see the need for a condom.

Huh?! People with STDs do not necessarily look like they live in a van down by the river.

Lawyers, doctors, journalists, ministers, nice people, terrible people, carpenters, factory workers and athletes all get STDs. 

3. Think to yourself, “Condoms are good, not foolproof”
We’re having a debate in this country about sex ed for kids and what to teach them, but all sides agree on one thing: the only 100-percent way to be sure you don’t get a disease through sex is to not have sex.

This doesn’t apply to people in monogamous relationships who are sure their partner is disease-negative, of course. But for the other people unwilling to sign up for monkish abstinence, condoms are an extremely valuable tool to reduce the risk of contracting several kinds of STDs, most especially HIV. But they aren’t foolproof. And in case you were wondering, lust and six tequila shooters makes everybody a fool.

4. Talk
Do I really have to explain this to you? You ought to know a little something about people before you find yourself using their shower the next morning.

If you’re about to hop between the sheets, you should talk STDs, but I don’t really expect you to. As you can see from the poll, a significant number of people don’t, and many other surveys bear this out. One study showed that 38 percent of gay and bisexual men who were HIV-positive did not always disclose that to potential sex partners.

So I say, skip the sex altogether. Slow down. Your wiener won’t break, your vagina won’t seal up between now and tomorrow. Spend the time talking about yourselves, your jobs, your families. This is important for several reasons.

For example, new studies have linked risk in general and risk-taking in sex. “Consistent evidence supported a relationship between sensation-seeking and all the aspects of sexual risk-taking,” says a report by John Bancroft and others from the Kinsey Institute.

His bragging about skiing double-black-diamond runs with names like Valley of Death may just mean he’s showing off, but it could also signal that he takes risks in other areas of life, like sex.

If you talk, you might find out she uses drugs. Drug users are especially prone to STDs. STDs are practically a symptom for users of methamphetamine.

Do they smoke? Have lots of ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends? A Swedish study on women who engage in “travel sex” (you know, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”) showed they are also much more likely to have other risky health practices like smoking, drinking, using dope and having lots of ex-boyfriends.

But talking does something much more important than help you screen for danger. It can make you more comfortable with someone; make you and that person feel you might already have the beginnings of a relationship. While this could make you want quick sex even more, it will also establish the beginnings of an intimacy beyond sex, rather than relying on sex to create the intimacy.

That intimacy is your friend. It will give you the confidence to say, “You know, I’d really love to. But how about if I see you tomorrow?” Then, tomorrow, maybe you can talk some more, maybe even about sex and why you’d like nothing more than to shag your brains out, so wouldn’t it be a good idea to get tested so you could rut with abandon?

Oh, and for crying out loud, wash your hands.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.