Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel
New York, New York, USA
November 10
I'm a writer, editor, blogger and event organizer based in New York City. I've edited 39 anthologies, including Obsessed, Gotta Have It, Fast Girls, and more, and write widely about sex, dating, pop culture and books.

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OCTOBER 21, 2011 1:24PM

My Tiny Hypocrisy: I Don't Always Use Birth Control

Rate: 17 Flag

When I first started having sex with men at age 17, I assumed I'd always use condoms with guys, unless I was in a monogamous relationship or trying to get pregnant. That assumption stayed true through most of my twenties, but once I turned 30 I found myself involved with a new class of men who for various reasons weren't condom fans. This shocked me, not so much because of the specter of STIs, but because I imagined that if I were a guy, I'd be terrified of getting a girl pregnant. I wasn't so shocked, however, that I could refuse the novelty.

The first time, I felt like I was watching myself from afar, and figured this slightly older man must know something I didn't, must have some special way of protecting us. When we did it again the next morning, forgoing a condom seemed easier, somehow; I'd already done it once. The same thing happened when I dated another man later that year; by then the morning-after pill was relatively easily available, though not as easily as it is now. We were dating, and I felt grown-up and special knowing that he wanted that kind of intimacy.

I know I'm certainly not the only woman in my age group (I'm 35) or any other who's been there, done that—or is doing that. The recent brouhaha over xoJane health critic Cat Marnell's confession that she uses Plan B as her primary birth control shows that we are more than ready to get our claws out about other women's sexual choices. I'm not saying that we shouldn't encourage each other to do what's in our best interest, but where do we draw the line? How different is the judgment Marnell received from encouraging a vegetarian friend to eat meat, because you think it's healthier (or vice versa)? If I were to castigate every friend who's ever made a sexual "error" at some point in her life, whether around birth control or anything else, I'd be left with very few friends.

Piled onto this extremely personal, sensitive topic is the idea that because I write about sex for a living, I'm automatically a role model for others, and that I always make the smartest, best decisions for myself—and that when I reveal things about my life, I'm encouraging others to follow my lead. I'm not, and I'm pretty sure Marnell wasn't either. What this utopian vision fails to take into account is that I'm human too. My actions make sense to me the time, but my motivations have as much to do with my heart as they do with my head.

When I dated a guy who'd only used condoms, I wanted us not to use them because we were in an exclusive relationship, and for me it would have made the sex more intimate. I don't necessarily mean "better" in the physical sense, but I would have felt more bonded to him, knowing we were doing something he'd never done, and yes, while it would have included some risk that I might get pregnant, that was a risk I was willing to take. I respected his reasoning, that should something go awry, he wasn't ready to be a father, but must admit that I also felt slighted. When most men I've dated would've been eager for condomless sex, but deferred to my insistence on it if I wasn't on another form of birth control, his disinterest felt, rationally or not, like a sign of not caring as much about me as previous boyfriends.

Other times I've forgone a condom because I told myself the chances of my getting pregnant were slim to none, and in the worst case scenario, as my biological clock ticks away, would it be the end of the world if I became a single mom? I've skirted the edges of safety for reasons I'm sure many of us share: because I didn't want to think about the reality of the risks I was taking. In my rational mind, I don't believe you can know who has an STD just by looking at them, of course, but in the heat of the moment? That knowledge starts to slip. A confident man is a sexy man, in my mind, and if I trust a guy enough to engage in sex with him, there's a part of me that trusts that should a worst-case scenario ensue, he will be there, and if he's not, that everyone else in my life will back me up.

I know from experience that "my body, my choice" means, literally, that I am the only one I can rely on when it comes to what happens with my body. I was having a rather covert affair with someone, and I was on birth control during most of it, but one time I wasn't, and I told him this, emphasizing that we couldn't have sex, at least not without a condom. When he started to enter me, I decided to pretend that everything would be fine; I had no idea he would risk ejaculating inside me, but he did. I told myself it was no big deal, and that I could get Plan B, which I did; what I didn't realize is that money I had assumed would be in my bank account in plenty of time wasn't, causing me to wait, and worry, for a few days. I didn't share this with him because I didn't think it was his business; I'd taken a risk and I was the one who had to handle any resulting fallout.

I believe it's my job as a woman to take care of my body, including my birth control, and I take full responsibility for the times when I haven't used it. I can't claim that I will always use it when I should, though it's not something I'm cavalier about. I think we've in some ways conflated the autonomy feminism has given women around reproductive rights with dictating the way women use the "choice" we're so adamant about having. Irene Vilar documented her experience having multiple abortions in her memoir Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict; I don't think she was celebrating them, but they are facts of her life. The idea that any of us should be held up as model citizens, or shamed for our sexual choices, including our choices to use, or not use, birth control as we see fit, disturbs me. I'm not advocating other people going condomless, or denying the need for quality, comprehensive sex education for adults as well as teens, but on an individual level, judging and shaming people is both unhelpful and infantilizing. We all weigh risks every single day, and it's our right to make the decisions that suit our lives best at any given time. I don't walk up to smokers and tell them they're damaging their lungs; I'm pretty sure they already know that. Similarly, I would never question someone's right to make their own choices about their sex life.

I don't, as a rule carry condoms; perhaps I should, but when I'm not planning on having sex, I don't. I don't bring people home, so I'm usually going to their place or a hotel, and yes, I tend to assume that if they want to use a condom, they'll have one handy. I don't necessarily think the condomless sex I've had with men is any better qualitatively than sex I've had using a condom per se; for me, it's more about the meaning of the action. In the wake of Catgate, I've seen plenty of people saying "I always use a condom," which is great, but just because I can't say the same doesn't mean I don't have the right to make that decision for myself. Which I will, on a case-by-case basis.

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This is a fantastic piece. I found myself nodding my head in agreement at several points. You could have been writing my own rationalizations/ self-arguments/ arguments with lovers over the years. I have used Plan B twice, and each time I have, friends have berated me for not using condoms. But, we all make choices.

I am glad you got an ep. This is an important piece that people should read and be talking about. Even the most intelligent, rational women make decisions that may not be the smartest. But just as a "hard cock has no conscience," that desire to have skin-to-skin contact as a sign of real intimacy makes the same kind of sense.

When it was decided that women could get Plan B over the counter, but not for young women, I made a pledge that I would buy it for those who couldn't buy it.

I don't regret that decision. I still believe that we all start with the best of intentions regarding sex; those who claim that there's no excuse for women getting pregnant who don't want to be pregnant simply don't understand how biology or the human heart works.

Thanks for opening your heart here.
trying to rate you. the rater seems to be broken.
You are proof that not all sex writers are Savage types doling out good advice to the credulous. Art does imitate life, and the life you imitate is one based nearly entirely on instinct behavior women have developed over the last 200,000 years in the collective unconscious. No question, and obviously, of course, women are healthier when they have ejaculate (healthy spermazoids, again, obviously) inside them. This is how we developed as a species, but, since the pill things have changed. What hasn't changed are women's hormonal impulses in which they seemingly take leave of their senses and, leaving being civilized behind on a tipsy friday evening, procreate without responsibility. It made sense for 199, 950 years, but not anymore. It is truly beyond selfish, and, what does it mean to fall back on instinct only when you've been educated and could Google any study proving all this in 2 seconds? Surfers get around very easily, that's just how its always been, with no signs of a let up. I've been shocked twice when Physicians! I've met immediately went bareback without hesitation ... think on that a bit. Pulling out, or ending in another orafice, is what the guy who is not a caveman himself learns to do ... if you fling with the young or the drunk or otherwise addled, watch out! This is all important as it is utter and complete bullshit to selfishly pop out a kid for clock or frustration reasons- child abuse, really, in this modern life. You can say all you want about your support group, in the end a kid wants to know who Baby Daddy is, and that causes developmental anxiety of the highest order, and, often, duplicate behavior completing rather than breaking the cycle. Maybe you should read more Savage? Anyway, for flings nothing beats Waikiki- 365 is the schedule at the beach. Aloha, Darlin'
Sorry, your behavior is disgusting and childish. Smoking is not an apt analogy, rather your forgoing birth control is more akin to secondhand smoking. You are so focused on yourself, you fail to see that others around you are also put at risk by your actions. Every person who comes into sexual contact with you (and the people who come into contact with them) runs the risk of harming themselves though a potential STD contraction, or even worse entering into a partnership where they have to raise a child with you!

The real thing that gets me if the fact that using condoms and hormonal birth control isn't even that hard. Hell, you could get an IUD and not think about it for 10 years! You could buy a box of condoms from Costco and again, probably not think about it for a good long while.

There are so many different facets to explore regarding your idiocy, but the one that probably gets me the most is how you've taken such an anti-feminist action, and tried to twist it into some sort of new sexual freedom manifesto. There is nothing feminist about letting a guy wheedle his way into having sex without a condom, nothing feminist about convincing a guy to go without a condom so you can emotionally manipulate him into thinking you're special, and finally there certainly is nothing feminist about letting a decision as important as reproduction be handled by lethargy and dumb luck. Get over yourself already.
I love to come inside a woman, so I understand the guys' desire to go condom-free. I've also read studies that show women get a mental-health boost from semen.

At the same time, you've got bigger balls than me. I don't want to knock up anyone, nor contract a STD.
By the way, I enjoy your work and your look. Women who wear glasses . . . yes.
Hi Rachel! Glad to see you here.

Ignore the troll, everyone else does.
I particularly liked your inclusion of this: “When I dated a guy who'd only used condoms, I wanted us not to use them because we were in an exclusive relationship ... I respected his reasoning, that should something go awry, he wasn't ready to be a father, but must admit that I also felt slighted. When most men I've dated would've been eager for condomless sex, but deferred to my insistence on it ...”

It's commonly assumed that men are the only ones that push for this kind of thing and that women do not. If it came to a situation where a woman was pressing for child support and a man claimed “I didn't even want to not use a condom, but she pressured me,” my guess is that the man would be laughed at.

The laughter would come from several things: One is the stereotype is that men are motivated to push and women to resist, never the opposite; obviously not always true, but many think this way. One is that the stereotype is that men are stronger than women and women and so men would always win if push came to shove; but push does not always come to shove, by which I mean it's sometimes an intellectual not physical contest, and even if push did come to shove, some women are stronger than some men even if there might be some theoretical average man that is stronger than some theoretical average women—people are not averages. And, finally, it requires considerable force of ego to utter this statement and one is exposed to ridicule; it's very easy to get people sizing up one's looks and saying to themselves “uh, yeah, who do you think you are, Matt Damon?” as if somehow no one would bend the rules for other than the best, and in asserting you're someone that someone would bend the rules for, you're asserting a certain sense of power/allure that people assume that they can discount merely on visual inspection; in fact, different things attract different people, even varying for the same person at different times, and knowing who one would bend the rules for is probably more complicated/subtle than is visually obvious.

So it doesn't go without saying that these situations come up. It requires women to acknowledge it so that it's on the record in case it comes up later. It's good for both parties to push back and it's good for both parties to acknowledge they might not always. It's no accident that pregancy rates run higher in abstinence-only areas because it's almost surely that people who are not prepared to acknowledge the likelihood of weakness are unprepared for the strength of the hormonal desire to anesthetize the thinking part of the brain for the sake of the propagation of the species.
Oh, my goodness, but there have been some strong opinions to this piece! I think, if more people were honest, they would admit to doing the same thing. R.
Thank you for such an honest piece. It's too bad people have to shit on you for it. I enjoyed it, and saw a bit of my own history in there. Brava.
A very honest article indeed. That said, I can't help but be wary of your sexifying condomless sex with casual partners. Nor do I think your vegetarian analogy is correct. I think your honesty is good, but as a respected sex writer, you need to get back on the pulpit. You're not castigating women who made mistakes by advocating protection consistently.
@ChillerPop - I'm not aware of anywhere in my essay where I "sexified" any of my actions. And the idea that I have a "pulpit" is ridiculous, which is part of my point. I don't claim to have all the answers for anyone else, or even for myself, and if someone wants to read a first-person piece as proscriptive, that's their right, but I'd venture that it's a misinterpretation. There's a reason it's called first-person writing and I find the idea that anyone should police their personal truths disturbing. I did file this under the "my tiny hypocrisy" category and didn't write it to claim that I always have and always will engage in sex without protection, but rather that it has happened and could happen again, as I'm sure is true for many people. Denying that possibility and pretending that I'm always "perfect" doesn't serve anyone, in my opinion. If I had been advocating that others engage in unprotected sex, that would be a different story, but I don't see anywhere that I've done that. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, including me.
It is the very rare dating woman who can say she has never had unprotected sex. I don't think there is any moral judgment to make here. And Plan B is a perfectly legit birth control choice.

Since Genesis, women have been burdened with the responsibility for sex: when, whether, birth control, children, shame, the whole enchilada. So what's wrong with a woman making her own decision, for herself, to forego a condom? If the guy wants to be "responsible," he still has his own choice to make, and it should not be the woman's complete responsibility. And if they BOTH decide to go bare, why in the world do we castigate the woman, fer crissakes!?
Rachel: I do apologize. I am coming off like I'm suggesting you should censor your personal truths - you shouldn't. I also am the last person who would ever want to wag a finger and shame someone over sexual choices. But, like you, I have personal hypocrisies and find myself doing things I shouldn't.

Your columns in the Village Voice were so progressive and so informative to read, I would just hate for people to pick up the wrong message (especially when condom fatigue sets in on HIV high risk populations) - despite the fact that you're 100% correct to talk about your personal truths honestly.
I just wanna be there on the first date when you tell the guy you're a "sex writer." A lot to think about there.
I assume you call yourself a sex write because you are willing to write about your sex life. When I write, many times, what I write is a reflection of my current state of mind, not my always state of mine. Many times I make stuff up to make an analogy or a metaphor. So I am going to guess that you made some of this stuff up, and that this is about how you feel about these things today, or maybe a few days ago. My point is that it makes more sense for me to use your writing to explore my feelings rather than to judge yours.

I could try writing about my sex life, or my perception of my sex life, but I doubt their are many people who would want to read it. A woman can write abour her sex life and get all kinds of responses, mostly from men who have seen your picture. You can look at my picture. I doubt it will help, maybe I should try a come hither pose. What does a straight guy's come hither pose look like? Not a clue...
I am completely pro-choice. I believe abortion should be safe and legal. I also believe that it stops a beating heart and that a big, lifelong dose of shame and regret should be a side effect of Plan B.
There is something a little too casual and flip about your revelations as it concerns the termination of pregnancy. You say you are not cavalier, but your tone seems to contradict this denial.
Abortion should be safe and legal and VERY, VERY rare....especially among those who know better.
I prefer bareback also.

The poker analogy of going all in.

Fuck it.

You would be a cute mommy.
I agree with Dana Dangerous. I cannot think of one single friend who hasn't, on occasion, had sex sans protection. I know I have. I certainly don't go judging any woman who's done it.

Back in the day, when I was very Catholic, but at the same time, sexually active, I often employed the "pull-out" method of birth control. I didn't want to get pregnant, but I never even considered STDs. In the late 80's, I tested positive for the Clap and I didn't get it from my new boyfriend. How embarrassing to have to tell him. Now, it's condoms all the way... most of the time. And I'm on the Pill.

Thanks for such an honest post.
Jon Harris, with PlanB there is no beating heart. The egg never gets a chance to implant onto the uterus and just passes out of the system. It may get fertilized but never grows into anything beyond a clump of cells.
Abortion and Plan B are two different things.
@ rw005g: this pro-choice socialist has no idea what the hell you're talking about.

I will say, abortion and Plan B aside, this "condoms-are-rubbish, what about intimacy wah wah" nonsense is going to go right out the window when the next AIDS-type plague comes up to bite y'all in the collective asses though. 1980 was not that long ago, people. Wrap it up. It's your right not to, but my right to think you've not got your head screwed on properly.
Interesting piece. I have to admit: I neither understand nor agree. When I was single I always used condoms with a partner who was not yet exclusive and had no real difficulties. I presented it this way to my partners a) we can have sex with a condom or b) we can not have sex. I did have one guy give me a big long speech that I mostly tuned out who then changed his mind when he came to grasp that I was serious.

I also came of age when news about AIDS first broke when it was a certain death sentence so no doubt that influenced me greatly. And I never skipped out on birth control. But maybe I am boring or unhip and the new thing is not to worry. I also view intimacy differently. I had sex as a single person when I was younger out of desire and curiosity and regret none of my choices. To me intimacy takes time to build so that was not always my goal when connecting with partners.

There is both a naive and flippant tone to this presentation. I disagree that people will back you up when the worst case scenario rears up. That is generally when everybody runs in the opposite direction, gossips, and becomes suddenly unavailable. But maybe I am too cynical?

However, I respect that you are an adult who makes choices and writes about them and is brave enough to put yourself out there for scrutiny.
"in the worst case scenario, as my biological clock ticks away, would it be the end of the world if I became a single mom?"

I think you want to have a baby. If so, it would be better to own that decision and act on it intentionally, rather than increase your STD risk by having unprotected sex with multiple partners.
As a social worker and HIV educator, I feel obliged to remind readers that AIDS is the number one killer of Black women between the ages of 24 and 35. Being HIV positive is not merely an inconvenience, even with anti-retroviral medications, the quality and length of your life will be affected. You cannot know someone's HIV status by what they tell you. 20% of the people who are infected do not know that they are infected. Having condom free, unprotected sex is not a good idea unless you are certain of your partners status and their fidelity. Please use a condom and don't rationalize your lapse of judgement.
Okay, you're making your own decision. But, it doesn't sound to me like you've really internalized all the problems that result if one of those times you go without protection you actually get pregnant.
Guess I am one of those rare few who does not ever, and I mean ever, skip out on the BC (and I am 37 & in a committed relationship). For now, that means a condom every single time. I admit, I found this piece amazing, much in the same way that thrill seeking adrenalin junkies amaze me. I get that it is your decision, have at it. However; because it is your choice to make your choices public- you open yourself up to public opinion. The fact that some people are absolutely appalled shouldn't surprise you. I'm sorry, but skin on skin contact with Mr. Right Now isn't intimate to me or my friends. Especially when it means the next morning will be spent alone, in search of a pharmacy that sells Plan B & a follow up trip to the doc for STD/STI testing. You seem to trivialize the possible consequences of such behavior in ways that the women I know do not. I really don't know what to make of such behavior.
Kudos to you for being so honest about something that damn near all of us have done on occasion. I'm sure you'll get a lot of grief and "You slut!" over it, but I know this is a common experience. I certainly had my share of not-so-smart encounters in my single days. Just admitting it doesn't mean you are advocating it, and I think that's something that bears repeating.
I need to start out by saying, I certainly hope that manatees are worthy of more compassion than you've received by some!

As far as condom use, as a gay man that's the Numero Uno STD barrier, and I know that I shouldn't go without it--although, on rare occasions, I'm embarrassed to say that I have. I've watched so many wonderful young men die of AIDS, and you'd think those experiences would be enough to assure that I'd NEVER put myself at that kind of risk. But, in the heat of the moment, I have. My excuse? "He's practically a virgin, so he must be clean." (I know...right?) Now I read about HPV and the cancers that are rampant because of it, especially cancers of the mouth and throat, and I worry all over again, especially since I'm too old for the vaccine. I guess that's one benefit of aging: Apparently, I'm too old for most guys to find desirable, and the ones that do I don't want anyway :-)

Thanks for being so open. I've never seen your column, wish I had. I stopped reading the Village Voice a lot of years ago, along with Rolling Stone, at least not regularly as I once did.
I always wonder, when I hear stories like this from friends and online acquaintances, why they don't just go get an IUD. It seems like such a minor one-time-hassle & really a no-brainer.

I'm not a huge fan of condoms either, though for the most part I've grudgingly used them when not in LTRs. If I hadn't been on the pill since before I became sexually active, I would have definitely gone the IUD route as a strong backup protection against condom mishaps or horny in the moment judgement cloudedness.
Hi Rachel,
I've been providing holistic bodywork at a non-profit center for people living with HIV for a few years. Many of my clients are women who have contracted and spread the infection from unprotected sex. After seeing up close the personal devastation that this disease brings to people's lives, I take issue with the "my body, my choice" position. In the light of AIDs, I find your article to be obscenely self-centered. It's not just about you and your personal choices if you are putting yourself and others at risk.