March 08, 2006

Please call it “sex safety”

It suddenly struck me this week that “sex safety” is an all-round better term than “safer sex.” In some situations, I think terminology is over-emphasized (like the whole vulva vs. vagina thing). But I also know that I would much rather have a pap exam than a pap smear (or as loverman’s sister once said, “if they called it a cunt scrape no one would go”).

I think safer sex, and safe sex before it, are the kind of terms that actually cause problems for themselves. A lot of important, excellent work has been done to research and promote “safer sex,” but I think the simple act of calling it “sex safety” would help smooth the way in the future.

Safe sex sounds like boring rules

Safe sex sounds like limited sex, controlled sex, modified sex. It sounds like one way to have sex, like I’m being asked to have sex in a different, more boring way. That is definitely starting off on the wrong foot, and you can see that in the disclaimers and justifications you find in most safe sex literature, insisting that safe sex is still hot, can be lots of fun, isn’t that bad, isn’t rude or square. (Those links all go to excellent safer sex resources.) It’s important to consider pleasure in any sexual health campaign, sure, and that’s exactly why “safe sex” is such a dud phrase. We need a term that doesn’t instantly cause defensive reactions.

Safer sex sounds like a runner-up

Safer sex sounds just as oppressive and boring, and as a bonus it sounds like a failure. Oops, it isn’t actually safe; it’s only safe-ish. We were wrong about safe sex, and we don’t know how to make it completely safe anymore. On top of the disclaimers about pleasure, safer sex has to add disclaimers about safety and fear, to convince people it’s still worth being safer even if you can’t be 100% safe, that something is better than nothing. Now I’m being asked to have sex in a different, more boring, somewhat-unsafe way. Completely aside from any associations about sex, a clumsily modified slogan like “safer sex” makes activists and teachers look like they are clinging to a failing strategy.

Sex safety sounds sexy and powerful

Sex safety, on the other hand, sounds like a skill. That’s empowering. Now I’m not being asked to limit my sex with rules, I’m being offered sexual skills. Sexual skills are actually sexy, which is stunning for a health care strategy. Sex safety sounds like a field of learning instead of a way to have sex, which is more accurate (sex safety is about relationship skills and health care, and more than just using condoms). When new research changes sex safety recommendations, that is a breakthrough and a success instead of a failure. That’s reasonable and encourages ongoing learning. And because sex safety doesn’t sound like a kind of sex the way “safer sex” does, it might be easier to justify teaching it to kids who aren’t “allowed” to have sex yet.

All of that just by making “sex” the adjective!

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