In all the years I've been writing passionately as a love and sex advisor, there are two appropriate topics that seem to come up more often than others when it comes to getting back in the dating game after having been out of it for a while: the first is meeting people, of course, specifcally men, and the second is "How do I do this sex thing again? What's changed out there while I was gone?"
It doesn't feel right to jump into talking about the tab A, slot B physical mechanics stuff without first checking in on the safety issue—don't the instructions always remind you to wear eye protection, after all?
What is safe to do, and with whom? What is safe(r) sex, anyway, and do you need an engineering degree to do it right? Do you have to do it all? Are we even allowed to ask that last question?
During my last (and final) spate of dating before moving in for good with my now-husband, I was briefly involved with a friend's ex, a man so handsome I had to touch him (often) just to make sure he was real. He was not only prettier than I was; he was also younger, which didn't seem that important until we got to the "Should we or shouldn't we, and if so, how?" conversation, at which point there appeared a generation gap wide enough to stumble into in the dark, never to be heard from again.
For my demographic, born in the era currently and very stylishly portrayed on AMC's "Mad Men," safer sex can still be seen as a series of choices one makes after gathering a series of data points. For his, better illustrated by, say, "Scooby-Doo," there's no "safer" about it, it's just sex, and sex arrives generously coated in latex rubber.
Not only had he never done it without a condom, he''d literally never imagined doing it without a condom. I ended up feeling like I was contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Oh, don't gasp like that! He was nearly 30) just noting that it was something we could talk about.
My friend Charlotte, who's 43, agrees that there's a gap: "It seems to me that people my age, coming of age right as AIDS hit, are some of the last to think of having sex without a condom unless married or in a very serious relationship. Men even slightly younger than me have assumed them as a matter of course."
And Tanya, who's a somewhat alarmingly lithe and youthful 41 (Portrait in the attic, or blood of virgins? Hard to say, hard to say) says condoms are "an absolute given" but notes that her dates are almost always five or 10 years younger, sometimes more.
Both women have chosen to go the 100% route, but not without making a reasoned decision first, a choice. For me, a couple years older and steeped in the obscure subculture of sex educators, people who know a little too much about both viruses and human desire, the decision has never been easy or automatic.
I'm certainly not going to suggest that you throw your condoms and your caution to the wind or forgo other common-sense health and safety measures—far from it. I will admit, though, that the universal safe-ifying of sex depresses me slightly.
It's not just that the squeaky drag of latex, no matter how lubed-up, can never, if we are honest, compete with the slick heat of skin on skin, but because universal precautions, as currently recommended, betray such a lack of imagination and require such a lack of trust.
If someone you know, someone with whom you have people as well as interests in common, reels off for you his recent sexual and medical history and those of all his recent contacts, can you chose to believe him? What is it worth to you to trust him?