Despite fully knowing the risk, author Kerry Cohen didn’t make condoms a regular part of her sex life. What was regular, however, was fear and shame.
When I was 22, I sat on the toilet bowl, my fingers probing my vulva. I was terrified. There were two inflamed bumps, and also creamy discharge. I had been here before, my heart in my throat, when I found the skin tags that later proved to be HPV, and when I’d gone to pee during a college party, only to find two tiny creatures making their way up past my pubis mons: crabs. I had gotten myself into trouble with boys before—disgusting, careless trouble. And here I was again.
I made an appointment with the local Planned Parenthood, and then waited in the front area, squirming slightly in my seat hoping to get some relief from the itchiness. In the other chairs were other young women, also trying to hide their squirming. The nurse called my name and I followed her brisk stride to the examination room. I knew the drill. They would ask me how many sexual partners I’d had. I never knew the answer offhand. Then they’d ask me if I was currently sexually active. The answer was always yes. My current partner would be gone in just a week. I’d soon move on to someone else. It wasn’t how I wanted it. Every guy who gave me attention made me hopeful that maybe this one would stay. This one would finally love me. I’d finally stop pushing them away with my need. But inevitably, things always went the same way. I slept with them too quickly, too desperate for their affection, and then they were gone, and I was left hungry for the next one.
Birth control? She asked. Yes, I told her. I’m on the Pill. She pursed her lips, and I knew what she was going to say. Unless I was in a committed relationship, I really needed to wear condoms. I knew that, I knew that. Of course I knew that. That sentiment had been pounded into my psyche since I was young, growing up as I did during the AIDS epidemic. My mother became a gynecologist when I was a teenager. She sent care packages of condoms to me at college. Anyone with any wherewithal understood: You use condoms. Every time. So why didn’t I?
I didn’t because in that heated moment, when he was about to enter me, when I was about to make him mine, finally, even if only for a few minutes, I didn’t want to break that spell. Unless he reached for one—and he so rarely did—I was never going to put my physical health over the intoxication that came from owning him, from losing myself, from letting him lose himself in me.
I changed into my paper robe, laid the paper blanket over my thighs, and soon the doctor knocked and came in. I lie back, my feet in stirrups, while she poked around down there to see what she could see. My mouth felt dry, my underarms damp. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what she would find. But in less than a minute, she snapped off her glove. A yeast infection and two ingrown hairs, she announced. She wrote me a prescription for Diflucan and I dressed and left. As usual, I’d dodged a bullet. I was lucky. I knew I was lucky even then.
How many more times would I be lucky? In a week, when this guy moved on, I’d go boy hunting again. I would conveniently forget my pounding heart, my sweaty palms. I would meet a new guy, flirt wildly, take him home, fantasizing about what we might be together, where the connection might go. And as he moves toward me, I won’t think about my body as anything other than something that could hook him, reel him in, and make him mine. I won’t catch an STD that time, but I might the next time. And if I catch something, I will still strip down to my core, exposing everything to the other person, even the STD. The shame I have about that runs deep—for the desperation, for the selfishness, for the utter lack of care for anything other than my need.
Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.