Friday, January 19, 2007

Replacing Safe Sex with . . . Smart Sex!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #304, January 19, 2007)

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution for you: Resolve to stop worrying about Safe Sex. Resolve instead to start having Smart Sex.

Smart Sex made its debut last spring in Issue #11 of Instigator Magazine and in palm cards handed out at the International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago. The advertising campaign promoting Smart Sex is a joint effort of Instigator and

The concept of Smart Sex is the long-overdue re-tooling of what has been known as Safe Sex or Safer Sex, a concept that was a prominent, if not always welcome, feature of the sexual landscape during the latter part of the 20th century.

When AIDS first showed up no one knew what caused it or how to prevent its spread. But once the virus that caused AIDS was discovered and its transmission paths were identified, ways to prevent the spread of the virus started to be publicized.

At first these techniques were called “Safe Sex.” The term was later changed to “Safer Sex” in recognition of the fact that, although these transmission-prevention techniques can reduce the risks associated with unprotected sex, they are not foolproof. Condoms, for example, sometimes break.

(So, just to be clear, it’s not called “Safer Sex” because it’s safer than “Safe Sex”— it’s called “Safer Sex” because it’s safer than unsafe sex. Got it?)

For a generation of gay men, Safe Sex was something to practice religiously, or to feel guilty about when one didn’t. For awhile, thanks to a massive educational effort, many gay men changed the way they had sex much of the time.

As the years wore on, however, the sexual landscape changed. Battle fatigue set in, and it became harder for men to be vigilant for safe sex every time. Protease inhibitors and other antiviral drugs meant that AIDS was no longer necessarily an immediate death sentence, which led to “being safe each and every time” seeming less important.

A new generation of young gay men, who had never known sex without the baggage of HIV but who had also not lived through the nightmare of watching their friends die agonizing deaths, were blasé about AIDS. They didn’t appreciate being told what to do, and especially what not to do, by older men and by public health authorities.

And for men in the leather community, where danger and edginess are part of the thrill of leathersex, and where a rebel/outlaw mentality is often part of the mindset, Safe Sex equalled Boring Sex. (This continues to be a problem with the leather/BDSM/fetish community’s politically correct but hotly debated “Safe, Sane, Consenual” mantra.)

The old concept of Safe Sex appealed to fear, and it needed fear to be taken seriously. In a culture of young males, gay or straight, who pride themselves on fearing nothing (even to the point where “No Fear” has become a brand name), Safe Sex came to be viewed as lame and wimpy.

The genius of Smart Sex is that, instead of being built around fear, it is built around and reinforces a positive quality: intelligence. Most of us like to think of ourselves as smart people doing smart things and making smart choices. We normally don’t take pride in being dumb and doing dumb things (the people in the “Jackass” movies being the exception).

Therefore, who would want to have Dumb Sex?

Safe Sex tends to assume the worst about people, possibly insulting their intelligence in the process (i.e., “your good sense goes out the window when you get horny, so you’d better listen to us”). Smart Sex assumes people are intelligent and encourages them to think about themselves that way.

Condom use, keeping toys and playspaces clean, and getting tested periodically are examples of smart things to do and smart choices to make—choices that are more likely to lead to a long, healthy, sexually fulfilling future. What’s not to like about that?

If the concept of Smart Sex in itself represents a major paradigm shift, the advertising materials put together by Instigator and are no less revolutionary. The language used in the campaign is refreshingly straightforward. Facts are presented simply, with no shaming, judging or moralizing. The overall attitude is one of care and concern—but in a brotherly voice, rather than from a parental or authority-figure viewpoint.

Art, photos and other graphics featured in the campaign are hard-hitting and explicit, which is perfectly appropriate to Instigator’s and’s audiences. Richard Smith, president of the company that owns, was quoted in Instigator as saying, “Why can’t we show hot men, having balls-to-the-wall sex without missing out on anything except maybe HIV and Hepatitis C.” (Or, I might add, syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis B and a host of other problems.)

It’s interesting to note that this Smart Sex paradigm shift is not happening solely in the gay men’s or leather/BDSM/fetish community. An internet search for “Smart Sex” turned up approximately 30,000 hits and showed the words “Smart Sex” being used in the service of a wide variety of causes as varied as avoiding teen pregnancy, avoiding herpes and other venereal diseases, and “finding life-long love in a hookup world.”

No one, it seems, wants to have Dumb Sex.

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