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I’ve experienced few things more nerve-wracking than the minutes I spent awaiting the results of a rapid HIV test. I felt confident that I’d test negative, but getting tested for HIV is something you’re “supposed” to do if you’re young and sexually active. “Better safe than sorry,” is the mantra we’re trained to repeat before taking a stranger’s (literal or figurative) candy.
But I was still nervous, and thankful for the company of a counselor as I swabbed my gums and anticipated my results at a public health clinic in Illinois. I was impressed by his frankness; his honesty put me at ease. As we waited, he asked questions about my habits and knowledge of sex that were almost refreshing in their intrusiveness. We talked about things I had thought about before (did I know that HIV was more easily transmitted via anal sex?), but some topics had never even crossed my mind (how could HIV be transmitted from woman to woman?).
As we talked, I grew more and more convinced that 20 minutes of “HIV 101” was probably a better use of my time than Expos 20 and seven semesters of the Core combined. I know a female senior at Harvard who didn’t know how many “holes” a woman had until this year (and that’s a serious hole in one’s general education). After talking for about half an hour, a timer buzzed on the test and my counselor smiled. “Negative!” he announced, and I thanked him, standing up to leave.
“One more thing, Emma,” he said to me, gravely. “Men are dogs. You might think you have one on a short leash, but that doesn’t mean he’s not sniffing around other places. It’s always better to wrap it up.” He passed me a paper bag full of condoms.
Thanks? What had begun as a frank conversation about sex between two adults had quickly degenerated into something presumptuous and vaguely sexist. His brutally honest language concerning sex—discharge, lubricants: words that demystify and de-stigmatize the realities of intercourse—was betrayed by this metaphorical notion of protection. His instructions to “wrap it up” because my canine lover could be barking up another tree may have been nothing more than a misguided attempt to speak in 20-something vernacular, but it reveals a more disturbing mode of approaching heterosexuality.
Often, women in the popular media—from a group of young women in MTV’s The City bonding over their boyfriends’ infidelity to Miley Cyrus taking revenge on her friend’s cheating Romeo in a TV episode—connect with over their two-timing male counterparts. This trend feels empowering, but it is insincere to posture as honest and informative regarding sexuality before making sweeping generalizations about female vulnerability and male barbarity. It should go without saying that some men take advantage of their partners. But one cheating boyfriend is just that—one guy with issues—and an individual who sniffs elsewhere does not signify a universal female helplessness.
Framing safe heterosexual intercourse in the language of “men are dogs—protect yourself!” constructs a hypothetical, collective female vulnerability that deprives women of agency in their sexual encounters. Rather than empowering women, it establishes a paradigm in which women are victims of men’s animalistic urges. In reality, men are not the sole indulgers in promiscuity. This characterization assumes that men are infidels and that women are their perpetual victims, when this is by no means a universal truth. Forced sexual encounters are tragic occurrences that will erode sexual equality as long as they persist, but to establish the lying, cheating beau as the norm in sexual relationships is regressive and destructive. It instills a resignation that a dishonest scoundrel is all a heterosexual woman should hope for, when, in reality, any woman who writes off all men in one fell swoop is probably a bit of a dog herself.
I wondered if this counselor’s antiquated view of sexuality could be attributed to provincialism. But this mischaracterization did not arise from simply being retrograde, but from adhering to a false progressivism. This was a man who advised me not to brush my teeth before performing oral sex, since tiny lacerations in the mouth can increase chances of transmitting HIV—clearly, we were having a no-holds-barred conversation. He was either under the impression that he was talking to the sort of feminist who would understand that he was a chill, trustworthy dude-turned-counselor who realized the shortcomings of his own sex or thought he was empowering me to protect myself.
The situation was disappointing because I had appreciated this counselor’s candor and valued his openness to sexual habits and preferences. Unfortunately, attempts at sexual honesty backfire when they resort to reductive characterizations of gender niches. I would have been satisfied with a clear HIV test, a bag of condoms, and a simple, professional goodbye. In attempts to paint sex as something to be feared—and men as untrustworthy—the least likely people can find themselves in the doghouse.
Emma M. Lind ’09, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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