“If you’re fine, then I’m probably fine,” was the extent of one conversation I had about STIs. I’d been (briefly, casually) dating the guy, wondering how to bring it up and knowing that he wouldn’t. (I was right.) And the apathy in his response – to his own body and mine – showed me that, when it comes to sexual health, in his eyes I was responsible for both of us. By taking time to get checked out, according to his misguided logic, I was relieving him of the need to. When I tried to explain that it doesn’t really work like that, there was a small shrug, a flicker as his mind wandered immediately onto something that required less effort, and no more said on the subject. For him, the need to take care was over. Or rather it never really arrived.
It’s a pattern that my friends and I have witnessed over and over – certainly not all, but the majority of men we meet, seem to care about sexual health to the extent of whether they really have to use a condom – and not much further. And a new survey appears to back up that experience. US Cosmopolitan teamed up with esquire.com to ask 1,454 young people about their habits when it comes to sexual health, and found that young women are not only more likely to get tested for an STI, but are also more likely to initiate the conversation about being checked. (We're still not having the conversation enough, mind.) More than one third, the survey said, had been tested for STIs within the last six months, and more than 20 per cent said they’d been tested within the year.
We need to ensure there's now a push for men to take their share of the responsibility in sex. It’s meant to be fun
Which is great. Broadly, as the report points out, women are owning their sexual health. Yet, conversely, a full third of men said they’d never been tested for STIs. Just 20 per cent said they’d had a test in the past six months and 13 per cent said they’d had a test in the past year. There’s a gap. And, as brilliantly argued by Jill Filipovic, who wrote about the results for Cosmopolitan, it means that women are bearing the brunt of emotional labour – the planning or the considering or the being responsible for things that weigh on the mind – in the bedroom.
It’s not just STIs: women are more usually tasked with looking after contraception (since a male hormonal contraceptive hasn’t been developed, it naturally falls on us long-term). And, in my experience, we are often the one who is forced to insist on it, in short-term flings and more serious relationships. (It might not be such a “mood-killer”, as men I’ve met love to term it, if there wasn’t a tedious five-minute battle over why they “don’t do condoms” and why they are consequently “not getting laid” if they refuse to wear one.)
As Filipovic notes, because gender roles often stereotype women as the caregivers – and because women take on a disproportionate amount of emotional labour in the home, as parents and at work in comparison to men – sex has also become a realm where women are expected to be the more responsible partner. Not only that, I'd add, but there is more of a negative social connotation for a woman contracting an STI, linked to out-dated viewed of promiscuity between the sexes. And so we're driven, again, to be more responsible, through our own fears of the social repercusions.
So has sexual health really become women’s work? Not quite. But equally these attitudes and expectations cannot carry on. Rather, we need to ensure there's now a push for more men to take their share of the responsibility in sex. It’s meant to be fun.