Illustrations by Ross Hillary

Why We Leave Condoms by the Wayside When We Get Turned On

Research shows that when people get turned on, playing it safe is the last thing on their mind

We give the fewest fucks when we’re about to fuck. Everything seems to slip away: where we are, who’s around us and, most importantly, why we should be using condoms.

While anyone can tell you that we’re less likely to use a rubber when we’re turned on, Shayna Sparling, a sex researcher at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, is interested in studying what other decisions are affected by sexual arousal. Her main finding to date: When we’re horny, our willingness to take risks of any kind turns up.

Which is why the more aroused we are, the more likely we are to make bad decisions — whether that means unprotected sex during a Tinder affair or hitting on 17 during a game of blackjack.

Or, basically, all the things we’d normally do only when we’re drunk.

How does sexual arousal change what reality feels like for someone?
Arousal causes a dual change in how our bodies and minds work. First, there are physiological changes. Our hearts start beating faster, our breath quickens and more blood begins to flow to the face and genitals. But arousal also produces a change in thinking. We enter into a state of motivational thinking and motivational reasoning that’s not rational or logical.

What does that do to our sexual decision making?
In my study, both men and women who were aroused were more likely to engage in risky sexual scenarios. There’s a cultural expectation that women are gatekeepers who will be like, “Oh no, we shouldn’t do this!” But my research shows that women are going to be more likely to take risks when they’re sexually aroused, too. Even if the intention is there, somebody who’s aroused is going to be less likely to negotiate condom use with a partner.

Does that risky decision-making extend to other areas of life as well?
I investigated that in my second study. I had participants play fixed games of blackjack. Prior to the card playing, the control group watched nonsexual video clips while the experimental group watched erotic clips. No matter what cards they were given, the hands would always add up to 15, 16 or 17. In other words, I gave them hands where there was an option to play it safe or to take a risk and hit.

I found that people who were sexually aroused by the videos played the blackjack game significantly differently than the people who watched the control videos. Sexually aroused people were far more likely to hit and playing far more impulsively than people in the controlled condition. This showed that sexual arousal works like alcohol. It was similar to how drunk people are more likely to do things such as cross the street in the middle of traffic or order another round of cocktails when they when should switch to water.

Yet we still kind of know we’re being irrational, right? We’re still thinking about condoms; we’re just not going to the trouble of putting one on.
My findings didn’t suggest any changes in people’s self-efficacy. It’s not like we suddenly feel like we can’t use condoms or that we’re unable to ask to use condoms. It’s that once we’re aroused, we’re more oriented toward pleasure and enjoyment. What feels real in that moment is what we’re about to do and the fun we’re about to have. We’re more focused on the fun, not what could maybe happen in the future.

Even when people aren’t aroused, there seems to be a disdain for condoms. Why do you think that is?
Most people don’t think it feels as good to have protected sex. It has to do with the lack of physical sensation they associate with protected sex. This particularly puts women in danger. Heterosexual men are less likely to pick up anything from their sex partner but more likely to transmit something to their sex partner. Just based on how the biology works, they’re less at risk. At least that’s what tends to happen statistically.

But there’s also this idea that people don’t want to use condoms because it feels more intimate not to use them. It shows how intimate they’re willing to be with their partner and how much they trust their partner by not using condoms. Humans crave feeling connected to other people, so it stands to reason that someone who is craving intimacy with another person might want to have unprotected sex, even in a risky situation, because they’ve convinced themselves that this is going to heighten the overall experience — beyond physical sensations.

This is the risk. You rush into something more intimate, when it’s more sensible to wait for the barebacking until after you’ve each been tested.

Tierney Finster is a writer-actress-model-activist from the San Fernando Valley and MEL’s senior sex and love editor.

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