The Only Safe Sex

Dear LRC Readers, this recent post by Sevilla King on her Quality Existence Youtube channel caught my interest because the discussion partner Jon Martin described the powerful work of Leo Tolstoy, and in particular many quotes from his masterpiece Anna Karenina. He described how the character Levin, aka Tolstoy, was going through a similar meaning crisis that is prevalent for many people today. It brought to my mind an essay I wrote more than 20 years ago in which I used several quotes from Tolstoy’s AK. It describes another controversy about safety sex, like we are experiencing today with Covid. I can’t recall why I wrote it, or for whom. It was never published. Perhaps it may be of some interest for you. I have edited it somewhat, but there are no hyperlinks and some of the information could be dated.

The Only Safe Sex

Friedrich Nietzsche¹s famous pronouncement “God is dead” is more apropos of today¹s culture than his in the 19th century.  For no other aspect of life is the absence of God more pronounced than with regard to sex.  Nature and nature¹s God no longer holds us to any rules.  We are the masters of our own physiology and psychology through modern science and modern mores.  Our command over nature is also reflected in our obsession with safety and our faith that we can be “safe.”  It seems the whole apparatus of the state is geared to keeping us safe in every possible way.  Which brings us to the topic of this essay, safe sex through the use of contraceptives.

Young people, even children, are taught, cajoled, and implored to practice safe sex.  One is to be safe from contracting diseases from herpes to aids, and from conceiving a child.  The agent of achieving this safety is the use of contraceptives, both chemical and mechanical.

However, the demands of safety are secondary to the demands of modern culture that sex be practiced as often and in as many varieties as possible.  If you are “not getting any” something is wrong with you.  In other words all sex is good. I once read a review of a book about sexual practies in which the only caution was about a sex practice that involved a vacuum cleaner.

It is my contention that contraceptives do not provide safe sex.  Furthermore, the only safe sex possible in an imperfect world is through love.  And the only sex worth having, in the words of the now ancient euphemism, is “making love.”  Finally, for the protection of society, this love should be directed through the institution of marriage.

Contraceptives and Safety

Consider the condom, the most popular male contraceptive.  It is contended that this thin membrane will allow couples, threesomes, foursomes, etc., to enjoy any of the wide varieties of sex without the dangers of disease or pregnancy.  However, according to Rick Sowadsky, a “professional” very much within and apparently in harmony of the culture of sex who maintains a website called “The Body” [a current website is here], the failure rate of latex condoms for pregnancy is 12%.  But he tells us that this high rate is due to incorrect usage.  With correct usage the failure rate is still 2-3%.  For HIV infection the failure rate is also about 2% when used correctly.  Imagine any other product with a failure rate of this magnitude with such great potential harm.  If one stands on his head on a ladder the ladder manufacturer is still liable.  I have never heard of a condom maker being sued for even a legitimate failure.  In answer to one inquiry Sowadsky states “I can¹t believe how many condoms are breaking out there!!”  Furthermore, this data is only for latex condoms of good quality.  There are many manufacturers and other materials that will have worse results.

There are several other methods of contraception but only the condom is advertised to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STD¹s).  The most popular female contraceptive is the pill.  The Duke University website for student health “Healthy Devil Online” answers the question, How effective is the Pill?  “If used correctly, the combination pill is 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. The progestin-only pill, or mini-pill, is slightly less effective at about 97%.”  Once again we have the question of correct usage but note the failure rate.  But are there side effects to ingesting hormones everyday of your life from a young adult to menopause?  The Duke website mentions disadvantages.  “Problems you may have while you are taking birth control pills include:

* irregular bleeding for the first few months after starting birth control pills

* increased appetite

* depression or moodiness

* headaches and/or dizziness

* nausea and vomiting

* scant or missed periods

* weight change

* high blood pressure

* breast tenderness

* no protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).”

As for serious complications they note “Serious problems related to use of Birth Control Pills are very rare. However, the chances of developing blood clots, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, or liver tumors are slightly greater in women who take birth control pills.”  The Duke website adds that ” The risk of these disorders is increased in women who:

* have a history of previous blood vessel disorders

* have high blood pressure

* smoke

* have diabetes

* have high cholesterol levels

* have migraines

* are over age 35.”

In terms of pregnancy the data for other contraceptives is given in “Contraceptive Technology, 1982-1983~, 11th rev. ed.” (New York: Irvington Publishers, 1982, p. 112)

THEORETICAL AND ACTUAL FAILURE RATES OF STERILIZATION AND REVERSIBLE BIRTH CONTROL METHODS:  Theoretical failure rate of 100 typical users who start out the year employing a given method, the theoretical failure rate is the number who will be pregnant at the end of the year.  Actual failure rate of 100 women who start out the year using a given method, and who use it correctly and consistently, the actual failure rate is the lowest observed failure rate.

A contraceptive that is widely used but still not mentioned as candidly is abortion.  There are many complications possible, for example women can die even though coat hangers are never used.  There is also a possibility of increased cancer rates associated with abortion.  There is often profound psychological damage to women who kill their unborn children.  Of course, need I say that the procedure is not safe for those unborn children?

Sex and Love

The data are given above to make the point that contraceptives are not as safe as advertised in preventing disease and pregnancy.  But there is another profound danger associated with sex.  There is nothing that contraceptives can do to protect one from the emotional damage of having sex purely for pleasure or even just casually.  No matter how modern we pretend to be; that is, no matter how much we pretend that sex is simply a material pleasure that one indulges in as much as one pleases, there are severe consequences besides disease and pregnancy.  The intimacy associated with sex makes people very vulnerable to jealousy and feelings of abandonment.  I believe most of us know of many instances where a person has been hurt because someone has taken intercourse with them for granted.

The teaching that contraceptives provide safe sex convinces young people that sex does not come with consequences and responsibilities to others.  I believe it is only when we love the object of our desire can we really have safe sex in all of its forms.

What is Love?

Martin D’Arcy, a Jesuit who taught at Oxford wrote “The Mind and Heart of Love.”  It is very much a philosophy text.  It attempts to put Eros and Agape in their proper balance.  This passage summarizes his findings.  “This is the new law of love, and the old prescriptions will not suit it.  I do not and cannot ask the question whether I am ultimately loving myself first for the simple reason that when loving another I cannot get any benefit unless I give my love to that other.  The less I consider any gain to self and the more I give freely and without second thoughts, the better for me and my love.  I live by another’s bounty as he lives by mine.  This is perfect love on earth between persons . . .”

Following D’Arcy, comparing “making love” to “having sex”must put the physical act in the context of circumstance and emotion.  The sensual love, Eros, is real and important.  But to only feel Eros would be akin to loving your car, you could only love the object that you own.  The Christian concept of love, Agape, is the unconditional devotion to the other that finds its roots in the nature of God:  it is a gift of grace flowing from divine forgiveness rather than human virtue.  Our dignity depends not on what we achieve but on what God imputes to us, and we are exalted not on the basis of what we are but on what, in eternity, we one day shall be.  It is the combination of Eros and Agape that is the recipe for true love.

If one has sex through this true love it is really safe.  The other would never put you at risk by being diseased.  In fact you would know him so well to be sure he was disease free.  You would not feel the slightest risk of abandonment because you were really sharing one life, not passing fluids between two passing lives.  This love is usually anointed by society through the institution of marriage.

Tolstoy described such a love in his masterpiece ‘Anna Karenina.’  If you have not read the novel you still might know of the eponymous Anna, a young, beautiful, intelligent, and passionate woman who marries an older, dull, and passionless man.  She later meets the rich, dashing Count Vronsky at a ball in Moscow.  Much of the book is about their affair and ultimate demise.  But much of the book is also about the Eros and Agape of another couple, Levin and Kitty.  This is truly a wonderful love story that can be appreciated through the following passages.  The first passage involves Levin’s life changing with his impending marriage.   “Left alone, Levin began thinking over the remarks of his bachelor friends, and once more asked himself whether there was in his heart any of the regret for his freedom they had been talking about.  ‘Freedom?’ The question made him smile.  ‘What is the good of freedom?  Happiness consists only in loving and wishing her wishes, thinking her thoughts, which means having no freedom whatever – that is happiness!'”

The ultimate love D¹Arcy defines is explained in this passage about the one new life born of the two individual lives of the newlyweds.  “Then for the first time he clearly understood what he had not understood when he led her out of the church after the wedding:  that he was not simply close to her, but that he could not tell where he ended and she began.  He realized this from the agonizing sensation of division which he felt at that instant.  He was hurt for a moment but immediately he knew he could not be offended with her because she was himself.  For a second he felt like a man who, suddenly receiving a violent blow from behind, turns round angrily to find and be revenged on his assailant, and discovers that he has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with and he must endure and try to still the pain.

“Never afterwards did he feel so strongly, but this first time it was a long while before he could get over it.  His natural feelings urged him to justify and prove that she was in the wrong;  but to prove her in the wrong, would mean irritating her still more and widening the breach which was the cause of all the trouble.  One habitual impulse drew him to shift the blame from himself and lay it upon her.  Another more powerful one drew him to smooth over the breach as quickly as possible, and not allow it to widen.  To remain under so unjust an accusation was wretched, but to hurt her by justifying himself would be still worse.  Like a man half-awake and in an agony of pain, he wanted to tear off and cast away the aching part, and found on coming to his senses that the aching part was – himself.  He could do nothing but try to help the aching place to bear it, and this he did.

“They made it up.  Recognizing that she was wrong, though not confessing it, Kitty became tenderer to him, and they experienced new, redoubled happiness in their love.  But that did not prevent such collisions from recurring and quite frequently too, from causes as unexpected as they were trivial.  These collisions often occurred because each had yet to learn what was of importance to the other and because both in those early days were often in a bad humor.  When one was in good temper and the other was not, peace was not broken;  but if both chanced to be out of humor, quarrels sprang up from causes so trifling as to be incomprehensible, making them wonder afterwards what they had quarreled about.  It was true that when they were both in good spirits their happiness in life was redoubled.”

This last passage brings sex back to love.  What is the role that sex would have in a love of this kind.  “Yes, except for her interest in the house (that she has), except for her clothes and her embroidery, she has no real interests.  She does not care about my work, or the estate, or the peasants, or music, though she’s rather good at it, or reading.  She does nothing and is quite content.  In his heart Levin criticized this, and did not as yet understand that she was preparing herself for the period of activity which was to come to her she would be wife to her husband and mistress of the house, at the same time bearing, nursing, and bringing up her children.  He did not realize that she was instinctively aware of this and, preparing herself for her gigantic task, did not reproach herself for the moments of idleness and happy love that she enjoyed now while gaily building her nest for the future.”

Sex and Children

The final aspect of safe and healthy sex is the creation of children.  To understand that it is not dangerous to have a pregnancy eliminates the chief danger to many.  But there is more to conceiving children.  If as I believe we live to our highest capacity as humans by loving completely, it is through children that most people love the best.  In verse I expressed the paradox of parenthood below.

If all is pleasure at a child’s conception,
A life’s work begins even before the ejection.

Children are such an enormous chore,
It seems they require all a parent has and more.

What marvels me is the paradox,
That among the dirty diapers and the socks,

Among the cares and worries and increased rent,
That a child’s arrival is a blessed event.

It is not so strange if one looks above,
To realize here is the parent’s greatest act of love.

Reflect on the greater paradox: that of Our Father,
Master in heaven forever and ever.

He came to earth as a servant and a son,
To teach us how to love each and every one.


Of course we cannot expect to find the perfect love very often.  Yet I think it is better to try and achieve some aspect of Eros and Agape than to simply submit to our animal instincts.  Contraceptives, in a profound way, have broken our society by allowing us to act on our instincts without feeling the immediate effects of our actions.  Furthermore, they have added to a culture which rates sex as the highest order of life, greatly demeaning life.  For these reasons I believe contraceptives can never provide safe sex.