Safer Sex and Party Rules

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April 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I keep hearing a lot of debate about safe sex rules at Janus parties, but as a new member of Janus I find even the discussions about the debate confusing. Can you tell me what the problem is?

<A> Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a planet on which the only problem people faced when engaging in heterosexual genital intercourse was the possibility that the female of the species might get pregnant. This problem could be – but was not always – solved by shooting up all the planet's males with anti-fertility agents designed to last until the males were emotionally and socially, as well as biologically, ready to become fathers. This is how we know the planet's societies weren't remotely like ours But I digress.

On that distant planet people engaging in heterosexual activity other than genital intercourse, or people engaging in any kind of homosexual sex at all, had no physiological problems to consider, because in this galaxy far, far away there were neither sexually transmitted diseases, nor any of the other sorts of inadvertent difficulties we humans must contend with when we place our sexual parts in intimate proximity with someone else's. On that far-off world, for instance, the inhabitants had neither hangnails that might scratch delicate internal tissues, nor allergies to foreign bodies, nor urinary tracts sensitive to microbes originating wherever less particular fingers had congregated; in addition, they never lied either to themselves or to others, or found themselves confused by hot passions of the moment which might have provoked them to behaviors that at other times they would have regarded as unseemly. Theirs was truly a blessèd world where, for the most part, all sex was safe.

Here in our own galaxy, on our own planet, in our own little sexual milieu, life is less simple. We can contract dozens of diseases from the so-far presumably fatal (HIV), to the as-yet incurable (herpes), to those that may be permanently damaging (chlamydia, genital warts [HPV]), to those that are merely irksome (crabs, scabies), and the sad truth is that in the United States – a famously advanced nation in which, according to a recent National Science Foundation study, fewer than half the adults even know that the Earth revolves around the sun – all that most people know about sexually transmittable problems is what we learn on the streets or hear on the evening news.

The Society of Janus was founded 20 years ago as an educational and support group for people interested in erotic energy exchange. Much to the organization's credit, we really do provide some sex and safety education along with our personal support, social efforts, and cruising rites, although we do not provide as much of this education as some members would like. We are also a diverse group with the somewhat anarchic bent of self-described sexual outlaws.

A few years ago, long after most researchers had become thoroughly persuaded that HIV was transmitted through body fluids of infected people, and especially through their blood and semen, most of the prominent groups that threw sex parties in the San Francisco Bay Area instituted a policy to be enforced at their affairs requiring some form of barrier protection –condoms, latex gloves, dental dams – for any form of insertive sex.

But at Janus the suggestion to do the same met with sincere resistance. Some people objecting to the proposed "safer sex" policies took a sort of libertarian stance and pointed out that as adults playing with adults they had the right to do as they wished in their consensual sex lives. A few even thought they might have a moral obligation to oppose what they believed were Draconian restrictions on the free exercise of their behavior. Some others, in monogamous partnerships, objected that while barrier protection made sense for people who were tricking or playing around, the party rules constituted a superfluous and unwarranted imposition on them, as well as an invasion of their partnered privacy.

Some people who supported barrier policies began to feel like sex police, which was not, they claimed, at all what they wanted. Responding to the quasi-libertarian position, a few countered that no one lives an utterly untrammeled life, since by and large we all agree – and know that everyone else has agreed – to stop at red lights even when we're in a hurry, and not to shoot our neighbors even when they're manifestly jerks. Most agreed that consenting adults had the right to play as they wished, with or without protection; they agreed that barrier protection was unnecessary for healthy people in truly monogamous partnerships; and they agreed that they themselves did not like having the rules, whatever their personal feelings about safer sex practices.

But, they argued, they were not preventing anyone from having unprotected sex: they were only seeking to prevent unprotected sex at Janus parties, first because they felt that Janus, as an educational group, should promote healthful policies, and second because they didn't want to be even peripherally responsible for health- or life-threatening mistakes that other people might make. By way of illustration one person related that at a party where safer sex rules did not yet apply, a host found two men who had just met that night having unprotected anal intercourse. The host chose not to interfere, but after the men had separated she approached one and said,

"I noticed you and Joe were fucking without a condom."

"Oh, it's all right," the man replied, "we're both in monogamous relationships."

"Not any more," the host replied, wondering how often these two men had told one-shot partners that they were otherwise monogamous.

Because of such incidents people in the pro-rules faction proposed that the lucky few who did not have to practice safer sex, or did not want to practice safer sex, at least could model safer sex behavior at Janus parties, as a way to support people who did have to practice safer sex, and for those who did not know; and in order not to tempt people to endanger their health or the health of others by setting an unsafe example. Do what you want any time and any place, they said, except during the four or five hours you're at a Janus party.

Whereas in the private sector some people might simply have flouted the rules, Janus is a volunteer membership organization in which all members have a stake, and people genuinely sought to resolve the matter. When put to a vote the proposal for safe sex rules was defeated by Janus members. Assuming that it was his responsibility to assure safety at Janus parties, a party director later established them anyway, as a consequence of which some members stopped attending the parties.

In a sense, the debate has come down to a disagreement between the same two different forms of liberalism that underlay the formal founding of the United States government: on the one hand, a platform of absolute individual responsibility for one's own behavior at all times and under all circumstances; on the other, a platform for the social responsibility to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even at the risk of some personal sacrifice. In other words – leaving concerns about Federalism aside and couching the Janus debate as a question that applies to you, Gentle Reader – should our group, devoted to education and support, set and model standards by which people might learn to protect themselves and each other? Or should we assume that as adults we all know on which backsides our breads are buttered?

I have my own position on this matter, which may change again as it has changed before; your position I leave, of course, to you.

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