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For men, toxic masculinity makes it even harder to talk about sexual health

In the bedroom, bringing up issues like protection and STIs can feel embarrassing or awkward. Conversation can be even harder when you’re expected to preserve “manhood”

By Adrian Bueno

Joe Smythe* remembers the first time he brought a girl back to his place after a night of drinking in the Annex. Weeks of flirting between the two had Smythe fantasizing about hooking up with her. For a 20-year-old, he felt a little late to the party. But it was finally happening. Smythe had sex for the first time. “Unprotected, too,” he remembers.

The first thing Smythe wanted to do was tell his friends, but he hadn’t brought up using a condom, and regretted it. He had thought about it, but he felt it was too late. “I wasn’t going to lose out on this,” he thought.

In the bedroom, bringing up issues like protection and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be hard due to the stigma around them—they can often feel embarrassing or awkward to talk about. But the conversation can be even harder for men due to the pressure to preserve their “manhood.” It comes from toxic masculinity, which can be defined as adhering to fixed gender roles such as keeping in touch with traditional notions of masculinity, such as assertiveness, independence and libido.

A 2018 study from Maryland University concluded that this type of behaviour was detrimental to both mental and sexual health. Men in the study showed a reluctance to disclose emotional experiences, difficulty forming intimate relationships and pressure to preserve their heterosexuality.

Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, a researcher at Ryerson’s HIV prevention lab, says there aren’t enough conversations between peers about sexual health topics like condom use and STI testing, which contributes to the stigma that prevents us from being able to talk about it. She adds that people need to be asking more questions like “are you using PrEP?” (an HIV-prevention pill) or being more up-front about condom use. “It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, and we don’t have scripts to show how the conversation can be a normal part of getting ready for sex. But it needs to start happening.”

One day, Xavier Eeswaran met a cute girl from the GTA who ticked off all the boxes: she liked the same music, grew up in the same area and knew the same kind of people. The familiarity they shared led to great conversation, and what felt like a connection. Everything seemed fine, until she popped a big question. “How many girls have you slept with?”

Eeswaran told her the amount, a number he felt comfortable enough to share. But she was shocked. She called him “dirty” and “used.”

The experience caused Eeswaran to feel more reluctant to share his sexual history with other people. “I feel like if I didn’t say that, she would look at me differently—like in a better way. So that’s why I look to avoid that with the girls I talk to.”

Eeswaran’s experience highlights the stigma that comes with having multiple sexual partners and presumably having STIs. But even if someone does or doesn’t, that shouldn’t stop the conversation from happening. Skakoon-Sparling says that the potential of rejection plays a huge role in how people act when it comes to talking about STIs. “People don’t want to necessarily say, ‘When’s the last time you got an STI test?’ because they’re worried their partner is going to think something bad.”

Everything seemed fine, until she popped a big question.

“How many girls have you slept with?”

It’s already difficult to talk about it even if you don’t have an STI, but the amount of people who have them are in fact increasing. According to statistics from the Canadian Communicable Disease Report, a peer-reviewed journal detailing the prevention and control of prevalent infectious diseases, reports of STIs in 2013-14 were highest among all infections within the ages of 20 to 24 years—a prominent age group on post-secondary campuses. And according to public health experts, the rates continue to increase.

Sexually active members of the LGBTQ2A+ are especially more at risk, according to the Centre of Disease Control and Infections (CDC). Anal sex is 18 times more risky in acquiring HIV than vaginal sex, and on average, gay men see a higher lifetime amount of partners, according to the CDC.

Dexter Stewart, a Toronto-based bartender, had gone out partying and drinking for hours. Stewart had been in an open relationship with another partner, and on this night he met another man at the bar. Shots later, Stewart and his date got intimate and hooked up, without protection. Several years later, during Thanksgiving, Stewart got a call from the man he met on that night. He told him that he tested positive for HIV.

As soon as he got off the phone with the man from that night, his current partner could see there was something wrong. Stewart sat him down and told him what happened. He was surprised by the support he got from his partner.

Although they were both now uncertain about whether they had HIV, Stewart felt like he couldn’t talk to anyone about it because he’d be living up to the stereotypes of being a gay man.

Ever since the HIV crisis of the early 1980s, the disease has been historically linked to members of the LGBTQ2A+ community. The height of the HIV epidemic saw many people single out gay men as the cause for the spread of the disease.

“I was lucky to have such a supportive partner at the time,” says Stewart. “We both went to the clinic to get tested, and we were both negative.”

Being horny was a huge problem for Andy Wang* during his late high school, early post-secondary days. The York University graduate says careless behaviour that came along with it resulted in multiple health scares for him.

Wang never really went into his sexual encounters with a plan. Condom use was only considered if his partner brought it up, and asking about sexual history was never really a thing for him. Things like these killed the mood for Wang, and he thought if he did the same, it would kill the mood for his partner.

“You don’t think about anything else, only what you want [at that moment],” he adds.

This issue of arousal getting in the way is common amongst not just men, but all genders, when it comes to not prioritizing those decisions. Skakoon-Sparling points this out as only looking out for short-term or immediate goals. “When we’re hungry while at a supermarket, we might be more likely to buy things we didn’t plan on buying.”

Going into sexual encounters without a plan beforehand can result in letting our arousal get the better of us, Skakoon-Sparling says. People want to get caught up in the moment and don’t want the interruptions of thinking about “icky things” like STIs to ruin potential encounters. This is especially the case when somebody is “excited” or is really into someone they’re hooking up with. “Especially when they’re sexually aroused, it shifts away from goal-oriented thinking, and they’re susceptible to this thinking.”

Heterosexual women get a lot more training in being gatekeepers of their own sexual health, often prioritizing using a condom more than men do

“You just want to get down to business,” Smythe adds.

Women also face many complexities when it comes to the sexual health discussion. The way sexual education is taught in schools plays a part in establishing some differences with men, according to Skakoon-Sparling.

She says heterosexual women get a lot more training in being gatekeepers of their own sexual health. She adds that women can often prioritize asking to use a condom more than men do.  

Oftentimes, that kind of dynamic can contribute to common cases of men coercing people into not using a condom because it “feels better without one.” This is another way toxic masculinity in the bedroom can lead to unsafe sex and even muddle the lines around consent.  

There are sexual stereotypes for all genders, but they are more prevalent when it comes to women and anyone from the LGBTQ2A+ community. “Slut” is often used to describe someone who has had many sexual encounters. On the other hand, men who’ve had many sexual encounters might be referred to as “womanizers,” which is perceived by other men as something to be admired.

“If we can shift away from this sort of negative unconscious thinking, we can take care of each other more as a community,” says Skakoon-Sparling. “We do see guys with this sense of community, and they tend to be more cautious, use condoms more, get tested more often. We need to look after each other and work towards this shift.”

When Zach Roman was 18, he felt a little unsure bringing up the issue of testing with his former partner, but he felt it was something a mature adult should do. The Ryerson journalism student took time to think about how to bring it up because he didn’t want to offend his partner. “We ended up being really up front about it. I offered to drive us both to get tested.”

The process of getting tested for STIs in Toronto is quite straightforward, and finding resources on this information is easily accessible online. Some places like Hassle Free Clinic on Church and Gerrard offers designated hours for male or trans people and women and trans people, providing testing, and contraception. The clinic also provides counselling services, and emotional support for possible victims of assault.

There are many any other shame-free centres across Toronto, and don’t require the need of a health card. Some of these services also provide specialized help for LGBTQ2A+ and Indigenous communities.

Jane Greer, a coordinator at Hassle Free Clinic, urges for people to pick up the phone if they need help. “We get tons of people in (nervous) situations…People can also call completely anonymously to just talk. Making people comfortable, it’s what we do.“

Talking about your sexual health with others, including your doctor, your partner and even your friends is also a healthy behaviour according to Skakoon-Sparling. It helps to normalize openly discussing STIs and removes stigma from the topic. “You can also hold each other accountable if something doesn’t seem right,” she says.

While getting tested can be uncomfortable, especially for first-timers, it’s good practice to get into. “It was weird at first, but it was quick,” says Eeswaran.

Last month, Smythe remembered how he was staring at his phone figuring out the words of a message he wanted to send. Afraid to meet in person, he wanted to confront a former partner over a scare of symptoms he was experiencing after a night out, just a week before.

“Hey have you gotten tested recently? I think something might be up.” Revised and edited about 20 times, he sits and stares at that drafted text for a while.

“Everything should be fine,” he thinks to himself. He exits the text message app on his phone and puts his mind to something else. “It’s something I still gotta work on.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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