There’s a horrifying story I was once told about a man who gave seven women herpes in the space of a month. It was one of those classic urban legends designed to scare teenagers into using protection—at least I thought it was, until I met one of the women involved.
The woman was in her late twenties, and I’d been thrown into a group chat with her at the behest of a mutual friend who wanted to prove she didn’t ‘make this shit up’. I asked the woman how it happened, which seemed a redundant question; I knew how it happened. But still, I was baffled by her circumstance.
She told me that she hadn’t realised he wasn’t using protection. She’d asked him to wear a condom and in the dark, in the sweat, in the tangle of elbows and knees, she’d assumed that he had. It wasn’t until ejaculation that she’d realised what had happened.
As with most rumours circulated with playground verve, the story I’d been told had taken a lot of liberties with the truth. She told me she knew of only three other women who had contracted the infection from him—which, it should be noted, is still far too many. It hadn’t happened in the space of a month, either. But the reality was no less horrifying than the story it had spawned. She told me he had ‘gotten to’ a lot of her friends, one as young as 17—he plied them with alcohol and drugs, and he never wore protection.
He was in a band and ‘played lead guitar’, she wrote, explaining to my profoundly grossed-out emojis just how this man had managed to attract so many women. I pictured immediately a Jim Morrison type: long hair, restrictive leather pants, strutting about on stage; a walking STI-awareness campaign gumming the microphone with his cold-sore mouth.
This story is deeply disturbing, not only because these women contracted an incurable infection, but also because their autonomy in the sex act went largely ignored. Their desire for protection was denied, and therefore their ability to consent was undermined—regardless of the STI status of their partner.
Yet the criminality of this man’s actions are murky in this country—determined by, amongst other things, whether he was aware of his infection, whether ‘free agreement’ to the sex act was given, and what exactly ‘free agreement’ might constitute in such a case.
In Australia, it’s generally considered a crime to knowingly risk spreading an STI to your sexual partner without first disclosing the nature of your condition to them. However, in a recent move in NSW, the Public Health Act has shifted away from necessitating disclosure and toward requiring individuals to instead take ‘reasonable precautions against spreading the disease or condition’. What these ‘reasonable precautions’ might be is for a court to determine, and it’s yet to be seen whether consent practices, such as disclosure, will be taken into consideration.
The legalities of this grey area between public health and consent are still in their infancy, born out of the HIV epidemic in the 80s and constantly undergoing revision among the states. In May 2017, a young man from NSW became the first in Australia to report an act of ‘stealthing’ (the removal of a condom without consent during sex) when he brought allegations of this form of sexual assault to police. As it stands, though, outside of sex work regulations, there is no Crimes Act relating specifically to the use of prophylactics.
There isn’t a best way to find out you might have an STI, but receiving a call from your doctor the day after getting dumped, while sitting in front of your mum at an airport lounge, might just be one of the worst. I put down the phone. ‘I think that cunt gave me an STI.’
My mum’s eyes said lower your voice but her mouth said, ‘bastard!’
My doctor told me that my results showed I didn’t have a UTI, and that I’d have to go back in for further testing. I was about to fly to the arse end of Australia for my cousin’s wedding—I couldn’t go back in.
Gonorrhoea, chlamydia and herpes are currently being spread around Australia like a thick layer of Vegemite on a well-buttered Sao. According to a study from the Kirby Institute, in 2015, more than twice the number of people in Australia were diagnosed with gonorrhoea as compared with 2006. I know this because in between my bridesmaid duties I was googling furiously.
As a hairdresser braided my hair into an elaborate Greco-Roman up-do, I read that millennials had become less inclined to use protection—like condoms or dental dams—that should prevent the spread of these infections. A groomsman nudged me to smile for a photo as I searched the question ‘can AIDS still kill you?’ With the southerlies whipping sand in my face, I tried to type my symptoms into a website that ultimately suggested cancer as a possible diagnosis.
My ex-partner and I had both been tested only six months earlier. If I had something, it meant he’d cheated on me.
I sat behind a concrete barricade that blocked out the white sand swirling along the beach—the wind couldn’t make up its mind.
I thought of the long conversations we’d had about protection. I’d wanted to use condoms. When my mum was younger, she’d had a small stroke after taking a contraceptive pill. The doctor had said the risk was low, but my anxiety was high. I’d trusted my ex-partner, trusted that he was only sleeping with me, but condoms still felt like the safest option.
‘You lying, cheating sack of shit.’ I tapped it into my phone with sweaty thumbs. I read the words back like I was inhaling a cigarette. I deleted it. ‘What has prompted this email is that I received a phone call from my doctor over the weekend.’ My fear was that if I found out for sure he’d cheated on me, I might be too consumed by anger to warn him that he had something—I mightn’t have the strength to do the right thing.
I learned later that he had cheated on me—quite substantially. One of his other partners contacted me, and I pressed her, maybe too soon, for personal details. ‘I hope this is OK to ask, but did he wear a condom?’ He didn’t.
There were other reasons, beyond the fear of contracting an STI, that I had wanted him to wear protection. I’ve found that after an abortion there is a natural inclination toward using contraceptive barriers. I couldn’t put my heart through it again. When I told him this, he purchased a box of condoms. But when I asked him to grab one, he didn’t.
I take consent seriously. In recent years I’ve taken to having long, tedious conversations with all of my sexual partners about boundaries and kinks, and about safety. This is partially on the prodding of queer friends, one of whom almost hurled a beer across the table in a heated debate on whether or not to ask someone before initiating a kiss. She was adamant that non-verbal cues, such as smiling and leaning toward your partner, were sufficient. Others, notably the younger queer women and non-binary folk, did not agree.
I once had a long and very serious conversation with a good friend about the practicality of their belief that one ought to obtain consent before masturbating to the thought of another person. It felt ridiculous to me, especially because I didn’t exactly have Sarah Michelle Gellar’s phone number. But there was—and still is—value for me in confronting such extremities of consent. This conversation helped me to resist my dangerous assumption that consent was simple; that no meant no, and silence meant yes.
It was in this mindset that I subjected my ex-partner to a number of conversations about condom use—conversations that occurred both inside and outside of the bedroom. Outside the bedroom there was a sense of camaraderie. Sex was a battle we were stepping into as allies, laying out strategies, setting boundaries and developing secret codes. But in the moment, in the urgency of desire, these strategies were forgotten, and I’d often find myself behind enemy lines.
I would ask him if he had a condom. I would ask him to put a condom on. And then, after sex, with a feeling much like losing a fight, I would say, ‘We really should have used a condom.’ His indifference to my words wore on me. Eventually, I found myself turned off the prospect of sex altogether. I thought of it as an obligation. The act became rarefied; I couldn’t breathe, my body went numb with the cold.
At the time, the idea that it could be assault never occurred to me. My trust in him had been diminished, yes, but I still wanted him. Or rather, I wanted him to want me, and there was a willingness to sacrifice myself, my dignity and my safety for that to happen.
My ex-partner crossed the line by engaging in unprotected sex acts with other people and not communicating that to me. This much is clear. But more recently, I have become increasingly certain that the line was crossed long before that, when he chose, again and again, to ignore my pleas and put his own pleasure first.
It might be naive, but I want to think that he had no motive to harm. Rather, that the disconnect between what I was asking of him and what he was doing was born from a gap in his own understanding of safety and consent in sex acts; that these acts aren’t benign in the absence of the word ‘no’, and that there is far more to consider beyond the scope of mutual pleasure.
When I got home from the wedding, I went and saw my doctor. After I’d spent two weeks convinced I’d contracted an STI, the tests came back negative. It was a welcome anti-climax.
My friend told me I was lucky. Called it kismet. Said, ‘imagine all the women he probably slept with; statistically, one of them shoulda had something.’
‘Dodged a bullet,’ I quipped.
At the end of my email to my ex, the one I’d tapped out in anger that day on the beach, I wrote that he should ‘just wear a fucking a condom’. I told him that pressuring someone into having sex without protection is a form of sexual assault.
He wrote back, ‘I did not sexually assault you.’
Kara Eva Schlegl is a writer, comedian and producer out of Sydney. She writes for SBS Comedy, co-founded Sydney comedy room Wolf Comedy and hosts Little Tiny History Podcast.