I’m ridiculously excited to welcome anthropologist and queer activist Dr Jamie Lawson as today’s guest blogger. If you follow him on Twitter you might have noticed he’s been trying to get Sainsbury’s and Boots to make a really simple but important change to the way they sell condoms and lube. And you can help him…
Condoms, lube and one simple change
Not so long ago, reader, I was off on a mission to buy some condoms.
This is a thing I do, from time to time, being the sort of person who takes sex seriously. Condoms weren’t the only thing on my mind that day; I needed lube too. Also eggs, milk and some fresh fruit. Those last things aren’t connected to my sex life (although more power to you if they are connected to yours), but I also take eating seriously so… well, I had a shopping list.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that I needed a bunch of stuff, among them condoms and lube, so I went to my nearest Big Sainsbury’s to get everything at once, because modern life is convenient and you can go to one place to buy everything. Fruit and dairy obtained, I headed towards the bit of Sainsbury’s that has the not-food-stuff in it to find the sex-stuff I needed, and found myself brought up short by the sign that was used to indicate the shelves that I was looking for.
It said “Family Planning”.
I stood and stared at those words for a bit, and let some pretty familiar anger wash over me. I took a picture and tweeted it to Sainsbury’s, asking if we could chat about the sign. I chose some condoms and lube, paid, and left the store.
— Jamie F. Lawson (@drlawson) June 13, 2017
And so began a small twitter saga, that currently involves me, Boots, Sainsbury’s and a handful of interested (and extremely supportive) viewers.
— Jamie F. Lawson (@drlawson) June 21, 2017
Before I get into more detail there, let me try to explain, as I have explained a few times to Boots and only once to Sainsbury’s because they stopped talking to me, why I was so angry and, essentially, what the whole deal is.
Here’s the thing: There are various reasons why a person might have sex, among them things like “having fun”, “earning a living”, “a strong desire to have an orgasm”. Sometimes, people might have sex specifically because they want to make a baby, but more often than not, that is not why people have sex. How do I know that? From the fairly straightforward observation that people have more sex than they have babies. Much more regularly, I suspect, people have sex because they want to experience pleasure, and why not? Sex is fun, if you like sex, and if you do like sex, then you need to balance the potential for pleasure against risk. Condoms and lube might help there.
Now, some people find the idea that sex isn’t actually all that connected to reproduction, really, quite hard to accept. It causes them discomfort. If you are one of those people, I invite you to just run with me a little further. Hold on to that feeling, and examine it. What is it about the idea that sex can be disconnected from reproduction that you find uncomfortable? Why does sex need to be reproductive before it’s anything else?
Because let me tell you, there are quite a few of us for whom sex has nothing to do with reproduction at all. I’m a man who has sex with men, for example. No man that I’ve ever had sex with has been capable of becoming pregnant (which is not to say none are), so “family planning” has been pretty low on my list of priorities when I’m thinking about orgasms. LGBTQI+ people of various types and combinations tend, on the whole, to have sex for pleasure, rather than reproduction and, furthermore, when queer people do decide to reproduce, we probably don’t go shopping for condoms.
In fact, if you really start to look at it, if you follow that idea all the way down this particular rabbit hole, then it starts to look as if the fact that LGBTQI+ people have sex for pleasure is what it is about us that society (people en masse) really objects to. You can play the same game with sex workers too, and women in general. Not buying it? Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why is the availability of PrEP on the NHS such a big deal? Why are people debating whether or not sex workers should have rights? Why do people object so strongly to women accessing contraception?
It’s almost as if society is built around the idea that the only sex that really matters is sex that helps (straight, cisgendered) men reproduce. Funny idea that.
Those two little words “Family Planning”, then, connect to a whole matrix of ideas and norms that have been central to the oppression of LGBTQI+ people and women in general for a couple of centuries (at least). They imply that sex is, fundamentally, essentially, about reproduction. That is a political position, and its one that places heterosexual, cisgendered people firmly at the centre of things, excluding everyone else. We call that “heteronormativity”, and it makes queers like me feel sidelined, silenced and then… angry.
Which is why I tweeted Sainsbury’s and, later on, Boots, who also use the “Family Planning” signage. Both companies invited me to DM them with longer comments, so I did (you can see my twitter for those messages). Sainsbury’s thanked me for my input and then shut further conversation down by telling me they couldn’t reveal the outcome of internal decision making. Boots have been engaged in back and forth with me ever since, but have, at time of writing, not quite got their collective head round the central point. I have had a look elsewhere: Asda and Superdrug both group their condoms, lube etc under “health” and “sexual health” respectively, which is better but still perhaps a little medical. I haven’t managed to get to a Big Tesco yet, but I’ll report back when I do. This story is very much still developing.
People on my timeline have, so far, been extremely supportive. I’ve had a lot of people actually thank me for the messages I’ve sent to Sainsburys and Boots, which has been genuinely humbling and a little emotional for me. Only one person, quite early on, felt that telling me I was wasting my time was a good use of theirs.
What is it I am trying to achieve? Despite a lot of advances and progress in recent years, people like me and similar to me are still sidelined by the culture I live in. That culture expresses itself in various ways: in the attitudes of our politicians, in the way sex education is taught, in newspaper headlines, in the actions and words of everyday people, and in signs in supermarkets. Culture reached out and made those things: my fervent hope is that by rewording them where we can, by pushing back where possible, we might start to change culture, and make everyone feel welcome in public spaces.
“If you see a wrong, write it” Ali Smith (Girl Meets Boy)
UPDATE: July 3rd 2017: Apparently Tesco does it too…
— Jamie F. Lawson (@drlawson) July 3, 2017