In the 1980s, I was travelling around Australia conducting marketing research for Ansell. The research comprised of small discussion groups ('focus groups') and was addressing the topic of condom usage. The client was particularly interested in how heterosexual couples negotiated the use of condoms, and how the onset, timing and frequency of sex is negotiated in new and / or casual relationships.
To facilitate the discussion, we piled a vast array of different brands of condoms in the middle of the table at which participants were seated. As I travelled from focus group location to another, I lived in fear of my briefcase falling open or being inspected at an airport security check.
The groups were segregated because we reasoned that putting men and women together to discuss sex-related topics might be embarrassing or might lead some people to lie about their actual behaviour. It seemed reasonable accordingly, that the group's facilitator be the same sex as the group. I was therefore facilitating only groups of males.
However, I realized that there might be some value if some of the groups were facilitated by an other-sex facilitator. When I facilitated some of the women's groups, I learned some things that had not emerged in the men's groups.
From the men's groups, I learned that negotiating condom usage was very tricky. There are two major motivations for using condoms. One is for contraception, the other is for protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
However, this negotiation is tricky. Imagine the scenario…
"Umm, I think we should use a condom?" he says.
"Why? Do you have some disease?" her voice concerned.
"Are you saying that you think I do" her voice rising distinctly.
"No, but…"Then there is the obvious issue of the man presuming that he would have sex with the woman. If he suggests using a condom, and she doesn't have one, then why did he bring his own in the first place? This premise is the source of humor in recent English movie where she is willing, he pulls out a condom, and then she beats him for assuming she was a slut. How does a man win in the situation?
From the women's groups, I learned that women do not face the same scenario. A woman needs simply to tell the man that she's not on the pill. This is despite the fact that she may well be on the pill to prevent unwanted conceptions.
Therefore, the woman evokes the issue of contraception even though preventing the transmission of disease may be as much her concern as his.
This highlights the invisibility of oral contraceptives to the male partner. She can be taking the pill or not. She can say that she isn't or that she is. Man can only go by her word.