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Safe sex and French letters

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM


It's Valentine's Day. It's also the last day of Safe Sex Awareness Week. I certainly hope this doesn't mean that Cupid will be using his arrow to pierce hearts and other parts without taking the necessary precautions. So in the spirit of safe sex for life - not just a week - I write today in praise of French letters.

But, first, the back story. In Greek mythology, Eros was the fertility god of sexual love and beauty. He appears in Roman mythology as Cupid, son of Venus, the goddess of love. Incidentally, it's really funny how European myths are embraced as part of the literary heritage of the world. But the myths and religions of other cultures are dismissed as 'demonic.' Just think of the way in which some of us conceive 'voodoo' in entirely negative terms.

The word 'voodoo' comes from 'vodu,' which simply means 'spirit' or 'deity' in the Fon language of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, known today as Benin. How a god becomes a demon is the tragic story of colonisation. Some of us will never emancipate ourselves from the mental slavery that makes us see ourselves only through the disdainful eyes of our imperial masters.

Cupid could very well be seen as the poster boy for safe sex, particularly condom use. Erotic zones can, indeed, be safe spaces. Wikipedia gives a most entertaining history of condom use highlighting the way in which it became a moral issue. Sexual pleasure was seen as sinful and condoms allowed you to get away with it. Condoms perverted natural justice by reducing the risk of contracting those deadly diseases that were the just punishment for sinful sexual behaviour.

The poetic image 'French letters' - English slang for condoms -- suggests that at some point condom use was much more popular in France than in England. The French, known for perfecting the art of love, also practised erotic safe sex. Though a billet-doux (a sweet note) is not exactly the same as a French letter, they both lubricate intercourse of mind and body. So here's my version of the French letter: a female condom that speaks her mind.

The Condom's Complaint

A condom to herself did sigh,

"Why do men hate me so?

I snuggle up so close and try

To ease the way for them to go.

I know I'm not a second skin.

Whoever said that was too coy.

But there I am through thick and thin,

Helping men to find safe joy.

They push and push me to the hilt

And thrust and thrust until they're done.

They never notice how I wilt

Once they've had their spurt of fun.

They simply use me night and day

Without a single word of praise.

They never ever stop their play

To thank me for the shield I raise.

They wouldn't ever think to say

'Ms Condom's great, and that's a fact.'

But one fine day, I'll slip away

In the middle of the act.

I shouldn't say that; it's a joke

I really am too kind of heart.

I wouldn't want nice decent folk

To think that I won't play my part.

For women love me; they feel free.

They know they can depend on me.

Not like those leggo-beasts who roam

And bring those strange diseases home.

Some foolish men think bare is best

They like to gamble with their lives.

But if they want their final rest,

They still should think of their poor wives.

Their children born without a chance

To learn the joys of idle play

They never live to sing and dance

But wither fast and fade away.

The fear of this new dread disease

Has greatly helped my fortune's rise

I'll get them down on their weak knees

It's love of me, or their demise.

And all those silly men who claim

They can't get up because of me

Should know that it's a bloody shame

To try to put the blame on me.

A condom to herself did say

"Smart men, they love me so.

They know that if they want to play

And play again another day,

They cannot run away, you see

They have to come to terms with me.

I'm safe, I'm fun, I'm almost free.

Real men, they always play with me."

And talking of players, there's an excellent play at The Theatre Place that humorously exposes male sexual fantasies. It's called The Love List. It's about the qualities men look for in a mate. In the newspaper ad, "sexy" is at the top of the list. One of the best moments is the confession by one of the male characters, a writer, played by Munair Zacca, that he selfishly used to insist that his wife 'tek weh herself' whenever he felt a flash of creativity coming on. As it turns out, she went straight to the arms of her lover.

Men might as well accept the fact that women are the superior sex. As Louise Bennett put it so wickedly,

Jamaica oman cunny, sah!

Is how dem jinnal so?

Look how long dem liberated

An di man dem never know!

The Love List is not a Jamaican play. It was written by Norm Foster, Canada's most popular playwright. I would have named it The Sex List. It would certainly have attracted a much larger audience than the handful of people who attended the show the night I did. It's on tonight at 8. It's a great Valentine date.

Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to: or