Sex Roles

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Laboring to Make Sex “Safe”: Sexual Vigilance in Young U.S. College Women

  • Harley DutcherEmail author
  • Sara I. McClelland
Original Article


Definitions of “safe sex” often focus on the use of condoms and contraception, but largely ignore other dimensions of safety, such as efforts to feel emotionally or physically safe. These gaps in the definition of the term safety demand greater attention to how being safe and feeling safe are interpreted by individuals who live and engage in sexual lives marked by social and political inequality. In the current study, we draw on interviews with 17 young women ages 18–28 from a U.S. urban university to examine efforts they used to protect themselves in sexual relationships. When having sex with men, we found young women relied on a range of efforts to keep themselves safe, such as controlling their own sexual desire, developing strict contraceptive regimens, and building relational contexts characterized by physical and emotional safety. We argue that sexual safety labor (i.e., “good” contraceptive behavior, “waiting” to have sex, and “careful” decision-making) offers evidence of what safe sex requires of young women. We examine this range of cognitions and behaviors as forms of labor directed at making sex feel and be safe; however, young women did not describe these efforts in terms of their own time or energy. In our analysis, we suggest that vigilance in sexual relationships has become part of young women’s required repertoire of safe sex behaviors, but largely goes unnoticed by them. We connect these findings with public health campaigns that teach young people about safety and offer alternatives for researchers looking to understand and study what is imagined as “safe sex.”


Adolescence Sexuality Relationships Gender Contraception 



Thank you to Abby Stewart, Jacqueline Mattis, and Elizabeth Armstrong who provided feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Approval

The research presented within this manuscript was conducted in accordance with the ethical guidelines set by the American Psychological Association and the Institutional Review Boards of the relevant authors’ institutions. This manuscript is not currently under review at any other journal, nor has any portion of it been published previously.

Informed Consent

Anonymized data from participants who consented to data sharing are available by e-mailing the corresponding author.

Supplementary material

11199_2019_1004_MOESM1_ESM.docx (15 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 15 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Women’s Studies and PsychologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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