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.”
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Alexander, K. A. (2012). Sexual safety and sexual security: Broadening the sexual health discourse (Unpublished dissertation). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Retrieved November 8, 2017, from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1287145169?accountid=14667.
Amaro, H. (1995). Love, sex, and power: Considering women's realities in HIV prevention. American Psychologist, 50(6), 437–447. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.50.6.437.
Amaro, H., & Raj, A. (2000). On the margin: Power and women’s HIV risk reduction strategies. Sex Roles, 42(7–8), 723–749. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007059708789.
Barcelos, C., & Gubrium, A. (2018). Bodies that tell: Embodying teen pregnancy through digital storytelling. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43(4), 905–927. https://doi.org/10.1086/696627.
Bartky, S. L. (1988). Foucault, femininity, and the modernization of patriarchal power. In I. Diamond & L. Quinby (Eds.), Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on resistance (pp. 61–86). Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2003). The trouble of teen sex: The construction of adolescent sexuality through school-based sexuality education. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 3(1), 61–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468181032000052162.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2015). The agency line: A neoliberal metric for appraising young women’s sexuality. Sex Roles, 73(7–8), 279–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0452-6.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y., & Eliseo-Arras, R. K. (2008). The making of unwanted sex: Gendered and neoliberal norms in college women's unwanted sexual experiences. Journal of Sex Research, 45(4), 386–397. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490802398381.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y., Livingston, J. A., & Fava, N. M. (2011). Adolescent girls’ assessment and management of sexual risks: Insights from focus group research. Youth & Society, 43(3), 1167–1193. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X10384475.
Berkowitz, R., Callen, M., & Dworkin, R. (1983). How to have sex in an epidemic: One approach. New York: News from the Front Publications.
Bourne, A. H., & Robson, M. A. (2009). Perceiving risk and (re) constructing safety: The lived experience of having ‘safe’ sex. Health, Risk & Society, 11(3), 283–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698570902906421.
Bowleg, L., Lucas, K. J., & Tschann, J. M. (2004). “The ball was always in his court”: An exploratory analysis of relationship scripts, sexual scripts, and condom use among African American women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(1), 70–82. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00124.x.
Braun, V. (2013). “Proper sex without annoying things”: Anti-condom discourse and the ‘nature’ of (hetero) sex. Sexualities, 16(3–4), 361–382. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460713479752.
Burkett, M., & Hamilton, K. (2012). Postfeminist sexual agency: Young women’s negotiations of sexual consent. Sexualities, 15(7), 815–833. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460712454076.
Burt, M. R., & Estep, R. E. (1981). Apprehension and fear: Learning a sense of sexual vulnerability. Sex Roles, 7(5), 511–522. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00288628.
Cacchioni, T. (2007). Heterosexuality and “the labour of love”: A contribution to recent debates on female sexual dysfunction. Sexualities, 10(3), 299–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460707078320.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). HIV among women. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/women/index.html.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.
Clark, R., Benkert, R. A., & Flack, J. M. (2006). Large arterial elasticity varies as a function of gender and racism-related vigilance in black youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(4), 562–569. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2006.02.012.
Curtin, N., Ward, L. M., Merriwether, A., & Caruthers, A. (2011). Femininity ideology and sexual health in young women: A focus on sexual knowledge, embodiment, and agency. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23(1), 48–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/19317611.2010.524694.
Dickson, N., van Roode, T., Cameron, C., & Paul, C. (2013). Stability and change in same-sex attraction, experience, and identity by sex and age in a New Zealand birth cohort. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(5), 753–763. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0063-z.
Dottolo, A. L., & Stewart, A. J. (2008). “Don’t ever forget now, you’re a black man in America”: Intersections of race, class and gender in encounters with the police. Sex Roles, 59(5–6), 350–364. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9387-x.
Estes, M. L. (2017). “If there’s one benefit, you’re not going to get pregnant”: The sexual miseducation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Sex Roles, 77(9–10), 615–627. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0749-8.
Fanghanel, A., & Lim, J. (2015). Of “sluts” and “arseholes”: Antagonistic desire and the production of sexual vigilance. Feminist Criminology, 12(4), 341–360. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085115613431.
Fantasia, H. C., & Fontenot, H. B. (2011). The sexual safety of adolescents. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 40(2), 217–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1552-6909.2011.01217.x.
Farvid, P., & Braun, V. (2006). ‘Most of us guys are raring to go anytime, anyplace, anywhere’: Male and female sexuality in Cleo and Cosmo. Sex Roles, 55(5–6), 295–310. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9084-1.
Farvid, P., Braun, V., & Rowney, C. (2017). “No girl wants to be called a slut!”: Women, heterosexual casual sex and the sexual double standard. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 544–560. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2016.1150818.
Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard Educational Review, 58(1), 29–54. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.58.1.u0468k1v2n2n8242.
Fine, M., & McClelland, S. (2006). Sexuality education and desire: Still missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review, 76(3), 297–338. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.76.3.w5042g23122n6703.
Fine, M., Freudenberg, N., Payne, Y., Perkins, T., Smith, K., & Wanzer, K. (2003). “Anything can happen with police around”: Urban youth evaluate strategies of surveillance in public places. Journal of Social Issues, 59(1), 141–158. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.t01-1-00009.
Flanders, C. E., Robinson, M., Legge, M. M., & Tarasoff, L. A. (2016). Negative identity experiences of bisexual and other non-monosexual people: A qualitative report. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 20(2), 152–172. https://doi.org/10.1080/19359705.2015.1108257.
Frost, J. J., Lindberg, L. D., & Finer, L. B. (2012). Young adults’ contraceptive knowledge, norms and attitudes: Associations with risk of unintended pregnancy. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 44(2), 107–116. https://doi.org/10.1363/4410712.
Hamilton, L., & Armstrong, E. A. (2009). Gendered sexuality in young adulthood double binds and flawed options. Gender & Society, 23(5), 589–616. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243209345829.
Higgins, J. A., & Browne, I. (2008). Sexual needs, control, and refusal: How “doing” class and gender influences sexual risk taking. Journal of Sex Research, 45(3), 233–245. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490802204415.
Higgins, J. A., & Wang, Y. (2015). The role of young adults’ pleasure attitudes in shaping condom use. American Journal of Public Health, 105(7), 1329–1332. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302567.
Hirschman, C., Impett, E. A., & Schooler, D. (2006). Dis/embodied voices: What late-adolescent girls can teach us about objectification and sexuality. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 3(4), 8–20. https://doi.org/10.1525/srsp.2006.3.4.8.
Hlavka, H. R. (2014). Normalizing sexual violence: Young women account for harassment and abuse. Gender & Society, 28(3), 337–358. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243214526468.
Holland, J., Ramazanoglu, C., Scott, S., Sharpe, S., & Thomson, R. (1992). Pressure, resistance, empowerment: Young women and the negotiation of safer sex. In P. Aggleton, P. M. Davies, & G. Hart (Eds.), AIDS: Rights, risk, and reason (pp. 142–162). London: Routlege Falmer.
Hollander, J. A. (2001). Vulnerability and dangerousness: The construction of gender through conversation about violence. Gender & Society, 15(1), 83–109. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124301015001005.
Ibañez, G. E., Whitt, E., Avent, T., Martin, S. S., Varga, L. M., Cano, M. A., … O’Connell, D. J. (2017). “Love and trust, you can be blinded”: HIV risk within relationships among Latina women in Miami, Florida. Ethnicity & Health, 22(5), 510–527. https://doi.org/10.1080/13557858.2016.1244737.
Jeffrey, N. K., & Barata, P. C. (2017). “He didn’t necessarily force himself upon me, but...” Women’s lived experiences of sexual coercion in intimate relationships with men. Violence Against Women, 23(8), 911–933. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801216652507.
Kimport, K. (2018). More than a physical burden: Women’s mental and emotional work in preventing pregnancy. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(9), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1311834.
Klesse, C. (2005). Bisexual women, non-monogamy and differentialist anti-promiscuity discourses. Sexualities, 8(4), 445–464. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460705056620.
Koester, K., Amico, R. K., Gilmore, H., Liu, A., McMahan, V., Mayer, K., … Grant, R. (2017). Risk, safety and sex among male PrEP users: Time for a new understanding. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 19(12), 1301–1313. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2017.1310927.
Kuehnel, S. S. (2009). Abstinence-only education fails African American youth. Washington University Law Review, 86, 1241. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_lawreview/vol86/iss5/5.
Lamb, S. (2010). Toward a sexual ethics curriculum: Bringing philosophy and society to bear on individual development. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 81–106. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.80.1.c104834k00552457.
Lee, H., & Hicken, M. T. (2016). Death by a thousand cuts: The health implications of black respectability politics. Souls, 18(2–4), 421–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2016.1230828.
Lima, A. C., Davis, T. L., Hilyard, K., Jeffries, W. L., & Muilenburg, J. L. (2018). Individual, interpersonal, and sociostructural factors influencing partner nonmonogamy acceptance among young African American women. Sex Roles, 78(7–8), 467–481. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0811-6.
Littleton, H. L., Grills-Taquechel, A. E., Buck, K. S., Rosman, L., & Dodd, J. C. (2013). Health risk behavior and sexual assault among ethnically diverse women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(1), 7–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684312451842.
McClelland, S. I. (2011). Who is the “self” in self-reports of sexual satisfaction? Research and policy implications. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8(4), 304–320. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-011-0067-9.
McClelland, S. I. (2014). “What do you mean when you say that you’re sexually satisfied?” a mixed methods study. Feminism & Psychology, 24(1), 74–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353513508392.
McClelland, S. I. (2017). Gender and sexual labor near the end of life: Advanced breast cancer and femininity norms. Women's Reproductive Health, 4(1), 29–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/23293691.2017.1276367.
McClelland, S. I. (2018). Critical methods for studying adolescent sexuality. In S. Lamb & J. Gilbert (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of sexual development: Childhood and adolescence (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 281–299). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108116121.015.
McClelland, S. I., & Fine, M. (2008). Embedded science: The production of consensus in evaluation of abstinence-only curricula. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(2), 50–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/1532708607310782.
McClelland, S. I., Rubin, J. D., & Bauermeister, J. A. (2016). Adapting to injustice: Young bisexual women’s interpretations of microaggressions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(4), 532–550. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684316664514.
McIlvenna, R. T. (1986). Safe sex in the age of AIDS. Secaucus: Citadel Press.
Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674–697. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674.
Meyer, I. H., Ouellette, S. C., Haile, R., & McFarlane, T. A. (2011). “We’d be free”: Narratives of life without homophobia, racism, or sexism. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 8(3), 204–214. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-011-0063-0.
Morgan, E. M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2007). Wanting sex and wanting to wait: Young adults’ accounts of sexual messages from first significant dating partners. Feminism & Psychology, 17(4), 515–541. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353507083102.
Muehlenhard, C. L., Humphreys, T. P., Jozkowski, K. N., & Peterson, Z. D. (2016). The complexities of sexual consent among college students: A conceptual and empirical review. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(4–5), 457–487. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1146651.
Mullinax, M., Sanders, S., Higgins, J., Dennis, B., Reece, M., & Fortenberry, D. (2016). Establishment of safety paradigms and trust in emerging adult relationships. Culture, Health, & Sexuality, 18(8), 890–904. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2016.1148779.
Otto-Salaj, L. L., Traxel, N., Brondino, M. J., Reed, B., Gore-Felton, C., Kelly, J. A., … Stevenson, L. Y. (2010). Reactions of heterosexual African American men to women’s condom negotiation strategies. Journal of Sex Research, 47(6), 539–551. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490903216763.
Pearson, J. (2006). Personal control, self-efficacy in sexual negotiation, and contraceptive risk among adolescents: The role of gender. Sex Roles, 54(9–10), 615–625. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9028-9.
Phillips, L. (1998). The girls report: What we know & need to know about growing up female. New York: National Council for Research on Women.
Phillips, L. (2000). Flirting with danger: Young women's reflections on sexuality and domination. New York: NYU Press.
Pulerwitz, J., & Dworkin, S. L. (2006). Give-and-take in safer sex negotiations: The fluidity of gender-based power relations. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 3(3), 40–51. https://doi.org/10.1525/srsp.2006.3.3.40.
Robin, L., Dittus, P., Whitaker, D., Crosby, R., Ethier, K., Mezoff, J., … Pappas-Deluca, K. (2004). Behavioral interventions to reduce incidence of HIV, STD, and pregnancy among adolescents: A decade in review. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34(1), 3–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1054-139X(03)00244-1.
Rutherford, A. (2018). Feminism, psychology, and the gendering of neoliberal subjectivity: From critique to disruption. Theory & Psychology, 28(5), 619–644. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354318797194.
Sheeran, P., Abraham, C., & Orbell, S. (1999). Psychosocial correlates of heterosexual condom use: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(1), 90–132. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.125.1.90.
Smith, D. E. (1988). Femininity as discourse. In L. G. Roman, L. K. Christian-Smith, & L. Ellsworth (Eds.), Becoming feminine: The politics of popular culture (pp. 37–59). London: The Falmer Press.
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken: Wiley.
Terry, G., Hayfield, N., Clarke, V., & Braun, V. (2017). Thematic analysis. In C. Willig & W. R. Stainton-Rogers (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research in psychology (2nd ed., pp. 17–37). London: Sage Publications Ltd..
Tolman, D. L. (2009). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tolman, D. L. (2012). Female adolescents, sexual empowerment and desire: A missing discourse of gender inequity. Sex Roles, 66(11–12), 746–757. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0122-x.
Tolman, D. L., & McClelland, S. I. (2011). Normative sexuality development in adolescence: A decade in review, 2000–2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 242–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00726.x.
Trinh, S. L. (2016). “Enjoy your sexuality, but do it in secret”: Exploring undergraduate women’s reports of friends’ sexual communications. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(1), 96–107. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684315596914.
Turrini, M. (2015). A genealogy of “healthism”: Healthy subjectivities between individual autonomy and disciplinary control. Eä - Journal of Medical Humanities & Social Studies of Science and Technology, 7(1), 11–27. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://www.ea-journal.com/en/issues/2016-04-01-01-24-42.
Ussher, J. M. (2010). Are we medicalizing women’s misery? A critical review of women’s higher rates of reported depression. Feminism & Psychology, 20(1), 9–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353509350213.
West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002.
Widman, L., Noar, S. M., Choukas-Bradley, S., & Francis, D. B. (2014). Adolescent sexual health communication and condom use: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 33(10), 1113–1124. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000112.
Wiederman, M. W. (2005). The gendered nature of sexual scripts. The Family Journal, 13(4), 496–502. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480705278729.
Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology (3rd ed.). UK: Open University Press.
Willig, C. (2017). Interpretation in qualitative research. In C. Willig & W. R. Stainton-Rogers (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research in psychology (2nd ed., pp. 274–288). London: Sage Publications Ltd..
Wingood, G. M., & DiClemente, R. J. (2000). Application of the theory of gender and power to examine HIV-related exposures, risk factors, and effective interventions for women. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 539–565. https://doi.org/10.1177/109019810002700502.
Zaal, M., Salah, T., & Fine, M. (2007). The weight of the hyphen: Freedom, fusion and responsibility embodied by young Muslim-American women during a time of surveillance. Applied Development Science, 11(3), 164–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888690701454674.
Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., See, L., & O’Sullivan, L. (2015). Young women’s satisfaction with sex and romance, and emotional reactions to sex: Associations with sexual entitlement, efficacy, and situational factors. Emerging Adulthood, 3(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167696814548060.
Thank you to Abby Stewart, Jacqueline Mattis, and Elizabeth Armstrong who provided feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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.
Anonymized data from participants who consented to data sharing are available by e-mailing the corresponding author.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
About this article
Cite this article
Dutcher, H., McClelland, S.I. Laboring to Make Sex “Safe”: Sexual Vigilance in Young U.S. College Women. Sex Roles 81, 399–414 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-1004-2