Four steps to safer sex
So you’ve met someone hot and new. You’re wearing the cute underwear, because you’re thinking it’s going to happen tonight. You’ve got your condoms and other safer sex supplies. (You do, right?) So does that mean you’re good to go?
Well, there is one more pesky thing to take care of before you get on to the slippery kind of fun. Have you talked about sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
Talking about STIs probably sounds like the unsexiest conversation ever. And it’s certainly not something you want to bring up in the middle of getting hot and heavy. So, how the heck do you have that conversation? Never fear: we’re here to help.
Educate Yourself About STIs
When you think about STIs, you probably think of mostly two categories: things that can be knocked out with antibiotics, like gonnorhea, chlymidia, and syphillis; and HIV/AIDS. If you came of age at any point after 1980, you know how HIV is transmitted, and you’ve probably seen someone put a condom on a banana.
But you might be less familiar with bugs that are super common, but hard to avoid. HSV, the virus that causes herpes, for example, can be passed skin to skin. This means that condoms aren’t necessarily effective against it, and that even kids can get it, through a kiss from their great-aunt. This also means that herpes, both type 1 and type 2, are very common – some estimates say 70% of the population is positive for the virus.
The same is true for Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. HPV is also passed skin-to-skin, and is responsible for all warts ever. (Stop blaming those poor toads.) This includes genital warts, as well as the kind of internal growths that can lead to cervical, anal or throat cancer. There is a vaccine for HPV, covering nine of the most dangerous and embarrassing strains. But a bout of HPV can send destructive ripples of misinformation and blame through communities. People can carry HPV without ever showing symptoms, and the virus in its many forms is so common that, as a brilliant nurse practitioner once told me, “it’s practically on the doorknobs.”
Both of these infections require awareness, education as to transmission, and a realistic attitude about risk.
Know Your Status!
Everything in life worth doing carries risk. And for most people, sex is definitely worth doing! If you’re going do it, you should be clear with yourself – and your partners – about what kinds of risk you present, and can deal with.
First off – get tested! If you’ve ever had sexual contact with anyone, you’ve already exposed yourself to some risk. Get your health practitioner to test for everything. Some doctors don’t think it’s important to test for HSV, for example, but you can carry that virus and not have any symptoms, too, and your partners deserve to know that.
Once you know your status, figure out what feels right to you. Are you willing to take the chance that a partner might have HPV unknowingly, and pass it to you? If not, reconsider the types of sex you have. It’s totally fine to just do sex things with gloved hands, and not engage in oral, vaginal or anal sex until you know more and feel safer. Or, not at all! There’s plenty of pleasureable times to be had without “traditional” sex!
If your partner gets cold sores, and you don’t, are you willing to take the (rather high) chance that if you make out with them, you’ll get HSV? Or vice-versa: if you’re positive for HSV or HPV, are you ready to be honest about that with a partner before it’s time to get busy?
When you know what you’re willing to risk, you can make more educated choices.
Normalize, Don’t Stigmatize STIs
Speaking of educated, one of the most harmful things about STIs is the stigma. When you’re talking to a potential partner, use nonjudgmental language. For instance, a lot of people who (think they) don’t have any STIs like to say they’re “clean.” This implies that people with STIs are “dirty,” and not in the nice way. Instead, talk about your status matter-of-factly. Talking about STIs as if they were normal health concerns (pro tip: they are!) helps everyone.
Whether you’ve ever had an STI or not, talking about it like it’s NBD reduces the shame and stigma – and helps people have more fun while spreading fewer STIs! Practice talking casually about STIs, and practice asking potential partners about them. Start with something simple. Say, “So, I got all my tests done last month, and I’m positive for HSV-1 but negative for everything else. What about you?” Especially if you don’t have any STIs, try bringing it up first. “Hey, before we have fun we should have the STI talk,” is one way to start. Or, “I did my usual round of STI testing at the end of last year. When’s the last time you got tested?” It can really relieve your partner from always having to start the conversation, and breaks the ice on a subject many people find hard to talk about.
Finally, always have the safer sex supplies you need around: condoms, female condoms, dental dams, gloves and whatever else makes using those things more fun! If you set the expectation that any sex with you is going to involve barriers, that also normalizes attentiveness to risk.
Talk Early, Talk Often
If you have good chemistry with someone, it’s a good idea to talk about STI status well before you’re taking each other’s clothes off. In fact, depending on your risk tolerance, you can discuss it before you start making out. This may sound awkward, but it’s actually a great opportunity to make your intentions clear. You could lean in closer and say, “I’d love to be kissing you right now. But you should know I get cold sores sometimes. Is that okay with you?”
If you’re corresponding with someone before you meet, like on a dating site, that’s another good way to bring it up. Writing it down can also feel easier than talking in person. It’s not as easy to make it sexy as it is to make consent sexy, but it’s possible for it not to be super awkward.
Remember: if having to talk about STIs makes a potential new partner so uncomfortable, offended or freaked out that they no longer want to have sex with you…then they’re not someone you want to have sex with! Being a person who has sex means being a person who has to think and talk about STIs. So, if you’re ready for adventure, get out there and talk about it!
If you liked this article and want to know more ways of staying safe, check out our articles on Submission Safety Tips, How To Use Safewords: Sexy Traffic Signals on Your Kinky Journey, and The Best Apps for Secure Sexting.
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