One of the more encouraging developments as open discussion of sex has become more normalized in North American culture (and yes, there’s still quite a way to go) is that it is both easier and more expected to exchange information about sexual safety. For modern swingers and other polyamorists, as well as those engaging in casual, formal, or business-suit sex, openness about boundaries and one’s health status is not only standard but expected, and increasingly received without judgement — especially as facts become more widely known regarding both the prevalence and lack of severity of some STIs. (Unless you are immunocompromised, herpes, for example, is just a skin condition with a bad PR agent.)
Getting information about a partner’s health is just the beginning, though. After all, it’s up to you to decide what someone else’s health and boundaries mean for your practices together. And some partners, having been open and vulnerable by expressing their status, can find it upsetting when those statuses take certain activities off the board – even if they’re giving you full credit for looking after your joint safety.
My partners and I span a range of STI statuses, and our practices differ depending on who we’re with as necessary to keep anyone from receiving anything they don’t want. That takes work — and skills. In addition to regular testing, the essentials include:
- Open communication about potentially awkward subjects;
- A non-judgmental acceptance of others’ statuses (which assists the communication);
- A dedication to take care of your own health independent of what anyone else does, and
- A willingness to accept that some things may not happen with a particular partner (including, of course, their reciprocal understanding that some things may not happen with you.)
In my experience, it’s the last point that’s hardest. Some people seem to feel that if you stay away from certain activities, you’re adding to stigma. Those can be challenging conversations, particularly in multi-partner situations, when knowing that a partner will engage in some activities with their other partners that they won’t with you can add to jealousy and potentially resentment.
Deep breaths, abundant understanding, and gratitude for what is on the table rather than resentment for what isn’t go into the safer sex kits right next to the condoms, gloves, and dental dams. The good news is, one size fits all.