"Safer Sex in Practice": More on poly and STIs
That last post of mine is getting a lot of hits. Some people are tweeting it with a comment "Monogamy is touted as safest relationship type, but recent study on polyamory shows otherwise." That's an exaggeration. The study in question found that people in honest open relationships do sex more safely, on average, than cheaters or their unwitting partners do. Couples who are in fact sexually monogamous are safest of all.
The study's title tells its conclusion: Unfaithful Individuals are Less Likely to Practice Safer Sex Than Openly Nonmonogamous Individuals. Here are some more articles about it, and about STI information for polyfolks.
● Two weeks ago sociologist Elisabeth Sheff posted an upbeat article, Sexually Transmitted Infections in Polyamorous Relationships:
How poly people have multiple partners but don't spread STIs.
...Simple numerics mean that having multiple partners increases the risk of encountering STIs, and exposure of one partner can mean exposure of others down the line. How do people in polyamorous relationships deal with this magnified risk of STIs? Very carefully.
Testing and Talking
True to polyamorous form that emphasizes communication as a key relationship tool, poly folks talk with each other and partners’ partners about sexually transmitted infections. Most frequently, people get tested (with six month follow-ups) and come together for a conversation with results to show and tell—sitting a circle in someone’s living room or basement, handing the results papers around so everyone can see what everyone else has. It makes a difference to see the people who will be affected by your sexual choices and speak to them directly about how everyone is going to protect each others’ health.
Talking about sexual health is an
important part of staying healthy.
Protection and Creativity
Condoms and dental dams can go a long way towards cutting the transmission of STIs by containing fluids and preventing (or at least inhibiting) skin-to-skin contact. There are also many ways to have sex or sexual interactions that do not involve fluid exchance, and polys can be creative about what kinds of sex they have and how they do it.
Because of the potential for STIs to spread through a social group, the rule among mainstream poly communities is no fluid exchange unless and until it has been excruciatingly discussed, tested, and negotiated. This can be such an extensive process that actually deciding to have unprotected sex is a sign of serious commitment, enough so that it is associated with commitment ceremonies.
How does all of this careful talking, testing, and negotiating work for poly folks? Pretty darn well, it turns out. Recent research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicates that people with negotiated non-monogamy have fewer STIs and infect fewer partners than do people in unfaithful relationships in which the partners are cheating and have not negotiated multiple-partner sexuality. Openly non-monogamous folks were more likely to get tested for STIs frequently, discuss their sexual health status with partners, and use condoms and other barriers than were people who had not negotiated an open relationship. Cheaters were less likely to use condoms with their primary partners or during their extradyadic sexual encounters, get tested for STIs, or discuss safer sex concerns with new partners.
● Sex educator Charlie Glickman's article on the study (with Reid Mihalko's Safer Sex Conversation Elevator Speech): More Proof That Poly Isn’t Cheating: STI Edition.
...Among cheaters, condom use for vaginal and anal sex was 27% and 35% lower and alcohol use was 64% higher. Of course, there’s some correlation between alcohol use and not practicing safer sex, and some people who cheat may drink in order to get past the voices in their heads that are telling them that they’re doing something they know they shouldn’t....
● Excellent article by Micah Schneider — longtime poly educator, queer event organizer, and quad member — at The Good Men Project:
Let’s Talk About STIs
Talking about your sexual history with a new partner is best done early and honestly.
...Let’s take the second part first: negotiating acceptable risk. Like everything else in a relationship, you have to talk to your partner/s about STIs, preferably before you ever have a problem with them....
STIs are one of those things that I try to get out on the table with a potential new partner as soon as possible, especially if I want to have a sexual relationship with them. In my case, HPV is in my sexual history. I may or may not be a carrier, and there is no real way to know for sure. It behooves me to tell potential sexual partners this, so they can decide what their level of acceptable risk is for themselves. For some people, it won’t matter at all. Maybe they already have it (or had it). Lots of humans fall into that category. Maybe they won’t want to have any kind of sexual contact with me at all. But this person deserves to make an informed decision, right? You’ve got to find each other’s comfort zones, and then honor them.
Here’s the hard part. You have to be OK with rejection. It doesn’t matter if you think their response is unreasonable, or illogical, or fair. It doesn’t matter if you think this is your new soulmate, the first person you’ve crushed on in years, or whatever. That person gets to decide what is acceptable for them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t educate them. There’s lots of misinformation out there about STIs, as I found out about HPV. When I was dealing with that, I quickly discovered that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. Be careful not to step over the line into “pushy”, because you don’t want to be That Guy (or Girl), either. But if they say no, you have to accept it. And as much as it sucks to be rejected for any reason, you are far better off getting that out of the way as quickly as possible, before anyone involved gets really invested.
You have got to be OK with setting your boundaries. Only you can decide for yourself what risks you are willing to take....
The first part of the question — how to protect yourself from STIs — is easier, since I don’t have to answer it. Getting information about STIs and how to protect yourself has never been easier than in the Digital Age.... I have to assume if you are reading this then you have reliable access to a computer. There are tons of resources available, from sites like Planned Parenthood and the CDC to blogs such as the excellent STD Project, a blog dedicated to educating the public about STDs and reducing the stigma attached to them. If you really cannot get online much, there are still plenty of resources available. Planned Parenthood is an excellent place to get information from. Even if you don’t have a local clinic, write to them and they’ll help you if they can. Your personal care physician, ON/GYN, local walk-in clinic or hospital can also help.
The original article (July 1, 2012).
● Safer sex in practice: 15 risk factors that are not given enough attention, by Positive Juice. These are key indicators for assessing another person's reliability and self-care, which wouldn't ensure safety by themselves but improve your odds a lot. "Basically, in one sentence, the summary for all this is that for safer sex, you should find people who also want to do what it takes to be safe."
● From Kamala Devi: Top 10 Safe Sex Standards for Polyamory, Swinging, Open Relationships and Group Sex (May 28, 2013).
● Joreth Innkeeper writes, "I keep up with STI research and testing options on my LiveJournal at joreth.livejournal.com/tag/STI, and I cover the basics of good poly sexual practices at www.theinnbetween.net/polysex.html." Including the Sexual Health and History Disclosure Form that she uses with new partners.