Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

January 19, 2014

STIs: Why "polyamorous relationships can be physically healthier than monogamous ones"


One way the poly movement is influencing the culture for the better is by advocating and exemplifying excellent safe-sex practices — based on honesty, unashamed discussion of sexual history and practices, regular testing, negotiation, and attention to the most current medical research. That's our rhetoric, anyway. And in my observation it's pretty often the reality, certainly more so that in the rest of society. Indeed, there's research evidence for good results that polys can be proud of.[1]

One reality that society fails to teach is that good risk assessment is numerical, not emotional. For STIs it also involves mutual discussions about your own levels of acceptable risk. People differ about how good is good enough for them.

There's no true safe sex, any more than there is safe driving. (No matter how safely you drive, you can be T-boned by a speeding drunk.) Yet people still choose to drive. As my friend Michael Rios emphasizes, if you can reduce your chance of death or major injury from an STI to match your risk of death or major injury from driving across town to see your partner, then you can call it "safe sex" to the same extent that driver's ed talks about safe driving. Insistence on the term "safer sex" at that level of risk betrays our sex-negative culture.

Another part of risk reduction is understanding that unsafe protection methods, those that only improve your odds somewhat, are not evils to be shunned but helpful adjuncts when added to more reliable methods, to reduce your total risk a bit further. Examples are condoms as protection against HPV, urinating and washing from navel to knees after sex, keeping your immune system up with a healthy diet and enough sleep, and many others.

Think those methods sound awful? Wearing a seat belt reduces your risk of death or crippling injury by only about 50%. That would be considered awful for an STI protection method, yet everyone recognizes that wearing your seat belt is a Good Thing. Risk reductions add up. Life is a gamble, but intelligent gamblers seek to use lots of ways to improve their odds.


And so, "Polyamorous relationships can be physically healthier than monogamous ones," writes the online magazine VOXXI — "an independent voice for Hispanic America, committed to transforming the digital media landscape and catapulting Latinos into the forefront of American dialogue. Our goal is to become the voice of the Hispanic 21st Century.' "

VOXXI is in English; it's aimed for the large market of Latinos who use English as their dominant language.

Having healthy sexual polyamorous relationships

By Hope Gillette

Polyamorous relationships can be physically healthier than monogamous ones.

While it may be more socially mainstream to stay in a monogamous relationship while dating, the truth of the matter is more and more people are exploring their sexuality, and polyamorous relationships are becoming common. So how do you stay healthy when you are in relationships with multiple people — and when those people are likely in multiple relationships themselves?

The key, according to experts, is open, honest communication and testing, testing, testing.

In a report from Psychology Today, couples in polyamorous relationships.... have one major fear when it comes to their sexual health: sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And this concern is not surprising. By the time all partners are accounted for on every branch of a polyamorous relationships, one person could potentially be exposed to pathogens from a hundred other people.

The trick to getting around this fear is to maintain an open circle of trust and communication, and experts recommend having an organized time where all partners can get together and schedule STI checks and review results.

”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,” stated Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., on Psychology Today. “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.”

The American Sexual Health Association indicates more than half of all people will have an STI at some point in their lives, and recent estimates indicate there are almost 20 million new STI cases reported every year. Unfortunately, less than half of adults ages 18 to 44 have ever been tested for an STD/STI other than HIV/AIDS, and 1 in 2 sexually active people will have an STI by the age of 25.

Polyamorous partners try to cut down their risk of STI transmission by adhering to a “no fluid” rule, which means adhering to sexual practices like condom use and dental dams. If there is going to be a fluid exchange, all partners look to agree on it.

What monogomous relationships can learn from polyamorous ones

Interestingly enough, while polyamorous relationships are generally frowned upon by those in monogamous relationships, couples who are dedicated to one and only one other individual can take a lesson from the values polyamorous relationships hold dear. Because of the significant health concern regarding STIs, openness and sharing are valued among the polyamorous group and this translate into more than just the sexual side of things.

What’s more, this communication protocol and rigorous testing regime have led research to conclude non-monogamous individuals in open relationships often have fewer STIs than people who remain in monogamous but unfaithful relationships.

Research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found “Sexually unfaithful participants demonstrated significantly lower rates of protective sexual health behaviors both within their primary partnerships and during their extradyadic sexual encounters. Sexually unfaithful participants were also less likely to engage in frequent STI testing, and less likely to discuss safer sex concerns with new partners,” according to the report.[1]

The original article (Jan. 18, 2014).


So, where do you get the best current medical information? Aggie Sez posted at Singleish and Solo Polyamory:

The CDC [the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention] just released its annual US STD trends report, which includes screening recommendations. So if you prefer to make sexual health decisions based on reliable and current information, this is a must read. The fact sheet is a good start, but the report looks worth a deeper dive (as always).

[UPDATE: Perhaps the best starting point: www.cdc.gov/std, especially The Facts Brochures.]

This is the 2012 report, but the page says last reviewed and updated January 7, 2014.


You have to practice talking directly. Here is Reid Mihalko's kit for crafting your Safer Sex Elevator Speech to have ready for potential partners (.pdf download).

Also on that page in a webtool for finding a local STD testing location. And a $25-off coupon. The page is part of Reid's excellent site ReidAboutSex.com.

Also see Joreth's STI resources that she links to in the comments.


1.: Unfaithful Individuals are Less Likely to Practice Safer Sex Than Openly Nonmonogamous Individuals

The Journal of Sexual Medicine

Vol. 9, Issue 6, pages 1559–1565, June 2012

Authors: Conley TD, Moors AC, Ziegler A, and Karathanasis C.


Introduction.  Given the prevalence and harm of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), there is a need to examine safer sex strategies in the context of romantic relationships and extradyadic sexual encounters. Sexual infidelity is associated with a variety of detrimental psychosocial outcomes; however, little research has addressed the sexual health ramifications of sexually unfaithful partners and members of other high-risk nonmonogamous lifestyles.

Aims.  To determine whether sexually unfaithful individuals or "negotiated nonmonogamous" individuals are more likely to engage in sexual health risk reduction behaviors during extradyadic encounters and with their primary partner.

Method.  Data were collected via an anonymous Internet-based study. Several hundred sexually unfaithful individuals and individuals with a negotiated nonmonogamy agreement completed a sexual health questionnaire.

Main Outcomes Measures.  Self-reported measures of risk reduction behaviors within the primary relationship and risk reduction behaviors during the extradyadic encounter were assessed.

Results.  Sexually unfaithful participants demonstrated significantly lower rates of protective sexual health behaviors both within their primary partnerships and during their extradyadic sexual encounters [than openly nonmonogamous people]. Sexually unfaithful participants were also less likely to engage in frequent STI testing, and less likely to discuss safer sex concerns with new partners.

Conclusions.  These data add to the literature on the negative effects of sexual unfaithfulness. Understanding rates of nonengagement in safer sex strategies will be helpful to those who lead efforts to increase condom use and other preventive STI measures.

Link for the abstract and full paper (paywall):




Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also keep up with STI research and testing options on my LiveJournal at http://joreth.livejournal.com/tag/STI and I cover the basics of good poly sexual practices at www.theinnbetween.net/polysex.html

January 19, 2014 8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ironically, Reid uses the term "safer sex" in his promo statement.

January 20, 2014 11:38 AM  
Anonymous Eve said...

I understand what you're saying about STI risk assessment being based on reason, not emotion, and it's true to a degree. However, there are also issues of comfort and consent, and the things that influence our level of comfort and enjoyment of sex are very often not rational.

As one imaginary but not unrealistic example, if I was molested by my bearded uncle Joe as a child, I may never feel safe enough with a bearded man to be able to feel comfortable having sex with one. That's a completely irrational decision, and yet one that is absolutely okay for me to make.

I came of age sexually in the late 1980s in a city that was quite progressive in terms of sex ed and STI prevention among teens, which had the (now) unfortunate side effect that I was pretty much indoctrinated with the idea that unbarriered sex will kill you, and barriered sex wasn't very safe, either. Many others are the same. So there are issues with deep emotional resonance around safety that need to be considered, as well, in making these choices.

I think if we want to feel like we are fully consenting, we need to fully take care of ourselves emotionally as well as physically, and that includes being willing to take what may be somewhat "irrational" measures to demonstrate to *ourselves* that we are willing to care for ourselves.

Educate yourself and do rational risk assessment, yes, and that will probably have an influence on your feelings, too. But also be gentle with yourself, and don't shame yourself (or others), if your (or their) emotionally based choices around sex don't line up with the results of your rational risk assessment.

January 20, 2014 4:15 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Eve, I agree about the emotional factors and being gentle with yourself. And not self-shaming. Though I think if a person has issues like this to work through, the goal should be to work through them to be able to act on the real risk and safety factors, not the imagined ones.

Potentially much worse, I think, is the flip side. It's one thing to be scared away from sex irrationally. The flip side is imaging that you're safe irrationally, such as "I'm protected by my spiritual attitude," or "because I drink Healthy Harry's Immune Boost." I've heard these sorts of things.

Having feelings that pull you away from reality in *either* direction will take you to worse life places than becoming comfortable with choosing risks and safety factually, I believe.

January 20, 2014 4:46 PM  

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