Many people have strong opinions about safer sex and sexually transmitted infections (STI). Some are adventurous sexually while others hold back from sex in fear. Others judge people who have not made the same choices they have.
Whether or not they’re fearful, some people take an excessive number of precautions and others not many, perhaps not enough.
Underneath these behaviors are powerful feelings especially fear and shame.
One of the key problems we run into when it comes to making personal choices about safer sex practices is ignorance about the medical facts, and importantly about ourselves.
It’s easy to not investigate when you’re afraid of somthing or when your response to the subject is to feel shame. Unfortunately over time that only serves to strengthen fears. that are often based on misinformation. Whether this results in your not enjoying sex often enough or in compromising your health, ignorance still causes a less than optimal experience.
Knowledge is power. In the long term being knowledgeable about about sexually transmitted infections (STI) and making conscious, informed choices about safer sex can greatly help take the strength out of shame and fear.
Stop using judgmental, inaccurate language
Many people use judgmental and inaccurate language to discuss safer sex or in their online dating profiles.
Sexually transmitted infections are a fact of life. Almost everyone already has one. That means you, too.
There’s nothing “clean” about not having something or “dirty” about having one. If you choose this type of language you are speaking negatively about yourself as much as about anyone else.
Further, there is no such thing as “safe” sex. It’s safer or less safe. Consider that there is no completely safe way to cross a street – an accident can still happen on a quiet street.
There is no completely safe form of sexual activity either. Barriers break. Condoms do not always cover enough skin to prevent everything that can be transmitted. While certain things like preventing HIV or pregnancy may get the lion’s share of the attention, there are other STI to consider when making decisions about safer sex.
Consider what could happen if you wore latex underwear and latex hoods during sex. This might seem silly. However, even if you did go that far, unpleasant communicable conditions like scabies could still be passed from one person to another. Nothing is completely safe.
So don’t let conscious or unconscious fear control how you handle the subject. Don’t let it show up through inaccurate and judgmental language, Instead take some time to address the issue thoughtfully, with awareness and compassion toward yourself and others.
Learn about the risks of your favorite sexual activities
Take some time at least once a year to read and educate yourself about the risks of the sexual behaviors you like to experience.
A great resource for doing this is the many helpful STI Fact Sheets from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
In our modern era all sexually transmitted infections can be treated. If you live in a modern, developed country, treatment is usually readily available.
That said, some treatments are much harder on the body than others. If you have a sensitive or compromised immune system or have other medical conditions, treatment may be more difficult. It’s best to talk with your physician about this.
Talk frankly with your physician, at least once a year
It’s a good idea to have a frank conversation about your sexual practices, risks and safer sex choices at least once a year with your personal physician.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with your physician about this, now is a great time to begin making the necessary changes so that you can do that.
For some that means addressing their fears and taking on a new perspective about the importance of your health. It may mean having the nerve to bring up the subject.
For some, it might mean finding a different more supportive doctor. Sometimes the doctor might be great, but a fresh start with a new doctor could help in communicating more openly with the doctor.
Consider your background and personality
It’s important to consider your personality in making safer sex choices. Are you the sort of person who would love to go skydiving, whitewater rafting or engage in other risky sports or adventures? Or are you a more cautious type?
Do you experience anxiety or feel unsafe in many parts of your life or are you a laid back person? Examined objectively do your fears in all areas of your life tend to reasonable ones or unrealistic? Do you judge yourself when you’ve made a mistake or do you just say “oops!” and keep happily moving forward?
It may help to get some feedback from other wise people to support you in self-assessment here.
As you gain more knowledge about yourself, especially how you respond to risks and unexpected problems. you will be armed with useful information to guide you in choosing the safer sex practices that are most resonant for you.
If you’re rarely a risk taker you may decide it’s wise to be more cautious sexually. This may be more comfortable for you and better suited to your personality.
If you tend to be a risk taker in other parts of your life this does not automatically mean you should engage in riskier sexual behavior. If you see yourself as having a risk-taking personality, start by affirming the healthy aspects of that. Then use that as a lens to step aside from a purely shame-based self-judgment to your desires to engage in riskier sexual behavior. This self-knowledge can help you make wiser choices. It can also make it easier to have helpful conversations with your sexual partners about safer sex.
Make thoughtful, informed choices about safer sex practices and boundaries
From there make some thoughtful, conscious choices about your personal safer sex practices or review the choices you made in the past. Whether you are a cautious person or an adventurous risk taker, the foundation is to make clear, informed choices and to review them, at least yearly.
Know the risks you choose to take, and have conversations with your partners about them. (It’s OK to realize you’re not doing this and want to. If that’s where you’re at, it’s a good place to start moving forward from.)
Then get tested as needed which might be every 3 to 6 months if you or your primary partner are sexually active. Increasingly there are many options available from your physician’s office, testing centers and mail order tests.
Talk with your sexual partners about safer sex
Talking about safer sex is important but it can be hard for many people. The good news is it gets a lot easier once you start doing it.
A good place to start is to share your feelings about talking about safer sex. You might say something like, “I know it’s best that we talk about safer sex, and when I think about talking with you about it I feel anxious or worry about being rejected.” Change that to reflect what you’re feeling at that moment.
Then if you can, ask them how they feel about talking about safer sex.
Even if the conversation goes no further, you’ve made progress. Don’t judge yourself for not having a perfect conversation about it.
Over time as you get more comfortable talking about safer sex, you’ll be able to take the conversation further.
From there, you can talk about boundaries and choices you’ve previously made about safer sex, and share with each other what you know about testing and status.
Play within the more cautious partner’s boundaries
Consent is the foundation of healthy, sex positive interaction. That includes safer sex practices.
There’s a magic in sexual intimacy that can only occur when both (or all) parties are wholeheartedly chosing to fully engage in the interaction. You can’t have that experience if your partner feels pressure to engage in things outside their personal boundaries, or if they feel pressured to change their boundaries. It’s hard (of not impossible) for real, emotionally connected intimacy to happen when someone feels pressured.
If you’re the more adventurous partner, you may feel you’re missing out on something by keeping your sexual activity within your partner’s narrower boundaries. Whatever you may miss out on will be more than made up for by your partner being relaxed, unpressured and a wholehearted yes to what you’re doing together.
If you still feel you’re missing out on something, then find someone else to enjoy those more adventurous activities with. If your relationship doesn’t currently allow it, ask permission.
This may feel scary at first, but it’s best for the long term health of the relationship. If you feel constrained, unfulfilled and don’t talk about it, resentment will grow and over time can seriously damage the connection you do have with your partner. The longer you wait the harder it is to address.
Expand your definition of sex through erotic creativity
If your boundaries and safer sex choices are different from your partner’s, and you want to have sex with them, take this as a wonderful opportunity to get creative.
A common area of conflict is when one partner does not want to engage in vaginal or anal intercourse, but the other partner feels that it’s not “real sex” without it.
If you want the relationship to survive the apparent mismatch, and for sexual intimacy to continue, then be willing to expand your definition of sex beyond intercourse. Be creative in exploring alternative erotic activities you can share.
For example, there are many fun and highly pleasurable alternatives to intercourse including the use of toys, fingers, erotic massage, self-pleasuring and masturbation witnessing, among others.
Rather than sticking to habitual ideas of what “good sex” is or looks like, explore to find those activities you can both be a joyful, wholehearted yes to engaging in together.
Take responsibility for your choices
No matter how cautious or risky your sexual choices are, they’re your choices. You can make them intentionally or not. Even if you try to ignore the subject you’re still choosing, if only by omission.
Responsibility is a scary word – for some of us more so than for others. Perhaps this is because during formative childhood years many of us were blamed for things we had no control over.
It’s helpful to think of it as the ability to respond. Response abilty.
From there, no matter what you do or don’t do sexually there will be outcomes or consequences. Many will be wonderful but not all will be what you had hoped for. You might miss out on some sexual experience that you enjoy or long for. Even if you choose an abundance of caution you may find your health has been impacted in some way you don’t like.
The best any of us can do is to gather information about ourselves (our personality and sexual desires) and the medical facts and risks. Make the best choices we can, and accept that risk means our future is not completely predictable.
Knowing that we cannot predict the future can enable us to be responsible and compassionate towards others, regardless of their STI status
Then develop the confidence and trust in yourself that you will be able to respond in creative, wise and healthy ways to what may come your way in the future.
By making thoughtful, informed choices you will empower yourself to have more control over the outcome and more “response able” – that is more able to deal with what may be unexpected or unpredictable.
Thinking and talking about safer sex gets easier with practice
For many of us safer sex and sexually transmitted infections are hard topics to think about and talk about. Avoiding the subject does not make things better.
Instead, take some time to learn about the risks of STI and to make wise choices. Start talking with your doctor and your sexual partners. The more you do it, the easier it gets.