#PolyamoryProblems: How to Approach Safer Sex with Multiple Partners

Q:

Daer Daemonum X,
After almost six months of painful penetration, I found out that it was actually caused by an STI (trichomoniasis). I told my partner C, who is newer to polyamory, and they kind of freaked out. I honestly thought they would be happy for me (just a week of meds and not something much more serious), but instead they guessed which of my other partners gave it to me and said lots of inappropriate things that seemed biphobic. I’ve done a lot of work to get over the sexual shame I learned in my Catholic, rural Texas upbringing. It’s obvious that C still has a lot of stigma around STIs. I know lots of polyam people use protection with all partners all the time, but that’s not the kind of sex I like to have so there are going to be some risks. My questions are mainly how do I deal with disclosure in the future? How do I ask my partners to get educated on STIs so I don’t feel so judged? I don’t want to get an STI again, but I also don’t want to be judged for it.

Sincerely,
Shameless


A:

Hi Shameless,

I’m glad you figured out your painful sex issue and I’m super happy that it was such a quick solve! It’s wild to think that people who are polyamorous and so “sexually liberated” can still cling to archaic ideas around STIs, especially in the past year. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that no one is ever completely safe given all precautions. Most STIs are mere inconveniences that clear up with a cycle of antibiotics, but people still tend to overreact. It’s a relic of our puritan society that people assign moral value to STIs just like they to do sex itself. Leave it to ex-Catholics to unlearn that shame! I can’t tell you how many times someone has confessed an STI diagnosis or scare, accompanied by three very serious words: “Don’t tell anyone!” First of all, I’m not in the business of sharing people’s STI status. Second of all, the plea for secrecy screams shame when there isn’t anything to be ashamed of. There are risks to everything and contracting any number of STIs is the risk for knowing another person biblically.

I’m a polyamory coach by day, and a kink educator by night. The venn diagram of what makes polyamory relationships successful and what makes kink relationships successful looks a lot more like a circle. Safety is paramount in kink education and there are what we call “safety frameworks” to follow and discuss with partners before you jump into a scene to make sure everyone knows not only what the risks are, but that they also understand that everyone involved has agency and is consenting to the scene with full knowledge of the risks. Safety frameworks make sure everyone is thinking about risk and responsibility in the same way.

One of these frameworks is called PRICK, or Personal Responsibility Informed Consensual Kink. It’s a mouthful, but what it means is that before getting down to business, those involved discuss all relevant information about risk, make informed decisions about consent, and then understand that by consenting they have a responsibility to that yes. Some examples are I’ve never done this before, or There is a risk of nerve damage, or Being called a slut is a trigger for me. I call this laying your cards out on the table. This framework relies on everyone being honest and willing to share all necessary information because they understand that anything less is manipulation. The personal responsibility piece is very important because it holds everyone accountable to setting their own boundaries. Say your rope top tells you that you could get nerve damage, which is a very common injury in rope bondage. You agree to do it anyway and you eventually do get a nerve injury. The PRICK framework means that your injury was the result of a risk you understood and consented to take. Just like people who go skydiving!

Polyamorous relationships and having sex with multiple partners is a lot like this. If someone already has ten partners when you meet them, they should disclose that right away and then you get to decide if you potentially want to be someone’s eleventh partner. With sex, it’s about having an honest discussion about STI status and risk, other partners, the last time you got tested, etc. If you have unbarriered sex with the same three people but don’t get tested very often, you need to disclose that to all potential sexual partners so that they can make an informed decision in line with their risk profile. If your whole polycule is practicing personal responsibility risk aware consent, one person cannot be blamed for an STI because everyone consented to the risks.

So, Shameless, in the spirit of answering your questions (finally!), you need to make sure you’re having these conversations and check-ins with all the people you’re getting naked with. Talking about STIs in a realistic way helps make them less scary and reduces the stigma, which is great for everyone! You said C is new to polyamory, but is C also new to sex? Think about the PRICK framework — did C already know that you don’t use barriers with your other partners? That’s a really important thing to disclose so that they can make their own assessment of risk. If they did know and consented, then contracting an STI should theoretically have been inside of their risk profile. Shaming or judging you is definitely not taking responsibility for their own agency and consent.

Now, one of your other questions is getting at whose responsibility it is to educate about STIs. Let me be loud and clear that it is every sexually active person’s own responsibility to understand the risks. I repeat, it is not your job to educate your partners about STIs. However, not everyone is going to do the responsible homework and read up on STIs. Not everyone has the capacity to fully understand statistical or medical information. It is not condescending to suggest that your partners do some research. You can offer to talk about it or answer any questions that would help them to understand better.

There is another factor at play here that I think is really important because it’s extremely emotional. Not only do people need the facts, they also need to perform an assessment of risk. The tricky thing about risk is that it’s subjective and influenced by so many emotional factors outside our control. Much like your partner’s shaming reaction to your disclosure, risk assessment is rarely rational. According to risk expert David Ropeik (this study), several factors are already in play that make the evaluation of the risk of STIs more emotional and less realistic. There’s the oppressive social stigma, STIs are most often invisible, and then there’s the fear of personal impact. With this in mind, even someone with all the facts may still choose to be extra cautious or create boundaries for themself that are not grounded or centered in the realistic capacity for harm. There’s unfortunately not much you can do about this!

You mentioned that your partner said some not-so-ideal things about your other partner who may have given you the STI, and that these comments seemed biphobic. There is really no excuse for this, except for ignorance, which is absolutely not an excuse. A lot of people who don’t have sex with cis men love to think this makes them safe from STIs. Not only is this not true, it’s dangerous because it means that they may be engaging in higher risk sexual behavior by thinking they are somehow safe. Whatever the source of their shitty response, I recommend asking your partner to unpack their biphobia and make it very clear that it’s fucked up and you won’t stand for that!! Hopefully your work unlearning shame has benefitted you here in that you already know that their reaction is about them and not about you.

My next bit of advice is to make sure everyone is getting tested regularly for STIs, especially if your polycule is not closed off to new partners. Like you said, no one wants to get an STI, so being proactive about testing is a great way to prevent contracting and spreading infections. Unfortunately, it does still require a bit of education to advocate for yourself with your doctor. For instance, trichomoniasis is usually not included in most basic STI panel tests, so even if you were getting tested regularly it very likely would have flown under the radar. Herpes and HPV are other STIs that doctors will not even test for unless you show symptoms. It’s ok to quiz your doctor and make sure that your test panel includes everything you’re at risk for.

It’s a wild and confusing sexy world out there! Having sex with one person is hard enough to navigate, having sex with several will usually necessitate an increase in the amount of communication and safety precautions needed to keep everyone as safe as possible. There is no way to over-communicate about sexual health. The only real way to be 100% safe is with chastity play and the more you understand that, the easier it is to accept that STIs will happen — you can tell your partner I said so!

Daemonum X is a femme dyke, Polyamory Coach, and BDSM Educator. She is the founder and Editrix of FIST, a zine for leatherdykes.

DaemonumX has written 9 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. I have HSV-2. I tested positive the first time I got a comprehensive STI test over a decade ago, a test I wouldn’t have gotten if I wasn’t moving in a community full of non monogamous people where testing was normal. I think I contracted it from my first-ever sex partner.

    People who aren’t part of a BDSM or polyamory community almost never get tested for herpes if they’re asymptomatic. The upshot of actually having been tested and knowing I have it is that typically people with existing partners who have established safer sex agreements with them won’t have certain kinds of sex with me at all (condoms do not protect against vagina-to-penis transmission), and won’t do some other things unprotected. People without partners are a lot more willing to do things that carry some small amount of risk — medication reduces the risk of transmission, as does time since infection — because they’re weighing their own pleasure against that risk. A partner of that person doesn’t directly get anything from their partner having sex with a particular other person, the only thing for them is the risk, so they’re a lot more likely to have strict “rules”… at least until they themselves want to have sex with someone who’s “dangerous.”

    If you are concerned about getting herpes, the first thing you should do is educate yourself on HSV-1 (oral) and HSV-2 (genital) herpes, and decide what risks you’re willing to accept and what risks you’re not. In some places the majority of adults have HSV-1, and if you don’t have it, you’re at risk of contracting it genitally if you receive unprotected oral sex from someone who does. If you find out you’re negative, are you going to ask all future partners to get tested and use barriers with them if they are positive? If you find out you’re negative, are you comfortable possibly contracting oral herpes (cold sores) as an adult from kissing your partners? When it comes to HSV-2, the risk of contracting it orally is much lower. If you find out you have it, what will you do? If you find out a partner has it and you don’t, someone you really want to start or continue your sex life with, what will you do?

    The bottom line is that you are allowed to have any boundaries you want, but it’s good to define them from a place of being informed. Personally I think it’s both cruel and a bad idea for public health to have rules/boundaries around partners’ STI status without requiring testing or if you and everyone in your existing network have not been tested for these STIs yourselves. What that says is: if you never get tested I’ll have sex with you, but if you get tested you might find out you have HSV and then I won’t. It discourages testing and perpetuates unfair stigma, especially people who may actually have an incurable STI themselves but don’t know it stigmatizing others just because they do know it.

  2. Thanks for this question and answer. I have some personal experience in this area…

    A lot of people (majority, I think) carry HSV-1, or oral herpes, even if they don’t show symptoms or only had one outbreak as a kid. As a microbiology nerd and a poly person, I still think it’s important to educate, get tested, and disclose, as HSV-1 viral shedding can cause genital outbreaks if spread during oral sex, even if a person does not have any active sores. You can insist your doctor test for it, but there is a false positive and false negative rate.

    I know I have HSV-1 as I have gotten cold sores since I was a kid. The way I handle this is by taking valacyclovir orally every day as maintenance so I don’t get outbreaks and am less likely to spread it. I always tell partners, even if they don’t know about it or don’t think it’s a big deal. I would want partners to tell me, too, before unprotected oral, so me starting the conversation opens the dialogue. It also just takes a lot of anxiety off of me to know that I’m medicated and less likely to have to worry about an outbreak or spreading it.

    If you’re seeing new people, I’ve been told that it’s wise to get fully STI tested every 6 months, but that depends on you, of course! Poly folks that I’ve met seem to accept at least some level of risk, and have safer sex when agreed upon. No need for stigma, herpes is little more than a skin rash.

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