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.
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!