I’m going to use an excerpt from Sex From Scratch as an example here, but this is really about wider issues in how we talk about safer sex. Sex From Scratch is actually a really good book, and that’s sort of the point. Even really smart, well-meaning folks are screwing this up.
Here’s what the book says:
Only have safe sex
Condoms are annoying, birth control is a hassle, STD tests are expensive. But you know what’s worse than all three combined? Giving an STD to someone you love.
Relentlessly practicing safer sex is a must for open relationships because having sex with numerous people puts you at higher risk for getting an STD. In addition to always using condoms and birth control if you’re fooling around with multiple people, it’s smart to get an STD test every six months or anytime you’re about to start having sex with a new person. As a decent human being, you’re contractually obligated to talk about STDs and pregnancy before you have sex with someone. Before there’s any genital-to-genital action, offer up your own status, talk about what method of birth control you guys are using, and ask if they have any diseases you should know about. It can suck being the person who brings up these issues, especially if you have an STD and know that discussing it could stop your romance in its tracks. But don’t you dare skip that conversation and burn yourself with a lifetime of guilt (or a lifetime of herpes).
Are here are some issues I have:
- Being in an open relationship doesn’t mean you’re having sex with numerous people. It doesn’t mean you’re having sex with anyone. We need to focus on particular behaviors that actually represent higher risks.
- You can have an infection without symptoms and pass that infection on to others without it manifesting as a disease. That’s why STI is a preferable term to STD.
- If you are going to mention that STI tests are expensive, you should mention resources that make them more affordable, like free testing sites.
- If you’re going to use herpes as an example of an STI to avoid, you should probably mention that most people already have it, and that most people who have it don’t know they do.
- And if you’re going to talk about herpes and STI testing at the same time, you should probably mention that standard tests don’t look for herpes.
- You might also want to mention that HIV doesn’t show up on STI tests immediately, and that you can talk about recent sexual behavior along with recent test results.
- Let’s just cut the heteronormative assumption that having sex always involves a risk of pregnancy.
- Let’s generally be clearer on what we’re talking about when we say sex, particularly whether that includes oral, manual, and anal sex.
- If we’re going to stress getting tested and talking about our statuses, we should be specific about how that should affect our actions. (What should we do differently if one of us has an STI?)
- All sex carries some risk. These measures make it safer, not safe. That’s why safer sex is a preferable term to safe sex.
- Given that some risk is acceptable, we should be clearer about when and why we’re setting a level at which risk is unacceptably high.
- We should ensure our advice reflects the actual risk level of behavior. (Unilaterally demanding condom use without mention of dental dams or gloves probably doesn’t.)
- But really we should focus on encouraging people to make their own informed decisions about risk, rather than demanding everyone use the same safer sex methods.
- And we just need to talk a lot more what the actual risks of infection are, and how much preventative measures actually moderate those risks, and how testing actually works, and what all the options for birth control are, and what it’s like to actually have these infections.
- We also should be careful about stigmatizing STIs. Lots of people have them, and people aren’t gross or worthless because they do.