Hey Silken, this whole polyamory thing makes me nervous because I'm paranoid about getting an STD. Doesn't being poly increase your risk of STDs? I'd think poly people practice safe sex, but doesn't that get in the way of intimacy?
1) There is no such thing as "safe sex". Not even masturbation is safe sex, since you can give yourself something if you don't keep your toys clean. So, when we take precautions, it is safer-sex, but its still not 100% safe.
2) Practicing safer-sex is very, very important. But in poly-sexual situations it is critical. This is the 300# gorilla in the room that no one wants to talk about because it may seem paranoid, untrusting, crude, or melodramatic. As a proponent of polyamory, I am also an advocate of safer-sex practices, because the last thing I want to do is transmit something to someone I love.
3) Some people think that practicing safer-sex means using a condom during intercourse. This is naive, almost criminally so. If you are using condoms when you fuck but not when you suck him, or don't use gloves and a barrier when you are giving her oral, then you aren't practicing safer sex, you are playing at it. (Read more about how to have Safer Sex at About.com)
4) Polyamory is Polynomial. In the not too distant past, I had three partners. Three. Now lets do the math. If I have three partners, and each of them has one other partner, and each of their one-others has one-other, how many body-fluids are possibly being inter-exchanged? 10. That is a lot of semen and vaginal secretions, saliva and mucous membranes, and if I hadn't been scrupulous about screening my sex/play partners, then I put myself and everyone I was with, and everyone they were with, at risk.
5) Everyone who is sexually active in non-exclusive relationships should have regular screenings for STIs (sexually transmitted infections). You may trust your partner(s), but do you trust your partner's partners? Is your inner circle sexually responsible enough for fluid-bonding (Don't know what fluid bonding is, read this clear explanation at SmartSexTalk.com)? There are many stories of fluid-bonded couples who have had to go back to using barriers because one of them had poorly-protected sex or took on a secondary partner who couldn't provide proof of recent screenings and the other partner(s) felt it was prudent to practice safer-sex during the 6 month testing interim.
6) The importance of confidentiality and/or anonymity for screening. Consider whether or not to use your insurer / primary physician for screenings. I know we are in the middle of a health care crisis and reform, and Insurers are Big Brother in all this. The have the pot of gold, they want to keep it to themselves, and they use your medical records to discriminate against you. If they know that you are regularly tested for STIs, they may consider that an indicator of "risky behavior" (rather than health maintenance) and drop you or raise your rates. There are companies out there like getSTDtested.com, as well as various local clinics, that offer testing at a variety of rates without compromising your medical history.
Just a few anecdotes:
It is not uncommon for poly-couples to have a contract for themselves and their secondary partners -- contracts that are reviewed and signed prior to intimacy, not after. Such contracts often require that all partners be tested semi-annually, disclose any and all exposures, and to use barriers during sex for at least six months before considering moving to a "fluid-bonded" status. I've been presented with and signed more than a few of these over the years and I've always found them to be an affirmation of my judgment in my partners.
STIs can show up in surprising places:
I have some friends in a monogamous relationship that were "serial-monogamy sluts" before they got married. They didn't realize they had genital herpes until he had a flare-up -- in his eye. He is one of those pussy-eaters who really likes to rub his face in it, soaking himself from his hairline to his chin. They aren't sure who gave it to whom, and though they've tried to notify past partners, for them, its too late. They've got it for life, and he gets to worry about going blind if he doesn't keep it under control.
I have another friend who learned that a wart on her husband's finger have been transmitted to her vaginal and anal openings. The treatment was embarrassing, extremely unpleasant, and so painful she screamed every time she went pee for a week.
The message of this post? Even monogamous couples transmit STI's to each other. Practicing safer-sex isn't just about taking care of you: it is about taking care of the ones you love, and the ones they love, too. Yes, you might think it would interfere with intimacy -- if intimacy was just about sex. In my book, sexual intimacy (as delicious as it can be) is just the icing on the cake.
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