Partner to Partner
Whether you've been dating for three weeks or twenty years, it's never too early or too late to talk about sexuality and sexual health. Whether you've kissed for hours in the back of a movie theatre or had acrobatic all-nighters, there are always new issues that arise in a relationship concerning sex. This section of this resource is focused on helping people talk to their partners about sexual health and sexuality.
Before The Action
Before sex with a new partner is the time many people find it most difficult to talk about sexual health. You might be excited and ready to get down to business or you might be nervous and curious how the night will play out. Regardless of the situation, before having sex with a new partner is probably the most important time to talk about sexual health (though these conversations can and should occur within long-term relationships as well).
In order to stay healthy and safe, it's important to talk about safer sex, pregnancy and STIs with your partner before sexual contact, no matter what your relationship is to them.
Important things to discuss (if they apply to you and your relationship) are:
- How are you going to protect against unwanted pregnancy?
- What are your and your partners STI statuses and when was the last time either of you were tested for STIs and HIV?
- How do you plan to protect against STIs (remember condoms are the only contraceptive method effective in preventing STIs)?
To many, this might seem more like a visit to the doctor's office than foreplay, but it doesn't have to be. Frankly, if your partner is uncooperative in talking about sexual health, they probably aren't the best person to be having sex with! If your partner can't respect your desire to talk about sexual health, chances are they can't respect you in other ways and aren't worth your time. No matter how casual or serious your relationship is your health and well-being are more important. The good news is that most people appreciate someone who is proactive about sexual health and will probably be relieved when you bring up the topic. There are ways to talk about these issues before sex that can make it quick, painless, and possibly even sexy.
Remember that some people are shy about sexual topics and if you suspect your partner is, start by asking some questions to break the ice. Ask their opinion on issues related to sexuality and share your opinion. Ease into a conversation about their preferred safer sex methods and STI testing. This conversation can be a quick run-down of the issues, getting it over with as fast as possible, or a longer drawn out discussion where you learn about the nuances of your partner's opinions. If you prefer it to be quick and to the point, let them know and be the one to spur on the conversation. Telling them your STI status and the last time you were tested will make them more confident to share theirs. Ask them the last time they were tested and what the results were. Tell them what safer sex and birth control methods you use and make sure they agree. This can be as simple as,
"Last time I was tested was six weeks ago which was two months after my last relationship. I came back negative for STIs and HIV. How about you? I also always use condoms in the beginning of a relationship. What type do you prefer?"
It may not be romantic, but it gets the job done! If you prefer to have a longer discussion, go right ahead. Just like any other conversation, let yourself go on tangents and really listen to what your partner has to say. You'll probably learn a great deal about them, which can lead to more sexual chemistry. Also, this conversation can always occur during foreplay, making it sexier and more intriguing. Whenever or however you do it, this conversation should be an essential part of a new sexual relationship.
Telling and Getting the Truth
Needless to say, in discussions about sexuality and sexual health it is extremely important to tell the truth. The truth is what will keep you healthy and safe in your sexual exploits so be honest with yourself and your partner. Having an STI or not having been tested in the past doesn't mean you are a bad person or that no one should have sex with you. It just means you need to spend a little more time focusing on your and your partner's sexual health. The bottom line is: Always tell the truth to your partners.
Now that you have thought about the experience of answering sexual health questions truthfully before having sex think about your partner. Creating an environment where your partner feels safe to tell the truth about his or her sexual health is extremely important. Be outright in reassuring your partner that whatever they have to tell you, you will not pass judgment on them. Sharing your own experiences is a good way to break the ice. Whatever they tell you, try not to have a knee-jerk reaction. On the other hand, if you learn they get tested every six months and don't have any STIs, don't jump into bed with them before they finish their thought. Remember they might have questions for you as well.
What if they say something you don't want to hear?
When a partner confides in you that they have an STI or have recently had unsafe sex, what do you do? It's important to establish personal boundaries when it comes to sex. Take time to think about where your boundaries are before you are in a sexual situation. Ask yourself these questions:
- What would you do if a potential partner reveals they have an STI or HIV?
- Will you refuse sexual contact, only engage in behavior that carries no risk of transmission or have sexual contact only while using a condom or barrier method?
Don't feel bad for any of the personal boundaries you decide on since when it comes to your sexual health, you can never be too cautious. Decide on these personal boundaries and stick to then. Of course boundaries can change, so check in with yourself periodically to gauge your feelings. Establishing these boundaries can help you respond if any of these situations do arise. Explain these boundaries to your partner so they understand that your decisions have nothing to do with them as a person and that it's simply a matter of health.
Your Partner's Partners
Many people feel uncomfortable with the fact that their partners have probably had other sexual partners before them. This often makes asking questions about sexual health more awkward, as people don't want to hear anything about their partner's previous sexual exploits. Previous sexual partners is a reality we all have to deal with. Think of how you feel about your previous partners and chances are they probably don't factor at all into your feelings about your current relationship. Well, your partner probably feels the same way! Remember that there is a reason your partner is with you and not them. Of course you don't have to hear the nitty-gritty details of their ex-boyfriend's sexual fantasies or what color their first girlfriend's bedroom walls were if you don't want to, but learning about your partners previous sexual experiences can help you keep yourself sexually healthy.
Objections to Condom Use
Objecting to using condoms because they are too loose, too tight, don't feel good, taste bad, or any other commonly used excuses is like refusing to ever wear pants because you once tried on a pair that didn't fit. Condoms come in a multitude of sizes, shapes, colors, flavors and materials. There are condoms designed for men with larger penises, flavored condoms, condoms with lubricant, condoms made of polyurethane for those with latex allergies, condoms with different shapes for different sensations and even glow-in-the dark condoms. If you want to use a condom, but encounter objections, oftentimes even just explaining how important condom use is to you can change your partner's mind. Let your partner know why you insist on condom use and that you use condoms because you care about your and their health. Debunk any myths about condoms they might believe. The Center for Disease Control discredits the false rumor that condoms don't protect against STIs, saying, "Laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens." (1) Looking through websites or catalogues for a type of condom that is right for you and your partner can be a fun and even sexy activity to help you overcome their objections to condom use. Remember that condoms, when used correctly, aren't an impediment to sexual pleasure. If they are nervous about condom use, try to integrate putting on the condom into foreplay.
It is also completely valid to simply refuse sexual contact with a partner who refuses to use condoms. Your health and self-respect are more important than any sexual partner, so always insist on condom use no matter what the objections.
Regardless of your relationship status, it's important to address "What if...?" What if you or your partner becomes pregnant? What if you realize you have an STI? Especially in long-term relationships, these should be addressed to make sure your partner and you see eye-to-eye on these decisions. Of course you don't have to agree on every sexual subject, but when a decision could affect both of you, it's important to be prepared and know how you may react beforehand. Discuss these scenarios with your partner. Though no one knows exactly how they will react, imagining these issues together is a good way to estimate. If you find yourself disagreeing on a response, don't jump right to fighting. Each of you should state your opinion in turn, then respond and try to find a compromise.
Don't Feel Pressured
Remember that just because you have these talks about sex, it doesn't mean you have to actually have sex! These discussions can occur months, days, or hours before sex happens, or you may simply never end up with this partner. Whether these conversations reveal something about your partner that makes you reconsider your partnership or not, talking about sex is not the same as saying yes to having sex. At any point in a relationship, conversation or even sexual act, if you decide you are not into it, for any reason, you always have the right to say "No" and stop whatever it is that is making you feel uncomfortable.
What if you make a safer sex decision you later regret? What if your sexual behavior hasn't been as safe as you want? Just because you did something once, doesn't mean you have to do it again. Just because you and you partner once, or continuously, have sex without a condom, doesn't mean you are doomed to repeat this unsafe behavior. When you try to make a change like this, make sure to be open with yourself and your partner about what you found wrong or uncomfortable about the previous behavior. This allows your partner to understand the change better and makes sure they don't expect it to continue. For example, tell them that sex without a condom is unsafe, that you don't want them to become pregnant or get an STI, so you are going to use one from now on. Your partner may have been thinking the same thing, or they may be confused by your change-of-mind. Either way, be sure to discuss it (but stand your ground in defense of always practicing safer sex!) until you are both comfortable.
Afterwards-Under the Influence
We've all seen the clichéd movie scenes where after a long night of drinking, the main character wakes up in a strange bed next to a stranger. Usually this is viewed as a comic moment, but in reality drinking and sexual behavior can be a dangerous mix. Recent research has found that women who binge drink experience greater numbers of unwanted pregnancies, presumably from the decreased ability to make rational decisions like using a condom that come with very extreme alcohol consumption (2). Drinking can make sex less pleasurable since alcohol can decrease sexual responsiveness and make it harder to become and stay aroused for both men and women. It can also compel individuals to engage in dangerous, unsafe sexual behavior that they may have avoided if they were sober. Avoiding these pitfalls can be done by drinking with sober friends who you trust to keep an eye on you (not letting you leave with strangers, not letting you get too drunk, etc.), not getting overly drunk and avoiding sexual contact when you have been drinking. If you do engage in sexual activity while under serious influence of alcohol or drugs, dealing with the aftermath can be scary. The first step is to take care of your health. If you have trouble remembering details of your experience (and maybe even if you don't), get tested for STIs and pregnancy as soon as possible. If you can, press your partner to do the same and talk to them about what happened. Make sure you learn from your mistakes. Acknowledge what you did wrong and make a plan to prevent it from happening again. If you think you may have been sexually abused in any way, seek help from a rape crisis center, counselor or doctor immediately.
Ask For What You Want
If you want something in your sexual life, ask for it! Whether it's is a new sexual position or something regarding your sexual health, speak up! You can simply come out and ask for it or you can work the request into foreplay, making it sexily surprising. Ask your partner if they have any sexual requests as well and this will give the two of you an opportunity to share ideas. You and your partner's sexual health and sex life will benefit from being upfront and open about your desires.
1. Center for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.htm
2. Standerwick, K. Binge drinking, sexual behavior and sexually transmitted infection in the UK . International Journal of STD & AIDS Vol. 18. 2007.