A few months ago, a friend messaged me to ask for advice. This friend was in a bit of a bind, and wanted an outside opinion. My friend, who has been poly for a long time, has a partner who has started a relationship with someone new. This new someone disclosed that they were HSV2+, which is the virus that causes genital herpes. My friend wasn’t sure how to handle this news, and asked me for advice.
Non-poly people, and folks new to our world, often ask about how polys handle the reality of sexually transmitted infections (STI); specifically, how to protect yourself and your partners, and how to negotiate acceptable risk.
Let’s take the second part first: negotiating acceptable risk. Like everything else in a relationship, you have to talk to your partner/s about STIs, preferably before you ever have a problem with them. You don’t want your first conversation with your partner about sexual health to happen because someone brought home the wrong kind of crabs. Flippancy aside, as difficult as this subject can be to talk about, you don’t want to make an extremely tense topic to talk about even more so by waiting until a crisis hits.
STIs are one of those things that I try to get out on the table with a potential new partner as soon as possible, especially if I want to have a sexual relationship with them. In my case, HPV is in my sexual history. I may or may not be a carrier, and there is no real way to know for sure either way. It behooves me to tell potential sexual partners this, so they can decide what their level of acceptable risk is for themselves. For some people, it won’t matter at all. Maybe they already have it (or had it). Lots of humans fall into that category. Maybe they won’t want to have any kind of sexual contact with me at all. But this person deserves to make an informed decision, right? You’ve got to find each other’s comfort zones, and then honor them.
Here’s the hard part. You have to be OK with rejection. It doesn’t matter if you think their response is unreasonable, or illogical, or fair. It doesn’t matter if you think this is your new soulmate, the first person you’ve crushed on in years, or whatever. That person gets to decide what is acceptable for them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t educate them. There’s lots of misinformation out there about STIs, as I found out about HPV. When I was dealing with that, I quickly discovered that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. Be careful not to step over the line into “pushy”, because you don’t want to be That Guy (or Girl), either. But if they say no, you have to accept it. And as much as it sucks to be rejected for any reason, you are far better off getting that out of the way as quickly as possible, before anyone involved gets really invested.
You have got to be OK with setting your boundaries. Only you can decide for yourself what risks you are willing to take. After all, this is your body and health we’re talking about here. Not to mention your other partners’, if you have some. And that is the advice I gave my friend. It is up to every new couple who begin a sexual relationship to decide what their acceptable level of risk is, to themselves and to their other lovers. You have to be OK with ending a relationship before it goes too far, if the risk is too great. No one can or should try to force anyone else to decide what they want.
The first part of the question—how to protect yourself from STIs—is easier, since I don’t have to answer it. Getting information about STIs and how to protect yourself has never been easier than in the Digital Age. I have to assume if you are reading this then you have reliable access to a computer. There are tons of resources available, from sites like Planned Parenthood or the CDC to blogs such as the excellent STD Project, a blog dedicated to educating the public about STDs and reducing the stigma attached to them. If you really cannot get online much, there are still plenty of resources available. Planned Parenthood is an excellent place to get information from. Even if you don’t have a local clinic, write to them and they’ll help you if they can. Your personal care physician, ON/GYN, local walk-in clinic or hospital can also help.
—Photo credit: Big Al/Flickr