“But aren’t you worried about diseases?”
It’s a very frequent question asked of poly people – and a very natural one. I know it’s the first one I asked when polyamory was presented to me as a relationship option.
Your standard-issue Poly Honor Student answer goes a little something like this: “Of course we are, but we all practice safe sex and are regularly tested.”
But I’ll let you in on something that took me years to learn: It’s all quite a bit more complicated than that.
Consider this: Everyone’s fairly webbed up and on a 6-month testing schedule. A year and a half goes by, everyone testing negative. Then someone tests positive. Well, now what?
What happens now?
Do the rules change? Is protection required for acts that they weren’t required for before? With this partner? With this partner’s partners?
Who gets informed of the positive result? The partners? The partners’ partners? The partners’ partners’ partners? The entire local scene?
Is this the time when you whip that veto out of your back pocket and decide that this person can’t be your metamour anymore?
Do you assume this person has been unfaithful, had contact they didn’t report? If you’re the person with the positive result, do you assume that someone you trusted lied to you? Do you open up your mental calendar and start going through your web looking for the person who infected you?
I have seen all of these things happen among the poly folk I’ve known.
The problem is that we haven’t defined an acceptable positive. While ideally everyone strives to have as few positives as possible, things happen, and our unwillingness to even consider these possibilities maturely and rationally before or after the fact does nothing but demotivate people from getting tested and reporting positive results.
And a lot of healthy people have been exposed to something or other. To use the most extreme example, nearly 90% of Americans have HSV-1 during their life. I had a cold sore once at 14, so I presume myself positive for it, although I’ve never been tested (most doctors won’t test for this one unless pressed, and even then you have to say the magic words). Think about it – if we’re going to sexually exile or shame people for any positive result, then we are setting the whole system up for failure. My personal practice is to be as above board as I can be about this, especially before I give them oral sex. I’d never kiss or go down on someone with an active sore (and as I mentioned, I’ve had just the one, over 20 years ago). Children can get HSV-1 from their parents and other adults kissing them as a baby, and anyone who has kissed more than a couple people should really presume themselves positive for it. I’m also told that the cold sore doesn’t necessarily mean I even had HSV-1. But me? Rather than assuming negativity, I presume positivity.
I suppose it helped that when my former web was formally established (as formal as we all got, which admittedly wasn’t all that formal), my girlfriend Tina was a primary care physician. And even though Tina had remarkable difficulty talking about some things, sexual health risk assessment wasn’t one of them.
“I’m not really scared of anything that can be cured with antibiotics, for obvious ones,” she said. “And herpes and HPV don’t scare me. They’re not fun, but they won’t ruin my life.” Of the two, she clarified, HPV was the more serious since it had a risk of cancer with more virulent strains (although there are soooo many forms of the virus that it’s a bit silly, and we had both been vaccinated for the common nastier strains), but with routine Pap smears, cervical cancer is very treatable and even curable.
I agreed. “If you’re gonna have a cancer, it’s one of the good ones.”
“Precisely,” she said.
The biggest hitch for us was the one we were most scared of, HIV, also had a fairly long incubation period (up to 6 months). This meant that without closing the system entirely and imposing polyfidelity (fine for some but not realistic given our situation and personalities involved) that there was a chance that an infection could enter and wreak havoc before detection. It was a long and ongoing process negotiating the agreements with all of the players, the use of barriers for which acts and with whom. We centered our calculus for the riskiness of an act around HIV, and Tina and I had a lot of really goddamn uncomfortable and icky discussions. Finally, we emerged from it with a really good, well-articulated sexual risk agreement, one which was easily communicated to new partners.
Within the old web, certain acts were classified as hard play (anal, oral, vaginal sex – some call this “penetrative sex” but we didn’t use the term since we didn’t want vibrator play and hand jobs to fall under this jurisdiction) or soft play (everything else, making out, groping, handjobs, titty-fucking, tons of kinky shenanigans). We had carte blanche on soft play. It could be done spontaneously and wasn’t even necessarily anyone’s business (although Tina and I were both ridiculous voyeurs and told each other practically everything). Hard play with new partners involved discussions with existing partners.
At the bare minimum, an existing partner had to be notified of hard play with new partners (as well as the circumstances surrounding protection or lack thereof) prior to engaging in hard play again with an existing partner (i.e., the existing partner must consent to any potential exposure).
Some poly folks we knew required gloves for hand jobs because of a non-zero HPV risk, but Tina and I made the conscious decision that if we had to give gloved hand jobs, we didn’t want to be fucking poly. The point was to have fun. Otherwise, you’re buying a beautiful car and never driving it out of the garage — although I suppose this worked for Cameron Frye’s dad. Well, until it didn’t (and that’s half the point).
I had other personal rules that I followed for my own sexual safety, and I still follow these. I am overwhelmingly a giver and not a receiver of oral sex, but I treat fellatio very differently than cunnilingus. I love giving blow jobs, but I don’t give them casually. I have to be fluid bonded with you (papers, a higher level agreement, requiring of trusts and different check-ins) since I don’t enjoy giving protected ones and understand semen’s relative virulence. Plus, I’m not anywhere near as interested in guys than girls typically, so something emotionally serious has to be underfoot for me to be even considering it. Cunnilingus, on the other hand, is a different story. I’ll just eat girls out. I don’t care. I could probably eat a girl that I hate, no problem (and actually being ordered has some potential in kinky taboo land). I don’t mind using dental dams, and it’s fairly low risk even without them (although there’s a non-zero oral cancer concern with HPV again, but the fact that I’m vaccinated makes it rather unlikely).
The stark delineation between hard and soft play helped a ton. It gave me and others I was with space to test sexual chemistry without doing anything terribly risky and decide if we wanted to do all the necessary stuff that going in a more serious physical direction would entail.
As I became involved with Tina’s play partner Rob and his wife Michelle, the old rules for safety were grandfathered in. Later, even prior to our dating each other, Skyspook adopted them as his own, saying they were as good a set of practices as he’d encountered.
As I spoke with people around me, I discovered more and more that people lacked standard operating procedures, even the poly vets I looked up to – they made assumptions of their partners’ behaviors. Sometimes this went just fine, and things synced together really well. Other times, not so much.
One famous local incident I remember involved a friend who had undergone a fairly contentious breakup with a boyfriend. She was very upset with him because he hadn’t used gloves and had fingered another one of his partners in their separate play session. She said he was a jerk who had put her health at risk and violated her consent for that level of risk. The trouble was that they hadn’t talked about this specific act prior to this happening. Furthermore, I had personally witnessed her giving unprotected fellatio to a new partner (wild party) without consulting anyone, so I could see how her boyfriend could have made the assumption that this was okay.
This spiraled into an ongoing saga of melodramatic proportions where this Vigilante Girl decided the guy in question was an unsafe person and tried to get him banned from any social event she even had the slightest interest of attending. Surprisingly, she got a couple of major social capital holders in our local poly/kink community to drink her Kool-Aid, and he did indeed get disinvited/banned from some parties. This caused some serious hurt for her ex-boyfriend’s other partners, who were forced into the choice between attending things without him or not going to the events themselves (both choices were sucky).
That would have been bad enough. But then, months after they had broken up, one of this ex-boyfriend’s play partners tested positive for some sort of herpes, and somehow Vigilante Girl got wind of it through her powerful kink connections and decided to notify each and every person who could have been possibly exposed to it, in spite of the fact that a) it was someone else’s health information b) it was really none of her damn business c) she heard about it thirdhand and didn’t have all the facts straight (for example, she kept going back and forth over whether it was HSV-1 or HSV-2 when she told people, to this day I don’t really know which one) and d) her ex hadn’t contracted it himself and his contact with this girl was fairly light and mostly nonsexual.
To give an understanding of how far this information was spread, I’ll tell you that I was formally notified because one of my partners had been with this guy’s ex-wife a few months before we got together, although there hadn’t been any contact with the ex-wife and my partner since ex-boyfriend had any contact with this poor girl who everyone now knew probably/maybe had some kind of herpes. However, the ex-wife and this guy hadn’t been sexually active in a couple of years. So there wasn’t any overlap with the ex-wife with my partner and not any overlap between the ex-wife and the ex-boyfriend.
Confusing, yeah? Well, it was confusing even without omitting everyone’s names. And that’s why you shouldn’t go around vigilante notifying everyone you know about sexual histories and health information.
The community collectively rolled its eyes, kept (mostly) calm, and carried on. But my buddies and I still reflect sometimes on how stupid the whole thing was. The poor dude eventually recovered from his exiled status. Vigilante Girl has developed a reputation of being a local Chicken Little and nuisance. I don’t know what happened to that poor girl who everybody was told was positive. Someone later told me they didn’t think the girl even had herpes at all.
And that’s the thing. That’s a big reason that it’s inadvisable to freak out about positive results. I mean, first off, freaking out doesn’t help people problem-solve and make good decisions about risk assessment and best practices. But even beyond that, let’s consider Vigilante Girl’s witch-hunt. She was able to weaponize positive STI results in order to harass, punish, and exclude her ex.
Rather than dealing with feelings of insecurity and pushing through to communicate in a vulnerable and nuanced way, it was easier to demonize him for breaking rules he hadn’t agreed to.
Rather than dealing with the discomfort of seeing him in social situations, it was easier to trash his reputation and the reputation of a girl he was newly seeing by spreading around this poor girl’s private health information (very possibly inaccurately) and applying pressure to powerful social contacts to do her a favor and leave him off the guest lists.
Now this is Vigilante Girl’s M.O. I am a survivor of sexual assault myself (20 years past) and overwhelmingly give victims the benefit of the doubt. I believe you. However, Vigilante Girl has done the same negative reputation campaign with consent violations (probably not a huge shock since she tied this supposed STI breach with the gloveless handy job to violating her consent), repeatedly over the years, accusing non-consent from someone she decides is a vicious predator within our ranks. This typically happens at the exact point she becomes emotionally uncomfortable with someone (for example, because she becomes jealous, they want to break up with her, she believes they’ve wronged her in some other way, etc) to the point where her wolf-crying is a constant irritation and frustration to community leadership, and new members are instead warned that she does this so that they have informed consent before playing with her. I’m actually sort of stunned that she hasn’t been banned yet. And I shudder to think what would happen if anybody actually did violate her consent because at this point it would take an awful lot for anyone to believe her.
So it’s not sexual safety/STI risk’s “fault” per se that sometimes people will use it as a cover for uncomfortable feelings. Sexual safety is important as is consent (which is why manipulative people use them, they’re sacrosanct in kink/poly circles). However, I think sexual safety is even more pervasive than non-consent as a red herring or bugaboo.
I’ve seen dozens of instances of people, typically very popular bisexual girls, sexually legislating their partners into a kind of mono/poly. Essentially saying “you have to use gloves for hand jobs” and then acting quite a bit more recklessly than how they require others to behave. This isn’t just Vigilante Girl. It happens fairly often. It’s even more pronounced when the STI-regs-forced mono person is a bisexual guy who wants to be with men involved with other men. I knew a couple guys who were allowed to do just a few sex acts, neither of which they particularly liked. I knew one guy that had to go on 1 date a month for 6 months before he was allowed to kiss a new partner. Meanwhile, these girls are practically one-woman glory holes. No shame on them – it’s the hypocrisy that chafes me, not the promiscuity.
I’m all for fun. This means I’m also for safety, since injury and infirmity are major bummers. My approach has always been about maximizing fun, and as part of that, you have to understand what kind of risk you’re talking about (aside from celibacy, the sexual risk will never be zero, and life involves much more lethal risks on a routine daily basis, like traffic accidents) as well as lay the groundwork for what you’ll do if things don’t go exactly according to plan.
The good news is you’re poly (and potentially bad news if you’re mono), recent studies have been showing that you’re about as likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection if you’re monogamous as you are if you’re in an open relationship. That’s probably the one talking point Poly Honor Student and I can agree on.
So calm down, talk extensively about the risks, do your best, be honest about what you’re doing, and keep as cool head as you can.