PQ 20.3 — Common STIs, Catastrophizing, & the Personal Fable

it's a word problem from a math test. It reads: Emile and Jonathan ordered a pizza. Emile ate 1/3 of the pizza, and Jonathan ate 1/4 of the pizza. Who ate more? A person has answered Emile. The next question is Explain your Answer. The person has written in the word Greedy.
Image by Erik Fitzpatrick / CC BY

PQ 20.3 — How do I feel about me or a partner having sex with someone who has a common STI such as HSV? What do I consider “safe sex” under such circumstances?

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This is exactly the point at which most safer sex talks fall apart, especially if you’re talking to someone who hasn’t had these kinds of discussions before. This is the point where people get really confused. They don’t think about these liminal situations — the common infections that are incurable.

I have come to expect that the people who are the most certain in their beliefs that sex is ever really safe are the ones that are most likely to contract something.

It’s been amazing to talk to so many people about sexual health matters in the time that I’ve been polyamorous — first just dating and then later as a coach and educator.

In psychology, we talk about schemas. A person’s schema for a certain thing is their mental framework where they organize all the information they have about that general topic. I’ve frequently found that people can easily come of age with very poorly developed or underdeveloped schemas surrounding sexual health and the actual strength of risk factors.

They tend to do one of two things:

  1. Catastrophize. According to recent numbers released by the CDC, about half of American adults aged 14 to 49 years of age have HSV-1. In fact, without symptoms, almost no doctor will test you for it. HSV-2 by the same report is less common but still fairly robust at 12%. If you’re a sexually active adult that’s had a partner or two in your lifetime (let alone more), odds are you will be exposed to one of these organisms. Freaking out about this is not your friend. It’ll just make you act cruel to people who test positive and gut you if and when you test positive yourself. Because it can happen, and if you know enough people well enough to be told that information (i.e., it’s a partner or metamour), it will happen to you or someone you know.
  2. Believe it’ll never happen to them. Many people are prone to what’s known in psychology as the personal fable. It’s a normal part of adolescence, but unfortunately, not everyone grows out of it. Essentially, you believe that you’re special and unique and the main character of the story you’re in, so nothing bad can happen to you. It gives you the illusion of invincibility. You’ll be able to spot people who are positive for things a mile away. And if you’re really in love with someone, you don’t ask them for testing, right?

Oh boy.

Anyway, it’s not fun work to do, but I realized pretty early on that these were both forces at play, watching everyone around me. And it wasn’t easy, but I did some inner work trying to get away from these ways of framing things. They’re not really well articulated into words yet, so the details might have to wait for a future post.

But essentially, here’s the general framework I used to interrogate those beliefs: The ladder of inference.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see thisĀ indexed list.

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