This week’s column is by guest writer, Jenny Ford.
So you’ve researched the risk profile of all your favorite sexual activities and set your preferred standards for safer sex. Do you think you are now protected from the sexually-transmitted pestilence to which your immoral lifestyle exposes you?
This is a true story. Only the names have been changed, to protect the not-so-innocent. The bottom line is – you can never be as safe in an open system as you are in a closed one.
So here we are. Lots of attractive, healthy poly adults practicing various versions of polyamory. Here is A, and his two girlfriends, B and C. They have been together for 8 and 15 years respectively, and long ago did the testing, embraced unprotected sex within the V, and practice condom use with meticulous care in any other sexual relationships. Here is X and Y, married 20 years, who just a few years ago became poly, using condoms with everyone but each other.
C meets X. Things go well. 18 months down the track, A and B begin to wonder if C and X will want to stop using condoms. B realises that her health would then be dependent on the safer sex practices of X and Y, people she has met once or twice at birthday parties. Egad!
But it gets worse.
Y meets J, who is already having unprotected sex with his girlfriend, K, as she does with her girlfriend, L. Things go well with Y and J.
Now, if Y and J want to move to unprotected sex, they need to call a conference of A, B and C, J, K and L, and X and Y, get everyone tested, agree on standards of safer sex behavior and decide how to handle notifications of any possible heightened risks.
Think that’s starting to get a little unwieldy?
Consider this – all that preparation and negotiation is only mitigating risks relating to relatively LOW transmissibility diseases – HIV, Hep C, syphilis, and so on. Granted, they are the ones more likely to kill or do permanent damage, so they are the ones on which we focus our attention. Even working with, say in this case, eight people, it should be possible to ascertain that any given infection is not already in the group, and then make sure the risk of it entering is minimised.
But it’s a completely different problem when you consider something which is more easily transmissible (albeit an irritation, not a life-threatening disease) – something like thrush (candida albicans).1
Thrush can live in digestive tracts, mouths, noses, and so on. It can be transmitted via objects such as clothing and towels, via the hands from genitals to mouth, and even, although less often, during relatively safer sexual practices such as tongue-kissing.
Even if every one of the eight people took the once-only tablet which pounds your liver but kills the candida everywhere, unless they all stopped tongue-kissing outside the group, eventually, someone would get re-infected, and it would be back to Square 1.
Whereas in a monogamous pairing, once the thrush is gone it’s gone, period. Even a polyfi group could keep themselves free of it. It’s that damn free love that comes back to bite us on the ass (or in this case, somewhere close to that vicinity).
Now I am not advocating monogamy, or even polyfidelity, as a solution to this problem. For me, dealing with regular re-infections of something irritating but not life-threatening is preferable to shutting down all my kissing friends and swearing off any external sexual partners. That’s my choice, but I’m making it with my eyes open.
I don’t kid myself that by waving the magic condom-wand over my life I make it as germ-free as a staid monogamous paired life would be.
The reason I am writing this article now is that in the above fable it would be very easy for the couple X and C, or the couple Y and J, to think about the risks and make the decisions about their fluid bonding behaviors /without even realising how many other people will be affected/ by those choices. In addition, when it comes to things which get around condoms, it’s often the case that people never even stop to think in the first place. How many people start using dental dams during oral sex when they have a cold sore, for example?
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me being in the position of Y and having thrush /come back/ post the nuclear holocaust tablet before I actually went through the “how can I prevent this from happening again” thought process – and realised I couldn’t. Not without giving up sex (or even tongue-kissing) with anyone who won’t be thoroughly fidelitous.
And I’m a reasonably intelligent, well-educated, risk-averse, rational thinker. If I had never thought this through, I’m guessing lots of other people haven’t either.
So I am saying – think it through. Not just about HIV and Hepatitis C. Find out about herpes, thrush, genital warts, and everything else. I’m not telling you what to do with the information. I’m just saying, make sure you understand what your current practices will and won’t do to protect you, and be sure you are willing to take the consequences.
In my case, possibly because I don’t know enough about my liver, I figure I’ll just keep taking the liver-blasting tablets as required. Ask me in 20 years whether I think I made the right choice …
1Note from the Goddess of Java: We Americans call this a yeast infection colloquially.
Jenny Ford has an Honours degree in Psychology and works as a business consultant and executive coach …. by day. In her other life, she is a polyamorous, bisexual community-builder and relationships coach. She has husband, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, three children (though the teenager could count as three all on her own), and two cats. She lives in Sydney, Australia with a subset of the above family members and is currently researching how to bend space and time so she can live with ll the people she loves in all the places they want to live without leaving Sydney. Expressions of appreciation for Jenny should take the form of Lindt chocolate balls. Bonus points if they are the black 60% cocoa ones.
What They Don’t Tell You About STDs and Non-Monogamy
© 2007, Jenny Ford
Used by permission, all rights reserved