Many assume non-monogamy is all about the sex. So much so, non-mono folks often avoid bringing it up as an aspect of relationships. But guess what? You should talk about sex!
This isn’t going to be a clinic on how to have safer sex because:
1) I am not a sexual health professional
2) Everyone’s risk profiles are different
My main goal here is to help you foster autonomy and agency with some tips and tricks I’ve found useful. Ask yourself these questions to get a solid grasp on what your risk profile is:
- Do you have specific concerns around contracting or transmitting certain STIs?
- Do you have a comprehensive understanding of STIs, their risks to you, and access to testing/treatment?
- What are possible gaps in your knowledge with regard to sexual health?
- Is pregnancy a concern?
- Do you have mental, physical, and/or emotional concerns?
Next up, you need to find a partner(s) who is interested in sexual activity with you. This is on you. Good luck!
After you have your profile/risk matrix figured out and a willing participant, it’s time to talk about sex. Everyone does this differently. HOWEVER, and I cannot stress this enough, EVERYONE needs to have some sort of conversation about sexual health with those they want to have sexy times with. I don’t care if it’s an old fuck buddy you’re revisiting after some time, a one night stand, or the first time in a long running relationship: TALK. And you know what? If you or your partner only want to say “I do what I want and that’s all you need to know?” Cool. At least the other person can consent (or not) to that level of information and plan accordingly.
Many often talk about “best practices” when it comes to safer sex. Having this conversation is a ‘best practice” as it helps cover so many bases. While not all encompassing, here is a list of things people should be sharing with potential partners as well as asking of them:
The frequency with which you tend to add new sexual partners
Find that balance between too specific and exaggeration. Specifically vague, if you will. For instance, I share that I may add up to [X] sexual partners in a year. Most years are less, but I’ve also had a year with [Y]. If I deviate a lot from my norm on a regular basis, that is a change I update my partners on.
How quickly you are likely to become sexual with a new interest
Are you a fan of one night stands? Are you demisexual and tend to take awhile? I share that my norm is getting to know someone for a few weeks first, but I am not opposed to something happening right away.
What you consider to be sex
Do you only consider genital to genital penetration to be sex? Unpack that. Sex comes in many forms (heh heh) so you should consider including things such as oral, anal, manual stimulation of genitals, etc.
How frequently you screen for STIs
The CDC recommends sexually active people get tested at least once a year. Personally, I get tested twice a year plus as necessary should an exposure present itself. A friendly reminder: testing by proxy is NOT effective.
What you test for
Don’t say “everything” because essentially no one is tested for everything. Penises can’t currently be tested for HPV. HSV strains are more prevalent than most realize and most doctors won’t test without symptoms . . . and so on.
What your general attitude towards STIs are
This can really vary. Some people are very accepting of risks since most STIs are easily curable while others may struggle with any exposure. This is good information to know about the person you’re having sex with.
Any past or current positive test results
Catch something 20 years ago that was cured and has no lingering impact? Not necessary to bring up. (But maybe you can bring it up to gauge how accepting someone is of folks having had an STI.) Last test was reactive to something, you treated it, but haven’t had a non-reactive test to confirm? Share that. FYI, terms like “clean” and “dirty” have fallen out of favor due to their problematic nature. Having what’s essentially a crotch cold doesn’t make one dirty. Please consider using positive/negative or reactive/non-reactive.
How you’re managing any current STIs
Have something like HSV-2 or HIV? Share how you are addressing it and what that means. There have been some amazing advancements in treatments. I learned in just the last couple of years that HIV can now become undetectable with proper treatment which means it can’t be transmitted sexually.
What your barrier (condoms, dams, gloves, etc) use looks like
Do you use condoms? Dams? Gloves? Only for penetration or oral as well? For all sexual contact? I’ve met a lot of people who aren’t aware that STIs and pregnancy can occur with just pre-cum. If you’re someone who goes completely barrier free with others, it’s good to share your approach with this, such as if you only do that with one person or are open to it with multiple people and how you make that decision.
Keep in mind while having this conversation, your other partners’ private information, (such as their STI status or who they have sex with), is NOT yours to share without their consent.
It would benefit all involved if you had these conversations prior to someone new catching your attention.
There are a number of reasons I prefer a more comprehensive conversation when it comes to safer sex and the practices of folks I have sex with. More than anything, it helps me preserve my autonomy and doesn’t infringe on the agency of others to give myself an illusion of safety; boundaries vs rules, if you will. It lays out my risk profile, gathers information about theirs, and allows each of us to decide if and how to move forward.
Another thing I find valuable about sharing a complete version of my risk matrixes and decision making processes is that it removes the need for a “heads up” any time a new sexual partner is added because we know how each other operates. Any deviation from it would be shareable, of course. But in the absence of those changes, we have all the information we need. Feeling entitled to more is a super common expectation of non-monogamous people, particularly those new to it. If your partner is non-monogamous and enjoys sex, assume they’re going to be having sex with other people. Do the work beforehand.
Following these steps will help you form a more complete approach to sexual health. It sets well-informed expectations for yourself and potential partners, facilitates productive communication, fosters personal agency and informed consent. It peels away the ownership and entitlement many feel toward the private information of others.
For a more complete understanding of your sexual health, I recommend seeking guidance from a local clinic that specializes in the sexual and reproductive health realm (e.g. Planned Parenthood) or sites like Scarleteen. Yes, that site is geared toward teens. However, most of our readers are from the US and our sexual education here is generally hot garbage. You can and should also speak with your primary care physician, but I highly recommend including the others as I’ve experienced and heard about too many problematic PCPs.
Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was polyamorous in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.