I sat in a pleasant, brightly lit room with lovely, welcoming people and got turned off sex for a month.
How you ask? Well I was in a sex education class. Apparently this is something that we as adults need to get on, like yesterday. Nearly everyone I question on the topic seems to be a lacking a lot of very basic information. The answers I get make me want to bash my head into a wall. These are the people having sex in my community. A community that I am also having sex in. The amount of misinformation that people have is as bad as the missing information. The prospect of how little truly safer sex people are having out there is pretty terrifying to me. For a moment I decided short of a full body condom a la Naked Gun, I might just be embarking on a newly celibate life.
After some time had gone by I knew this was unrealistic. I have a very high sex drive. The kind that my partner compared to an 18 year old boy. So I needed to adopt my own policies regarding sex that made me feel comfortable, and I have, and now I’m going to throw some stuff out there in the interest of equally disturbing… I mean helping, helping all of you, and therefore helping myself to live in a safer community.
A note on the definition of safer sex: this means barriers. Barriers for every kind of sex you engage in, not just penetrative. This means barriers for oral sex, both male and female. What I’ve heard: it’s just too awkward to say that I want to use a condom for oral sex. You know what’s really awkward? Oral gonorrhea. Just roll that around in your brain the next time you’re letting that other thought wander through. Gonorrhea is also one of those infections which we are used to curing that is on its way to being incurable. This needs to be better known, so here is the link to the CDC facts about it.
What I’ve also heard: if you’re going to use a barrier for oral, why bother? If this is your thought process and you don’t know the STI status of your partner, maybe don’t bother- for your own health. Also, let’s acknowledge that there are things that spread despite the use of condoms and barriers, even if the condom or barrier remains fully intact, through any sort of sex. HPV and forms of herpes for example (HSV1 and HSV2) are spread through skin to skin contact. People forget that hands come in contact with genitals and other orifices too, they can transfer fluids and such to other parts of the body, so gloves and being aware of where your hands have been and are also qualify as part of safer sex. They can be used in combination with oral, fingering, or any other kind of sex that involves your hands, but they don’t generally get used.
Right so no such thing as actually safe sex, just safer sex, and here is where I started to panic. It had been so long since *I* thought this all through. And this was before the herpes in your eye story broke out; oh it’s a real thing; think pulling out and getting a “facial” or face sitting with a partner whose status you don’t know is the way to go? Yeah… just… oh my.
So let’s say you’re keeping it to the mouths and genitals and out of your eyes, well done; STIs that can be transmitted during oral sex do include HSV1 (that is the virus which causes cold sores) being transferred from the mouth to the genital region. I have no clue why one of my partners thought this was a total impossibility, it made no logical sense to me that they could only exist on your mouth, but my guess is that he is not alone. Any infection can take up residency anyplace on the body. Other STIs that can be transmitted during oral sex include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HPV, HIV, and HSV2. Using barriers reduces the likelihood of transmission. I’m focusing on this because almost everyone I know who engages in sex without testing uses condoms for vaginal and anal sex, though they forget about gloves and they are likely transferring fluids to other parts of their bodies on their hands. They seem to understand the most basic aspects of the risks associated with penetrative sex, but not oral. Whether it’s just a feel good thing or a lack of understanding of the risks, or both, I’m not sure.
To address some more misinformation, just because an STI is common, does not mean it is inevitable. It also may not be as common as you have heard, so let’s not throw in the towel on caring and testing. Testing for HSV1 and HSV2 is not part of most basic STI screenings. You typically have to request it. I do request it, and I hope you will too. Knowing your status allows you to make choices about your own health and to engage in sex in the most ethical way possible with others by informing them of your status. I heard for the longest time that 80% of people had HSV1. I’m not sure why this is what is being propagated. Maybe because they are trying to destigmatize it, which is a noble cause. I also heard that HSV2 is the cost of business for engaging in swinging or casual sex, um, so much nope. I’m all for destigmatizing, but I’m also all for accurate information.
According to the World Health Organization in 2012, 67% of the population had HSV-1 infection. Statistical prevalence of the infection was lowest in the Americas (40–50%). Genital herpes caused by HSV-2 is also a global issue, with statistical infection in the Americas at about 14.4%. Knowing your partner’s status allows you to choose whether or not to take on the risk of infection if they are positive and decide how you might want address safer sex with full knowledge. Most people’s lives are not adversely effected by herpes infections. There are also medications available which can suppress them, some can help limit the transmission of the virus, but at this time these and other viral sexually transmitted infections are incurable.
This article is not remotely exhaustive. This is meant to be a jumping off point, and not to actually make people afraid of sex, or to cause them to reach for the full body condom. It is also not meant to play into the general stigma surrounding STIs or otherwise shame people who engage in casual sex or have an STI positive status. Everyone is going to have to choose whether and how to practice safer sex and take sexual partners according to their own comfort level. I test before taking on a new partner and ask that my new partner do the same, but I realize that test results first is not to be considered a total guarantee, and for some people is simply impractical to how they live their lives. That is totally fine. Just be risk aware. There is nothing fool proof. Tests can miss things and there are viral dormancy periods when they will not be detected. There are also false positives. No absolutes and winners here, just a bunch of people who hopefully are taking their sexual health seriously and are able to have fulfilling sex lives.
Oh importantly let me throw in here that if you think monogamy is a guarantee that you’ll be able to remain STI negative, you might want to at least give a moments consideration to this paragraph. To revisit an earlier article I wrote, The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2015 concluded that monogamy is a poor substitution for STI testing given that approximately 25% of monogamous partners reported sex outside of their relationship, most of whom indicated that their partner did not know about the infidelity. You couldn’t sell condoms with a rate of efficacy of 75%. By and large people who cheated did not use protection either, eek. This is why the link to the CDC fact sheet irked me, since it does list long term monogamy as reducing risk of STI transmission. I suppose adding “entirely open, honest, and ethical” before monogamy is just a few too many words. The government is promoting monogamy alongside condoms when in all reality proper use of condoms has a higher rate of success. Only you can determine if your relationship is in fact providing you with the security you desire in regard to this topic.
Right so, there you have it. Please follow all the links. Do your own research. Talk to your doctor or a qualified sex educator through an organization like Planned Parenthood about any questions you may have. We are never too old to have questions. Never too old to rethink our practices. Do your own fact checking. Do NOT believe every .org you read just because it ends in that or every magazine article you read just because it fits with your confirmation bias and allows you to go on as you have been. Know the difference between good and bad sources. Hopefully I haven’t turned you off to sex for a month though, because that seriously sucks.