‘When should I ask a casual partner about his sexual health?’
Ask Roe: I enjoy casual sex, and use condoms, but I’m paranoid about catching an STI
Start the STI conversation before things get too hot and heavy. Photograph: Getty Images
I’m a 26-year-old straight woman. I have casual sex and enjoy it, and I’m hoping you can help me out with a tricky subject. I know safe sex is important, so I get tested regularly and always use condoms. But I am a bit paranoid, particularly about catching HPV or herpes, obviously, but when it’s a casual thing, I find it harder to find the right moment to ask someone about their sexual health. When you’re having causal sex, when and how do you ask someone if they’ve been tested for STIs?
Taking care of your sexual health is hugely important, and so using protection and getting tested regularly should be a staple for sexually active adults. STIs are on the increase in Ireland, with recorded cases jumping more than 13 per cent in the past three years.
If you’re getting into a monogamous relationship or have a long-term casual sex partner, you should both discuss your sexual health and both get tested.
However, I am now going to write the thing that I’m not supposed to write.
In casual sex situations, there usually isn’t that much planning or foresight involved, and so the power of the STI conversation can be limited.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take precautions or care about your sexual health. Nor does it mean that you should never have casual sex. It means, like most activities in life, that there are some risks involved that you may have to accept if you choose to partake. Those risks multiply if you don’t know your partner very well.
In the end, you can only take responsibility for your own sexual health, so do what you can to manage those risks, while acknowledging that those measures might not be enough. For even though asking someone about their sexual health may make you feel safer in the moment, realistically, their answer may not be as helpful as you’d like to think.
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Because there are, of course, the general risks: even if you use condoms, they can break. And you’re still in danger of contracting HPV or herpes from skin-to-skin contact.
And then there are the people risks: simply, people can be careless. Or unlucky. Or liars.
If they’re careless and engage in unprotected sex without getting tested regularly, they could have an STI and not know it. If they’re unlucky, they could have used protection, but contracted something anyway and not know it – because no form of protection is 100 per cent effective. And if they’re liars, they could be well aware that they have an STI and decide not to tell you.
The only safe thing to do is assume that they have an STI and proceed accordingly by taking all the precautions you can.
If you do decide to take a chance on your partner’s honesty and ask them about their sexual health, do not wait until you’re in the bedroom ripping each other’s clothes off. That’s both a vulnerable and charged time, where people are more likely to lie and/or overlook any pertinent information in the heat of the moment.
Start the STI conversation before things get too hot and heavy, and place the emphasis on you so it feels like a mutual sharing of information, not an accusation. All that is needed is a simple, “Hey, just so we can both relax about the serious end of things and concentrate on the fun stuff, I’m pretty conscientious about my health and had a check-up recently and am all-clear. How about you?”
If someone does reveal that they do have an STI, don’t panic, act disgusted, or try to shame them for it. If it turns out that they have an easily treated STI such as chlamydia, tell them you can enjoy building some sexual tension with foreplay for a couple of weeks while they get treated.
Should they reveal that they’ve something permanent or potentially complicated healthwise such as herpes or HPV, you may understandably have some reservations – or just questions about how this could potentially affect you.
If in the moment you feel like you don’t want to take that risk, that’s fine. Assure your partner that you’re still attracted to them, you’re not judging them, and sex is merely being paused until you’ve done your own research and are confident enough to relax and completely enjoy having sex with them, worry-free.
Again, kissing and safe sexual activities should resume here – because why wouldn’t it? They’re still the person you wanted to sleep with three seconds ago.
Let me repeat: they’re still the same person.
Nasty STIs can happen to good people – just as all kinds of illnesses and bugs and infections and diseases happen to good people.
An STI is just another illness, one that deserves sympathy, not judgment. And if you are unable to accept that and get over the paranoia and stigma that surrounds STIs, maybe casual sex isn’t for you. Which is okay too.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright Scholar with an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in Gendered and Sexual Citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
If you have a problem or query you would like Roe to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe