A few weeks ago, I said that safe sex is like safe driving. You do your best to keep yourself safe and take reasonable precautions, but there are no guaranteeing. Sex is like driving in another way. Some people are comfortable driving in Le Mans and the Indie 500, some won’t go over 55 mph on the freeway, and some won’t drive at all. Safe driving for someone running the Indie is going to be a bit different from safe driving for someone on the freeway. And if no driving is safe enough for you, that’s why there are bicycles and trains.
The definition of “safe driving” depends on who you are talking with. Defining “safe sex” is the same.
Reid Mikhalo openly identifies as a slut. You might call him a race car driver in the world of safe sex. He’s comfortable with a much lower level of safety than many people, but it’s safe enough for him. Me? I’m comfortable on the freeway. I’m not overly worried about STIs, but I want to take reasonable precautions. You might catch me pushing 70 mph sometimes, but I try to keep it around 65*. My partner Michael has an extremely low comfort with risk. When it comes to sex, he’ll drive around town, but no way in hell is he getting on the highway.
Each of us has learned about safe sex, the risks involved in sex, and decide for ourselves how to define “safe sex.” All of us accept some risk in order to have the joy of sharing our bodies with our partners. All of us have different levels of risk we are comfortable with.
Of course, like safe driving, defining safe sex effects other people. A race car driver may go over 200 mph on the Indie, surrounded by other race car drivers. When they’re on the freeway, they usually keep the posted speed limit. They know that folks driving on the freeway aren’t prepared for racing style driving–among other things they don’t usually have Nomex underwear. In the same way, we need to think about not just the amount of safety we need to feel comfortable, but the amount of safety our partners need.
Michael’s low-risk level impacts my sex life. His boundaries are pretty clear, and if I pop on the sexual highway he will not be comfortable continuing our sexual relationship. That chafes at me.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some beautiful scenery on those back roads, and I love sharing it with him and other folks who are comfortable keeping it slow. But that highway is damn tempting. Sometimes I want to take Michael and shake him. “It’s just a highway!” I want to say, “People drive on it safely every day!”
But it is his choice and his right to set the safety level he is comfortable with. I can choose to keep to his speed, or I choose to strike out on my own. What I can’t do is bully, badger or shame him for his choice.
Which is why, should the opportunity arise, I will not be revving it up to 90 and jumping into bed with the very sexy Reid Mikhalo.
Obviously, it is easier to be in a relationship with people who have similar comfort levels to your own.
Sadly, it is also very easy to fall into the trap of shaming people for having different comfort levels. Attacking people as “promiscuous” or “prude” is a part of monogamous culture (at least in the US), that we really need to leave behind. People have reasons for the way they define “safe sex.” You don’t need to agree with their reasons. You don’t need to like their reasons. You don’t even need to know their reasons.
You only need to do three things:
- Decide what your safe sex definition
- Set your own boundaries based on that definition.
- Respect the boundaries of other people.
Setting your safe sex definition is the first step. If you haven’t done it yet, now’s a pretty good time to start.
This post is part of the Safe Sex and STIs blog series.
*The normal speed limit for freeways on the East Coast of the US.