Defining Safe Sex

Last week I said safe sex means different things to different people. On a personal level, that means each of us needs to define safe sex for ourselves. Today we’re going to walk through defining safe sex. What is means to you, and how you can take steps to keep yourself safe while enjoying the sex life that suits you.

How Safe Do You Want to Be?

An Indie driver and a commuter both try to be safe when they drive–but what an Indie drive considers “safe” most commuters would consider suicidal. Race car drivers wear fire-proof undies for a reason.

Do you want to be completely protected from any risk of STIs? Are you comfortable with maybe getting herpes but want to be sure you are safe from HIV? Maybe you know your statistics and just want to get tested once in a while so you can get treated for anything early.

In addition to STIs, there is also pregnancy. Unlike STIs, how protected you want to be when it comes to pregnancy may vary from partner to partner.

As far as pregnancy goes you can opt entirely by never putting penis and vulva together. Or (slightly less extreme) never have PIV and except the infinitesimal risk that sometimes comes with getting semen on the outside of the vulva.

You can use various forms of birth control, which has more risk that not having PIV sex at all, but way less risk than going without birth control.

Or you can say fuck it, I don’t care about starting a pregnancy (or fuck it I WANT to start a pregnancy) and go for all the PIV sex with no birth control.

STIs are complicated–maybe there are some STIs you are willing to risk (Personally, I don’t give a fuck about herpes) but others you want to be protected from. What protects against some STIs won’t offer protection against others.

In general terms, you can choose not to have genital contact at all, and that will reduce your chance of getting STIs to almost nothing. (Sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted other ways–they aren’t exclusive to sex. For most STIs however, non-sexual transmission is rare.)

You can only have genital contact with people who get tested regularly and weren’t infected at the time they got tested. This offers significant protection, but not perfect protection. The more frequently you and your sex partners connect with new sex partners, the less protection it gives.

You can use barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams. This provides some protection against some STIs. It provides significant protection against HIV and Hep B, two of the STIs that are the most worrisome in terms of treatment and long-term impact.

You can combine STI tests and barrier method for more protection than either alone.

You and your partners can do visual checks of each other for outward signs of infection, which provides some protection against a few STIs.

You can not worry about protection for most STIs ahead of time. Truvada will protect you against HIV.

You can just get tested yourself regularly so you can catch and treat any infections early.

Which of these options sounds like “safe sex” to you?

Once you have a general idea of how you would define safe sex, it’s time to do some research. Learn about the different STIs and how they are transmitted. Learn about different birth control options. As you learn, you are further defining safe sex for yourself.

Maybe you started with wanting the protection that comes from only having sex with partners who test regularly and test STI negative. But as you learn more you decide that you really aren’t concerned about herpes and genital warts, so you’re comfortable being with a sexual partner who has either one of those STIs. Maybe you aren’t worried about barrier methods as protection from STIs, but as you learn about birth control options you decide that you definitely want to use condoms in addition to any hormonal birth control. That extra protection is reassuring.

Make sure you take the time to talk with your partner(s) about how they define safe sex. You don’t need to agree, you do need to respect each other’s definitions. Always remember that people need to be able to consent to risks. Don’t put your partner at risk in ways they don’t consent to, and if a partner puts you at risk without your consent, it’s time to get out of that relationship.

This post is part of the Safe SEx and Polyamory blog series.

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Everyone’s Safe Sex Definition is Different

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.

Safe Sex Vs Safer Sex

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the US over the past ten years or so, it has become common to speak of “safer sex” instead of “safe sex.” The idea, apparently, is that sex is never 100% safe, no matter how careful you are there is always the risk of getting an STI or someone getting pregnant, and, therefore, it is misleading to speak of “safe sex,” we should always and only speak of “safer sex.”

I’m calling bullshit.

When I was learning to drive I didn’t take a “safer driving” course, I took a safe driving course. The mandatory certificate for food handlers is called ServeSafe, not “ServeSafer.” Neither driving nor food handling can ever be made 100% safe. In the case of driving, because no matter how careful you are, some other idiot on the road can ram into you. In the case of food, because if the spinach came into your kitchen with e coli already on it, no matter how carefully you wash the leaves, someone might get sick from your salad.

In every similar context, American English is happy to use “safe” to mean “making the best effort to be safe.” But suddenly, when it comes to sex, “safe” can only be used to mean “100% without risk.”

Folks, show me anything 100% without risk and I will show you where you are wrong. Life doesn’t work that way. But in the rest of life, we are comfortable saying, “Yes, there is risk, I accept that and do my best to reduce the risk.” The push to use “safer sex” is coming from the same sex shaming viewpoint as the pamphlets at the local anti-abortion place that tell people you should never have sex outside of monogamous marriage or you might get an STI.

Like I said at the beginning, this may be just a US thing. God knows we have sex stigma to spare here. But it needs to stop. Which is why throughout this blog series I talk about safe sex. Not safer sex.

This post is part of the Safe Sex and STIs blog series.