STDs in Sex-Positive Community: Examining Stigma and Safer Sex Practices
A prominent sex-positive organization’s LinkedIn profile recently posted a call out for a group seeking to establish an intentional living community in Arizona. When I noticed they excluded membership on the basis of STD-positivity, I responded expressing my disappointment and frustration with the policy. I received the following response from the gentleman who initially posted the announcement:
“If you have an STD who in their right mind desires to engage in intimate contact? none that I know of. There will be general rituals people could still participate in. Now in private practise you are free to do what you please, however, please name one person you know of that would engage in intimate contact, with someone who carries and active STD”
The following is my response, to both he and his group, but also to all others who might posit the question of who might choose to be involved with someone they knew to have a sexually transmitted infection or disease:
First off, please add my name to that short and budding list. As a medical professional, sexuality educator, and sacred intimate, I can tell you that this assumption [that all persons discriminate based on STD-status] is not based in truth. I have had many partners and lovers that I have chosen to have sex with who have had a STD – mind you, however, that I didn’t say I chose to do so without protection.
Due to misguided beliefs and practices, I have met many people who have had (and continue to have) unprotected sex based on faulty logic and/or denial. As a medical provider, I meet people who choose to make decisions based on the logic that someone on Craig’s List said they were STD-free, deny risk because they have never known anyone with a “serious” STI, or because they believed that their risks were minimal. Today, most of these people “luck out” and either end up leaving with a breath of relief or get a prescription for a treatable infection. Yet, there are others who are not so lucky. Some, after a single encounter, discover all-too-late that they should have been wiser – that they should have used protection.Personally, I don’t feel an STD should disqualify someone from being sexually intimate; in fact, I get frustrated when people state they will not have sex with someone who is open and honest about their [HCV, HIV, HSV, HPV] status – especially if they are willing to have casual and/or anonymous sex with persons whose status they do no know. In my opinion, it is better to treat all lovers as if they are potentially-infected (by using barriers for all sex acts, including oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse), rather than to place blind trust in out-dated or inaccurate test results… or worse yet, someone’s word. In my experience, just because someone SAYS they are STD-free does not mean that they ARE! While some may intentionally lie about their status, the vast majority of infected persons are unaware because the most common symptom of an STI is a total lack of symptoms. As gonorrhea - the most common sexually transmitted infection spread through oral, anal, and vaginal sex – becomes increasingly resistant and thus untreatable, this oft-times ignored STI could potentially lead to greater concerns. Let us not forget the days before HIV was identified and AZT discovered; remember that the worst STD we have to fear… is the one we have yet to uncover.
Although this might sound sex-negative and frightful on the surface, the fact remains that in order to lead sexually liberated and ecstatic lives, it is important to make INFORMED DECISIONS about the risks we take. All people, especially those of us in the various sex-positive communities (LGBTQI, kink, non-monogamy, and pagan), need to be aware of the risks to ourselves and our partners so that we can keep ourselves and our communities safe – which means not burying our heads in the sand. We must be pro-active and educate ourselves and our communities if we are to keep each other safe.
First and foremost: frequency and type of STD testing is NOT standardized. Too often, people aren’t tested regularly or extensively enough to accurately declare their STD-status; thus, how can you truly know a person’s status? In other words, just because a person’s test result was negative last week, does NOT mean they are still negative today. Whether we are speaking about test accuracy, window periods, or sexual activity between testing, the fact remains that results are not infallible.
There is a pervasive belief in our community that safer sex only entails using a condom during intercourse – yet it includes much more than that. For people in the lesbian and queer communities, using dams, condoms, and gloves seem more common, yet most people report not using condoms or dams for oral sex (felatio, cunnilingus, or analingus). In sex-positive communities and events, I have witnessed people suck cock and lick pussy without barriers – sometimes in a group setting – potentially spreading STIs. At conferences, events, and in swing clubs, people frequently have unprotected oral sex believing that it’s “safer” – even doing it with multiple people they may not know – and opening themselves up to a whole host of possible STDs. Although the risks may be fewer with oral sex, it is important to recognize that they are not zero. Using HIV as their basis for determining risk and behavior, most people do not understand that HIV is not the only STD to fear – nor do they realize that other STIs can be more easily transmitted than HIV. With this in mind, it is important that each of us become aware of the STDs that can be spread through each activity and base our actions accordingly.
I’m not here to condemn sexuality or tell you what choices to make for yourself or what risks you should or should not take – frankly, only you can answer that. My hope is to inspire people to go back to their communities and have frank discussions about sexuality, risks, and to share ideas with each other on ways to keep themselves and their partners safe. I want people to have incredible sex – and lots of it. I want people to have ecstatic experiences and know limitless connection. But, I also want people to be safe and healthy.
Educate yourself. Respect yourself. Protect yourself.