In my experience with monogamous relationships, there is a subtle sense of shame around discussing STDs. People avoid the conversation all-together unless they need to address a particular concern. When we first opened our marriage, I asked some single monogamous men about STD testing and safer sex practices, and they all gave me a similarly uncomfortable vague reply:
"I've been tested before. It doesn't feel as good with condoms, but we can use them if you want."
Wow. Charming. Way to inspire confidence that you're responsible and won't get me sick. No thankyouverymuch.
In contrast, I've asked the same question to numerous poly men, and they've all responded with specific details about their last test date and results, their recent and current partners, their safer sex practices, and a relieved, "I'm so glad you have the same concerns and want to talk about this."
As a result I've developed a strong mistrust of monogamous people who aren't accustomed to having open conversations about safer sex. I feel much safer dating poly people who have the same values and vocabulary around discussing sexual health. I feel even safer if a potential partner has a wife (consenting of course!) at home who he is trying to protect. Safest yet if we all meet each other, so we know the real people we are putting at risk if we don't adhere to our safety agreements.
There is no way to make sex 100% safe. The best you can do is determine your personal acceptable level of risk and practice safer sex to minimize that risk. Some people in open relationships use barriers for all sexual activity but have sex with strangers. Others are less strict about barriers for certain activities but carefully vet all potential partners. There is no single right way to practice safer sex (aside from being totally honest and transparent with all parties). The key is defining safety rules that feel right for you and your poly family, and finding partners with compatible rules.
This is the safety agreement that Jake, Bradley and I drafted:
We only have sex with people who:
- We know, trust, and have vetted
- Have a clean, uncompromised STD test from the last 6 months
- Practice safer sex (with fluid bonding exceptions) and vetting with all partners
- Don't have STDs or prostitutes in their network
We use barriers:
- Always for intercourse
- Unprotected oral sex is OK if the group is comfortable with the partner based on their sexual history, current network, and safer sex practices.
If you think that talking about STDs is unsexy, let me assure you otherwise. It's a turn-on to know that someone has a high level of concern for our mutual health and is mature enough to have the conversation. By the time I get naked with someone, we have reviewed test results, exchanged sexual histories, and agreed upon safer sex rules. So when we get into the bedroom there are no worries about risks or awkward in-the-moment negotiations about safety. Instead, the focus can be all about the pleasure. What could be sexier than that?