1. Stop Letting Sex Be Something That Happens to You
One of the simplest steps you can take toward having a healthier, happier sex life is making sex an active choice. Far too often, after an unfortunate sexual encounter, I hear people say that sex “just happened” or that they “got drunk and ended up in bed.” Changing sex into an activity that you choose, each and every time with each and every partner, makes it less likely to be an activity that you’ll regret. It’s really not that hard to think before you act. It just forces you to stop making excuses, if you admit that your sex life is something that you can and should control.
The classic example of this I hear is from teenage girls who are scared about pregnancy, or who have just been diagnosed with an STD, after they let a guy “just put it in,” because they were worried what he might think of them if they said no. However, that’s forgetting something really important – anyone who judges you for not wanting to have sex isn’t someone whose opinion should matter to you. It’s far more important what you think of yourself – you have to live with your own opinions forever.
2. Stop Thinking That Screwing Up Makes You a Screw Up
Everyone makes mistakes when it comes to sex. Sometimes people get so drunk that they forget to wear a condom, or they fail to tell a new partner that they may have exposed them to an STD. Are such situations ideal? No, but you can fix them. Screwing up doesn’t make you a screw up, as long as you don’t compound your error.
The classic example of this is a person who forgot, or failed, to have safe(r) sex once and therefore decided that there was no point in choosing to use a condom or other barrier the next time they engaged with their partner. That’s silly for a number of reasons, including the fact that even if someone has an STD, it won’t necessarily be transmitted every time they have sex. It’s possible to get lucky the first time, but it’s better to minimize your risk than hope you get lucky again.
3. Stop Assuming You Know Your Sexual Health Status
There is a common misconception that a person would know if they had an STD. This stems from two erroneous assumptions – that all STDs have symptoms, and that STD testing is a regular part of health care. Unfortunately, neither belief is true. The vast majority of STD infections have no symptoms — but can still cause long-term damage or be passed on to a partner — and most doctors don’t regularly test their patients for STDs. Even if someone goes in for a check up every year, they may never have received an STD test.
The classic examples of this are the woman who says “Oh, he’s clean and well dressed. There’s no way he’d have an STD, the man who says “I don’t have any discharge, I can’t possibly be infected,” and the person who tells their partner “I went to the doctor two months ago, he would have told me if I wasn’t fine.” Any one of them could be wrong, because none of them have a solid basis for their belief. Rich, clean guys can have STDs, not all STDs have symptoms, and far too few doctors incorporate STD testing into preventative care.
The only way for someone to be sure of their STD status is to ask for the tests they want and wait for the results.
4. Stop Thinking of STDs as Dirty or Shameful
It makes me sad when I hear people describe someone as “dirty” because they have an STD – particularly when they are describing themselves. STDs aren’t any dirtier than any other disease, and everyone is at risk for acquiring one. This is particularly true since because of the perception of these diseases as dirty or shameful, people are often reluctant to discuss their health and testing status with potential sexual partners. That, of course, only puts them more at risk.
The classic example of this is using a herpes diagnosis to shame someone, or to imply that there is something bad about them. It ignores the fact that genital herpes is incredibly common – and a disease that it only takes one infected sexual partner to get. A herpes infection doesn’t make someone dirty or a slut. It makes them a person who was exposed to a virus – and not necessarily through penetrative sex.
5. Stop Associating Intimacy with Unprotected Sex
On the top of my list of irritating sexual behaviors that the media portrays as normal, is the notion that it’s normal to stop having safer sex the second you declare yourself as committed. It implies that safer sex is something that people only do at the beginning of their relationship. However, safer sex shouldn’t be something that you grow out of. If you’re having great, hot, protected sex, stopping doesn’t make your relationship more intimate. It just makes your behavior more risky.
The classic example of this is the serially monogamous couple who stops having safe sex after two months because they’re now “committed” to each other. Then, when they break up and find new partners, they do the same thing all over again. Unprotected sex becomes a test of intimacy, which is just silly. Latex doesn’t cause a lack of intimacy. It tells your partner that you love them enough to want to protect their health.
6. Stop Avoiding the Conversation With Your Partner
Many people hate talking about sex. They find it uncomfortable and embarrassing, or they say that talking about sexual risk, STD testing, and safe sex destroys the mood. However, in my experience, what really destroys the mood is worrying about what having sex might do to your body or relationship. Knowing what’s up is a heck of a lot less stressful than worrying about the potential for something to go wrong.
The classic example of this is the guy who says “I don’t want to talk about having sex, let’s just do it already.” The problem is that saying that leaves his partner with no clue why he doesn’t want to talk about having sex. Is he worried about disclosing an STD? Has he never been tested? Does he not know how to use a condom? Or is he simply too embarrassed to have the conversation? Until you actually have the talk, there’s no way to find out.
It’s also worth mentioning that talking about sex isn’t just about making it safer, it’s about making it hotter. Your partner can’t read your mind. If there’s something you enjoy during sex, or want to try, the only way to get it is to ask. Similarly, if there’s something that your partner is doing which makes you go “ick!”, they’re not going to stop unless you tell them.
7. Stop Being Ruled by Fear
Some people don’t go in for STD screening because they’re terrified they might be positive. However, not knowing your test results doesn’t take away the possibility that you’re infected, and it doesn’t absolve you of the obligation to act in a responsible manner. All it does is leave you living in fear. A lot of people find that getting the positive test result actually provides a great deal of relief from their worries – because at least they know and can start changing their behaviors to deal with that knowledge. And if the results of your tests are negative? Then you can start paying attention to keeping them that way.
The classic example of this is a person who knows they may have been exposed to HIV but doesn’t want to get tested because if they don’t know they’re infected, they don’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, not getting tested is bad both for their health and for the health of the people around them. Not only are many of the long term, chronic effects of HIV more effectively avoided by early treatment, but undiagnosed, untreated individuals are the people most likely to pass the virus on to their partners.
8. Stop Assuming Your Doctor Is Always Right
A lot of physicians don’t know anything about STDs, or have so little knowledge that what they do know is dangerous. Many medical schools hardly teach anything about sexual health, and a lot of doctors don’t bother to keep up with the constant changes in standards and information about an area of health that they aren’t comfortable thinking about – let alone discussing. Therefore, if your doctors says something questionable about sexual health, seek another opinion. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to push for STD testing. If you want it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to ask for it.
The unfortunately classic example of this is provided by the many people who have e-mailed me in confusion after their doctors have told them things such as “there’s no need to get a test for STDs since you don’t have symptoms” (wrong) or “herpes tests are pointless because you can’t pass on the virus if you don’t have an outbreak” (also wrong.)
9. Stop Minimizing the Risks of Oral Sex
Oral sex is just as much a sexual activity as intercourse, and it has a number of similar risks. While you can’t get pregnant during oral sex, and some STDs aren’t as easily transmitted, that doesn’t make it a risk-free activity. Furthermore, oral sex can be just as emotionally intimate as intercourse, if not even more intimate, and it therefore carries an emotional risk as well.
The classic example of this is people who had no idea it was possible to contract genital herpes from receiving oral sex from someone with a cold sore — until it happened to them. There are also numerous media portrayals of oral sex as somehow less than real sex – i.e. “I didn’t have sex with that woman, she just gave me a blow job.” Although the definition of what sex is may vary, for most people the word encompasses more than just intercourse.
10. Stop Blaming Your Partner (and Yourself)
When people receive an STD diagnosis, the first thing they do is often look for someone to blame. They want to know how their partner could have done such a terrible thing to them, and they often are torn between lashing out in anger and feeling trapped because of the feeling that no one could ever love them again. However, most people don’t spread STDs out of malice. They spread them out of ignorance, when they don’t know they’re infected, or they spread them out of shame, when they’re afraid to disclose a diagnosis that might make someone think less of them. Although there are certainly exceptions – people who callously spread STDs out of a desire to make other people feel what they’re feeling – that sort of behavior is not the rule.
It’s just as important to have empathy when taking a new sexual partner, to treat them like you would want to be treated and hope they’ll do the same, as it is to actively choose to protect yourself by asking specific questions about risk and listening to the answers. Don’t blame others for the same choices you might make yourself.
The classic example of this is people who don’t want to disclose an STD to a new partner while still blaming the person who initially exposed them. While, in theory, the difficulties they are facing in discussing their condition should help them empathize with why their previous partner may have made the unfortunate choice not to disclose, the cycle too often just repeats anew.