risk, sex and talking

Leigh asked for a post on the following a few days ago:

Safer sex agreements, how one negotiates them, and how one can determine the acceptable level of risk for themselves and their partners.

That’s sort of a two-parter. I’ll see if I can tackle both here…

1. How to determine the acceptable level of risk for yourself and your partner.

For starters, I don’t think that anyone should be determining their partner’s acceptable level of risk – that’s really up to each individual person to determine. Leigh, I’m sure you didn’t mean to suggest that, but I do feel I should make it clear!

That does serve as a good first point though. It really is up to you to decide what’s okay and what’s not okay in terms of risk. And the minute someone else starts to push you to accept a level of risk that’s outside your comfort zone, they clearly don’t have your feelings and well-being at heart, so that’s a pretty clear signal, in my humble opinion, that it’s time to halt the whole process. I don’t want to fuck anyone whose idea of enjoyable sex includes pressuring me to do things I don’t want to do. Clearly we are not on the same page from the get-go.

But let’s back up for a sec. I want to quote New York-based shrink Jean Malpas, whom I interviewed for a Mirror article about crystal meth use in the gay community a few years back. He said a very wise thing about risk that has basically stayed with me ever since:

“According to recent research, the most common reason people choose not to use a condom is that they were looking for trust, a special connection. People don’t take a risk because they think something bad will come of it—they do so because they think it’s worth it. That decision may be based on a cognitive distortion but it comes of the belief that it will bring them something better.”

I think the point here is that people generally aren’t stupid. If anything we’re ridiculously rational. That’s not to say everyone always makes healthy decisions; it just means that when we make our decisions, the operative factor is what we feel is best for us in a given moment. That may or may not line up with the prevention of disease transmission, or our physical safety, or our emotional health, or our pleasure. It may be based on a completely skewed and painful set of misconceptions, or on sketchy or downright inaccurate information, or on our own sense of what we do or don’t deserve. It may come from a need for moment-to-moment survival, where the long-term consequences of our actions are simply not relevant because if we don’t get through the next week, or the next day, or the next hour, we won’t live to see the long term. So anything I say about how to make safer sex decisions has got to be filtered through a given person’s set of priorities in a given moment.

Of course I encourage everyone to move constantly toward greater health and greater joy. But I’m not going to start spouting middle-class educated dyke ideas about using a glove when you fist to, say, someone who’s a drug-addicted street worker who really badly needs a meal or a hit or whatever else will get her through the next five hours, and chooses to let a trick fuck her without a condom in order to get an extra twenty bucks out of him for that purpose. Is that a “healthy” choice? Not by my standards in my life, but by her standards in her life, it might actually be a damned good one. Would I like to see everyone in the world get to a place where that kind of awful decision never needs to be made? Yes. Do I think that’s likely to happen because I sit here and wish for it? Nope. So I don’t judge.

I think my point here is that in order to figure out your acceptable level of risk when it comes to sex (and many other things), it helps to sit down and think about your priorities when it comes to sex in the first place. In an ideal world, in my humble opinion, the absolute highest priority would be self-love and self-respect. Following that, it would be genuine connection with one or more other human beings in a situation that feels respectful and pressure-free. Next, perhaps, physical pleasure. And so forth. But I don’t expect that everyone’s list looks like that.

It could help to do a priority-listing exercise twice. The first time, approach it as a cognitive exercise based on what you think. The second time, answer the question purely based on your actual history of sexual decision-making. Are there any discrepancies? If so, you might have just come across an area where you’re engaging in some form of cognitive distortion – some place where your head tells you “make a decision like this” and you wind up convincing yourself that it’s not important, or this is an exception, or you’ll deal with the consequences later, or you’re too scared to say anything… and then you go ahead and do that thing your head told you not to do. If you come across that sort of discrepancy, it’s an indicator of where you need to do some work. Therapy, reading, thinking, spiritual work, advice from a friend, self-care of other kinds – whatever works for you, really.

We all, at some time, fail to live up to our own standards. I’ve done it and I’m sure you have too. The key is to figure out what made that happen, so that you can learn from it and do something differently next time.

When I was 21, I had a fling with a 42-year-old man. He was totally sweet, very smart, and really respectful. I was fresh out of an abusive relationship and I had promised myself that I would be single and celibate until I had sex with a woman, which I had not yet done. I decided that it was okay to have sex during that period, but only if it were purely about physical contact, no emotional attachment, no relationship, no entanglements – I really wanted to focus on healing myself and reclaiming my power. So he came along and it was perfect – nice guy, cute, kind, and totally down with the conditions I set: no romance, no dating; sex only, and only when I initiated. He told me he didn’t like to wear condoms, but that he got tested every three months and would happily show me his latest results. I was on the Pill. Despite my own very solidly entrenched personal rule about never having sex without a condom, I went for it.

Why did I do it? Well, looking back, I think it was for a few reasons. I think I felt like his rationale was solid enough to pass muster – he was really reasonable about it, not trying to force the issue at all. I think I was incredibly happy to finally be having sex with someone in a situation where I felt like I was respected, where my conditions were met without nary a question or challenge, where I could retain my independence and still enjoy sex. He was a good lover, really focused on my pleasure, and he respected my decisions – such as “I think I’d like to stop now” – without even blinking. Not to mention he was creative and thoughtful. I felt powerful, confident, and safe.

Until my brain caught up with my emotions and I thought, I have no clue who else this man is fucking, and it’s not part of our deal that I should have any say over that anyway. And unless he wears a condom, there is simply no way I can know whether I’m actually safe, no matter what a test result from three months ago says. And then I started to feel freaked out. Not because he was disrespectful or anything – he wasn’t. Just because I knew my safer sex information, and I knew I was taking a risk that I myself had judged too great – back when my thinking wasn’t clouded by the high of finally having the kind of sex I wanted.

And then he made a big mistake. He bought me flowers. I ended it immediately. And because he was a nice guy, he understood, and was totally cool about it – he realized he’d broken the rule, and realized that it was probably best because his next move would have been to invite me to the opera, so clearly we weren’t on the same page anymore about what we were after.

And I went back to celibacy, waited the requisite three months, and got myself tested for the full range of STIs. That was some of the worst three months of my life. I was terrified of what I might have gotten, and very angry at myself. At the time, I spent a lot of time thinking about how stupid I’d been to break a rule I’d set for myself. And then the tests came back clean, and I thanked my lucky stars, and swore to myself that I would simply never make that sort of compromise again.

In retrospect, I understand why I did it. The novelty of a respectful partner was a big deal – a huge deal, really. I was finally getting a taste of what I felt I really deserved, sexually speaking, and I was willing to sacrifice in order to hang on to that. Nowadays, I know that I simply won’t have sex in any conditions other than respectful ones, and respectful sex partners are commonplace in my world – so I don’t need to make a choice between respect and safer sex. But in a social context where disrespect and pressure was commonplace, my lover was a jewel, and it’s hard to be angry at myself for having wanted that.

I imagine lots of us have stories about why we’ve taken the risks we’ve taken. And I don’t think getting mad at ourselves serves much purpose, really. But I think we can take those moments of dissonance and distortion and figure out ways to alter our lives and make different choices so that the dissonance fades and things start to line up; so that our safety is part and parcel of what feels good to us, rather than something we have to balance against other concerns.

Of course, the next step – or a step in that process somewhere – is to actually get your hands on safer sex information so you know what risks you’re even dealing with, based on the types of sexual practices you like to engage in. So, for example, if I were dating a partner who had herpes, I’d look into that and figure out what sort of activities would increase the risk of transmission and what ones might decrease it, and make decisions accordingly. One of the best sites I’ve ever seen for getting lots of specific information about various STIs is the one maintained by Clinique l’actuel in Montreal – if you can bear with the occasionally awkward English-language translation, the information itself is excellent. But there are tons of other resources out there, and most of them are easy to find online.

From there, you can weigh your priorities with the information you have and make decisions about what risks feel okay to you versus those that don’t. You can also discuss this with your partners based on their risk decisions and based on the factors that may be present between you.

Which leads me to…

2. How to negotiate safer sex agreements.

It sounds like Leigh’s question is about negotiation in the context of a partnership, rather than in the context of a one-night stand or something of the sort. But I’m going to answer it from both perspectives.

For me, the whole idea of negotiating for a one-night is incredibly simple: I state my terms, the person agrees, and we go ahead. Or, I state my terms, they disagree, and we don’t. End of story. In a short encounter, I’m not expecting to get anything beyond momentary pleasure, there’s not enough trust built (generally speaking) to justify any deviation from the highest safer-sex protocols I apply, and there’s not enough desire or investment for me to bother holding a long conversation with them about particulars. I mean, there’s a bit of wiggle room – if they have a latex allergy then we might use nitrile instead, for example, but otherwise proceed as usual. But that’s about it.

I know that for some people, the passion in a one-nighter runs incredibly high and might in fact be enough to cause them to throw caution to the winds and break a bunch of their own safer-sex rules. I get it, I really do. I think I’d just encourage people with that particular pattern to go back to the two-part priority listing process and figure out where the dissonance lies so that they can do whatever work is necessary and make different choices in the future – to alter their lives, perhaps in really profound ways, so that the experience of passion and desire is not so hard to come by or so overwhelming that it is enough to justify potentially life-threatening risk.

I know that a lot of people find that no matter how much safer sex information they have, it’s really hard to bring it up in the moment. It’ll kill the mood, I’m too embarrassed, I’m afraid they won’t agree, and so forth. I wish I had a magic trick for getting around these things. All I can say is that finding ways to work on your own comfort levels in talking about sex, and boosting your confidence sufficiently that you’re not afraid to do so even with a complete stranger, may save your life one day. The way to do that is not exactly simple – it comes back to a similar place to where the cognitive distortion comes from. Sometimes our minds and our mouths do not line up. When that happens with you, it is well worth asking yourself why, and doing something about it. Your life may depend on it – but your pleasure might too!

After all, negotiating isn’t just about safety. It’s also about pleasure. What do you like in bed? What do you not like? Can you say those things out loud, in the moment? If not, how could you work on things so that your comfort level rises? It can be done – increased comfort levels in talking about sex, that is – but the particulars are up to you. They might include reading more about sex and pleasure, attending workshops, talking about sex alone just to hear the words come out of your mouth a few times, talking about sex with a person you’re not having sex with, spending time in sex-positive community spaces where sex is openly discussed as a matter of course, writing about sex, watching porn, reading an erotic story out loud, yelling the words that make you uncomfortable over and over again until they no longer have the power to freak you out, getting therapy or doing spiritual work to overcome shame, or any number of other techniques. (Seriously, try yelling “cunt!” fifteen times in a row, louder each time, and see how it feels at number 15 compared to number one!)

As for negotiating safer sex agreements with partners, I think that beyond the emotional work you do on your own, it’s basically a process of doing your priority lists individually, and then coming together to see where they line up, and talking about the discrepancies. If you realize that you’re not well-informed enough about the risks and safer sex approaches to specific situations, then you can do your research and talk about things again. Negotiation is an ongoing process throughout a relationship, and things may change over time.

Another thing you might want to add into the conversation is a question that Patrick Califia suggested in a recent workshop. He said it can be really good to ask, “What is good sex?” It’s such a simple question, and yet the answers you and your partners come up with might really surprise you. For example, if one of you says “Good sex is when I get to have multiple orgasms,” and the other one says, “Good sex is when I’m not being forced,” well, clearly you might need to do some talking about what those things mean to you and how they might affect your approaches to what you get up to in bed. I’m not suggesting that we can all summarize what “good sex” is in one sentence, or even that doing so would be a good thing. But it’s a great conversation-starter, that’s for sure.

I’m sure there are lots of other good ideas about how to approach safer sex negotiation – I certainly don’t pretend to have them all covered here. If anyone has techniques or ideas they’d like to share, please post them in the comments section!

In the meantime, I wish you all rich conversations and fabulous fucking.

Posted in sex

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