The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s resulted in an explosion of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the appearance of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s sealed the deal when it came to fear of STIs. Panic about STIs and especially AIDS reached a fever pitch in the mid 1980s. While research that pinpointed transmission methods has smoothed the hysterical pitch a bit, people are still quite concerned about sexually transmitted infections. With good reason—the Centers for Disease Control identify chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis as among the most common STIs in the United States.
Simple numerics mean that having multiple partners increases the risk of encountering STIs, and exposure of one partner can mean exposure of others down the line. How do people in polyamorous relationships deal with this magnified risk of STIs? Very carefully.
Testing and Talking
True to polyamorous form that emphasizes communication as a key relationship tool, poly folks talk with each other and partners’ partners about sexually transmitted infections. Most frequently, people get tested (with six month follow-ups) and come together for a conversation with results to show and tell—sitting a circle in someone’s living room or basement, handing the results papers around so everyone can see what everyone else has. It makes a difference to see the people who will be affected by your sexual choices and speak to them directly about how everyone is going to protect each others’ health.
Protection and Creativity
Condoms and dental dams can go a long way towards cutting the transmission of STIs by containing fluids and preventing (or at least inhibiting) skin-to-skin contact. There are also many ways to have sex or sexual interactions that do not involve fluid exchance, and polys can be creative about what kinds of sex they have and how they do it.
Because of the potential for STIs to spread through a social group, the rule among mainstream poly communities is no fluid exchange unless and until it has been excruciatingly discussed, tested, and negotiated. This can be such an extensive process that actually deciding to have unprotected sex is a sign of serious commitment, enough so that it is associated with commitment ceremonies.
How does all of this careful talking, testing, and negotiating work for poly folks? Pretty darn well, it turns out. Recent research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicates that people with negotiated non-monogamy have fewer STIs and infect fewer partners than do people in unfaithful relationships in which the partners are cheating and have not negotiated multiple-partner sexuality. Openly non-monogamous folks were more likely to get tested for STIs frequently, discuss their sexual health status with partners, and use condoms and other barriers than were people who had not negotiated an open relationship. Cheaters were less likely to use condoms with their primary partners or during their extradyadic sexual encounters, get tested for STIs, or discuss safer sex concerns with new partners.