We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: practicing safe sex with multiple partners in a non-monogamous relationship.
Q: I recently started seeing this new guy who I’m really excited about. He’s poly, which is new for me, but I’m digging the freedom it’s giving me to explore multiple lovers at once without feeling guilty. But my question is, when you’re sleeping with more than one person, how do you stay safe? I’m on the pill, and in the past I’ve stopped using condoms with people once I develop strong feelings for them and we both get tested, but when you’re dealing with multiple people it seems absurdly complicated. I really like condom-free sex with people I love, is this something I can’t have if I’m not monogamous?
A: Staying safe when you’re having sex is hard enough with just one lover, but it can feel exponentially more complex once you start adding other bodies into the mix. Yet many people are loving and/or playing with many people at once, and there are definitely ways to do it safely.
I’m not going to get into the definitions of what some people call polyamory and others consensual or ethical non-monogamy because there’s a wealth of information out there on the topic. I urge you to look it up and figure out if you want to check it out for yourself! While there’s a diversity of ways non-monogamy plays out (from an open relationship where you have a main partner and sometimes go out and have sex with other people, all the way to multi-partner situations), the thing to remember is that with this situation, there is no cheating. That’s because in the relationship, the sex that’s happening is permitted by all persons involved.
Think this is wild? There definitely isn’t enough research on the subject (because it’s still pretty taboo in many circles) but those that have asked the question estimate that four to five percent of people in America are living this way — and I would posit that that’s actually a super low estimate.
Now onto the question at hand. If you’re sleeping with multiple people (or planning on it, or even considering it) how do you stay safe? Since sex and relationships are just as much about emotions as they are about bodies, I’m going to split my response into sexual safety and emotional safety.
How To Be Safe Sexually
The reality is that no sex is 100 percent safe. Condoms are known to be 82 percent effective with typical use, which is ... let’s face it ... a B minus. Even with perfect use, they’re only 98 percent effective. I say this not to freak you out but to remind you that sex always comes with some amount of risk, however small (compare the condom efficacy rates with that of an IUD, which is over 99 percent effective against pregnancy, although zero percent effective against sexually transmitted infections). And this can get amplified depending on how many people you’re playing with, because there’s just more stuff in the mix.
Once again, cheating has no place in the types of relationships we’re discussing. This is super important when it comes to sexual health, because all the research shows that people in monogamous relationships can actually be at higher risk for contracting an STI because they aren’t aware that their partner has stepped out on them and exposed themselves to something. This research has further found that cheaters are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices like not using condoms or having sex while drunk or high. So in one sense, know that you might actually be lowering your risk by being openly non-monogamous— provided your honesty and communication is excellent.
1. Know Your Risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections
The main “stuff” of which I speak is sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Some of these are transmitted through sexual fluids like semen and vaginal fluid and can be halted with the use of condoms (these include HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) but others are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (like genital herpes and human papillomavirus, aka HPV) and are much harder to protect yourself from completely.
Are you more likely to get an STI if you’re sleeping with multiple people? That totally depends on if any of the people you’re playing with actually have an STI. You can’t catch it if it’s not there to be transmitted. However, think of it as a numbers game — if you’re not 100 percent sure all your lovers are negative for all STIs, then the more people you’re sleeping with, the more risk you’re taking on.
How do non-monogamous people deal with this? They talk about it. A lot. They ask their lovers about their STI statuses, when they were tested last, they even go on dates to get tested together (trust me, it can be more romantic than it sounds). Many also use condoms with all their partners, all the time, to protect everyone in the equation.
2. Get Tested Often
If you’re sleeping with many people, particularly if those people are also sleeping with other people, it’s a good idea to get tested routinely for STIs. Routine in this case is usually every three or six months. Tell your doctor about your lifestyle (if you feel comfortable disclosing that information ... and I suggest you find a doctor who gets you and is excited to help keep you safe whatever your sexual practices) and work out a testing calendar.
It’s also important to get tested if you ever have an incident that you think may have resulted in you exposing yourself to an STI. Unfortunately, you can’t get tested the day after the condom breaks or you slip up and have unbarriered sex when you didn’t mean to. The tests only work a few weeks after a potential incident. It takes two weeks for a Gonorrhea or Chlamydia test to turn up positive. Syphilis can take anywhere from one week to three months. You can test positive for HIV and Hepatitis B and C as soon as one month after infection, but in certain cases it can take up to six months to show up.
3. Disclose Sexually Transmitted Infections To Your Lovers
If you do come back positive for an STI, it’s not the end of the world (really, I mean it, it’s not). However, you do have to tell your partners, because wouldn’t you want to know? I’ve written elsewhere about tips for disclosing STIs to partners, but the bottom line is that it can be scary — but it’s really necessary. And many people have found that their lovers’ reactions aren’t nearly as bad as you might think.
4. Fluid Bond Responsibly
Some people decide to not use condoms, a decision they make for a number of reasons (they like the feeling of skin against skin, they feel closer to their lover without latex between them, they are aware of the STI status of their lover, whatever). If you’re not using condoms with a lover, then you’re fluid bonded to that person, which means exactly what it sounds like — your sexual fluids (semen, vaginal secretions) end up inside them, and vice versa. If you know that your partner doesn’t have any STIs, or you know they do and you are willing to take the risk that you will get them too (or you already have the same thing as them), then fluid bonding is a great option for you.
Fluid bonding can be fantastic! However, it warrants — you guessed it — even more communication between partners. For instance, it’s a good idea for your other partners to be aware that you’re fluid bonded to someone else. Similarly, if something happens and you end up having unbarriered sex with someone else, it’s important to tell your fluid bonded lover about it before you have unbarriered sex again — and then use condoms until you can get tested so you make sure that if you caught anything, you don’t pass it on.
Some people are fluid bonded to more than one other person. This is sometimes called “polifidelity” and often takes the form of a group who are all bonded to each other and don’t have sex outside the group or have strict condom rules with other people not in the group. While this can work really well, it’s important that everyone gets tested before fluid bonding occurs and everyone also gets tested every few months, just to make sure things are still the way they were when the decision to fluid bond was collectively made. It’s also extremely important that everyone in the bond trusts each other and engages in open and honest communication around any slip-ups that occur with other partners whose STI status is unknown.
How To Be Safe Emotionally
So you’ve got your condom game on lock, or maybe you’ve been tested and are excited to be fluid bonded with your partner and have worked out ways to safely connect with other people. But what about all the feelings that come along with loving many people and navigating a multi-lover situation? Here are some things that it’s good to consider in all relationships, but definitely in ethically non-monogamous ones.
1. Know Your Boundaries
There’s no single rule about how to be poly or non-monogamous. Everyone does it differently (which is part of what makes it so exciting and great!). But this means you have work to do, because the rules aren’t laid out for you. Most of the time, this means working with each of your lovers to decide boundaries that feel good and safe to both of you. These guidelines can be about safer sex (such as telling each other when you have played with a new person or deciding that you only want to do certain acts with certain lovers) but they can also be about emotions and reactions (such as telling each other when you have met someone new that you like or bringing up ways you were hurt by your lover’s actions).
Remember that these boundaries are ones you designed (in partnership with your lover, of course) to make your life great. If they start to feel not good (or never felt good to begin with), rethink them. Together.
2. Communicate Your Emotions and Needs
One of the components that comes up again and again around ethically non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships is communication. People with more than one lover end up communicating a lot — about emotions and desires, as well as more mundane things like scheduling dates around each other’s calendars. This level of open honesty is crucial to have as a baseline so that if something does come up with your emotional or sexual health, you feel comfortable addressing it, as opposed to letting it fester. (And yes, this is something monogamous couples should be doing as well.)
3. Be Aware of Jealousy
Jealousy is a huge one for emotional safety in all relationships, and non-monogamous ones are no exception. It’s important to realize that it’s okay to be jealous, and definitely okay to tell your partner(s) about it! What’s not okay is to punish your partner for your jealous reaction. Instead, talk about it, and try to really get down into what’s making you feel not good. If you’re feeling at all unsafe in your relationship and are reacting with jealousy, that’s something to notice about yourself, and empower yourself to feel out and deal with.
In contrast to jealousy is something called compersion, which is when you experience joy in reaction to your partner’s positive feelings for someone else. This is a lofty goal for many people who have been programmed to feel jealousy when other lovers come up, and you may never feel it yourself. For now, it can just be good to know that it exists as a feeling you may feel in the future (or you may be feeling it right now!).
The Bottom Line
There’s no one right way to live, and that extends to how we love, who we love, and how many we love. Dating multiple people at once works super well for some folks, and is a total train wreck for others (the same goes for monogamy and basically everything else in this world). I’m of the mind that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as everyone feels good about it and open and honest communication is maintained.
That being said, if you’re opening your body and heart to more than one person, there are some considerations to be made around sexual and emotional health, the main ones of which are listed above. Good luck!
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