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Let's talk about (safer) sex

Here's what you need to know about discussing HIV and STI prevention.

by Yamini Oseguera-Bhatnagar

Having a conversation with your partner about safer sex can be intimidating for a lot of people. Safer sex is a general term that is used to describe all of the ways partners can choose to prevent the transmission and acquisition of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but when thinking about bringing up safer sex, you may wonder how your partner will react. You might worry that they’ll judge you, or whether they’ve ever thought about having these conversations with you. You may even question whether or not you have enough information on the topic to broach the subject.  

On the flip side, you may find that your partner is excited to have a conversation about safer sex and is open to researching more information with you. Opening up dialogue and creating a new channel of communication might feel awkward at first, but this new space might make you feel closer to each other. Whatever reaction you receive from your partner, know that you have the right to feel safe and be healthy. You also deserve to have your concerns heard and your needs met.

There are many ways that you and your partner can practice safer sex to prevent HIV and STIs. Sexuality varies from person to person, and not all sex involves exchanging bodily fluids. Rubbing, massaging, kissing, licking, or using your hands and fingers to pleasure each other are just a few ways to switch up the way you have sex. And, of course, there are safer sex options if you want to go all the way:

  • You can use either internal or external condoms to prevent pregnancy and STIs.

  • You and your partner can get tested regularly for HIV and STIs. Treating STIs as soon as possible also plays a big role in preventing HIV because STIs can actually make it easier to pass on HIV or get the virus from your partner.

  • You and/or your partner can use PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to protect against HIV.

Whether negotiating condom use, making a plan for HIV/STI testing, or discussing PrEP as an option, here are some things to consider when preparing to talk to your partner about safer sex:

  • Safety first: You have the right to feel safe.  Assess your relationship and your partner for any possibility of violence. If you feel like there is any chance of escalation, reconsider the conversation. If you need support or are seeking safety, check out Love is Respect for information and resources about dealing with an abusive relationship.

  • The why: Take some time to figure out why you want to have this conversation and why it’s important to you. Having a clear focus will help cut through initial awkwardness.

  • Practice makes perfect: If you’re thinking about having a safer sex conversation with your partner, consider role-playing the interaction with a friend or someone you trust. Practicing can help put you at ease when the time comes for the actual conversation.

  • Tell your truth: Be honest about your needs around prevention of HIV/STIs (and pregnancy, if that applies to you), or the type of sex that you are wanting to have.

  • Listen to your partner: Hear them out. They may need a chance to process the feelings brought up by the conversation you are having or by what you are asking of them.

  • Be prepared to go it alone: If your partner is not really feeling the conversation, you may need to re-assess the situation. Be prepared to take steps for your own mental, physical, and emotional health. If you need to, consider options like PrEP that don’t require your partner to buy in.

  • Be open to teaming up: If your partner is into it, do some research together. Get informed as a team. Visit a family planning or STI clinic together and talk to a provider or health educator. This has the potential to strengthen your relationship and allow you to be more open and intimate with each other.

Discomfort is not always a bad thing. It can sometimes lead to much needed growth for both you and in your boo. Your body and overall health are of utmost importance, and for this reason, it is worth it to have uncomfortable conversations with your partner.  Gaining more clarity and understanding of safer sex and the kinds of sex you both want can take your intimacy to the next level.  

If you think you’re almost ready to have the conversation, feel free to read more about safer sex, and if you decide that PrEP is the right option for you and want to learn more about how it fits into your broader sexual health and well-being, come chat with us at PleasePrEPMe.

Yamini is a contributor to PleasePrEPMe and the POWER Health Coordinator at HIVEOnline, advancing reproductive and sexual wellness for individuals, families and communities affected by HIV in San Francisco and beyond.

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