I have two partners. Partner A only has one other partner who doesn’t have any other partners. Partner B has two other partners, both of which have other partners. One of Partner B’s partners contracted gonorrhea so now we all have to get tested. Like, ten of us. And I’m freaking out a little bit. Gonorrhea isn’t a big deal, but it could have just as easily been HIV or something else not treatable. What do you do to keep yourself safe?

I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with an STI scare and it’s got you freaking out. Let me first try and soothe some of that anxiety. It’s actually a really good sign that you know what’s going on and that everyone is going to get tested. It shows that the people in your extended polyamorous network are mature and responsible enough to have awkward, unpleasant conversations for the sake of everyone’s safety.

In fact, one study found that healthy, consensual non-monogamy actually reduces your risk of contracting an STI, because it creates the “emotional infrastructure” required to keep everyone safe. If you were monogamous and your partner cheated on you, for instance, you wouldn’t have the same exchange of information and openness. So be proud of yourself and your partners and metamours for being trustworthy grownups about this.

As for the concern about other STIs: I know it can be easy to jump to the worst-case-scenario of “what if it was HIV?” but I want to try and offer some alternative framings. For one thing, i’m not sure it “could just have easily been HIV,” since gonorrhea and chlamydia are the most commonly reported STIs among young sexually active people, and there are far fewer new cases of HIV every year. (Source.)

Also, it sounds like your polyamorous network is responsible enough to reduce your risk significantly with regards to HIV - someone with HIV who gets tested regularly would know they have HIV and take active steps to inform their partners and reduce their transmission risks. So it sounds like within the circle of people you’re sexually linked to, it’s much ‘easier’ for a gonorrhea infection to accidentally show up than an HIV one.

Know that HIV is treatable, even though it is not currently curable. Once an HIV infection is discovered, the person with the virus can take drugs that significantly reduce their viral load and thus their transmission risks. But, again, if someone who is HIV-positive enters your polyamorous network, you can cross that bridge when you come to it. STIs are not interchangeable; the fact that you may have been exposed to gonorrhea doesn’t mean you have the same risk level of exposure to HIV. 

Second, as for the question what do you do to keep yourself safe? Exactly what you are doing! The person with gonorrhea did the right thing by getting tested regularly enough to catch it. Everyone did the right thing by alerting the extended network. You’re doing the right thing by going and getting tested. It sounds like you’ve surrounded yourself with people who are wise and safe, that you choose partners well and your partners choose their partners well. Great job!

In the end, though, there is no way to 100% guarantee that you’ll never be exposed to an STI, whether it’s gonorrhea or HIV, as long as you have multiple partners who have multiple partners. All you can do is reduce your risk by:

  • Getting tested regularly and insisting that your partners do as well
  • Setting clear, non-negotiable, zero-tolerance boundaries around protection
  • Cultivating a safe culture for people to inform the extended network about possible exposure

My partners and I use condoms for 100% of penetrative sex. I would consider it a major consent violation if I found out that a partner of mine had condom-less sex with someone else, or if one tried to pressure me into condom-less sex. I would also consider it a major violation on my part, akin to cheating in a monogamous relationship, if I chose to have condom-less sex. If I find out that someone is lax about protection or part of a polyamorous network with a higher risk tolerance than me, I don’t sleep with them. 

It’s okay for different people to have different risk tolerances. Know yours, and stick to it. Most things in life that are enjoyable or otherwise worth doing carry some risk. Car accidents kill tons of people every year, but I still make the calculated risk to drive to where I want to go. I drive safely and wear a seatbelt, but I accept that “risking a car accident” is what I choose instead of “never drive anywhere.” Some people make a different choice, and that’s okay. Rather than trying to guard yourself 100% against potentially getting an STI, try instead to be clear-eyed and balanced about the risks you are and are not willing to take.