Someone recently asked me how non-monogamous people can protect themselves from STIs, and I figured I’d share the information in a longer-format essay as well.
Understand Your Risk. Different flavors of non-monogamy carry different STI risks. If you’re practicing polyfidelity, and/or your network is a closed loop of partners, everyone should be tested, and when they come up clean, you’re OK. Every new person who enters the network should get tested. If you and your partners are always open to new partners and one-night-stands, more precautions are required.
Have a backup plan. Hopefully you won’t, but you may end up getting exposed to an STD. Understand that it’s a risk you take with multiple partners, and be honest with yourself about how you would cope if that happened.
Get yourself & your partners tested. Poly people should get tested frequently (every 3 months) and make it a point to know the STD status of all their partners. Ask all your partners whether they have been tested, and when, and what the results were, and whether they have had any new partners since that test, and whether they checked in with those people about their STD status. Ask that your partners ask their partners the same things. You aren’t entitled to the medical history of your partners’ partners, but you are entitled to ask your partners to take the same care with their partners as you took with each other.
Use protection. People lie, and many STIs are invisible, so you still need to be tested frequently and WEAR CONDOMS - and insist that your partners use condoms with all their partners. They are not 100% effective at preventing all STIs, but they are still the best thing we’ve got.
Trust is key. Everyone in a network should be on the same page - get tested, share the results with partners, use protection. A major part of this is trust. If you don’t trust someone to do their due diligence and be responsible with their health and yours, they shouldn’t be your partner in the first place.
Keep track. It’s a good idea to keep a general calendar of who you sleep with and when. I don’t mean a sprawling spreadsheet chronicling every encounter - but you should have an idea of a timeline and what your network looks like (who hooks up with who, and when). That way, if you or someone in your network does test positive, you know who may have been exposed and you can get in contact with them. If you’re not out and worried about what a document like that could do to your life, keep it with pen-and-paper, not a digital copy. Those are much less likely to get accidentally leaked.
Be honest. This is perhaps the hardest but most important way to protect yourself and your partners from STIs. You need to be honest with your partners about your STI status and demand honesty from them. You need to be honest with your partners about your non-negotiables, like asking that they always use condoms with other partners, get tested every 3 months, etc.
Take control of your health. STI testing can be uncomfortable and many people don’t like doctors, but you need to be a grownup and deal with it. You need to be honest with your doctor about your sexual history, which can be tough. Know what’s normal for you and get anything usual checked out. Advocate for yourself in the healthcare system, and don’t take shit from sex-negative doctors. If you do contract an STI, get tested and treated ASAP. Take your treatment exactly the way it’s prescribed.
Budget for health. There’s a lot that goes into responsible polyamory, from time management to communication skills, and you also need to be smart with your money. Have a financial plan for how you will pay for frequent STI testing and treatment for any STI you might contract.
Be prepared to mobilize. This sort of goes with “be honest” and “keep track” - if you find out that you have been exposed to an STI, you need to get that Autobots, roll out! call to everyone in your network - your partners, their partners, their partners, and so on, so they can all get tested. That can be a very tough conversation to have, especially if you are no longer partners with someone but they still may have been exposed - but it needs to happen.
Questions, comments, or further discussion points about polyamory and sexual health? Find me here.