Let the Conversations Begin: Safer Sex is Smart Sex

 “How could someone who looks like a kindly grandparent possibly have a STD? Thanks to the misconception that safer sex is unnecessary if we’re no longer fertile and that someone looks safe and says he or she has no STDs, sexually transmitted diseases are soaring among our age group.” Joan Price, “The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50: How to Maintain—or Regain—a Spicy Satisfying Sex Life.”

There are so many important conversations we don’t ever have about sex—why start with the safer sex conversation? Because the fact is, far too many people don’t have this conversation, don’t know how to have it, and the inability to communicate even at the level of personal health and safety can set the tone for an unsatisfying relationship—while jeopardizing personal safety. In my work as a sexologist, in conversations with friends and in attending over 18 workshops on love, sexuality and intimacy, I’ve spoken with far too many people who have avoided this conversation (or addressed it in the most cursory way), only to end up with an STI, or in an unsatisfactory relationship where neither partner’s sexual needs were met. It starts here—at the beginning. Because if you can’t have this conversation at the outset of a relationship, what kind of relationship will you have? And if you’re in it just to have some quick, hot sex, why not make it as safe as possible?

Think back to the last time you had sex with a new partner. What kind of conversations did you have before you became sexual? How did you decide you wanted to be sexual with this person? What discussions did you have about safer sex practices? Any? Did you talk about what having sex meant to you? Or was it a matter of, “Well, we’ve been going out for a few weeks now, and things seem to be going in that direction, so we’ll see….?”

In this series, I’ll introduce the two safer sex conversations you have to learn how to initiate because communicating about safer sex, including your and your partner's STI histories, safer sex practices, and STI testing histories, is vital to your sexual health. The next three blogs will address the sexual health safer sex conversation. The fourth blog will address the emotional health safer sex conversation, that is, talking about what having sex means to you before you become sexual. Whether you are in your twenties or sixties, this is important information—so read on!

The Sexual Health Safer Sex Conversation

For a multitude of reasons (shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, inexperience, etc.) people do not talk about sex—even sexual health and safety—before becoming sexual with new partners. Condom use in people over the age of 50 is abysmal and the rate of new STIs  in people 50-90 has doubled between 2002-2012. Teenagers are using condoms at a higher rate than the over 50 set! Perhaps we can learn from our children—and grandchildren. Here are a few additional statistics for you:

  • Around 75% of people carry either Herpes Simplex Virus I or II somewhere on their body, and can transmit that to another person through physical contact; the article to which I’ve linked is a fascinating read—I highly recommend it;
  • In a 2009 AARP Survey, 50% of males and 29% of females rarely or never use condoms and only 12% of males and 32% of females regularly use protection;
  • A “newly discovered” STI, mycoplasma genitalium (“MG”), like most STIs is best prevented through condom use;
  • Post-menopausal women are at greater risk for STI transmission (especially blood-borne diseases like HIV or Chlamydia) due to thinning vaginal tissues and lack of lubrication. This condition can cause tearing during intercourse, which facilitates disease transmission.

Do I have your attention yet? If you are having unprotected sex with anyone whose STI status you do not know you are taking a significant health risk—and I didn’t even mention HIV statistics. In next week’s blog, I’ll address what it means to “know” your partner’s STI status and how you can become your own best advocate as you enjoy getting to know a new partner.