Safer sex

I was talking the other day with a friend – a young whippersnapper. She had just had unprotected vaginal sex with a guy she had just met. I was a little mortified. “But you have unprotected oral sex in sex clubs all the time!” she protested.

It’s true. Or rather, I don’t do it “all the time,” much as I might like that. But I do, as a matter of at least some regularity, have unprotected oral sex with people I hardly know. And, for years, I had a lot of unprotected oral sex with people I was paying – people who, presumably, were higher risk than those I might meet through more, um, conventional means. But I wouldn’t dream of fucking a woman without a condom (other than T). Not then, and not now.

Occasionally, when T and I are dating other couples, those couples will say things like, “Have you been tested?” Or, “When was the last time you were tested?” On one occasion, a couple asked to see our test results. My response is always somewhat incredulous. You don’t even know my real name (many people don’t date using their real names when they’re dating as couples; T and I don’t), and you’re prepared to believe whatever it is I have to say about test results? I mean, really! First, I could just flat out lie: “YES, I’ve been tested, and I’m clean” (when, in fact, I’m syphilitic, gonorrheal, chlamydiatic, not to mention herpetic and HIV-positive). Or, I could tell the truth, but shade it: “YES, I was tested, and I’m clean” (but the test was two years ago). Or I could claim to have been tested, but in fact, never to have been.

Or, I could tell the actual truth: “Yes, I get tested once or twice a year, and the last time I was tested was about six months ago, and I was clean then.” (This is the truth for me.)

I’ve had a lot of unprotected oral sex in my life, much of it, as I said, with women I was paying. I’ve had good fortune. I had a case of gonorrhea when I was eighteen, contracted as a result of a rape in West Africa (I was the victim – true story). It was treated – promptly and aggressively – with antibiotics, and it was cured. I had genital warts in my 20s. I had them frozen off, and have never had a recurrence. And I’ve never tested positive for any sexually transmitted infection otherwise, though I’ve been tested at least annually, and most years, twice, since I was about twenty.

I’ve always wondered about just what it is people think they possibly could learn as a result of inquiries about testing: if I show you my papers – a clean test result, say, two weeks old, it still doesn’t tell you that I’m clean. Maybe, it tells you I was two weeks ago. But I could have spent a debauched fourteen days at Le Trapeze, and not used a condom once. And then, what good is that paper going to do you?

This is why my presumption is that everyone I have sex with, or fool around with, has every disease I don’t want.

First, I assume we all have HPV and herpes. I’ve never had a herpes outbreak (nor have I ever tested positive for herpes, but my doctor, as a matter of policy, refuses to test – he just tells me, “Yeah, you have it – everyone does.”). In fact, that’s an exaggeration: according to New York’s Department of Health, five years ago, 39% of women, and 19% of men, had it. According to Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, the incidence of herpes among unmarried women between 40 and 50 years of age is 50-75%. Me, I round up, and figure that, a) if it’s that high, and b) given that herpes can be spread even when there’s no outbreak, it’s just safer to imagine we all have it. So, if you want to know if I have it, assume I do; and I’ll assume you do. That’s what the smart money says is good policy, anyway.

As for HPV, here’s what I learned from reading the CDC’s web site: “Because HPV is so common and usually invisible, the only sure way to prevent it is not to have sexual contact.” Um, no thanks. I’ll just assume I have that one, too. And that you do, too.

Next, there are all the other sexually transmitted infections and maladies (other than, for now, HIV) – gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, crabs, etc. To my knowledge, these diseases all are treatable with antibiotics, or soap, or razors, or some combination. So while I hope not to get them, or to give them to you, I’m not that worried about them. My case of gonorrhea was really unpleasant. For, like, a week. I might have had crabs once. I honestly can’t recall. So for all these, my view is, if I get them, I get them. I figure that getting tested every 6-12 months is probably good enough protection against those diseases which are so asymptomatic that I wouldn’t notice if I had them in the first place.

And then, finally, there’s HIV. Maybe it’s a function of my having come of sexual age at the height of the AIDS epidemic, or maybe it’s just that I’m really conservative, but I emerged from my adolescence believing that “fluid-bonding” was something very special – something you only do with someone you really trust. And, if you read my story, I demonstrated aptly that sometimes even those we really trust lead sexual lives characterized by some combination of secrecy and betrayal. And, honestly, I just assume that others are at least as likely to be CPOSs as I ever was. And HIV scares the shit out of me. All those other diseases, infections, whatever? I’ll take ’em. Either a chronic, occasionally symptomatic, but not particularly health-threatening situation, or an infection easily treatable? No problem!

But HIV? NFW! Condoms for me, thanks. Even though they do suck.

So since T and I started dating, more than fifteen years ago now (!), I’ve not had unprotected vaginal (or anal) intercourse with any other human. And I won’t. Until, I suspect, the day I die.

That’s just how I roll.



  1. I read your post with interest because, like you I have relatively regular unprotected oral sex with people I don’t know while kidding myself that using a condom will protect me. About a year ago I contracted Chlamydia which was treated as soon as it was detected. Not such a big deal you say this is why it is a bigger deal than you make out;
    a) because I am part of a couple that has unprotected sex with each other we both have to be treated simoultaneously. If the treatment doesn’t work properly with either of us, as was the case for us, we both have to be treated again.
    b) for many women chlamydia can grow happily for many months and be undetected. The outcomes of such a long term infection in a woman can be quite serious.
    c) like responsible people we informed all of our partners (there wasn’t that many but yes we had those painful conversations) they all got tested. 80% of them reported that they tested positive. This population all practised safe sex the same as us and because of this and the results we have no idea where the infection came from or where it went to.
    d) I went on to have ongoing gynecological examinations as the ongoing infection caused some potentially pre-cancerous changes to my cervix.
    e) as a result of the multiple antibiotics I scored myself a case of vaginosis which meant MORE antibiotics and then of course some thrush.
    All in all the whole episode took several months to clear and for us to feel like we weren’t some infectious danger to others. My GP told me that it is possible to contract chlamydia in the throat and then pass it to another genitally. My research and education (I am a microbiologist) tell me that this is also the case with gonorrhea. As a result of the whole episode I had long conversations with my doctor about my lifestyle and he informed me the only way to be totally safe is to wrap yourself in latex before touching anyone anywhere. He also told me that my testing regeime should resemble that of a sex worker i.e full STI screen at least every three months that way any sub-clinical infections can be detected and treated early.
    Like yourself I believe condoms are the scum of the earth but even as a result of my experience I still don’t have protected oral sex, I just can’t go there it is kind of like going to McDonalds and having a salad. But I don’t for a second kid myself that an STI is not a big deal.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful, comprehensive, clarifying reply.

      Your tale is helpful, edifying, and of course, right: it’s not true that all STIs are always a walk in the park, even those readily treatable with antibiotics. And yes, ALL of us who are sexually active should be tested more rather than less often. (I’m interested in the “every three months” guideline – is there science behind that, about infection latency and progression? Or is it just a heuristic?)

      And/but second, in the end, even after your (unfortunate, painful) tale, your conclusion is the same as mine: the risks associated with unprotected oral sex are tolerable, and even preferable to the steps one would have to take to avoid them, whereas this is not so for vaginal or anal intercourse.

      I’m interested in the phenomenon of people engaging in unprotected oral/anal intercourse: this seems inexplicable to me, intolerable. Even if the risks are, as you write, quite bad, they’re not death. And even as HIV has become a manageable, chronic infection, rather than a certain death sentence, it’s manageable at enormous cost and sacrifice, and shit, it’s still really fucking scary. So maybe that’s a better way to put it. Not that STIs aren’t serious, aren’t scary. But that I’m comfortable with the risks associated with the STIs I might get from face-fucking some (kind) woman I’ve never met, or from my wife’s having sucked another man’s cock, or from going down on the wrong woman. Those seem tolerable.

      But HIV? No thanks.

  2. The only STI I ever caught was disastrous and it wasn’t because I was having unprotected sex with strangers, it was because my husband at the time was. Chlamydia. It went undetected for months and ravaged my Fallopian tubes, scarring them and sealing them shut.
    As a result, I’m not going to play with anyone who plays with other people or engages in high-risk behaviours. I go bare with Sir, but it’s because we’re exclusive (and we both know that for a fact).

    ~Kazi xxx

    1. 1. I’m sorry. That’s awful.

      2. One postscript to all this may just be that regular testing is even more important for women than for men because women are far more likely to be asymptomatic, even if infected.

      3. Without in any way casting aspersions on your, or Sir’s, trustworthiness, it MAY be a fact that neither of you is screwing around with anyone else (though I don’t know how you could KNOW this), but I think a more honest description of what you mean is that you both claim to be sexually monogamous, and you both believe the other implicitly. Nothing wrong with this, at all. But many members of couples might have said – DID say – the same thing before (and after) one or both of them stepped out, once, twice, or a thousand times.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  3. Sorry but the whole thing makes my skin crawl. Back in my swinging days I got Chlamydia, from oral sex. I took the antibiotics but within a fortnight it was back again and so I had to take them again and for much longer. The whole thing was horrible. I felt so disgustingly dirty and not in a good way. I never went swinging again. Now I am married again and in a mainly monogamous relationship with my husband. We have interacted with a couple of other woman but we have been very careful about it and will continue to do so.

    Oh and before you call our monogamous relationship into question we live, work and socialise together, unless one of us is fucking someone out in the garage while we are on the tread mill. I KNOW without a shadow of a doubt we are monogamous.

    I find your attitude to the ‘other’ STI’s somewhat casual but then I suspect that is because you are not at risk of getting cervical cancer from HPV or internal scarring from the Chlamydia… I suspect if you thought your dick was going to shrivel up and fall off you might not be so calm about them.


    1. “The whole thing?” I’m not sure what you’re referring to. If you’re referring to STIs, yeah, I agree.

      And I apologize if you feel I called your (or anyone’s) monogamous relationship into question. I really didn’t mean to do that. I meant to make a very different point, which is simply that we sometimes confuse what we know with what we wish. And that doesn’t mean that what we wish isn’t also true – it’s just to say that wishing isn’t knowledge, and knowledge is hard to come by.

      As for my “casual” attitude, I wonder….

      But I’ll save that all for another piece.

      Your final sentence reads a bit hostile – if it is, I’m sorry to have offended you. If I’m misreading, then I’ll just read it as literal, and, yes, you’re right. But I don’t think my dick is going to shrivel up and fall off – and behaving as if I did, when I don’t, would be – well, silly.

      Finally, I think that the horrible story KaziGrrl tells is horrible, but not typical. AND, it simply speaks in favor of regular testing. NOT of any particular prophylactic regime, which really is what I was writing about.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. Two other thoughts, Molly:

      1) You write that you “felt so disgustingly dirty.” I think this is a telling phrase, and one which connects to a follow-up post I’m about to put up. That feeling – of dirtiness – is about sex, sexuality, not infection. We don’t feel “dirty” when we have strep throat; we feel SICK. Why did you feel dirty when you got an infection from sex? I’m not saying you’re wrong, or that I would feel different. I’m just pointing out something unique about our relationship to sexually transmitted infections. And something that informs how we relate not just to having them, but to risking them.

      2) You write that you’re “very careful” about the women with who you interact sexually. Do you mean you choose carefully? Or that you use dental dams and condoms rigorously? Because if you mean the former, then I say, feh. They all have HPV. They all have Herpes. And they may well all have chlamydia. And/or HIV. How would you possibly know if they didn’t? So what, exactly, is the benefit of your being careful? Or, do you mean, you do it with very FEW, in which case you’re using quantity to manage your risk – a perfectly sensible move, I think.

      Once more, thanks!

  4. I actually found this article (and the ensuing discussion) fascinating. I think I share your perspective, although I have historically been appalling at safe sex. My self control went a bit out of the window, particularly when I was younger. Although, I have never been one for lots of partners with whom penetrative sex happens. I like deep emotional bonds with people I fuck.

    Perhaps bizarrely, the greatest fear I have is pregnancy. I am absolutely terrified of getting pregnant. I view this as others would HIV, except medicine can’t keep your lifestyle when you have children (I do not believe in abortion and could not have one, I would never dream of stopping anyone else having them, but for me, no). The women on my mother’s side of the family all had very early menopauses, so I am hoping I will too, but I have already passed the age my grandmother and aunt got theirs.

    Certainly, I don’t consider STIs any worse than other diseases, but then I have no desire for children so if my insides shrivel up, I don’t really care as long as I don’t have any pain.

  5. As for STD’s or STI’s both me and the man have been lucky. He was in an almost 10yr relationship where his partner cheated with many people. For me, when I was sleeping with other people, I was quite stupid. We both have been tested throughout our time together and so far so good. I do know if either of us sleep with someone else, we know them and trust them well enough to hope they wouldn’t want to give us the clap or HIV. But, like you and some of the others said, it is a risk you take when choosing to have sex.

    I must say, I like that you were so open to talk about something most shy away from. My mother contacted Hep C from my stepdad when I was 9. My whole childhood dynamic changed. We couldn’t share drinks, she kept her toothbrush away from me, she said if I ever saw her bleeding stay away. She might have gone overboard, but she saw herself as a sick diseased person who should not touch anyone. I took some of that with me and would feel like shit if I ever got something and passed it on, no matter how treatable or common. But that is only me and how I was taught about STD/STI’s

  6. I have read your post and all the comments with interest. Thank all for being so open. Other than the common candida infection, I have never had any kind of sexual infection. I deem myself lucky, since I had quite some encounters of unprotected sex in my teens and early twenties. And now, in our adult years, we are very careful who we have sex with. Yes, condoms are used.

  7. HIV is the scary one, but as someone who has had dangerous experiences from antibiotics, they all scare me at least some.

    Though it’s not the major point in your post, I’m curious how you healed from the sexual assault and if anything helped. I am in counseling but it feels so raw a year and a half from the most recent one. I’m sorry you had to experience it.If it’s better for you not to think about it, please don’t worry about responding–I don’t want to be intrusive.

    1. Maybe someday I’ll write about it. The short version is, it want even slightly traumatic. It was all but a non-event psychically. And in retrospect, really mostly a funny story. Which is not in any way to make light of sexual assault.

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