Is the risk of STIs/STDs higher if you're polyamorous?

Mar 24, 2017

Liz: What if you want to try polyamory but you’re really worried about STIs?

Cathy: That’s like a great question.

Liz: Great question. This is Cathy Vartuli from The Intimacy Dojo.

Cathy: And this is Dr. Liz from Sex-Positive Psych.

Liz: So I think a lot of people are under the impression that if you’re polyamorist, you’re always having tons of sex.

Cathy: With all random people.

Liz: All random people like giant orgies everywhere, right? And the population of the polyamorist people are people who are non-monogamous, have high rates of STIs, sexually transmitted infections.

Cathy: Yeah. And I honestly did that have impression.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: When I first went to Reid Mihalko’s site years ago. I saw this stuff about poly and I’m like, oh sleazy and I ran away.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: And it’s not actually.

Liz: Yeah. The reality is when we look at the research, people who engage in consensual non-monogamy tend to have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections than people who don’t. Part of the reason I think that happens is that people in non-monogamous communities tend to be better about barrier use than people outside of those communities.

Cathy: And getting tested.

Liz: They’re better about getting tested. They’re better about talking about their test results. They tend to have less stigma about STIs.

Cathy: And getting treated.

Liz: So they’re more open to disclosing what they have and they get what they have treated. In a lot of cases, the most dangerous situation you can have is someone who doesn’t know that they have an STI because they don’t ever get tested or who doesn’t tell you that they have an STI or someone who just doesn’t ever use barriers.

Cathy: Right.

Liz: And people can choose to never use barriers, right? Like as a human being, you can choose at any point what you want to do with your body sexually.

Cathy: Right.

Liz: As long as you are giving informed consent to those having sex with you.

Cathy: Right.

Liz: Right? But like realistically, the folks I know who are poly are actually much safer in their sex practices, much more risk-aware in their sex practices than those I know who practice normative, mainstream monogamous dating.

Cathy: I’ve dated – because I date people in the spectrum of poly and I went out with – when I was first starting dating, I went out with a bunch of people that were kind of hetero-normative and I would talk to them about safer sex because a good sex does that. And they’re like, “Oh, I’ve never been tested but I’m sure I’m fine and I could tell.” And I’m like, “No, you can’t tell.”

And they might have had a stereo monogamous. They’ve been monogamous but they dated like 10, had been sexual with them. And I’m like, “You’ve never been tested?” And they’re like, “No, I don’t need to be.”

Liz: Well, I think that a lot of that attitude comes from this erroneous belief that people have that bad people get STIs.

Cathy: Yeah.

Liz: Part of the way that STI stigma works is that it says that if you have an STI, you did something to deserve it. You’re a bad, gross, nasty person.

Cathy: Yeah. You are sinful so therefore you’re being punished.

Liz: Right. And if you’re a good person or a nice person or a sexy person …

Cathy: Or a loving person.

Liz: …you obviously would not have STIs. The thing is, STIs are like a cold, right? Anyone can get them.

Cathy: Well, the most common STI is the common cold.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: And you can get that – we’ve all have that.

Liz: Everyone has had the common cold, right? Things like herpes, HSV-1 which most commonly appears orally, a lot of people get them like kissing their grandma. I mean grandma had a cold sore.

Cathy: Yeah.

Liz: Right? The stigma that we have around STIs is often farthest proportionate to the effects it actually has in our lives or our bodies. Having herpes can be uncomfortable. It can be inconvenient. It can be frightening in terms of how people will react to you having it. But it doesn’t actually really cause you that much physical harm in the long term. Even HIV these days, they have great medication for it. It’s very treatable.

There are people whose viral loads are undetectable and the risk of transmission when you have an undetectable viral load is very, very small.

Cathy: Yeah. So I encourage you wherever you’re at to get it’s useful to be educated about it. I know I used to have so much – there is so much shame associated with STIs. I didn’t want to look. And I went to China when I was in college and I hadn’t been sexually active at that point but I was going overseas so I’d have to be – that’s how China was requiring testing. And I remember the deep, deep shame I had to go to the doctor to get this even though I had a medical excuse and a required form filled out, just to talk to someone. And there are a lot of doctors that are still shame-based around this.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: A lot of doctors would not even test for herpes because so many people have herpes that they don’t want to test them because it shames – they don’t want the shame thing.

Liz: And it’s also like from a public health perspective, the herpes test is very expensive and doesn’t necessarily give you very useful information. It tells you, you are exposed to the herpes virus because you have antibodies to it but not necessarily that you have the herpes virus or contrive that to someone else.

Cathy: Or where on your body it is that you could watch for it or whatever.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: So being educated and being aware and that means some of the shame go around having – potentially having an STI because anybody …

Liz: Anybody could have an STI.

Cathy: Yeah.

Liz: I have HSV-1. I have oral cold sores. That’s what it is.

Cathy: And I’ve had lovers for years that have HSV-1 and I am not tested positive for it and I’m also aware that I could test positive for it because I have lovers that have it. But realized, knowing – understanding the risks …

Liz: And that the risks aren’t just STIs. There are so many risks that are associated with any kind of sexual encounter that you have. There are emotional risks, relational risks.

Cathy: Pregnancy.

Liz: Pregnancy. And when all you’re worried about is whether you’re going to get gonorrhea or chlamydia, you’re missing out on a lot of the risks that you actually might benefit from thinking about. And gonorrhea and chlamydia generally aren’t that huge a deal as long as get treated.

Cathy: And sometimes they’re not the resistant ones which are relatively rare still. Thank god.

Liz: Pretty rare, yeah.

Cathy: So yeah, I would encourage you to explore. I wouldn’t avoid the type of relationship based on that fear.

Liz: Yeah. If polys are not the right fit for you, it’s not the right fit for you. But a lot of it could be concerns that I hear about poly are, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to get an STI or but I’m going to feel jealous.” People feel jealous in monogamous relationships all the time. No one says don’t do monogamy because you’ll jealous.

Cathy: That’s hilarious, yeah. Let’s talk about jealousy next.

Liz: Yeah. Let’s talk about jealousy. All right. If you have comments about STIs, down here.

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