Learning to assess and communicate about risk in relationships is something that many Americans don’t learn how to do, and I think it might be connected to our culture’s default setting of monogamy (or at the very least, that there’s a useful parallel to draw).
First, let me be clear: I have nothing against monogamy as a relationship style, I just think it should be freely chosen when people are aware that there are other options out there. And I think that’s rare, given what I would call America’s monocentrism or mononormativity – basically, the normalizing of monogamy as the only/best way to do romantic and sexual relationships. Think of every toxic behavior that’s idealized in rom coms or pop songs and you get the idea (fetishizing jealousy, holding up stalking behaviors as adorable, and so on).
And I also don’t think that people who choose to be in monogamous relationships are necessarily doing it primarily for the assured protection against STI transmission, though that’s certainly a benefit, in the way same that being sexually abstinent practically guarantees no risk of transmission.*
But – run with me on this one – I think that due to a lack of comprehensive, inclusive, and medically accurate sex education in the U.S., most people don’t learn about relationship communication, especially the facets of it to do with risk assessment around STIs. High school students are shown some gross pictures of infected genitals, and told not to have sex until marriage, and that’s it. And so when it comes to transmissible illnesses, sexual or not, most people don’t really receive the tools to assess risks, decide their own personal level of comfort with various risks, communicate those boundaries to others, and make a plan or compromise as needed. Which is annoying, because including relationships in sex education actually helps empower people.
Along those lines, I think we should all know what harm reduction is (which I explain here) and be able to apply its main principles, such as the idea that being human in this world carries some inherent risks, and the idea that we should meet people where they’re at in terms of what is not only healthy but also feasible.
Is it realistic to expect every human to go completely without social contact for months or years of their lives? Maybe not, since we are such social creatures and we depend upon networks larger than individuals for food, medicine, and so on… but some countries have pretty successfully implemented stay-at-home orders (whether through authoritarianism or ensuring that people won’t die due to not working, as is the case in the U.S. due to how we’ve done health care and capitalism, but that’s another rant).
The point of this post is that I believe we should be learning to negotiate risk better, which means learning how to have these conversations in the first place. For some people, such as the elderly or immuno-compromised or those who are their caretakers or family or lovers, risk needs to be reduced as much as possible. For others, some risk is acceptable or necessary, though no one can really make an informed call about this since there are still so many variables and unknowns with the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 (precisely because the damn thing is novel – we don’t know enough about it yet). So I’m not using the language of “informed consent” here, though in general I think giving informed consent for social and/or sexual interactions is quite important.
To pick my parallel up again, monogamy is only a useful shield against STI transmission if you practice it perfectly, and the same can be said of social distancing. The unfortunate thing is that the rise of monocentrism means that many people have monogamy as their cultural default setting, meaning they assume everyone is on the same page about what monogamy actually means, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
What constitutes cheating, for example? Is watching porn without your partner cheating? Is masturbating cheating? None of those are particularly high-risk events when the topic is STI risk, but they can lead to arguments. And there’s apparently something called emotional cheating, which again, isn’t about STI risk but can be hurtful, especially if partners thought they were on the same page about what it is and what it means, but find out that they weren’t.
Then there’s actual infidelity, the practice of non-consensual non-monogamy, where one partner steps out and has sexual contact with another party without their partner’s knowledge or consent. This is actually quite common, and it destroys any ability to assume one is safe from STI risk, especially if the original couple is also fluid-bonded (I talk about fluid bonding here at my sex ed site, but it’s basically an explicit agreement to ditch condoms and other protective barriers because the parties involved are on the same page about STI risk and birth control).
Even in monogamous arrangements where everyone is following the rules, one must throw in the potential for miscommunication to occur. I’ve identified one type of miscommunication as the “misagreement,” where both parties thought they had an agreement but it turns out there was some unintended ambiguity. This can also happen with fluid bonds, where there’s an assumption that people are just talking about using condoms for PIV (penis-in-vagina) sex, but then what about oral sex? Does it matter if there are additional bodily fluids involved (e.g. is it okay to not just suck on someone’s genitals but also swallow anything resulting from said stimulation)? Is kissing considered swapping fluids in a way that’s noteworthy? …which, it kinda is, because STIs such as herpes type 1 a.k.a. cold sores can be transmitted via mouth-to-mouth contact.
Oh and it’s also important to know your STI status when having these conversations. When was the last time you were tested? Do you know the approximate window between last exposure and when you can get accurate testing results for each STI? If you’re newly partnered, did you talk about this going in? In my experience, a lot of people don’t understand that they should be tested within appropriate windows each time they have a new sexual partner, even if they’re doing so more or less monogamously, following what we might call serial monogamy (where you only have one partner at a time, but once you’re single, you can shop for a new partner).
Further, it’s important to know what specifically you’ve been tested for. I guarantee that if you walk into a clinic or your doctor’s office and ask to be tested for “everything,” that’s not what’ll happen. According to the World Health Organization there are over 30 types of STIs out there, and I’m not sure if that number includes viruses that are not technically genital-oriented in nature but can be transmitted sexually, such as Zika virus. No doctor is actually going to test you for “everything” unless maybe there are some intriguing and extenuating circumstances afoot (and you have to account for errors, because sometimes test results are lost or botched or mislabeled).
(pro tip from a sex educator: if someone you’re dating or hooking up with says they’ve been tested for “everything” but cannot elaborate on what that means, maybe consider your level of comfort with the implications of that statement and probably try to have a sexual safety plan that includes barrier use until there can be a more detailed testing schedule)
If you’re in a monogamous relationship, have you talked through each and every one of the above points? Why or why not? Do you and your partner even use the same terms for anatomy, sexual acts, and so on?
Somewhat modified versions of all of these points apply to the practice of social distancing in a time of coronavirus, too. Just like it’s harder than it appears at first glance to perfectly practice monogamy to protect from unwanted STI risks, it’s harder to arrive at and implement shared understandings of social distancing to protect from COVID-19.
Are no-contact porch drops and deliveries actually “no contact”? No, of course not, but any reduction of risk is ideal, and different people have different tolerances for risk. If you’re not an essential worker and able to shelter in place, what is an ideal risk level for you, and how does that take into account the people in your social networks who your decisions impact? One person’s “going to the market once a week” could look entirely different than another person’s “going to the market once a week” based on a whole host of details like wearing masks, having hand sanitizer on you, and so on… and these details, much like the details going into assumptions around what sexual monogamy means, are not likely to emerge unless explicitly brought to the surface in conversation.
One benefit of having consensual non-monogamy on your radar is that many of its practitioners have made a lot of material available on the internet, through podcasts, and in books discussing exactly these kinds of issues. Whether someone identifies as being in an open relationship, being polyamorous, being a swinger, or whatever, they likely fall under the umbrella category of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical non-monogamy. Many of these people are accustomed to taking into account not just their immediate partners, but also the needs and boundaries of their partners’ partners, the same sorts of extended social networks of contact that are relevant no matter whether we’re talking about sexually transmitted illness or other kinds of illnesses. I’d hope that a lot of the “single but dating around” people would also be accessing these resources, but if they’re doing so within a monocentric frame, it’s possible that they haven’t been exposed to the variety of perspectives around communication and safer sex that the explicitly non-monogamous communities have pioneered.
I want to be clear, however, that other demographics know how to have these nuanced conversation about risk too; I just chose to talk about CNM as my main example since it’s something I study. People with chronic illnesses, people with disabilities, people who need to negotiate for various kinds of contact or lack thereof – they’ve all got these skills too. As do many of the people who love them and care for them… one thing I’ve observed is that people are plenty capable of learning to converse with nuance and empathy, they often just need a reason to first start learning how.
And neither CNM folks nor other demographics owe it to you to explain all these wondrous communication methods. For one thing, that’s emotional labor no one is owed. You can pay to take a class or buy someone’s book, or perhaps ask it as a favor from a friend in one of these groups. One irony here, of course, is that people who practice ethical non-monogamy are often considered sexually deviant or slutty in the mainstream… but given the fact that they’re used to taking into account the risk of transmissible illnesses and learning to have complex conversations on that topic, they might be perceived as having more social value now as teachers in this moment.
However, please keep in mind that there is still a fair bit of stigma associated with being in ethically non-monogamous relationships, as I discuss here. So maybe it’s not realistic to just wrassle yourself some non-mono folks to pick their brains about risk management strategies, if you don’t already have friends who are comfortable with being out to you as ethically non-monogamous to you. And I hate that I have to say this, but oh my fucking god do NOT out anyone as non-monogamous. It doesn’t matter to whom, nor do your (hopefully good) intentions matter. Many people are in the closet about this due to aforementioned stereotypes and stigma, and very real social consequences that unfortunately still exist, like losing one’s job or losing custody of one’s children.
One other thing I want to make clear is that I’m not intending to advance the fallacy that polyamorous folks are more evolved than their monogamous counterparts, or whatever. I see that idea running around every so often and I think it’s complete BS. Yes, sometimes it takes being a bit more of a free thinker to reflect on one’s relationship proclivities and realize that there are alternatives to the norm, and yes, many non-mono folks have to develop advanced relationship/communication skill sets that aren’t part of the default setting that many people assume to be adequate. But that doesn’t meant than anyone practicing CNM is “better” than anyone practicing monogamy. Making that assumption is false and pernicious.
Although – fun aside – there is evidence that people practicing CNM actually have lower STI transmission rates than monogamous people who cheat. Polyamory researcher Dr. Elisabeth Sheff cites various studies to that effect here. So maybe there is something to the whole “learn to have more nuanced conversations around risk management” strategy. And maybe some of the shaming of sexually active people with multiple partners should go away forever.
I’ve written a bit more than intended so I’ll wrap this up. Comparing social isolation to monogamy obviously isn’t a perfect fit, it’s just meant to get people thinking and talking about what constitutes risk and whether they’re actually on the same page about it, no matter how many partners or housemates or family members or coworkers might be in the picture.
*Not the main point of this post, but I went with the “monogamy” rather than the “abstinence” metaphor here overall because while abstaining from any sexual contact is in fact a reliable way to ensure that one’s not at risk for STI transmission (barring the possibility of sexual assault, sigh), I loathe the way abstinence is framed and taught in abstinence-only sex education in the U.S.; it’s morphed into a moralistic and shaming way of teaching lies in that classroom that is so awful, I just don’t want anything to do with it. Want to see me rant on the topic more? Read this post.
Also? Abstinence is a facet of many people’s lives, for a variety of reasons and doubtless with various emotions accompanying it. You can abstain from sex and be physiologically fine. However, humans are not able to abstain from interpersonal contact to the same degree; we evolved in groups and our brains are wired for a number of social cues and settings, and in terms of the way societies are structured, we are interdependent on one another in countless ways. So that’s another reason why, for all that abstinence from sex mostly guarantees zero risk of transmission of STIs – but remember Ryan White, the Indiana kid who received an HIV-carrying blood transfusion – I chose to use monogamy rather than abstinence for this extended metaphor.