I recently had a conversation about sexual health with a friend’s nephew, wherein I’m pretty sure I accidentally outed him as a non-virgin to his aunt and uncle. It was really a lot of fun: not the part where I may have outed him, but the part where I got to talk with him about his sexual health, the choices he made and what kind of path for risk or safety they put him on.
The question on the table was what’s the smoothest, least awkward way to talk to your partner about their sexual history, and specifically about being tested for stds. I was pulled into the conversation because the only other members of it had been monogamous—married in fact—for over ten years. I was proud to tell him that when my sweetheart and I had talked about sex we’d done so candidly and thoughtfully; it hadn’t really been so much about smooth or cool, but it had been about honesty and safety and clarity. The last time I’d gotten tested was before we began having sex, we’d both gotten tested for a battery of tests, and we’ve worked together to make sure our sex life is as healthy as possible in as many ways as possible. It felt really good to be talking candidly with someone I barely knew about what a condom protects you from, what a birth control pill does to a woman’s chemicals, how I’d handled the complicated nature of being a woman with a past in a relationship with a man with a past. I felt educated and empowered and wise. I felt grounded in some solid, beautiful healthy energy of the Earth Mother Goddess.
But I’ve been thinking back and I realize it wasn’t always that way.
By and large the sex education I had was "Don't have sex until you're married." I don't necessarily mean I didn't know what sex was--I consider that intercourse, but I had all of the mechanics down, no sweat. But sex. What it is to get naked and sloppy with another person, and to feel all this weird, confusing amazing stuff in your body, or to feel nothing at all in your body, or to feel violated and frustrated and frightened, or more intimately connected than you've ever been to another human being. Nobody talked to me at all about the possibility of this inside of sex. My parents both preached abstinence as the ultimate method of birth control. My mother talked plenty about condoms, so I knew what one was and how to use one, in case I decided I didn't want to wait; but the idea of not waiting as an option wasn't ever discussed. My own sexuality was something my parents had caused me to fear, like there was some kind of growling, out-of-control hellcat swimming in the viscera between my legs, and the only way to staunch it was by starvation, at least until I'd been saddled or blessed, whichever way the wheel turned, with a husband. I think back to my parents and how we talked about my sex life and I imagine them chanting, "Don't have sex until you're married. Don't have sex until you're married. Don't have sex until you're married," much in the manner of Bart and Lisa Simpson. (P.S. the clip is really long and not great quality, and I never, ever thought I'd be referencing the Simpsons in this blog, but dig it to see what I mean.)
So learning about the physical how of sex was done, but learning the why of sex never happened. Abstinence was labeled with the blanket instruction of sex before marriage being the will of God, but why that was never became clear either. And so, the year I turned seventeen, I met a boy with beautiful brown eyes who didn't listen to me. He asked me, and I spent a year thinking up creative ways to say No, over and over and over again. Until one day, I got tired of saying no, so I looked at him, shrugged, and sighed, "alright, fine."
He didn't mess me up too badly, but there was definitely a good bit of healing to be done afterward. But the reason I bring him up isn't because he was a bad listener, and might have coerced me into losing my virginity; I don't feel he did, after all, I'm the one who said yes, despite the fact that the only reason I said yes was because I was weary of saying no. I don't bring him up because he was my first, because it was some magical moment, or because it was horrifying and traumatizing.
I bring it up because my sexual relationship with this boy was unhealthy. I believed him when he said he was a virgin, and while I still think he was telling me the truth, I can now accept how crushingly naive I was to accept his word without any physiological evidence thereof. I let him touch me without any protection; I was the girl who put herself at all kinds of risk because her lover didn't like to wear a condom. At the time I was taking the pill to balance out several other hormonal imbalances, and I let myself become the woman who would dose herself with her own birth control so that she could avoid her period, thereby being able to have sex with her boyfriend more often. I didn't realize until I was out of that relationship that the sex in that relationship hadn't been about how he and I could build and nurture intimacy, how we could play together and find delight in each other, how we might express our need for closeness, or healing, or vulnerability or protection through the union of our bodies. Instead it had been about how often he could get off, and how much he could inflate his own ego by how much he could make me get off (unfortunately for both of us, precious less often than I allowed him to believe).
In each subsequent relationship, whether sexual in some nature or not, I grew more and more aware of my own sexuality, more in touch with what I wanted emotionally as well as physically from a partner, and more in control of my own physical and sexual health. This journey was not without some hiccups and snags, of course, but by the time I met my partner, all the subtlety and double-speak, all the embarrassment and shyness, all the (yes, I'll say it) guilt and shame was gone from my own sex life. I had absolutely no problem asking him about his sexual history, talking with him about mine, and discussing what each of us would need within our relationship to feel safe, emotionally and sexually. That doesn't mean that I'm always so great at hearing him talk about past relationships or past conquests, or his porn stash. But it means I can ask him how many partners he's had, and tell him how many I've had, and it means we can talk about those experiences we've had that have been damaging, and those we've had that have been healing.
More important than the fact that I'm in a relationship with a wonderful man who doesn't make me feel guilty for wanting us to get tested, or ashamed of wanting to have sex a certain way, I feel empowered enough to know about my own body. I feel like my health is important enough to me to know the difference between equine and bio-identical hormones, and how to use a speculum to look at my own cervix, and how to use the Fertility Awareness method. I know not to allow any partner to ask me to put myself at risk for his own gain or pleasure; I know that my partner feels safe and enjoys sex when I feel safe and enjoy sex, and I know how to talk about sex without worrying about how lame or awkward or embarrassing I might seem.
So now I can talk to people I don't know very well, hopefully without making them too uncomfortable, but also without pulling any punches. I can tell this young man the truth about sex, insofar as he asks me, because his life is at stake, his physical as well as emotional health. What he chooses to do is going to affect him as well as his partner, and any subsequent partner either of them has. He deserves a woman who will talk with him about the squelchy stuff at the risk of being awkward, and every woman deserves a partner who will tell the truth, and protect both of them all kinds of illness.
(It's true, he didn't ask me about the why of sex, just the how. One thing at a time, you know?)