Laura E asks:
the people involved in having sex have had no previous partners of any
sexual nature, is it safe to presume they don’t have any STDs?
that’s truly the case — if any two people have had NO sexual contact
of any kind with other partners — then, for the most part, either of
them having a sexually transmitted infection is highly unlikely. It’s
never safe to just presume someone has no STIs without having had any
testing, but in this situation, you can know that it’s not a likely
scenario with most STIs.
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But there are some important caveats.
For starters, when we call an infection "sexually transmitted," we do so because that is how it is most often transmitted or contracted: not because that is only
how it is transmitted or contracted. While many STIs are highly
unlikely to be transmitted any other way than with oral, vaginal or
anal sex — like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, genital Herpes or HPV
— some STIs can be and are transmitted or contracted nonsexually, such
as by sharing sheets or towels, intravenous drug use, at birth or
HSV-I — oral herpes — is most commonly transmitted non-sexually,
and most people who have it contract it in childhood. Oral herpes can
be transmitted between those two people, orally or genitally. Given how
many people have oral herpes, that is a considerable risk. But most
people with oral herpes have had cold sores (the most common symptom of
HSV-I) at some point, and if they don’t know if they have, could
certainly ask a parent if they remember them ever having one. As well,
even if Herpes is transmitted, while it certainly is an inconvenience
and no one wants it, in most people, it also is not likely to cause any
serious health problems.
Some other sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted
nonsexually. For example, while in many areas, most women are now being
screened for HIV with their pregnancies, and many children getting
regular health care will be tested for infections they could have
acquired through their mothers well before their teen years, HIV can be
transmitted through breast milk, so some people get HIV that way. HIV
can also be transmitted through intravenous drug use or the use of a
dirty needle (like with tattooing or piercing), as is also the case
with Hepatitis. Pubic lice — often colloquially called "crabs" — and
trichomoniasis are STIs that are often also transmitted through casual
contact, like by sharing damp towels with someone who has one of those,
rather than just through sexual contact.
The other big caveat is whether or not any two people really
have or have not had any sexual partnership before. Two big issues with
what we can know that are that a) many people are not truthful about
their sexual history, even to people close to them and b) people often
tend to define what is and isn’t sex differently.
Let’s face it: plenty of us know that sexual history can be hella
loaded. Often when we’re talking to someone about it, it feels like, or
is clear that, there is a kind of answer they want and a kind they
don’t. In some situations, it feels precarious to say we’ve had any
previous sexual experience, while in others, saying you’ve none is
loaded: it depends on who’s asking and what they think is ideal. People
tend to make judgments about us based on sexual history — whatever it
is. And some partners clearly would like their partners to never have
had others, particularly if they have not themselves. Plus, when we’re
talking about sex, it’s usually because we want sex, and when any of us
has an agenda, it can tend to be more likely to be dishonest if we
think doing so might get us what we want.
For those reasons and more, many people find it very hard to be
honest about sex and their sexual history, and many just plain won’t
be. Young people, in particular, also tend to have a pattern of being
more likely to be dishonest about sexual history than older people do,
which isn’t all that surprising when you consider how much more loaded
an issue sex often is for teens and young adults.
I also know that when we love and trust someone — especially if
we’ve known each other for some time or been dating for some time — or
even when we just really like someone, it’s no fun to consider that
that person may not be truthful about sexual history, but it is common.
So, to be realistic, we have to acknowledge that’s entirely possible.
As people who work in sexuality research know, we have to be very
careful about how much stock we put in sexual self-reporting, because
it has a long history of being notoriously unreliable.
Lots of people define what sex is and isn’t differently, too. We can
ask twenty different people who have all had oral or anal sex, for
instance, if they have had sex, and some will say they have while
others will say they have not. Even for those who have had intercourse,
some people won’t "count" that as sex sometimes if, for instance, a
penis was only in a vagina for a minute or two (despite that being
typical for many first-times), not in a certain depth, if vaginal
bleeding didn’t happen, or even just if that person would have
preferred that experience was not one they had.
Personally, I’m of the mind that the best way to deal with all of
this when you are starting to become sexually active is just to start
with safer sex right at the gate, just like you’d wear a seatbelt the
first time you were driving in a car. Since most people will not have
only one sexual partner for the whole of their lives, you and/or your
partner are likely to have to learn to use safer sex in time anyway, so
there’s little sense not learning right from the start.
I also think that when you come to sex together as safely and
responsibly as you can, that it not only protects your health as best
as possible, but it strengthens your relationship and is one thing that
can tend to enable the kind of environment where partners actually feel
more able to be honest about their sexual history. If your partner
happens to feel like asking for safer sex means you don’t trust them,
you can inform them of some of the issues I’ve filled you in on, and
also let them know that people develop trust over time, not instantly.
No one should be expected to trust blindly or right off the bat. We
earn trust from people, gradually, based on behaviors like, for
instance, two people showing each other that they care enough about
both of their health to play things as safe as they can if they’re
going to be sexually active and to be sexually responsible. Trust, all
by itself, just doesn’t keep us physically safe or healthy.
Negotiating safer sex also makes negotiating birth control, if and
when that is a factor easier, as well as negotiating sexual limits and
boundaries or sexual desires much easier. In the case that talking
about any of this or insisting on safer sex seems too daunting right
now, it’s probably a good idea to have another think on if you’re
really yet at a place — in your life or your relationship — where
it’s the right time for sex.
What I suggest anyone does is what is suggested by sound health
organizations like the CDC and WHO when it comes to protecting
yourselves as best you can if you’re going to be sexually active. You
should use latex barriers (like condoms) for all oral, vaginal and/or
anal sex for the first six months of any relationship. You and your
partner should each get tested during that time: if neither of you has had any sexual partnership at all before now (and none besides each
other during that time), one full screening for both of you at the end
of that six months will do just fine. You both also will need to be
sexually exclusive during that period of time to assure no new risks
are being introduced to the equation. In the meantime, you can know
that using safer sex practices and it being possible neither of you
likely has any STIs means you have very little risk, which lets the two
of you actually enjoy the sex you’re having more, physically and
emotionally. Less stress = better sex.
If those tests come out negative, and if you both have stayed
sexually exclusive and intend to remain so, then at that point, if you
like, you can go without latex barriers as your STI risks will be very
low — and known to be, not presumed or guessed — at that point. And
then, too, you two will have had a substantial period of time together
to build trust, and to be able to extend it when it comes to
something like trusting that both of you are staying monogamous if you
say that you are.
Okay? I know that sometimes safer sex and taking precautions can
seem less ideal (even though the idea of sex with no precautions being
more romantic is a bit of a strange ideal, since it often puts people
at risks of some very unromantic things) or like a drag, but it really,
truly only is as much of a drag as anyone makes it. When it is a
regular habit for everyone involved, it’s just no big deal — no more
so than other common aspects of sex like having to shift positions now
and then because our legs hurt, taking a second to go pee, or asking a
partner to change up what they’re doing because something else feels
better — nor is it something that gets in the way of trust, intimacy
or enjoyable sex. Rather, it tends to nurture those things a lot better
than gambling with presumptions does.
Here are some more links for you to inform yourself with:
- Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To
- STI Risk Assessment: The Cliff’s Notes
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner
- Magical Cups & Bloody Brides: Virginity in Context
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- How honest are you with others about your sex life, sexual health and sexual history?