I've been reading your blog and columns for quite a while now and have found your thoughts on BDSM, sex work, and polyamory extremely interesting. However, there's one subject that you don't talk much about, and that, in multiple-partner relationships is pretty critical: STD's. I know you're not a doctor, and I understand that we all have to make our own decisions about what risks are acceptable, but I'm very curious about what precautions you and people you know consider to be reasonable when people have a lot of partners, either serially or in parallel. Obviously, condom use and regular STD screenings are important. But how do people deal with the risk of diseases that can't be blocked very effectively by condoms, particularly herpes? I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say on the subject.
I had two immediate responses to this letter. The first one to reflect on how often people ask me questions that really, they already know the answers to. The writer expresses it perfectly: “we all have to make our own decisions about what risks are acceptable.” I am no different than anyone else in that regard, and neither are my partners.
Take me and Monk, for example. Monk rides a motorcycle. I drive a car. I think a car is safer. Monk admits that it probably is, but he likes his bike.
And indeed, he had an accident a little over two years ago and broke his collarbone. But he’d been careful. He’d worn his helmet and his leather gear, and because he mitigated his risks that way, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. His passenger wasn’t badly hurt, and I think that was more important to him than his own injury.
He still rides his bike. I don’t want to ride a motorcycle, but I think if he wants to, he should get to. Even if I occasionally worry about his safety. Which I do even though I myself could just as easily be hurt in a car accident.
It’s not always logical, what we think is an acceptable risk and what isn’t. You gather the information, you think about what’s important to you, and you make your choices. If I was going to drive someone somewhere and they said "Before I get in the car, you have to guarantee me that we won't be in an accident", I'd think they were being foolish. I've never been in a really bad car accident, but there are no guarantees in life. If you can't deal with that, don't get into a car with me. Or anyone.
Sex is no different. I wear a seat belt - I use condoms. I am careful when I drive - I am careful when I have sex. But I don’t twist myself into a fever of anxiety every time I engage in either activity. I won’t live my life that way.
(My second response was this: perhaps I’m misreading the intent, but my initial interpretation of this writer’s question was that she wanted me to detail exactly how I am sexual with my partners. Like, exactly. But surely – surely! – she isn’t really asking me about my own private sexual practices and the practices of my partners? I must be reading this wrong. Because I would never dream of sending a stranger an email asking them to publish such highly personal information on a website. That would be very inappropriate. I’m sure the writer didn’t mean to imply that she wanted that.)
Basically, you manage risks by managing risks. Worrying about risks isn't managing them, and that's a mistake I see often people make. They don't do anything - they just worry. So whatever it is you want to do, this is my advice: get very well-educated about it. Assess the situation as it is, not as you wish it would be. Consider all the possible outcomes of your choices, from perfect to catastrophic. Think about what you'd do in each of them. Talk to the other people involved. And accept that every day you’re alive, you’re taking risks.