Despite the strangers dancing in the room downstairs, celebrating another Saturday night at my co-op’s party, I was upstairs in my room, alone with Jake, preparing to have my first-ever conversation about sexually transmitted diseases with a sexual partner. Per the consent workshops that I had taken in the co-ops, I had given Jake a heads-up that I wanted to talk about some sexy things, but I hoped he was not expecting dirty talk.
Since I had never had an STD conversation with a partner before, I was expecting a lot of unknowns. I did not know how he would respond, and truthfully, I was not so clear on what I wanted either. So, earlier that day, in an attempt to deal with the multitude of unknowns spiraling toward me, I decided to clean my room. Somehow, having my bed made, shoes lined up and not a single item of clothing on the floor made me feel like I had a bit more control in my life.
But entering my room with him, no perfectly paired shoes or cleanly folded creases were going to save me from the conversation that I was about to have: a conversation about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Although I have been having sex since my freshman year of college, I had never actually had an honest conversation with someone about STDs. The furthest extent of my STD conversations with partners was a whispered, “Oh yeah, you’re clean, right?” that I would ask in heated moments of sexual tension — not the ideal setting for making level-headed decisions about my sexual health.
For many years, I was carefree about my sexual practices. I felt secure knowing I was adamant about using condoms and regularly getting STD tests. I thought that through just those practices, I was being physically safe with my sexual health.
But while I was home, a friend I had known for many years surprised me with an unexpected story. She told me that she has been battling herpes simplex virus, silently, for many years. Already, I thought of her as a woman of strength and power, but her vulnerability in sharing her status showed me the true depth of her strength.
Although I was always aware of the risks of sexual encounters, I never thought that anything bad was ever going to happen to me, let alone to someone I cared about. But nonetheless, a vague statistic had transformed into a real person’s story before my eyes. Despite how profound this moment was, I felt a fierce stubbornness to hold on to my carefree sexual approach.
In the days after our conversation, I found myself mourning the loss of carefree one-night stands. Although I wanted so badly to just stick my head back in the sand, I could not deny the truth about the risks of sexual behavior.
Initially, my first instinct was to purchase a chastity belt. That would keep me safe for sure — abstinence was the first form of protection. When I learned that modern condoms can’t protect you from all STDs, I became confident that a metal diaper under lock and key would be the perfect solution to my fears. However, those thoughts lasted a whopping five minutes.
So, at 22 years old, I found myself needing to completely rethink my sexuality and sexual practice. That began with throwing myself into a conversation with Jake, instead of into bed.
Sitting on the couch in my room, the most platonic spot I could locate out of earshot of the party, we talked through our STD statuses, preferences and even monogamy — there was no holding back. Although our conversation was a sloppy series of questions, confusion and extensive self-explanation, we made it through the unknowns that I had been dreading.
Jake was communicative throughout our relationship. Our conversations were open and honest, so that Saturday night, our conversation about sex was no different. Although I would have liked to walk out of that conversation with his test results in hand, I knew that our sexual relationship was going to be safer than it was before. I felt good about our mutual respect and openness. My fears, which stemmed from a stigma around talking about sex and STDs, were not realized — he did not ditch me right then and there just because I wanted to take a step back from having sex.
When I was younger, sex was always something that everyone was doing. No one around me seemed concerned about their sexual health. No one talked much about why they wanted to have sex and what they were getting out of it. And definitely, no one talked about the risks of diseases such as herpes and HIV. Sometimes I would hear the odd whisper about chlamydia, but those oopsies were usually treated with a round of antibiotics.
I often wish I could go back to my days of blissful ignorance, but ultimately, I know that it is better to be informed about my risks. Moving forward, I embrace a vision of sexual freedom that includes open conversations about status and embraces the beautiful range of sexual relationships that I can have.
Jessica Redden writes the Monday column on finding freedom from overconsumption. Contact her at [email protected].