Is STI Stigma Preventing You From Enjoying an Emotionally Safe Sex Life?
“Safe sex” often gets reduced to conversations about PrEP, condoms and STIs. These are important topics, but left out are the emotional and social aspects of safe sex, which cause deeper, longer lasting side effects. STI stigma still exists, and that stigma is often the most problematic part of having contracted an infection.
There is nothing shameful about STIs. They are common infections — just like the virus or bacteria you can get from a sick baby, a door handle or from an airplane. Seeing them as gross because they come from sex is just sex-negative and slut-shaming. If you can stay home from work with snot dripping out of your nose from the flu with no shame, then the same should apply to getting an infection from a blowjob.
Having an STI does not make you “dirty,” and you are not “clean” if you don’t have one.
If you are sexually active in anything but a totally monogamous relationship, you run the risk of contracting an STI. Shame and STI stigma just prevents disclosure, getting tested and getting treated. Shame keeps us from taking care of ourselves.
But safe sex must also include emotional safety.
That is, sex that aligns with your authenticity, void of slut-shaming for what arouses you, or shame for your body or penis size. Sex matters, because all relational interactions leave an imprint on us. Sex, which is always relational — even when it’s anonymous or with a random, never-seen-again hookup — leaves you both consciously and unconsciously transformed.
Emotionally safe sex acknowledges that all of our experiences of touch are recorded and stored in our bodies and genitals. Those experiences can leave us feeling more or less desirable, or more avoidant. This weakens our arousal and pleasure capacity in our bodies and genitals, also known as trauma. Your self-worth is sexual, determined by all those you interact with and how they leave you feeling.
Sex and body-positivity are important parts of safe sex, as healthy sex is sex that doesn’t leave us feeling bad about ourselves or our body. It should be fun, arousing and also nourishing. We aren’t born feeling body shame or sexually anxious about what arouses us. We do this to each other.
Instead of changing your body (by losing weight, fighting against aging or building more muscle) or changing your sexual interests, instead change the people you have sex with. Find those who eroticize you as you already are!
Healthy, safe sex gives us confidence about our sexual arousal and desires. It means having the type of sex you want, and asking to be touched, licked and fucked the ways you enjoy, without fear of what your partner may think of you.
Check in before: How do I feel about having sex with this person, and how will I feel after?
Check in during: How does this feel?
And check in after: How did that feel? Do I feel better or worse?
If worse, don’t have sex with them again. If better, then you found a new friend with benefits!
This is “safe sex.” It considers all of you, not just the transmission of bacteria and viruses. Bottom line: Only have sex with good people. It matters!
Down with STI stigma, and love live emotional safe sex!
Dr. Chris Donaghue is a lecturer, therapist and host of the LoveLine podcast, a weekly expert on The Amber Rose Show, and a frequent co-host on TV series The Doctors. He authored Sex Outside the Lines and has been published in various journals and magazines, including The New York Times, Newsweek and National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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