I was at a fairly small sacred BDSM event and I saw that one of the classes they were offering was on safer sex techniques. I admit, my prejudice came over me – I thought to myself, “If someone is at the point that they’re at this event, they probably don’t need to know about condoms and gloves.”
I attend the lecture, and there was an air of “you probably know this already, but a review couldn’t hurt.” And there was a lot of nodding and such. But I got this memory-vision stuck in my head, of all the times I’ve heard someone go on about something I didn’t know about but I chose to nod because I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what they were talking about. With that thought, I looked around again, and wondered to myself how many people are nodding and smiling, while at the same time hearing for the first time that condoms don’t protect you from herpes?
That’s right, kids. There are STIs that condoms can’t protect you from. I happen to know quite a bit about Herpes Simplex 1 and 2 (HSV1, HSV2) because I am in a small minority of adults who is HSV1 negative. That’s right – I’ve never had a cold sore. Scientists say somewhere between 60-90% of adults are HSV1 positive, and a good number of them don’t know that you can have HSV1 in your genitals – that is, if seropositive oral contact is made with someone’s seronegative genitals, and some of the virus sheds, voila! It’s not like the virus knows the difference between a mouth and a genital. You can, therefore, also contract HSV2 orally. (Heck, doctors recently announced that you can also get Human Papillomavirus in your throat, too.)
Also, because of my compromised immune system, catching HSV1 may be more detrimental to me than most people. It’s not just cold sores.
From the linked article:The common myth is that HSV-1 causes a mild infection that is occasionally bothersome, but never dangerous. The reality? HSV-1 is usually mild, especially when it infects the lips, face, or genitals. However, in some cases type 1 can recur spontaneously in the eye, causing ocular herpes, a potentially serious infection which can lead to blindness. In very rare cases HSV- 1 can spread spontaneously to the brain, causing herpes encephalitis, a dangerous infection that can lead to death. HSV-1 is also the usual cause of herpes whitlow, an infection on the finger, and “wrestler’s herpes,” (herpes gladiatorum) a herpes infection on the chest or face.
The range and potential severity of HSV-1 infections lead some experts to view the virus as more risky than usually perceived. “This is heresy, but I think type 1 is a more significant infection than type 2,” says Spotswood Spruance, MD, an oral HSV specialist at the University of Utah. “Type 1, and the morbidity associated with it, are underestimated.”
Yes, I’m aware that the options for me are basically stay celibate, wrap all my partners in saran wrap or body condoms before having fun, or resign myself to the fact that I am probably going to seroconvert before I die. This does not mean that I do not ask about status, or that I reject partners who test seropositive. For me, it’s about risk awareness, and making the conscious decision about how much risk to take.
And as it turns out, sometimes it doesn’t matter. As I’ve written here before, my spouse cheated on me, thus exposing me to unknown risk. Off I went to the doctors to get tested. And I told my partners, too, about the fact that I had a big question mark in my potential risk column. With some, we choose to limit our activity to things that held lesser risk until I get my results. Others, we chose to take a breather entirely.
How do you talk about STIs? When is the right time to talk about it? Are you aware of the risks you take with the various stuff you get up to? (You know that Hep C is the bigger risk in blood play than HIV, right?)
Reid Mihlako has a great article on how to write your STI ‘elevator speech’ that encourages you to get the conversation out early, make it a little sexy, and also check for other potential pitfalls (like being the unwitting partner in someone else’s cheating, or finding out someone is not sexually oriented towards your gender, or even something as mild as learning that your favorite position is their no-go).
I get this conversation out pretty early if I think things are going in a sexual direction. Sometimes even before I think they are. I figure it can’t hurt, and it might even be a good gauge as to whether or not they are.
If you have questions about safer sex, testing, talking about it, how they are transmitted, what the symptoms are, please feel free to ask in the comments. I know quite a lot about this subject, and have some great colleagues who can chime in if I don’t know the answer.