As a dating and relationship coach, I speak to men and women about their sex lives on a daily basis. The majority of my clients are over 50 and I find myself often talking with them about how to guard against STIs and STDs.
If you're confused about the difference between STI and STD (I was when I first heard the term STI), here's a short explanation:
- In STI (where "I" stands for infection), the sexually transmitted virus or bacteria creates an "infection," which may or may not eventually result in "disease."
- In STD (where "D" stands for disease), there is a clear medical issue showing signs or symptoms.
When I became single between my marriages, I was 31 (I had married my first husband at 19). So there I was — young, single, with no children. I found it effortless to find men for dating and sexual relationships.
And so commenced my two decades of dating, with all its highs and lows. I had lots of fun during this period in my life. I also had many things to learn along the way to keep myself safe.
My newly divorced 31-year-old self was on the pill so I didn't even consider asking a man to wear a condom. Then, after I'd been single for about six months I saw a report on the news about the rise in cases of herpes. I was surprised and frustrated. I'd been so excited about my new sexual freedom, and now I realized I could catch genital warts. My single girlfriends and I talked about this, wondering what we should do. When we go out with someone new do we say, "please pass the salt and oh by the way do you have herpes?"
Not too long after this, the reports starting coming out about HIV. Now I had something even worse than genital warts to worry about; I could be infected with something that could kill me!
I didn't want to stop my wonderful dating and sex life and I didn't want to catch herpes or HIV, so what's a girl to do? I didn't like the answer, but there it was staring me in the face — I had to start asking the men to wear condoms.
After a few false starts I finally got good at asking. Of course, the majority of men I asked would say they preferred to not wear them; however, most of the time they would agree to it.
But I also felt that it wasn't as satisfying to use a condom. So I finally put my "big girl pants on" and started asking the men to have an STD test. I would explain that I was doing this because I valued my health and his. It wasn't easy, it was awkward at times, and some men said no. The ones who said yes would tell me they were actually relieved that I offered to have a test as well. Sometimes we went to a clinic together and then handed our results to each other over a glass of wine. Sometimes we went to our separate doctors and had the reports mailed to the other person (pre-HIPAA).
Now to be completely transparent (as if I haven't already been) I didn't initially consider that my partner might be having sex with others at the same time he was having sex with me (I know, so naïve of me) and the problems this could cause. This point was brought up by my gynecologist during an annual appointment. What a revelation! Of course the test didn't mean anything if he had sex with someone else between when he showed me his results and before having sex with me again. So, calling in the "big girl pants" again, I now had to learn how to have the "monogamy conversation" (with him and myself).
Some of my female coaching clients have told me they could never have these types of conversations with the men they want to have sex with. In response I ask them, "How can you let him put a part of his body inside of yours and not be able to have this intimate conversation with him?"
So if you're single and want to have sex (good for you!), here are a few thoughts:
- Use condoms. And let yourself be creative — clients tell me condoms can be a great conclusion to foreplay.
- Both women and men should have condoms available. Spontaneous sex is wonderful, so make sure you keep condoms not only in your bedside table but in your purse as well.
- My recommendation to men: Don't carry condoms in a wallet you sit on. If you damage the package, the condom won't offer protection.
- Have a practice conversation with a friend or a professional about requesting that you and your partner have an STD test and sharing the results. Then, when it's time to talk to your partner you'll be ready.
- Decide how you feel about your partner having sex with others while in a sexual relationship with you. If you're okay with this then ALWAYS use condoms. If you want a monogamous relationship then don't have sex until you've both made the commitment to be monogamous (and exchanged your STD results).
If you end up with an STI or STD, how do you tell someone? First of all, let me tell you — there's no need to tell your date about this until you're considering a sexual relationship. Because if you're considering having sex with him (or her, if you're a man reading this), then I'm guessing you consider him a trustworthy person and feel he will treat your news with care and dignity.
Once you've decided you'd like to have sex with him, then it's mandatory to tell him about your STI or STD. As the conversation unfolds, remember this is new information for him (you've thought it about it for a long time and are used to it) so be patient with his response. Tell him the name of what you have, give an overview and let him know his chances of getting it from you. Explain what precautions you'll take to ensure he won't catch it. Then be prepared to answer his questions. He might ask how you got it, how long you've had it, what your symptoms are, etc. Again, be patient. If he's the right person for you to have sex with, then being patient will definitely pay off.
If he says he won't have sex with you because of your STI or STD then, sadly, he truly isn't the right person for you. And the benefit to you is you didn't get more attached to him before discovering this.
Are you fearful of the STI/STD risk out there in the dating world? Wanting to have your partner use a condom but too uncomfortable to bring it up? Feeling like both of you should be tested but the request is too scary? I know how hard these conversations can be — I've been there. As a coach, I bring a combination of my training, my years of coaching experience, and my past dating experience into my work. Together, we can explore the risks and practice the dating conversations so you'll feel comfortable and confident and have a safe and satisfying sex life.
More Sex advice on YourTango: