Is There Ever Enough Safety for Casual Sex?
The greatest pleasures of being human, such as relationships and sexual intimacy, come with some of the biggest risks: heartbreak, unwanted pregnancy and disease, to mention a few.
Sex inspires a spectrum of emotions for individuals. It seems like it's impossible to indulge in its magic without compromising your safety or at least accepting the dangers that exist.
Ignorance is not bliss on this subject, especially once symptoms of a medical condition occur.
Debra Laino, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical sexologist and relationship therapist in Delaware, explained that in her more than 20 years of experience, she's seen sexual health practices affect mental health in various ways: "From contracting an STI and feeling shame, which could turn into anxiety and/or depression, to body image issues to common dating behaviors such as ghosting," she said.
However, the sexual wellness author added that physical intimacy does boost many important neurochemicals for overall mental health.
COVID-19 changed the dynamic of social interactions across the board. During its peak, folks had to ask themselves if their plans to see someone were worth two weeks of quarantine at best or death at worst. The warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn't stop Americans from hanging out with friends, attending parties or having casual sex. However, the pandemic established people's risk tolerance.
In finance, the term "risk tolerance" refers to the amount of loss an investor is prepared to handle while making an investment. In intimacy, you're waging your health and body.
For instance, with the news of monkeypox cases rising among men who have sex with men, there are real fears that the virus could spread with little containment and eventually become a risk to the general public. The queer community might be at the forefront of deciding what risks they're willing to take with their health, but it won't be the first time society is forced to question what it considers safe. It should be noted that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) but does spread through physical contact.
98 percent safe
Laino pointed out that herpes, syphilis and genital warts can all be contracted from skin-to-skin contact, which means you can be infected even when wearing a condom. Condoms have only presented the illusion of absolute safety, or 98 percent effectiveness when used properly, as she explained.
Oral herpes (HSV-1) can be spread by sharing drinks or kissing, so it's almost impossible to participate in dating culture without accepting this risk, especially considering 50 percent to 80 percent of American adults have the virus. It's so common that most STD screenings don't test for it unless you request it.
"Communication is key here and something we still veer away from," Laino said. "Asking someone about their sexual history or even their socially responsible behavior is a must. Some people will ask for tests for COVID-19 and STIs, which is a great way to protect yourself. Monkeypox is a little more elusive at this point, but having an open conversation about it is the first step."
Some people on dating apps skip these conversations altogether. Laino acknowledged that online hookup culture is real and has a tremendous impact on relationships and STIs. There are many nuances to it, such as the paradox of choice: Why get into a relationship with one person when you can have sex with multiple people with no strings attached?
However, just because you're engaging in sex without strings doesn't mean there aren't any tying you to your partner and their sexual history.
When determining your own risk tolerance, Laino explained that the first step is to consider what you are willing to risk and to keep the risk as low as possible.
"This can be done by wearing a trusted condom brand, such as one from Trojan, inspecting your partner's genitals and having an open conversation; yes, even with a casual sex partner," she said.
For example, try asking questions like:
- "When was your last STD test?"
- "How many sexual partners have you had since then?"
- "Do you always use protection?"
Additionally, we recommend not being afraid of getting naked with the lights on so you can carry out amateur medical sleuthing, with your partner's consent.
Honesty really is the best policy
Finally, you have to trust your partner's honesty during these difficult conversations, created on a foundation free of judgment.
"Communicating about safety and coming up with something that works for both parties is imperative," Laino said.
Laino said difficulty with communication is one of the most common and detrimental issues she has witnessed firsthand with clients in her office. She said men generally have a more difficult time communicating, but when it comes to sex, women often have trouble discussing the number of partners they've had because there is still cultural shame concerning this topic.
Unfortunately, shame and embarrassment both have a significant impact on risk tolerance.
Ironically, having protected sex with multiple partners is safer than having unprotected sex with one. But in a reality where you may never reach absolute safety, employing honest dialogue and harm reduction is the best path forward. Constantly ask yourself if what you're doing is worth the risk.
Experimenting is integral to developing sexuality and learning what you like, how you like it, who you like and, perhaps more importantly, what you don't like. Laino suggested taking precautions, insisting on open communication, lowering your risks with condoms and, most of all, not participating if you don't feel comfortable.
"Good sex is consensual and not forced," she explained. "It is important to explore when one feels safe and confident to do so. This lowers anxiety, shame and doubt, which can very much be done with casual sex."