Talking about safe sex is not just for our youth. It’s essential for anyone after divorce and it’s a lot more than birth control. Will you commit to you health with safe sex?
Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Infection show that there are 19.7 million new STIs every year in the U.S. and more than half of all people will have an STI at some point in their lifetime. You might think you’d know if you had an STI, but not necessarily. Not all STIs show signs and fewer than one-third of U.S. Physicians routinely screen patients putting you at risk of an untreated infection.
Have I scared you enough to listen? Good. Joining me for this episode of Conversations About Divorce is Dr. Patricia Weitzman, a senior scientist at the Environment and Health group, a life coach and one of the co-founders of DivorceAfter50, a website focused on encouraging people to learn and talk about safe sex. You can listen in or keep reading …
Does Safe Sex Exist?
Let’s be clear, it appears we’ve all been conned by the phrase “safe sex” because there is no such thing. The only way to be a 100 percent certain you won’t contract a sexually transmitted infection is to abstain and that means abstaining from any sexual activity, not just intercourse.
What we’re talking about is safer sex and that does exist. Using a condom will significantly reduce your risk of infection.
Is It STIs or STDs?
Good question. The sexual health community is transitioning to use the phrase, “sexually-transmitted infection” because it carries less stigma than the older, more traditional phrase, “sexually-transmitted disease” and because “infection” conveys “treatable” more so than “disease.” There aren’t certain conditions that are classified as a STI and some that are classified as a STD. The terms are used interchangeably. If you use the phrase, “STI” you won’t be making a fool of yourself or showing your age.
If your knowledge about specific STIs is out-of-date then start educating yourself. The American Sexual Health Association is a great place to start.
Safer Sex Is Your Responsibility
Dr. Weitzman says, “The most important question to ask is not when to talk to a new partner about safe sex but rather who is going to take care of you. Don’t put your health and well-being in someone else’s hands.”
Committing to safer sex is about you taking responsibility for yourself and holding yourself accountable. Simplistically, it means making sure you are the one with condoms, not assuming that your partner will have them, and knowing how to use a condom. That applies to men and women.
It also means pledging to yourself to have the conversation about safer sex with a new partner before getting physical or waiting for them to raise the topic.
The Must-Have Conversation
Having the conversation with a new partner may be awkward and embarrassing and it’s OK to share that. Your partner may be feeling the same way and appreciate you taking the initiative. Humor often helps to release the tension.
Dr. Weitzman recommends trying to visualize the conversation ahead of time since then the actual talk may feel much more comfortable. The timing is important. Waiting until you’re both in a state of semi-undress is probably not a good idea – your mind is not going to be focused on having an effective conversation and if your partner is not willing to use a condom, then you may be less committed in the heat of the moment to safer sex. Same is true for many people if they’ve had a few alcoholic beverages.
What About STI Testing?
Getting tested for STIs is a great idea before you start dating. That way you’ll know your status. Since some infections can show no symptoms, getting tested could give you peace of mind. And if your partner has been tested, great! However, clear test results don’t mean you don’t need to worry about a condom and here’s why.
The test results are good up to your last partner. As soon as you’ve been sexually active with another partner, all bets are off. That means you and are your partner need to be seriously committed to monogamy before giving up condom use.
To make matters more complicated, not all STIs will show up on your test results. Certain infections, such as Herpes, will only show on test results if the infection is in an active stage.
Your physician can help you with testing and it would be an opportune time to talk about STIs and, if you’re post-menopausal, how to make sex more comfortable. You can also find a confidential testing center near you through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is Not Just About Birth Control!
Many people getting divorced in their midlife grew up in an era when protection was mainly about birth control. If the woman was on the pill, then you were protected against pregnancy and didn’t need to worry about a condom. Dr. Weitzman says this means that many midlife men aren’t thinking about protecting themselves from an STI. If they’re dating a menopausal woman, they might be thinking there’s no need for condoms. So ladies may find themselves having to educate men.
Dr. Weitzman recommends being prepared to handle objections such as, “I don’t have HIV, don’t you trust me?” Her recommended response to this is something along the lines of “This is not about trust. Anyone can have an STI and not know it. This is about keeping both of us safe.”
Another objection might be to the feel of the condom. Again, this might stem from prior experience years ago and Dr. Weitzman says, “It’s not the same as in the 1970s. These are not your grandma’s condoms.” She recommends experimenting and finding one that works for you. And being too embarrassed to buy condoms at your local store is no excuse. They are readily available online and ship in discreet packaging.
There are also female condoms now available.
What If Your Partner Is Adamant About No Condom?
When a new partner refuses to use a condom, it’s a red flag for bigger issues about your relationship. This is someone who is saying that your personal well-being and safety is not important to them. Is this really someone with whom you want to be intimate?
Dr. Weitzman says, “This is the time to say I’m not comfortable proceeding.” Stick with your commitment to your personal safety.
This is why some people would rather have the conversation sooner rather than later when they’re more likely to have become emotionally involved.