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It’s important to understand some basic definitions of communication that can impact sexual health. 

Communication is talking openly and honestly about your preferences, ideals, values, and more! It’s important to communicate with your partner(s) in order to set boundaries. Communication is important before, during and after all sexual activity. 

Boundaries are limits or guidelines that you would like others to follow when interacting with you. It can be helpful to set and communicate boundaries in order to let others know what is and is not okay for you. Boundaries can be established before, during, and after sexual activity. 

When agreeing to any sexual act, it is important for all parties involved to communicate their preferences. It is also important that all parties involved consent to any and all sexual acts. 

Coercion is defined as pressuring others into doing something they do not want or wish to do. This can include talking someone into a sexual act they were previously unsure about.

Talking to Your Partner

You might be thinking, "Wait, what? I have to TALK to my partner before having sex?" And the answer is: Yes. Yes you do. And it's because it helps everyone have a safer, more pleasurable experience. What should you talk about? Let's go over a few things: 
  • Sexual history
    • When we say sexual history, we are NOT referring to what you may know as "body count". A number is just a number, and tells you nothing of value in this context. Here's what is important to discuss with your partner: what sexual activities you've done in the past with previous partners, methods of protection you used, previous STI testing and treatment, etc. Discussing these things helps paint the full picture and can better inform your decision-making. 
    • Sometimes people have had traumatic experiences in their past that could affect how they engage with partners in their future. Being able to have an open, honest, and supportive conversation can go a long way in helping everyone be more comfortable. 
  • Definition of sex
    • Everyone has their own definition of sex. You need to share what yours is with your partner, and allow them to do the same. This puts everyone on the same page. 
  • STI Testing and Risk 
    • When was the last time you were tested? What were the results of those tests? Have you engaged in any sexual activity since you've been tested? Should you go and get tested together? 
    • Is someone currently living with an STI? If so, what can you do to reduce the risk of transmission? Are they adhering to a treatment plan? 
  • Boundaries and Preferences  
    • Setting up boundaries is a sign of respect for yourself and your partner. Maybe you both really enjoy some of the same activities, but there's another activity that's a hard pass for you. Make sure you communicate that ahead of time, so everyone can have a mutually pleasurable experience. 
    • Boundaries are about respecting yourself and respecting your partner. Adhere to your partner's boundaries the way that you want them to adhere to yours. 
If you're nervous about having these conversations with your partner - that's okay. It's important to acknowledge this fear, and then start the conversation anyway, even if it's risky. And just like you shouldn't bring up the subject of condoms when you're already in bed, you should be having these important conversations outside the bedroom, before the action starts. If you believe yourself to be mature enough to engage in sex, then you need to be mature enough to talk about it. 

Remember - practice makes perfect! The more you initiate and have these conversations, the easier it gets. 

Condom Talk

All sexual activity comes with some level of risk, and it's always a good idea to use a method of protection (particularly a barrier method!). Here are some tips for negotiating safer sex with your partner: 
  • Make sure that you're having the conversation BEFORE you engage in any kind of physical activity. Stopping to talk in the middle of the action might be difficult, so it's best if everyone comes to an agreement beforehand. You'll want to listen to your partner - ideally, safer sex has also been on their mind, but don't always count on that! Listen respectfully to them, and give them time to think. 
  • If you don't know about safer sex methods now, it's time to LEARN. You'll want to gather as much information as you can so that you can make an informed decision. You're already headed in the right direction, because you're reading this! 
  • If you're nervous about having to talk to your partner, rehearse what you want to say. The more prepared you are for the conversation, the more confident and at ease you will be. But it's not something that's only done once - keeping the conversation going as your relationship evolves is needed. 
  • Make sure that everyone is sober when you're having these conversations. Alcohol and other drugs can impair your judgment, and people often take risks that they otherwise wouldn't if they are under the influence. 
  • BYOSSM - Bring Your Own Safer Sex Materials! And yes, we mean EVERYONE. Don't assume that your partner will provide it - take control of your own protection! That way, there's no excuse to not have safer sex. 
    • Make sure that you're keeping all your safer sex materials in a cool, dry place. They should NOT be carried in your wallet, left in your car, or anywhere near sharp objects
    • Worried about what people might say if they see you carrying a condom? Here's the truth: if you're carrying a condom, that means that you respect your body, your health, AND your partner. It is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Talking to Your Healthcare Provider

Your healthcare provider (HP) is an important partner in your personal health but talking to them about sexual health and STI testing can feel intimidating, especially if they don’t bring it up! There are some things you can do to help make things easier. 

When talking to your HP about your health, make sure to be open and honest about your sexual history, because that is how they will determine appropriate care. And when we say sexual history, we’re not talking about the number of sexual partners that you’ve had. What we mean is that you need to tell your HP what behaviors you’ve engaged in, how you protected yourself, and if you’re experiencing any type of symptom that is out of the ordinary for you. 

To help prepare for your appointment, see if there’s anything you need to do in advance. This could include fasting (if you need blood drawn) or making sure you’re able to give a urine sample. Bringing a copy of your medical history (especially if you're seeing a new provider) and/or creating a current list of medications, vitamins, supplements, and over-the-counter products is helpful for your HP to have. 

It may be helpful to construct a list of questions beforehand to help keep the appointment focused. These could include:
  • Based on what I've shared about my sexual history, should I get tested for any STIs?
  • How do I talk to my partner about getting tested?
  • How can I protect myself from STIs? What methods should I use and where can I get them?
  • Are there any vaccines that I could get to help prevent STIs?
If you are diagnosed with an STI, the following are some sample questions to ask your medical provider:
  • How is it transmitted?
  • Can I contract this infection again?
  • Can I give this infection to someone else if we only have sex one time?
  • Should I abstain from sex during treatment?
  • Should my partner get tested?
  • Do I need to finish all treatment as prescribed?

For more information on talking to your healthcare provider, check out these  resources.

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