Health

Sex: Being Safe While Still Enjoying the Encounter

Let’s talk about sex. And not just in the scientific way but also in a way that allows everyone to feel comfortable and understood. As something that’s part of the natural human experience, it is often stigmatized and taboo to talk about and that can be dangerous.

Talking about sex can not only lead people to be more aware of the pleasurable experiences that exist but also provide greater awareness of the consequences that can come if safety measures are not taken, such as sexually transmitted infections [STI].

The stigma surrounding saying STD and STI has also become a debate and are often used interchangeably. Few differences exist between the two terms except the stigma associated with the word disease. STIs are very common in the U.S. and according to Dr. Serina Floyd, Medical Director at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., over half of the population will test positive for an STI in their lifetime.

“Having a conversation as soon as possible [and] being direct, being honest, being confident and not approaching it from the standpoint of someone who is ashamed is essential because it’s not about being dirty,” Floyd said. “It isn’t about a judgment on one’s character. It’s an infection. You have an infection because you were exposed to someone else who had an infection and just like we would consider any other infection, that’s really how we should consider sexually transmitted infections, as well.”

Getting tested is important when one is sexually active, especially when engaging with more than one partner because symptoms are not always present in everyone and if left untreated, infections can lead to more serious health risks, Dr. Floyd added.

The number of times an individual should get tested, according to Floyd, is dependent on many factors. Age, sexual orientation, status of sexual activity engagement, engaging with multiple partners sexually, use of contraceptives, the types of sex a person engages in (oral, anal, vaginal) and how often they have been tested in the past all contribute to when and why a person should be tested.

“Testing frequently is not a bad thing because if you are found to be positive, the sooner that it is detected and the sooner that you are able to be treated the better,” Dr. Floyd said.

In 2019 there was a record high of 2,554,908 combined sexually transmitted disease (STD) cases in the U.S. according to the CDC. However, the CDC also noted in their fact sheet that many cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis still go unreported and undiagnosed and “several other STDs, such as human papillomavirus and herpes simplex virus, are not routinely reported to CDC.”

These conversations can at times feel uncomfortable given the stigma surrounding STIs and sex in general. In order to combat the stigma with STIs, the stigma surrounding sex needs to be addressed as well. Floyd encourages partners to have the “status” conversation and discuss past STI test results and to communicate healthy practices to ensure safety while engaging in sex.

“So, there’s a stigma attached to STIs but there is a stigma attached to sex as a whole in society, which is ironic . . .,” Dr. Floyd said. “There’s a lot of shame around sexual activity, particularly by certain individuals. So, when we talk about women there’s this idea of there being shame around a woman who’s having sex outside of a monogamous relationship. That’s because historically, sex has been connected to value and virtue and because of that historical context which is really kind of carried into the present, there’s this kind of purity culture message for women,” Dr. Floyd said.

“I never cease to be surprised when I meet grown adult women who don’t know their anatomy and really don’t have a sense of what I mean when I talk about certain body parts. It stems from not having proper education early on,” she said.

Floyd’s “you do you” approach is to let her patients feel comfortable and aware that engaging in sex is normal and that shame does not have to be attached to it. The key thing she notes is to do it in a way where everyone is safe which means getting tested regularly and using contraception which can lead partners to feel more at ease and comfortable with whoever they are engaging with sexually.

“My general approach for my patients, particularly for my female patients, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having and enjoying a healthy sex life and it also does not mean you have to have that with a single partner, necessarily,” Dr. Floyd said.

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