August 22, 2013
Let me set the stage for you: It's almost seven years ago. Our heroine, a young'un of about 23, has recently moved to New York City, is working at a bookstore, and embarks on her very first post-college, grown-up-type relationship. There has been some smooching. Perhaps even (gasp!) some snuggling. She and her love interest are enjoying a nice evening in, watching TV on the couch, when they have the following exchange:
Our Heroine: So. Um. Have you. Like. Do you have any. I mean. Um. I guess.
Love Interest: ?
Our Heroine: STDs. Or whatever. Have you been, you know ...tested? For anything?
Love Interest: I think so, awhile ago. I don't think my ex had any, so I probably don't either.
Our Heroine: OK.
And now, fast forward about six years. Last summer, our heroine, now a ripe old 29, is on a different couch with a different love interest. The TV is on, but they -- ahem -- are not watching it very closely. Abruptly, she stops everything.
Our Heroine: So here's the thing: We're probably going to have sex soon. I've been tested for STDs since the last time I had sex with someone. Have you?
And with that, we will fade to black, because of course Our Heroine is me, and my father will probably read this.
The point of these two little scenes is this: I was taught in my high school health class that you should always ask about STDs before having sex with someone, which, hey, is good advice. But no one ever really explained how to do that, or what that conversation might sound like -- and it's not like you see a lot of frank STD talk on TV. Smooth first kisses and cringe comedy about sex, sure, but actual, honest conversations? Not so much.
And since the message in that health class focused so heavily on prevention -- Here are terrifying photos of what STDs look like! Always use a condom, here's how to put one on a banana! Ask about STDs because you can't trust anyone! -- it sort of fell down on reminding people that having an STD is not a personal failing. Which, of course, makes having the conversations you're taught you're supposed to have even harder. Asking your partner gets riddled with sudden pitfalls -- If I ask him about STDs, will he think I assume he has them and I'm judging him?! If I tell him I had an HIV test, will he assume I sleep around too much?!
But then, of course, if you don't ask, and your partner doesn't ask, it's too easy to fall into: Well, he probably would have told me if he had anything, so I'm sure it's OK.
And, depending on your situation, It's not like I have anything to tell him so it's no big deal if I just say nothing so he doesn't think I have reason to ask about anything.
And on and on, deeper into that spiral, until you find yourself sputtering on a couch, barely able to form words.
Now, I suspect a lot of people's learning curves on this front were much quicker than mine. But there's a happy ending to scene number two above. A few days later, the love interest made an off-hand comment to me: "Hey, thanks for starting that conversation. I meant to ask but didn't know what to say."
Because the thing is, this stuff is tricky. For some of us, talking about sex will always be difficult. But there's not actually anything wrong with that -- so let go of the worry, take a deep breath, and remember that you might not be the only one who doesn't know what to say. Just say it, be prepared to listen to what's said in response, and remember that the light at the end of this tunnel is fully-informed sex with a person you like. That's worth an awkward conversation or two.
Becky Allen is the site director for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Becky on Twitter: @allreb.
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