This month’s Hot Topic is wed to our case study because a therapy session prompted the theme for this column. I spoke with a woman, Pam, who came to see me about two years after her divorce. She felt she had completed her grieving process and had recently begun to date again. She was moving cautiously and trying to make good decisions.
She was concerned about how to broach the topic of safe sex with new partners. She knew not to have unprotected sex “in the beginning”. But “When,” Pam wailed, “does the beginning end? And then what? Help!”
I asked if she understood the concept of fluid bonding and how it can guide her safely through new sexual relationships. She shook her head. She admitted the topic confused and embarrassed her. I assured her that most of us feel that way and I shared these basic guidelines with her:
When we have sex with a new partner, we use barrier protection. Sex is defined as any activity in which we exchange body fluids capable of carrying viruses and bacteria. Those fluids include blood, semen and, to a lesser extent, vaginal secretions. The roles of saliva and tears are still being debated but, in any case, they are far less risky. Barriers are materials that prevent the transmission of those fluids. They include condoms, dams, and plastic wrap.
In the beginning of a sexual relationship, we use barrier protection during sex every single time with every single partner. No exceptions!
When a casual sexual relationship becomes more committed and we wish to dispense with the barriers during sex we discuss (yes, that means using our words) beginning a fluid bonding contract.
Each of us goes to a doctor or clinic and gets a full battery of tests to screen for STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Ask your doctor or clinic which tests are advisable or go online and educate yourself. Sometimes regional considerations will affect your decision – for instance, you may be advised to test for a particular strain of hepatitis recently reported in your area.
Our fluid bonding contract begins when we both get back clean bills of health. Because many “bugs” need time to show up – including HIV – we count six months from this date, retest, and if our next set of tests are also negative, we can safely dispense with barrier protection when we have sex with each other.
It is important to note that the contract applies only to the two people who have had both sets of tests and have had only protected sex during that time. If these criteria are met, we can joyously and responsibly become fluid bonded, meaning there is no danger of transmitting or acquiring an STI from one another through the exchange of sexual fluids.
When I finished this explanation, Pam replied, “Six months after we both get tested clear? Are you nuts?” I admitted that six months feels like a very long time to be fussing with barriers when we are busy establishing a trusting relationship and falling in love. It is a time of frequent lovemaking, and the last thing we want to be thinking about is viruses.
We are adults and we must make adult decisions. On one hand, we may be protecting against nothing at all. On the other hand, we may be protecting against a lethal disease. Do we want to ask the questions that will help us determine how much risk we believe we are taking? If our new lover has been in a (probably) sexually-exclusive relationship for many years prior to being with us, our risk could be minimal. If our new lover has been with a number of partners, however – or even with only a few, but was not practicing safe sex – then our risk rises. And then there’s our own history, and how much of it we want to share – and how honest we are about it.
So, you see, the fluid bonding contract and its cautious time-line allows us to skip those dodgy conversations for the first six months while we are learning about each other. Keeping ourselves and each other pristinely safe is a respectful way of maintaining clear boundaries about how much we need to tell. Most of us have judgments about sex and most of us fear other people’s judgments about our own sexual activity, so we can’t always trust that we’re hearing the truth. With things as important as our health and our new relationship at stake, six months really doesn’t seem so long to wait.
The point is that the fluid bonding contract is a template that ensures our mutual sexual health. We each get to decide how we behave within that framework. The tragedy is in not knowing our risks and responsibilities and unwittingly putting ourselves in harm’s way. Sex is an adult game and is surely fun to play, but there are rules. When we play by the rules, we have just as much fun and fewer consequences. Here’s to both!