The prospect of catching a disease may be most likely to cross your
mind during a one-night stand, or perhaps when you see a scantily clad
woman cruising cars in the red-light district. In reality, though, STDs
occur predominantly in the context of ongoing relationships.
Masaro, research coordinator at the University of British Columbia in
Canada, recently conducted a survey with fascinating results. She
wanted to understand how people are sizing up their partners. When it
comes to assessing STD risk, what information do people rely on?
I found was that familiarity, trust, and assumed knowledge of the
partner’s sexual history were the three major things people used in
assessing partners,” says Masaro.
While that sounds all warm
and fuzzy—intimacy, after all, is built on familiarity and
trust—Masaro’s study made it clear that the qualities that help make up
a good relationship don’t necessarily translate to partner safety. The
317 people she surveyed had all relied on partner attributes and the
nature of their relationships—and all had sought treatment at an STI
Nearly all the subjects’ STD trouble could be traced
back to assumptions. Masaro found that people were deciding about STD
risk based on whether the partner had a similar background, shared in
the same circle of friends, or seemed intelligent. More than one in
five said they’d assume a sex partner was safe if he/she was physically
attractive, and more than two in five if the partner seemed like a
Seventy percent said they would be confident a
partner was safe “if I felt I could trust them.” Clearly they did trust
the partner if they let him/her in their pants. Trust is virtuous, but
it turns out to be a lousy method of prevention.
“We all make
inaccurate assessments, and feelings of attraction and affection
interfere with risk assessment,” Masaro says. “When you have that
person sitting in front of you, everything else goes out the window.
You’re attracted to them so you don’t want to see anything wrong with
And who wants to ask, anyway? A conversation about STDs
is bound to be uncomfortable, and nothing kills a moment like an
impromptu interrogation under the sheets.
Talk is cheap—and invaluable
it comes to sex, there are few more effective ways to ensure partner
safety than sitting down to have The Talk. That conversation may be
accompanied by a good deal of anxiety but, as we explore here, it
doesn’t have to be awkward. Believe it or not, it can even be sexy.
No. 1 in assuring you and your partners are safe from STDs is to start
talking long before you pull back the covers. (Yes, you have to
have the talk.) Choose a scenario in which you feel relaxed and calm,
like a private dinner or a long walk, when you are sure to have one
another’s full attention. Be sober and mentally present.
Rolleri, program manager with ETR Associates (Education, Training,
Research) and a nationally recognized trainer in STD prevention,
suggests not jumping into the conversation blindly.
partners about staying safe is really a two-step process, in my mind,”
she offers. “I think it’s really important to first have a clear
understanding of what your own expectations are for a romantic
relationship, so think about your boundaries and limits. And then, if
you didn’t get good sex education in school or speak with a doctor, you
need to do some proactive research to learn about STDs and
Rolleri is keen on a holistic approach: Consider
the whole sphere of physical and emotional consequences that can result
from a sexual relationship, and then put the conversation in those
contexts. STDs and unwanted pregnancies are two possible outcomes, both
of them difficult to discuss and profoundly difficult to manage. But
another two possibilities are emotional reward and genuine physical
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