I had been openly poly with my two partners Jon and Kai for almost three years when I met James* in September of 2012. He was handsome, funny, charming, and intelligent. Did I mention charming? I felt so incredibly lucky to have met such a handsome guy on my first real venture into polyamorous dating, and I was enjoying every minute of new relationship energy.
In December, after meeting James, I was introduced to Lina*, another girl he was seeing. I spent the next weekend with her, and we swiftly became good friends. The three of us spent time enjoying each other whenever we had the chance. The months moved by so quickly, and as the relationship between James and myself cooled, I found myself seeing another partner named Winston.
When May rolled around, things were very serious between Winston and me, and Lina and I had a close, strong friendship. So when I noticed that Lina wasn’t talking much to me online, and James had messaged me sporadically asking when I was last tested during a sunny day in May of 2013, I started to get a little worried. Eventually, after a bit of pestering, she let me know what was up.
“He was diagnosed with HIV today”
That was when my heart dropped into my stomach. Being a sex educator, I knew that most people with HIV now live to the standard life expectancy, and that my actual risk in terms of times of exposure was relatively low. I also knew that pneumonia was common with HIV, and I had only been free of cancer, and my left lung, for 6 months. Even still, I was scared. Prior to this, I had never been exposed to an STI. I was 23, and thought I was invincible. I was reckless with condom usage, and though I was honest about it with my other partners, I disregarded a number of safety measures that I should have had in place. So then, I was panicking. It was so incredibly hard for me to remain focused at work, and I ended up having a panic attack in the bathroom. Eventually, once I calmed down, I needed to put a plan into place to minimize the effect that this exposure would cause.
I contacted my doctor and set up an STI blood test, and immediately after purchased a rapid test to try to relax a bit. Then I contacted my partners. Jon was upset, but understood the situation. Kai was furious for a variety of reasons, but we worked through the call together. Winston was empathetic and calm about the entire situation. Those three calls were some of the most horrifying calls I’ve ever made. Jon, Kai, and Winston eventually forgave the situation and we worked through it when my 3 month, 6 month, and 1 year blood work came back negative. The experience terrified me more than I like to admit, but I learned a few things about exposure to an STI that I think are incredibly useful tools, especially in open poly relationships.
- Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Do you have 5 partners and are fluid-bonded with 3 of them? You should inform all of your partners that you are only using barrier protection with 2 of your partners. If there was a condom that broke, or was forgotten about, share that information with your partners. Every single time. Taking away your partners’ ability to assess their own risk takes away their agency to consent to a relationship with you.
- If it feels wrong, walk away.
If you have a partner who does not tell you the truth about their sexual behaviors, evaluate the safety of yourself and your partners, and then evaluate your relationship with your partner who is lying. If you feel as though your partner is putting your health or safety at stake with their decisions, do not feel as though you have to allow it. You can always walk away. If your partner is threatening your safety, or you are in a position where you are not able to walk away, please visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline or Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
- Get on a testing schedule and stick to it.
I feel as though this one is the most important. When there is a new partner in my poly web, I get tested every three months like clockwork. When there has been no one new in the web for one year, I get tested every six months. Were I monogamous, I would get tested once a year. This may seem like it could be expensive, but there’s a good chance there is a free (or low cost) testing center near you. I think that it is incredibly important to get into the habit of getting tested at minimum once per year regardless of your relationship status. It is an important test that should always be included in your basic yearly blood work. STD panels are often done with regular blood work once a year in some places, but you must ask in others. It is not a matter of trusting your partner, but rather a matter of the peace of mind that comes from knowing your STI status at all times.
- Talk about your precautions and measures and take care of yourself.
If you prefer barriers for oral, anal, manual, and vaginal sex, you need to voice that. If you get tested every 6 months, you need to voice that. If you need to see paper proof of an STI test before having sex with someone, be sure to voice that. If you need to go with someone to get an STI test, be sure to voice that and do it. Take charge of your own safety, and remember to bring your own external condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, and/or gloves! If someone refuses to follow the things you have in place for your personal safety, it is better to walk away than to have sex with someone who will not respect you.
- Have a plan.
- Take a deep breath and calm down. You cannot focus on making a plan if you are panicking.
- Think of the date of the potential exposure as well as the number of times you could have been exposed. This information is important for your doctors to know what sort of numbers they are looking for, as well as important for you to know a timeline of when you should be tested (For HIV, you should be tested at exposure, 3 months after exposure, and 6 months after exposure).
- Make a list of the people you have to alert to get tested. This part can be very complicated, and many people prefer to wait until after they receive their STI diagnosis—or lack thereof—before alerting others to a potential exposure. I believe you should share this information with your partners so that they can assess their own risk.
Remember that accidents happen, and blaming doesn’t solve anything. Be sure to try to talk to your partner or partners calmly and explain the situation. Try not to insult the partner who exposed you, as that will not give you answers. Go with your partners to get tested, and try to remain calm during the waiting period. Know that it is okay to be angry and upset, but that at the end of the day, it is more helpful to stay calm and lean on the people who love you to help you get through the scary part. One of the most common arguments against polyamory is the elevated risk of STIs, but that risk can be negated with the proper care and ability to assess your personal risk!
*names have been changed.
Until Next Time!
-The Frisky Fairy