Keep your bed - and your body - a safe haven by communicating about intimacy
By Isadora Alman
When the topic of sexual safety arises I always think of Claire, a professional woman of boundless optimism, who, during the course of a routine gynecological exam, was told that she had venereal warts and chlamydia. "The man I'm seeing now is the first man I've been with in years," she argued. "Do you always use condoms?" the doctor asked. "Well..." So why was Claire so surprised? "But I met him at church!" she wailed.
Some people might believe in rewards for saintly deeds, but the only truly safe sex - no surprise pregnancies, nasty diseases, ruined reputations, broken hearts or disappointed expectations - is the sex you have, by yourself, in the privacy of your bedroom. That said, let's look at how you can make what sex you do have with a partner less risky, if not absolutely without risk, and definitely more enjoyable.
As far as pregnancy goes, there is no completely risk-free sex with anything that involves a penis and vagina of two fertile individuals. Even vasectomies and tubal ligations have been known to grow back spontaneously. There is a name for men and women who do not use some relatively reliable methods of birth control and depend instead on luck or counting the days since her menstrual period. They are often called parents.
Lillian, a large and lusty woman, found herself stumped when she could no longer go through the contortions necessary to insert a diaphragm. Wanting a birth control method that could be put in place before sexual activity began so as not to intrude, she chose the over-the counter spermicidal sponge and was extremely pleased with it. Other women have likened the sponge, spermicidal suppositories, or insertable foam to feeling like a mad dog, frothing at the mouth (!) and prefer a keep-in-place cervical cap or monthly injections. By choosing (perhaps with the help of a Planned Parenthood counselor) and employing a trusty and non-intrusive method of contraception, you can by and large dispense with this particular worry.
How to protect yourself from a broken heart, a damaged reputation or disappointment in general is the subject of a much longer article, so let's focus here first on protecting yourself from disease and second, on increasing your pleasure. And, of course, the fewer your worries the greater your possibility of enjoying yourself.
There are many unwanted maladies spread by intimate body contact - a cold or the ubiquitous winter flu comes immediately to mind. But what most people think of when they refer to safer sex is safety from HIV and AIDS. So here are the basics: HIV, the human immune deficiency virus, is most effectively spread through blood contact. That means that not only health workers involved in blood accidents or intravenous drug users can be infected, but even a sexual virgin who had a transfusion in the days before blood was thoroughly tested can be HIV-positive. The next most effective method of HIV transmission is semen and, to a lesser extent, vaginal secretions. While HIV is present in the sweat, tears and saliva of an infected individual, it is almost impossible to infect another person from these body fluids alone. Practicing safer sex, then, is simply avoiding contact with blood and genital excretions when in intimate physical contact. Latex condoms for intercourse and fellatio and latex squares called "dental dams" for cunnilingus or mouth-anal contact offer the best protection short of celibacy. Yes, that's a lot of latex armor and each of us must decide on her own what risks she's willing to take for what activities.
Betsy, a plus-size woman of my acquaintance, tells me she whispers into her new lover's ear all the lovely things she might like to do with and to his body.... after they both have been tested for a number of common sexually transmitted conditions. That's not to say that she insists on absolute clothes-on behavior for the six-month waiting period of an HIV test - there are many lovely things two people can do which fall under the heading of "outercourse" - but that she will, after all results are in, eagerly dispense with all the latex and look forward to naked delight.
Enjoying sex can be far easier when you know what you want, can ask for it clearly, and have some hope of a positive response. Brenda, a counseling client of mine, told me the story of going to bed with a man for the first time. Sounding like a deli clerk, he asked her, "What would you like?" Her response was, "What have you got?"
Some declarations of sexual preferences are more easily made outside of bed: "I really love kissing for hours" or "Something I've always wanted to try is..." or even "What are your feelings about...?" can be no more confrontational than "I eat sushi a lot" or "I never liked my grandmother." Of course, since sex is the most nonverbal method of communication there is, use it to your advantage by positioning your body or placing your partner's in ways that say loudly and clearly, "Yes, here!" Let's put to rest that miserable myth that it's not worth anything if you have to ask for it!
One potential problem area for larger women is that of body self-consciousness. I can assure you it is a problem very often shared by readers of GQ and Cosmo, too. Our society has spent billions of dollars on advertising implying that you are a faulty human being if you are not young, thin, white, heterosexual, wavy-haired, glossy-toothed, or are not using the product being touted. Not one of us is okay by all commercial standards. Yet it is with this body in all its imperfection that we intend to give and receive sexual pleasure.
There are several ways to get over the hump of first-time nudity. You can be in bed first and under the covers (via a mad dash while your partner undresses). The lighting can be low, the candle flickering and mirrors not strategically placed so that you catch a glimpse of a daunting haunch when you least wish to be reminded. You can arrange non-sexual nudity before the relationship becomes sexual by hot tubbing, skinny dipping or exchanging massages. Then you know the other person has, in the cold light of day, seen what he's getting into (so to speak!) and is proceeding nonetheless.
Whatever methods you do use to get over the "What if he doesn't like my body?" fears, use it and be done with it. Worrying about whether this sexual position is unflattering or that if your partner's hand strays he'll feel less than firm flesh is not remotely arousing. Agree with yourself that you are both there because you want to be and that you will give and receive as much pleasure as possible. Then do so without self-consciousness.
Exchanging sexual histories, talking about sexual likes and dislikes, hopes and expectations is great entertainment as well as a route to intimacy, but it will do nothing to protect you from possible HIV transmission or any other disease. Only you can do that. Realistically, there is no way to get your partner to do something he or she doesn't want to do, whether it's using condoms, being tested for STDs, changing sexual practices or even discussing the subject in the first place. It's up to you to do what you can for your own safety and enjoyment. This could mean forging ahead bravely into a conversation that is essentially one-sided, setting your limits about future behavior (and sticking to them), willingly risking your own and your partner's discomfort and possibly anger, or even leaving the relationship.
If such conversations have to take place at the beginning of a potential relationship, so much the better. If approached in the spirit of shared Show & Tell rather than a qualifying entrance exam for your bed and your heart, the communication process can be just as pleasurable as the goal...just like sex itself.
Won't the other person feel I'm spoiling the mood? Perhaps. But maybe there will be such a wave of gratitude that you are the one to introduce the difficult topic of safer sex - or, for that matter, sex at all - that the gratitude will spill over into appreciation and establish a new level of open communication. For the goal of remaining safe and satisfied, that's one risk worth taking.
Isadora Alman is a California licensed relationship counselor, a Board certified sexologist, and writes the syndicated column on sex and relationships, "Ask Isadora". Visit her in The Sexuality Forum at www.askisadora.com. Stay and play a while.