8 Boundary Prompts for STI+ People
Needy, but like in a hot way 💕
Welcome to Open System, a newsletter by niche internet micro non-celebrity @sti.mulation. I use sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as an entry point for exploring what it means to be in a body in lifelong interaction with other human and non-human bodies. Thanks for reading — I’m happy you’re here! ✨
In this inaugural transmission, released on the day of love and relationships known as Valentine’s Day, I want to talk about the lovey and relationship-y topic of boundaries. To be honest, I almost hesitate to say “boundaries” because I’m wary of the buzzword life cycle in which words become shells of themselves, losing potency as people fixate on terminology over meaning. However, the growing collective interest that leads to a word’s dilution, misuse, and abuse is the same interest that accounts for at least part of my motivation in writing this — maybe also your motivation in reading this. So, nevertheless, I’m going for it.
We’re going to talk about boundaries because, as the internet has taught us, boundaries are Important™ and Valid™. But actually!
Boundaries provide structure and definition in the messiness of infinite concurrent realities and inevitable impacts on one another as living creatures. Boundaries are self-drawn lines on the maps of our overlaps. In the viral words of Prentis Hemphill, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me at the same time.”
But for all of today’s boundary talk, I’ve long noticed a gap in conversations about boundaries and sexual health. As many people diagnosed with long-term STIs will tell you, the world does very little to prepare you for how to live with an STI. Sex education and medical resources typically aim to help people navigate an infectious world by emphasizing prevention, centering an STI-free audience and hoping they’ll stay that way. Conversations about the sex lives of people with STIs aren’t much different. They generally focus on the safety and comfort of our presumed STI-free partners — how to minimize the chance of transmission, how to communicate in ways that help them understand us. These are crucial things to address. And yet they do not address STI-positive people’s own needs in relationships. Our safety, comfort, and desires are often glaringly absent from conversations about and/or for us.
Talking about the needs of STI-negative people while ignoring the needs of STI-positive people both stems from and reinforces a framework in which negative = safe/good/innocent and positive = unsafe/bad/guilty. People believed to be free of infection are cast as vulnerable whereas those living with infection are cast as dangerous. This is a false dichotomy, of course. It assumes that “threat” moves in only one direction and fails to recognize the vulnerability and humanity inherent to each of us.
I wonder: When we prioritize the STI-negative on a broad scale, how does that translate to the smaller scale of our actual relationships? And how do cultural beliefs about who is “at risk” versus who is “risky” imprint on our inner worlds? Who is recognized as requiring care? Who is invited to discover and articulate what they need? Whose desires are acceptable and whose are greedy? I worry that having an STI, in and of itself, is imagined as taking up too much space, because communicability implies the extension of one’s borders. If the boundaries of your self are already too wide, too much of an imposition on others, who are you to have Boundaries?
Except that the internet taught us that boundaries are good!!! They help us to take care of ourselves and our relationships! It’s pathetic that I feel like I have to say this, but I think the gap between the pro-boundary discourse and the lack of discourse on boundaries within STI-positive experiences can be bridged with the basic assertion that people with STIs are existentially ✨VALID✨ and deserving of intimacy and pleasure. If we can acknowledge that, then it follows that people with STIs have a claim on boundaries; that the boundaries of people with STIs are just as important as those of people without; and that it’s reasonable and valuable for people with STIs to have boundaries around our positive statuses specifically.
As a person with a long-term STI, I want to make space for the question: What do I need from a partner in order to feel seen and honored in the reality of my body? I want people like me, people who know their bodies are home to more than just themselves, to know that this question exists and that we’re allowed to ask it. In asking it, we begin to answer it, and I believe we deserve to answer it freely and luxuriously.
So let’s talk about what that might look like in practice. Below is a list of prompts for thinking about boundaries around STIs in relationships. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it covers a variety of areas that could potentially benefit from reflection and boundary-setting. It’s okay if you don’t come up with answers right away (I’m personally a big fan of taking my sweet time to ruminate and allow my truths to emerge). It’s also okay for our answers to change as circumstances change, as relationships evolve, as we change. The point is to show up to ourselves with curiosity, honesty, and willingness to engage in the process; the results naturally flow from there, anyway.
Ultimately, I’m sharing these prompts with the hopes that they might help us to cultivate more fulfilling, connective, life-affirming relationships, whether those relationships are fleeting, long-lasting, or anywhere in between. Feel free to take them, leave them, or tweak them in whatever ways help your spirit make sense of this fleshy existence.
1. What are my expectations around STI testing with sexual partners?
We often talk about sharing our own testing histories with our partners, but what do we expect partners to share with us? Is it important to you that your partners have been tested, and if so, how recently and for what? There isn’t a right answer here besides what you feel comfortable with. Maybe you’re cool with whatever as long as you know what “whatever” is. Maybe your baseline is that everyone gets a standard panel done before getting physical. Regardless, having a sense of our expectations can help to give structure when navigating new relationships and to shift the responsibility of STI management from a single individual to everyone involved.
2. What practices give me the physical and emotional safety I want within partnered sex?
This question applies to anyone, regardless of STI status. However, I intentionally included it here for two reasons. First, I want to affirm that this is a relevant question for positive folks; having an STI doesn’t automatically dictate what one’s sexual practices can or should be. Second, given the context of this post, I want to be explicit in saying that people with STIs deserve to be equal contributors in crafting the expectations and protocols in our relationships. In order to make joint decisions, though, it helps to know how we feel as individuals. What role would you like barriers or medication to play in the sex you have? What other tools or structures do you need to create the safety you’re looking for? How do your preferences compare with your partners’ preferences? If your preferences don’t line up, what would it take to find agreement? Where are you willing to compromise? How does that feel? Are you okay with how that feels?
3. What do I need from a partner in order to feel sexually fulfilled?
Just as it’s helpful to consider what we like and don’t like in bed, it’s also helpful to recognize what we don’t want to live without, and even what we need. Are certain activities a “must” for you in sexual relationships? What kind of attitude do you need a partner to have about STIs in order to feel sexy, free, and at ease with them? On the flip side, what kind of attitude about STIs can’t you tolerate in a sexual and/or romantic relationship? What level of caution around transmission feels right to experience from a partner? Is there a point where caution can become stifling or hurtful for you? Our partners are allowed to have their own boundaries around STIs, and it’s on us to decide if those boundaries make for relationships that work for us.
4. What information am I comfortable sharing about my STI?
Are you comfortable discussing the backstory of your diagnosis? Is that something you prefer to bring up on your own, or are you open to questions about it? Are there certain questions you’re not willing to answer? What frequency of communication and level of detail regarding symptoms, treatment, etc. feels appropriate between you and a partner?
5. How much education am I willing to provide for partners?
This might differ from relationship to relationship depending on the circumstances — their personal background, their willingness to learn, what kind of education and support they specifically need. But it could be helpful to have a general understanding of what you’re willing to take on and where your limits are. What do you expect partners to do to educate themselves and how might you communicate this? How do you know if you’re reaching your limit? What mental reactions or sensations in your body might signal this?
6. What level of privacy do I expect around my status?
Is there certain information about your sexual health and practices that you’re comfortable having shared outside of your relationships? Is there certain information that should be kept confidential? Who gets to know what? Do these expectations leave room for your partners to do their own work and get the support they need outside of the confines of their relationships with you?
7. What language do I prefer to use around my status?
What words would you like your partners to use when talking about your STI or STIs in general? Is it important to you that your partners demonstrate a certain level of comfort with STI terminology (e.g. “I need my partners to be able to comfortably say the word ‘herpes’ out loud”)? Is there language that you’re specifically not okay with? For example, I consider “clean” to be a no-no in a sexual health context. If someone I liked enough to be hanging out with said this early on, I would correct them and probably give them the opportunity to keep engaging with me so long as they responded respectfully and seemed to learn from it. But if it happens again? I just don’t see us working out. 💁
8. What do I need partners to know and appreciate about my relationship to my STI?
I think of this category as the STI-related stuff we introduce into relationships other than STI themselves. For instance, as someone who creates sexual health content for the public, I need partners who a) are comfy with me sharing my status and my ideas openly and b) support and celebrate my work. If someone can’t handle that or acts weird about it, I’m not the right person for them. Other examples: Maybe you’re someone who feels “meh” about your STI and it’s annoying or upsetting to you when someone treats it like it’s something to be super sensitive and fragile about. That’s helpful information for a partner to have! Maybe your diagnosis still feels raw or you’re experiencing STI-related impacts to your sexuality like low libido or body dysphoria. That’s also helpful information for a partner to have! I’m suggesting that there’s more to compatibility than simply agreeing on the mathematical probability of transmission. What does your relationship with your STI bring to and need from your relationships with other people? Knowing where we’re at helps our partners to meet us there.
Thank you so much for joining me in this first installment of Open System! If you’re not already subscribed, plug in your deets below to get future transmissions sent directly to you:
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