What Are the Physical Risks of an Open Relationship? Part 1

A topic that needs to be addressed when discussing polyamorous relationships are the physical risks involved. The increased number of sexual partners in non-monogamy means we need to be aware of the risks, so we can take proper precautions with knowledge and understanding. The two largest risks include unintended pregnancies and STI’s (Sexually Transmitted Infections).

Reframing Our Sexual Education

Growing up, most of what we learned in sex education, from family, friends, and the medical establishment, was fear based. They may have meant well, but rather than true information, we were taught to be afraid. (I talk about this at length in my book, “No More Hiding: Permission to Love Your Sexual Self”)

We also weren’t taught about sexual pleasure, hormones, or human nature. Unfortunately, this mis-education has kept most of us ignorant, afraid, or judgmental. Ironically, in the long run, this actually makes us less safe. Judgments, like “clean” or “dirty”, intensifies fear and shame, rather than allowing us to have calm, rational, informed discussions. Talking about STI’s can make the discussion even more difficult.

Informed Decision Making and Risk Management

Start by thinking of the risks you already are taking in other areas of your life besides sex:

  • Do you often drive 10, 15, 20 miles over the speed limit? Or sometimes even more?
  • Do you always wear your seatbelt? Or are you one of those who click it behind your seat, so the alarm doesn’t go off?
  • Do you ever drive after an alcoholic drink? Or two? Or three?
  • Do you talk on your cell phone while driving? Look up directions or Google the nearest restaurant? Or worse yet, text and drive?
  • Do you ride a motorcycle? Do you always wear your safety gear?
  • How often do you “overindulge” in drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you participate in extreme sports such as bungie jumping or skydiving?

It can be helpful to think about the levels of risks you take regularly. Now, I’m not advocating being reckless with sex, but I want to demonstrate that we all take risks outside the bedroom as well, and we take precautions.

Because STI’s are so steeped in fear, shame, and judgment, we somehow rate them as worse than the many, many other viral and bacterial infections we are exposed daily, just by being around others. In fact, we do not think twice about breathing the same air as other people, touching surfaces other people have touched, or touching other people – but we still often take precautions, such as washing our hands, covering our faces, or even taking supplements to boost our immune systems. But, all the hand sanitizer in the world will not guarantee protection from the wide range of (what I call) social infections such as:

  • Influenza
  • Strep
  • Mononucleosis
  • Bronchitis
  • Mumps/measles/rubella
  • Encephalitis
  • Many, many, many more

So, if you were to contract one of these from your friend, would you stop being friends with them? If not, then why do you think differently about infections that are transmitted thru sex such as

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Trichomonas
  • Herpes
  • HPV
  • Hepatitis

No Such Thing as Zero Risk

We have to remember that life is full of risks, and sex is just one of these areas where there is risk. We must not over-exaggerate sexual risks compared to other risks. Unless you intend to live in a giant plastic bubble, with filtered air pumped in, and no physical contact with other humans, you cannot have zero risk.

Even in monogamy, there is risk. The reality is that people do break their agreements to be sexual with only one person, and, the majority of the time, their partner is unaware of these other sexual partners. As you go into open relationships, one of the things to consider when deciding what type of open relationship is best for you can also be what level of sexual risk you are most willing to accept, such as:

Low Risk: A small pool of people (2-3) and everyone has been tested so you know what risks are already there. This can be good for those who choose relationship styles such as monogamish, poly-fidelity, and fluid-bonded.

Medium Risk: If you have more than 2-3 partners this can involve consistent use of condoms (male or female), use of dental dams/condoms (for oral), and semi-frequent testing.

Higher Risk: Limited or no condom use. Medications such as PrEP, (to reduce risk of HIV infection), and frequent testing.

Remember, risk is about percentages and statistics. Some people will contract a STI on their first sexual experience in a monogamous relationship. Other people may have several hundred sexual partners with no (or at least no serious) STI’s. And while many people do not want to admit it, there are some groups with higher rates of STI’s than others.

Some studies have shown that many swingers have lower rates of STI’s than the general population. Maybe this is because they are planning to have sex and are more likely to have taken precautions, such as having protection on them. This is in contrast to someone who decides to chance it on a spontaneous encounter, and aren’t prepared.

As difficult as it can be, let go of your fear, your shame, and your judgment (either of yourself or others) and let yourself start to think about the risk of unintended pregnancies and STI’s in a different way- in an informed way.

If you’d like to talk more about sexual fear, shame or judgment, open relationships or non-monogamy, I hope to be a resource for you. If I can help, request a free consultation today at www.drrhoda.com.

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