How can I be a slut without being terrified of STDs? What are my chances of getting HIV? Should I ever give a BJ with a condom? Here, Dr. Zhana—sex researcher and the human sexuality professor at NYU—tells us everything we need to know.
I call Dr. Zhana the “archangel of sex positivity.” Dr. Zhana Vrangalova is a sex researcher, a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University, and an adjunct professor of human sexuality at NYU. She also founded the amazing Casual Sex Project, a website where people from all over the world come to share stories about their one night stands, fuck buddies, and the like–the good, the bad and the ugly. She writes a column Psychology Today about casual sex and non-monogamy, and she also gave the TED Talk “Is Casual Sex Bad For You?” Without further ado, I’ll let Dr. Zhana solve all your problems.
Dear Zhana, I’m a 24-year-old girl who had a very religious upbringing. It left me crippled with a fear of men, and shame about my own sexual desires. After breaking up with my first boyfriend at 17, I spent 5 years not even kissing a guy, let alone touching a dick. I strongly believed that by multiplying my sex partners, I would actually “lose a part of my soul” (no kidding). 2016 was definitely a turning point— I started being more sexually active, and feel OK about it. Unfortunately, one fear remains: I simply cannot get rid of my terror of STDs—and more specifically, of HIV. I think it’s party because, if I had to tell my parents, they would completely slut shame me. Also, my mother got cervical cancer because of HPV, which increases my anxieties.
Your experience with growing up in a conservative and religious environment which imbues you with a heavy sense of shame and guilt around all things sexual is sadly quite common. Luckily, as you seemed to have discovered last year, it is possible to overcome these feelings and build a healthy sense of your sexual self. Let me just affirm that there is nothing wrong with having lots of sex with lots of different partners, as long as that’s what you want to be doing, everything is consensual, and you’re taking care of your sexual and physical health. (You’re certainly not going to lose a piece of your soul by growing your sexual partner list!)
Ok, but what about that fear of STIs? The thing is, we all have different levels of comfort with risk. Some of us are naturally more anxious and fearful than others. For some people, even having sex with hundreds of casual partners without a condom feels perfectly acceptable; for others, even a single blowjob without a condom is too risky. There is no one right level of comfort with risk; that’s like asking what’s the right level of extroversion or introversion you should have. So if what you need in order to feel safe in your hookups is to use a condom for every blowjob, you need to own that, and communicate that with your partners. If they don’t like it, they can go get a blowjob from someone else.
That said, it is also true that our sex-negative culture often instills in us a fear of STIs that is entirely disproportionate to both the risk of contracting them and the physical discomfort they cause. This set of studies is an excellent example of how much we overestimate the risk of contracting an STI compared to other risky behaviors (like driving a car), and how much more stigma we associate with even relatively mild STIs (like chlamydia) compared to other communicable diseases that can potentially kill us (like swine flu). So it’s very probable that your fear of STIs is somewhat irrationally inflated by all this social stigma that surrounds them.
The reality is, yes, you can get a number of STIs from giving unprotected oral sex, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and HPV, and condoms don’t provide 100% protection from any STIs during vaginal or anal sex. However, if you’re primarily having sex with non-injecting drug using men who only have sex with women, the rates of all STIs are much lower than in some other communities (men or trans women who have sex with men; intravenous drug users)… Furthermore, chances of transmission through unprotected oral sex are relatively low, certainly much lower than rates of transmission through unprotected vaginal, and even lower than unprotected anal sex. (HIV transmission through oral sex is virtually unheard of.) And in fact, the vast majority of people in the world, somewhere in the high 90s%, don’t ever use condoms for giving blowjobs. If you’re using condoms consistently and correctly (without making typical condom errors) for all vaginal and anal sex, your chances of contracting anything are pretty low. If you also add regular testing every 3 months to that, you’re in a really good position to catch anything that you may have contracted early on. Finally, most STIs, especially the ones that are easier to catch, are relatively easy and quick to treat (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis), especially if caught early; won’t kill you or cause any severe physical issues (herpes); or you can get vaccinated against (HPV).
Whenever I talk to people with extreme fears of STIs, I’m reminded of a US woman in her late 40s I once interviewed for a project on people who’ve had sex with over a thousand partners. She had had sex with over a 1,000 men in her long life as a swinger, and only used condoms with about 15% of them (only when they insisted on it; she did not find them necessary). She got tested on a regular basis and claimed she had never caught anything!
Of course, if you want to keep slutting it up, your risk will never be zero, and you’re going to have to work to suppress your fears of STIs if you want to enjoy the fun and excitement of such a sexually adventurous lifestyle. The way to do it is not through reading more information about STIs online. The way to do it is through 1) finding a SEX-POSITIVE therapist who is going to help you overcome your fears without shaming you for wanting to have a sexually promiscuous life, and 2) finding a sex-positive community (especially other slutty female friends) who’s going to provide social support for making the sexual choices you’re making as well as a comparison group for your safer sex practices and risk levels.
Overcoming your fears is not going to be an easy task to accomplish, but it’s worth working on it. Because, what are your other options? Continue living in constant fear and panic or suppressing your slutty desires and live a more monogamous lifestyle? The former sounds unbearable; the latter, highly inauthentic.
xo Dr. Zhana
More from Zhana on Slutever HERE.