Ina Park has been in a monogamous marriage for more than 15 years, but she feels like she’s been having one safe sex conversation after another these days.
Like, after she and some close friends spent time together without masks on, forcing her to later ask: “Are you seeing other people?”
Then, the mother of her son’s friend suggested letting the boys play basketball together, leading to detailed negotiations about risk tolerance, boundaries and protection.
“Those are conversations that some of us were used to having in the past and have not had for a long time,” said Park. “Now, suddenly, we’re having to have these awkward, safe sex-type conversations with all types of people that you wouldn’t ordinarily have to have these conversations with.”
Park is a doctor who treats people with sexually transmitted infections at the San Francisco City Clinic and author of a book about STIs, "Strange Bedfellows", so she’s used to explaining to people, when you have sex with someone, you’re essentially having sex with whoever else they’re having sex with.
Now, it’s whoever you’re breathing next to.
As Bay Area residents emerge from strict shelter-in-place rules and consider getting a haircut or hosting a family BBQ, we have a lot to negotiate with each other about what we’re willing to do, with whom and how.
All this requires some nuanced communication skills. Doctors and sex education teachers, as well as polyamory and BDSM practitioners, have years of best practices and guidance to offer, drawing various parallels between negotiating safe sex and negotiating safe socializing.
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“If you really want to make sure your partner uses a condom, you have to express why it’s important to you and why it’s aligned with your values and why that’s something that you need from them,” said Julia Feldman, who runs the sex education consultancy, Giving the Talk. “If you want your mom to wear a mask when you see her, you need to explain why it’s important to you and why it’s aligned with your values.”
Feldman helped develop sex education curriculum for the Oakland Unified School District. She says Bay Area schools have shifted away from knowledge-based teaching — sperm fertilizing the egg, etc — to focusing more on communication skills like these; skills many adults have never received formal training on.
“The more people communicate what they want and what they desire and what they’re comfortable with, the more we actually get what we want,” Feldman said. “This is a really good time to practice that.”
Feldman has been practicing her skills over and over during the pandemic, like when she invited a friend over for a socially-distanced cocktail in her backyard. They had an extensive conversation about how they would sit (six feet apart); what they would drink (her friend would accept a can she could wipe down); whether they would wear masks (no); if Feldman would serve snacks (no).
“Because if you show up at someone's house and they have a beautiful spread and they're expecting that you're just going to dig into a platter of food with them, and that's not what you're comfortable with, there might be disappointment on their part,” Feldman said. “There’s a lot of emotions involved.”
Her friend also asked in advance if she could use Feldman’s bathroom while she was there.
“So I disinfected this one bathroom and created a pathway through my house. But it really was only because she was cognizant of articulating that need and I was able to take time to accommodate it,” she said. “If she had showed up and said, ‘Oh, I really have to pee. Can I use your bathroom?’ I don’t know what I would have done.”
Lessons from Kink
This very detailed thinking and advanced negotiating shares similarities with the world of BDSM; sexual role-play, involving bondage, dominance and submission.
“You start tying people up without consent and it just goes south right away — you just can’t do that,” said Carol Queen, staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, the sex toy and sexual health company with locations throughout the Bay Area.
She suggests considering a common tool from the BDSM world: a detailed spreadsheet of every possible kinky activity — from leather restraints to nipple clamps — with columns to be filled in for yes, no or maybe. It’s a conversation starter for beginners and helps facilitate conversations ahead of kink parties. Queen says we need an equivalent checklist for the coronavirus.
“That helps people do that very first step of understanding what their own situation and needs and desires are,” she said. “Somebody, make this list for us!”
Queen has always emphasized that communication doesn’t stop once you get to the party. In her starring role in the 1998 instructional video/feminist porn film, Bend Over Boyfriend, she stressed the point repeatedly: “It’s deeply important that you are verbal with each other and say, ‘Yes, no, faster, I’m ready, I’m not ready.’ It’s very important because if you’re going on your partner’s wavelength, you’re going to have a greater experience.”
Two decades later, through a pandemic, she said it still holds true.
“The idea that it’s okay to be that talkative in the service of safety and comfort really is what we learned from that,” Queen said. “It’s a very important lesson in sex and, these days, under most other circumstances.”
As some counties start to encourage people to form social pods or “quaranteams” as a way to limit socializing among two or three households, we now essentially have to decide which of our friends or family we ask to go steady with us.
“I wish I had more polyamorous friends to help me navigate that situation,” said Park, the STI doctor. As in, folks with experience brokering different levels of intimacy with multiple partners and establishing ground rules for the group.
As a physician who often talks with patients about infidelity when an infection enters the picture, Park wonders how pods will deal with social infidelities
“There’s inevitably going to be betrayals, ‘Oh, I cheated on our pod with somebody else,’ and then having to disclose that to the pod,” she said. “Does the relationship recover? Or do you kick that person out of your pod forever?”
In Park’s experience, it’s always better to admit to an affair before an infection enters the picture, whether it’s chlamydia or the coronavirus, so everyone can take precautions. With the coronavirus, the offending pod member can self-quarantine for two weeks away from the rest of the group, so no one gets sick.
But whether you’re being kicked out of a pod or no one’s invited you to be part of a pod in the first place, the experts agree we all need to get better at handling rejection. The pandemic is temporary, but we’re in it with our loved ones for the long term, so we need to respect each other’s anxieties and boundaries.
“Don’t take it personally,” said Queen. “We’re all new here at this party.”