How Many Partners Have You Had?


If you ask the average person what defines our sexual age, there’s a good chance he’ll mention AIDS. Almost every week the mass media mention some new study about its prevalence or treatment, or the horrifying statistics of AIDS in Africa.

And yet for many Americans, AIDS is not the sexual problem about which they need to worry most. If you’re heterosexual and not involved in IV drug use (either yourself or through your partner), the chances of contracting AIDS are small.

But sex, unfortunately, is not without risks.

There’s unwanted pregnancy, which arguably changes a person’s life more than anything short of catastrophic illness. There are still several million unintentional pregnancies in America every year. This despite an abundance of birth control methods that really do work — condoms, pills, diaphragms, IUDs, depo-provera, and the most reliable of all, sterilization.

There are also sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, herpes and HPV. They won’t kill you, but they can bring plenty of trouble. They can undermine or destroy sterility; create problems during childbirth; interfere with sexual pleasure; and increase the risk of cervical cancer. While all can be treated, herpes and HPV cannot be cured.

Then we have the major league STDs — gonorrhea, syphilis and hepatitis. While they sound like things out of the past (or the gutter), perfectly nice people get them today. And they can ruin your life or kill you.

Finally, a broken heart is always a risk factor in sexual behavior. Sadly, some sexual partners lie, cheat and steal. Neither age nor gender, class, or race can predict or reduce the risk of heartbreak. The human foibles of betrayal and fickleness transcend all such boundaries. A broken heart is serious business for many, often resulting in depression, illness or behavioral acting out.

How do you talk about HIV and STDs? Pick a time when you feel close to your prospective partner, haven’t been drinking, have enough time for a full discussion, and have all or most of your clothes on.

Do it in a simple, straightforward way: “I want to enjoy sex with you, so I need to relax. That means talking about health issues, even though it’s uncomfortable for me. So let’s talk about it, OK?” Talk about the level of sexual experience you’ve had — unprotected intercourse, STDs, sexual contact with gay or bisexual men, intravenous drug use, and anything else you’d want revealed to you by a new partner.

If your would-be partner can’t handle this, or feels insulted, be glad you found out now. That’s why you brought it up.

Undertaking sexual activity thoughtfully means asking questions — and listening carefully to the answers — before leaping into bed with someone. You may be at little or no risk of catching HIV, but there are plenty of other problems out there.

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