Good Etiquette for Casual Sex and STIs

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


I’m a straight woman in my twenties, and have been in relationships since I was sixteen. Now I’m single, and happily so – but I’m worried about having casual sex. I want to have fun and there’s a guy I know fancies me and I would be well up for hooking up with him – preferably more than once, if it’s good! But I’m worried that if we start sleeping together, emotions will get involved and things will get complicated. How do you navigate a healthy, fun, no-strings-attached sexual relationship?

Ah, the Fuck Buddy question. Frankly, it’s about time. Fear not my dear, I’ve got you covered. Allow me to present:

The Golden Rules of a “Fuck-Buddy”/”Friends-with-Benefits”/”No-Strings-Attached” Relationship:

1. Accept that you ARE in a relationship . . . albeit one with a small “r”.

Sorry to burst your horny little bubble, but there’s no such thing as “no strings attached”. Your fuck buddy is a person, not a vibrator. They have feelings and emotions and a complication-filled life of their own – and those are strings, Pinocchio.

And those strings tie you into a relationship. Yes, a relationship.

Just because the aim of this relationship isn’t to get married, or have kids, or even hang out outside of the confines of the bedroom, this doesn’t render your experience with this person any less valid, real or worthy of absolute respect.

In fact, if someone is letting you enjoy their body and providing you with great sex and hopefully multiple orgasms (always the aim) without demanding extracurricular time, commitment or devotion – that’s a pretty generous (if not exactly selfless) act, and you should be damn grateful.

So, treat your buddy with the respect, courtesy and affection you’d give to any friend or acquaintance. No ignoring them in public (call me crazy, but if someone’s dick has been in me, I’ll always err on the side of saying hi); no oversharing or showing any sexting pictures to friends; no risking their emotional or physical well-being; and if you end up on a night out with your buddy, don’t go home with other people.

Just good manners, people.

Likewise, if you decide for whatever reason that you don’t want to continue with the arrangement – maybe you’ve met someone, maybe you’re not into them anymore, maybe you’ve joined a nunnery – do the decent thing and let your fuck buddy know.

A polite little heads-up is all that’s needed, and means that if you ever want to return to their bed, there will be no hard feelings and the fun can resume.

It’s all about the coital karma, kids.

2. Be Honest with Yourself and Your Partner

Now, just between us: do you really want a purely sexual relationship? Are you fine with someone wanting to have sex with you but not have any loving feelings for you? Are you okay with possibly being one of a long list of casual hook-ups your buddy calls when horny?

Are you sure your self-esteem is healthy enough to feel satisfied by this arrangement, not demeaned or used? Are you sure you’re not secretly hoping that this arrangement will turn into a relationship? Are you enjoying the sex?

If the answer to all of these questions isn’t yes, stay away. (Particularly the last one, because really – what’s the point?)

Even if the answer to all of these questions is yes, keep checking in with yourself by asking them as your arrangement continues. Feelings change, affection grows and emotions develop, and it’s your responsibility to deal with them.

If you start having romantic feelings for your buddy, admit it to yourself and to them. Maybe they have feelings for you too, in which case, jackpot!

But . . . maybe they don’t. If this is the case, be honest about what you need do to get over them.

Do you need to take a break from your arrangement? End it completely? Figure out what you need, and do it.

If you don’t, you’re just headed for trouble: not only will you probably end up hurt and disappointed, but you’ll likely end up taking out your feelings of rejection and resentment on your buddy, which isn’t fair.

On the flip side, if your buddy develops unreciprocated feelings for you, be nice and understanding, but firm.

Don’t indulge any false hope, and if you know that to continue having sex will hurt them, end it. Sometimes you have to protect people from themselves.

3. Establish the Rules

Once you’ve agreed to have causal sex with someone, a few ground rules need to be established.

When sharing the dirty details with friends, should pseudonyms be used to protect your privacy? If you’re buying sex toys, how should you divvy up the costs?

After sex, are you sleeping over or heading home? Even if you’re not exclusive, are there people who are off-limits while you’re hooking up – mutual friends, etc?

And, the most pressing issue of all: your place or mine?

4. Safety, Safety, Safety

The following are mandatory:

§ Condoms: even if you’re using another form of birth control, condoms are still a non-negotiable, as they alone offer protection from many STIs. If your partner ever even whispers a protest against them, leave. Immediately. Anyone who’s that cavalier about both your safety and theirs is not someone to entrust your body to.

§ STI Checks: before you sleep together, after any unprotected sex, and then every three to six months. Even if sex with your buddy is always safe, you’re in a non-monogamous relationship and can’t guarantee the safety practices of others, so play it safe and get tested often. If you do contract anything, tell your partner immediately so they can get tested. If your partner tells you that they’ve contracted an STI, don’t shame them. Bad infections happen to good people, and your reaction to the news is more a reflection on you than their STI is a reflection on them.

§ Research: when trying anything new or kinky, do your homework. Make sure you’ve taken all the necessary safety precautions, have suitable toys, or if it’s anything to do with bondage/S&M, check out local fetish meetings (commonly referred to as “munches”), where you can learn the basics of safe play.

§ Lube: always keep it handy, for reasons of both safety and satisfaction.

5. Have fun!

This is a sexual relationship, so above all, make sure the sex is good.

The best fuck buddies are what infamous sex columnist Dan Savage calls “GGG”: good, giving and game. So hone your skills, use them generously, and be open-minded.

Though you should never do anything you’re not comfortable with, casual sex relationships do offer a great opportunity to explore kinks completely free from emotional inhibitions.

So say what you want, ask what your partner wants and go hell for leather (literally, if that’s what you’re into.)

6. And finally . . .

In sex, as in life, always follow the Campsite Rule, as Dan Savage suggests: try to leave people in better condition than how you found them.

***

First of all, love the column. I’m a very sexually active 26-year-old woman, and it’s great to have someone talking about sex in such a positive way. I have a lot of casual sex and enjoy it, and I’m hoping you can help me out with a tricky subject. I know you’ve spoken about causal sex and being safe about using condoms, but there’s one thing I’ve never heard anyone discuss: if you’re having causal sex, when and how do you ask someone if they’ve been tested for STDs? I get tested regularly, but I am a bit paranoid, particularly about catching HPV or herpes. But because these can be asymptomatic, when and how do I ask the person I’m sleeping with if they have an STD?

Let me let you in on a controversial little secret: for all the worshiping of The STI Talk, for the most part, when it comes to casual sex, those conversations are useless.

If you’re getting into a relationship or are in a long-term fuck-buddy situation, by all means have the sexual-health conversation and mutual testing. In casual sex situations, however, there usually isn’t that much planning or foresight involved. And that means it’s risky, and you’ve kind of got to accept that.

Because there are three levels to paranoia about your sexual health:

1. Non-existent: you’re an idiot who takes no precautions.

2. Normal: you acknowledge the risks that inherently accompany casual sex , and take appropriate precautions.

3. Obsessive: you let the fear of catching something suck all the fun out of have sex with someone.

If you’re a Level 1, you definitely shouldn’t be casually sleeping with anyone, and for the sake of humanity and your junk, cop yourself on immediately. But if you’re a Level 3, you probably shouldn’t be casually having sex with anyone either, because you’re just going to drive both yourself and your partner crazy.

Look, casual sex – and even black-tie sex – will always come with certain risks, and those risks multiply if you don’t know your partner very well.

In the end, you can only take responsibility for your own sexual health, so you do what you can to manage those risks, while acknowledging that even those measures might not be enough. Because even if asking someone if they have an STI may make you feel safer in the moment, realistically, their answer will mean feck-all in terms of how safe you actually are.

Because there are, of course, the general risks: even if you use condoms, they can break. And you’re still in danger of contracting HPV or herpes from infected skin that isn’t covered by the condom.

And then there are the people risks: simply, people can be stupid. Or unlucky. Or liars. And if you’ve hit the jackpot, they can be all three.

If they’re stupid and engage in risky sex practices without getting tested regularly, they could have an STI and not know it. If they’re unlucky, they could have been responsible when it comes to sex, but picked something up anyway and not know it. And if they’re liars, they could be well aware that they have an STI and decide not to tell you because, y’know, you’re about to sleep with them and why would they cock-block themselves?

So the only safe thing to do is assume that they have one, and proceed accordingly by taking all the precautions you can.

But if you do decide to take a chance on your partner’s honesty and ask them about their sexual health, do not wait until you’re in the bedroom ripping each other’s clothes off.

That’s a pretty vulnerable position for everybody, and there’s something kind of gross and hypocritical and mood-killery about suggesting to someone that you do want to have sex with them, but you also think they may be nasty and disease riddled, and were your suspicions to be confirmed, you’d run away screaming.

If you need to have a conversation about STIs, do it before things get too hot and heavy, and put the emphasis on you, so it feels like a mutual sharing of info, not an accusation. All that’s needed is a simple, “Hey, just so we can both relax about the serious end of things and concentrate on the fun stuff, I’m pretty conscientious about my health and had a check up X months ago and am all-clear. How about you?”

If someone does indeed reveal that they do have an STI, don’t freak out, and for the love of all things lubey, don’t shame them. If it turns out that they have an easily treated STI like chlamydia, tell them you can enjoy building some serious teenage-style sexual tension via kissing and dry-humping for a couple of weeks while they get treated, at which point you can sex your all-clear little selves into oblivion.

On the other hand, if they reveal that they’ve something permanent or potentially complicated health-wise like herpes or HPV, you may understandably have some reservations – or just questions about how this could potentially affect you.

If, in the moment, you really feel like you don’t want to take that risk, assure your partner that you’re still attracted to them, you’re not judging them, and sex is merely being paused until you’ve done your own research and are confident enough to relax and completely enjoy having sex with them, worry-free.

Again, kissing and safe fooling around should kick in here – because why wouldn’t it? They’re still the person you wanted to sleep with three seconds ago.

Let me repeat, for all the cheap seats in the back: they’re still the same person.

Nasty STIs can happen to good people, and guess what? That’s okay. All kinds of illnesses and bugs and infections and diseases happen to all kinds of people in every walk of life, in a variety of weird ways, and sexually-transmitted infections are no different.

An STI is just another illness. An unfortunate pain in the ass (or other area) that deserves sympathy, not judgement. And if you’re unable to accept that and get over the paranoia and stigma that surrounds STIs, maybe casual sex isn’t for you. Which is okay too.

Finally, let me just address this fear you have by looking at your worst-case scenario: what happens if you do end up catching an STI?

Well, judging from your health-conscious attitude, you’ll discover it early, it’ll possibly suck for a little while, and then guess what? You’ll move the hell on with your life.

Yes, casual sex carries some risks my dear. But fuck it, so does getting in a car.

You can’t stop accidents from happening – you can only make sure you take individual precautions.

But once you’ve strapped yourself in? Honey, just enjoy the ride.


Do you have a question for Roe? You can submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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