February 15, 2011

The Other “Talk” – By Guest Blogger Hubert Izienicki (M.A.)

The Other "Talk." This is a guest blog by Hubert Izienicki (MA), a sociology instructor and doctoral student at Indiana University.

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Let’s talk about “the talk.”  I do not mean the one where your mom or dad sits you down to talk you about the “facts of life.”

In most cases, this singular event happens way too late in a person’s life, is typically too short, and in the words of one of my friends, “it’s hella awkward.”  No, my aim is not to make you relive that experience.

Instead, I want to talk about that other “talk” that you should be having with your sexual partner(s), the one about the sexually transmitted infection (STI) status.

Does Anyone Have The “Talk”?

Last semester, in a Sexual Diversity class that I teach at Indiana University,  when I finally arrived at the unit that explicitly dealt with sexuality in the age of AIDS, most of the students seemed to be disappointed or even annoyed.  There was a visible rolling of the eyes and shifting in the seats.

What could I possible tell them about AIDS or STIs that they did not already know?

The message was clear—protection—and they already knew it.  But my goal was not to test their knowledge of STI prevention techniques.  I wanted to know how and where this knowledge fit into their lives, so I asked the following question:  “How many of you had a conversation with your partner about yours and his/her STI status?”

The class became strangely quiet.

After about thirty seconds, I rephrased my question thinking that perhaps I was not clear enough initially, yet the silence persisted.  Finally, I asked for a show of hands, and only one, reluctant palm slowly inched its way into the air.  It became alarming clear: the talk on STI status was not happening.

The students who were in the committed relationships simply assumed that their partners were both disease free and monogamous, even if studies show that Americans are not immune to infidelity.  Others just did not think to ask.  After all, as someone in class pointed out, asking about an STI status can be quite a “mood killer,” for when does exactly a person have that conversation?  Should it be upon the initial meeting, wedged somewhere between the “you have beautiful eyes” and the “can I buy you a drink?”  Or should it come much later when the clothes are coming off and the rush to get things going before the roommate arrives is on?  And what happens when the alcohol is involved?—And the alcohol is often involved.

Why The “Talk” Is Important

Talking about STIs is not sexy, but having an STI is even less sexy. While due to advances in medical science, living with some STIs can be managed, there are still no cures for some STIs (e.g., herpes, HIV/AIDS), and contracting a STI can have severe consequences on a person’s physical and psychological health.   As individuals, as partners, as boyfriends and girlfriends, we need to have a conversation about where STIs fit into our lives, our relationships, and our sexualities.  It is not only okay but necessary to ask about someone’s STI status.  If you think asking somebody about his or her sexual disease history is awkward or too personal, then consider how personal it is going to feel when you contract one such disease.  Before someone pulls out a condom, or offers you that fifth drink, or even before anyone says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ there needs to be a dialog about our sexual practices, both past and present.

Asking that simple question before anything happens can save us many unwelcome surprises and still lead to pleasure.  And unlike the sex talk you had with your parents, this conversation needs not stop.  Make asking someone about his/her STI status into a habit.  Let it be not just a talk but an ongoing dialog.  In the age of the hooking up and serial monogamy, asking once is just not enough.   So when and how do you broach the subject?

My Recommendations

There really is not one ‘right’ time or place when this conversation should happen; however, either you are single or in a committed relationship, it should occur before you become intimate with another person.  I would recommend that you address this issue earlier rather than later, so that both you and your sex partner can have the necessary information and decide how your going to proceed to minimize any conflict or disappointment.   You can always mix in a little humor to soften the potential awkwardness, but make sure that the message does not get lost amid the comedic variations.   If you are using the internet to connect with a sex partner, you can ask this question by typing it up in your message.  In this way you may feel more comfortable by avoiding the face-to-face interaction. The bottom line: the details of how you do it do not matter as long as you are having that conversation.

Hubert Izienicki is an instructor and a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University.  His primary research interests lay at the intersection of sexuality and immigration.  Specifically, he investigates how an individual’s immigrant experience impacts his/hers sexual beliefs and practice.