“You better not share a drink with her,” he said, predictably misgendering me. “You’ll catch AIDS.”
To be honest, I was way more upset about his harmful misunderstanding of how to contract HIV (not immediately AIDS) than anything else.
I was in group therapy, at the outpatient clinic I’ll soon be graduating from, when the topic turned to sexuality and relationships. It was the beginning of our semester and the group was sharing with our counselor the things we’d like to hear discussed in the coming months. Folks brought up subjects such as bisexuality, communication in sexual relationships and learning more terminology surrounding the queer community. With all these great topics floating around, there wasn’t much that was left unsaid by the time it was my time to contribute ideas…except polyamory.
The topic of polyamory is an important one to me, as I am a polyamorous person; so I suggested it in the hope of contributing to everyone’s desire to learn new things. When I said it, many people asked me what it meant, clamoring forward all at once. I gave them a basic definition, telling them it looks different in every relationship, and explained how it looks in mine: My partner and I are each allowed to have lovers outside of the relationship (though limited time and emotional investment, especially since we plan on marrying each other) and we also have group sex with other folks or couples. Everyone seemed jazzed up about it, with a few folks responding with something along the lines of “Wow, that seems cool! I don’t think I could do that though, I’m too jealous.”
And then one person in particular, a person who is notorious at the clinic for being conservative, decided to contribute to the conversation as well.
“That’s disgusting,” he sneered. “It’s dangerous.”
I rolled my eyes and replied, “Why do you think it’s dangerous? It’s perfectly safe.”
He nodded at me knowingly, “Ya know, diseases.” I raised my eyebrows, saying “There are many forms of protection which combat that, and regular STD testing helps too. It’s the same risk as catching a cold, you just have to be careful!”
The man curled his lip in disgust at my comparison of STDs to the common cold. “Nope, that’s disgusting. And women should not be sleeping around on their man anyway.” I took a huge sigh, and said, “I’m polyamorous and you’re offending me.” Everyone looked surprised, like I had just become infinitely cooler by being polyam. But the man only raised his eyebrows high in shock and said, “You’re gonna give us all AIDS! Don’t you share a cup with her, she’s foul.” My jaw hung open, unable to form any more words.
I’m very out about being polyamorous with my fiance, but this was the first time I had ever been public about it IRL and in front of strangers. It was hard to tell a whole room of people, who all happen to not be too liberal, that I’m polyamorous, but what shocked me more was how offensive and misinformed this patient was.
At the time, I thought this absurd reaction would be an isolated incident, a situation that would be put to rest shortly after I schooled the guy on how STDs and HIV actually work. But unfortunately, the more I told certain people in my life about the nature of my relationship, the more others concern trolled me about my sexual health.
The bigger problem with hearing criticism from folks about polyamorous lifestyles is the issue of cloaking STDs in so much negativity and stigma, and using my relationship to justify it. This horrible dialogue undoes all of the work others do to create a more welcoming society for those who live with STDs or who are HIV positive. In this day and age, with condoms, PrEP and STD tests, it is very easy to practice safe sex, no matter how many partners you may have. And, of course, it’s very easy to have safe sex if you have herpes or HIV.
The slut-shaming that comes with condemning polyamorous relationships impacts more than just polyam people and STD-positive folks; it also impacts single women who may have multiple sex partners. Those who view the body as a cesspool of disease based on number of partners spreads an antiquated idea that, especially if you’re a woman, you’re inherently unclean or a carrier for disease. Logically, you’re just as likely to carry and transmit diseases with just one partner as you are with two. Having additional partners doesn’t change the nature of your sex life and health much, except for maybe a couple extra STD tests here and there.
The fact that people think I have multiple STDs because I’m polyamorous doesn’t bother me much. Though I currently have no STDs myself, I wouldn’t be ashamed if I did, nor do I shy away from or condemn folks who do carry certain infections. But the way folks are so quick to pair polyamory with spreading disease perfectly exemplifies the ways in which society still internalizes a lot of stereotypes about sex. Policing people, especially women, about their sexual health just because they have more than one sexual partner is wrong. And if the general public was better educated about sex and STDs, they would know something as private as my sexual health is not something they need to concern themselves with unless they’re planning on sleeping with me.