Mentioning The Unmentionable
by Isadora Alman
For most of us talking with a loved one about health issues presents no major problem, but sexual health issues seems to be another matter. While sexual behavior is an ingredient of healthy living, a habit of lifelong reticence about mentioning sex at all can make discussing sexual disease prevention very difficult. Add to the emotionally loaded subject of sexuality a genuine concern about death, and the results can be overwhelming. Where can you start? How do you begin?
You must begin somewhere. It is true that it can be extremely difficult to get a satisfactory conversation going on a topic you don’t want to talk about and the other person doesn’t want to hear. But you must make the effort for your safety and wellbeing as well as your partner’s.
An excellent way to open a discussion about sex and sexually transmitted conditions is to share information: “I read an article today that disturbed me profoundly. Can we discuss it?” or “Please read this,” and afterward “How do you feel about what you read?”
It’s not at all uncommon to get a response of denial (“This has nothing to do with me. I’m not into kinky sex/drug use/I’m not gay!”) or anger (“What have you been up to that you call this to my attention?”) Fears takes many forms of expression. Understand that, and try to remember that, having brought up the topic, a response other than what you hoped for need not be interpreted by you as a personal attack. Hear the other person out. Be sure to express your own feelings. Any statement that begins “I think,” “I feel”, or “I would like…” removes the onus of possible accusation. So does a personal confession of discomfort. (“I find this discussion really embarrassing and I hate the necessity of it, but we need to talk about disease protection.”)
No real communication can take place through a wall of furious feelings. Feelings must be dealt with. It is saddening, terrifying and anger-provoking that something so dark and scary intrudes on the joys of love and sex like the literal Death’s Head at the wedding feast. Acknowledge what feelings come up at the time. You can be sure there will be more and others: “I see how mad you are that I brought this up. It wasn’t my intent to start a fight.” “Yes, it’s very scary for me too.” Once you know how I feel and I know how you feel we are in some sort of rapport and can now do something. One hopes for cooperation concerning our relationship, our sexual activities together, out of mutual concern for our health.
Realistically, however, there is no way to get your partner to do something he or she doesn’t want to do, whether it’s changing sexual practices or even discussing the subject in the first place. If you are concerned it’s up to you to do what you can for your own safety and comfort. This could mean forging ahead bravely into a conversation that is essentially one-sided, setting your limits about future behavior, willingly risking your own and your partner’s discomfort and possibly anger, or even leaving the relationship.
Do acknowledge your partner’s fears: “I see this makes you uncomfortable but it won’t go away and neither will I.”
If this conversation has to take place at the beginning of a potential relationship, so much the better. Exchanging health and sex histories, revealing activities that give you pleasure and sharing fantasies and fears are all excellent avenues of getting to know another person, of establishing intimacy that precedes and surrounds intimate acts. If approached in the spirit of shared Show & Tell rather than a qualifying entrance exam for your bed and your heart, the communication process can be just as pleasurable as the goal…just like sex itself.
Won’t he think I’m playing Ms. Priss? Is she going to think I’m some sort of wuss? Perhaps. Much depends on how you present yourself and hold up your end of the conversation. But maybe there will be such a wash of gratitude that you are the one to introduce the difficult topic of safer sex that the gratitude will spill over into appreciation and establish a new level of open communication. This is one risk worth taking.