For those who have been social distancing for over a year, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel comes with an exciting cherry on top: the return to having sex! But even when COVID-19 is no longer a concern, the need to protect our sexual health and safety should still be top of mind. Health Affairs reported when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the United States was already experiencing record high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and since the pandemic, lack of testing has made it difficult to accurately measure the changes in STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea. With health clinics reducing office hours and, in some cases, temporarily closing, care for STIs has fallen below par. About one in five people in the United States has an STI, according to CDC data from 2018, so it’s important that we arm people with the tools they need to be a responsible sexually active adult.
“STI Awareness Month is a great opportunity to take advantage of the unique moment in time we are in and enter back into dating and connecting sexually with others more intentionally,” says Rachel Zar, LMFT, CST, relationship and sex therapist at Spark Chicago Therapy and the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine.
Step 1: Know Your Sexual Health Status
Safely engaging in sex means starting with knowing one’s own sexual health status, including STIs and HIV.
“The first step toward entering into a sexual experience safely is taking responsibility for learning about your own health,” says Zar. “This means going to the doctor and getting that full STI panel, especially if you’ve been putting it off or it hasn’t been available to you during the pandemic.”
Knowledge is power, and in this context, it will give you the information you need to treat an STI that is treatable and manage one that is not before exposing a new partner. Since many STIs are asymptomatic, testing and always using protection is vital in ensuring safety.
“Testing should become a routine part of your healthcare. Your doctor may not offer a test unless you ask, so speak up the next time you’re in their office – and always let them know if there are any symptoms you’re concerned about. You are your own best advocate here,” says Zar.
Step 2: Open the Conversation with Your Partner
The topic of safe sex with the person you are engaging has potential to be awkward and challenging. Asking others to be honest and vulnerable about their STI status means being willing to do the same.
“Be direct about any STIs you are currently managing and let your partner know if you’ve had any unprotected sexual experiences since your last test,” says Zar. “Explain the steps you’re taking to manage your existing STIs and what you need specifically in order to feel safe in a sexual encounter.”
Step 3: Use Protection:
Though using protection comes in as “Step 3” on this list, it is “Step 1” in terms of protecting oneself. A condom’s role is to prevent more than just pregnancy—it protects against certain STIs, lowering the risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia and more.
“Yes, condoms may slightly change the sensation when having sex, but if your condom fits correctly and you’re used to wearing one every time, the potential for sexual pleasure with a condom on is just as high. It actually may even be higher, since feeling safe helps everyone relax into the moment,” says Zar, who recommends playing around with a variety of condoms on your own to find one that suits your body best.
Opting for a thinner condom, such as Trojan Bareskin or Ultra Thin Lubricated Condoms, can increase sensitivity and pleasure.
“Paying attention to how a condom fits is important for comfort, but also for safety. A condom that’s too tight may tear and one that’s too large may slip off,” says Zar.” Zar suggests people refer to the Trojan website’s sizing chart if they have questions about fit.
To stay in touch with Rachel Zar, please visit www.rachelzartherapy.com.
Global Communication Works