Barriers, "Fluid Bonding," and Other Conversations

I don't love the term "fluid bonding." It's in common enough use that I don't pretend it isn't there or correct a partner to some other term if it's their preferred way to talk about barrier use (or non-use, more often) - but it has connotations that don't sit right with how I think about sex and relationships. I don't generally think I'm closer to someone because we've had sex without barriers; "bonding" isn't the primary reason I'd want to do that most of the time; and there are more "fluids" involved in most sex than the one caught by a condom that most folks are implying when they talk about "fluid bonding."


The way most people use this term ends up coming off very heteronormative and shame-filled (only sex involving penises "really counts" for them - or they're "not fluid bonded" with someone who they mutually exchange a lot of fluids with via unprotected oral sex - or they don't really mean anything about STIs, they're talking about pregnancy prevention and don't want to use the real terms). Some folks don't mean those things but are leaning really hard on the bonding part. They really want to hold one relationship over another in closeness on the basis of who does or doesn't use certain barriers, often based on primary relationship status rather than risk assessment (shared or otherwise), frequency of contact, or changes in status.





So, what can we do to change this? I like to try to talk about "barrier agreements" and "safer sex agreements" instead of fluid bonding so that we're starting from a place of more neutral language. Then, we can also look at risk factors, risk assessment similarities, and our boundaries based on those and make agreements collaboratively about what we want to do about STI & pregnancy risks that exist in our relationship right now, with the understanding that it may change as our relationships do. (Also, acknowledging that if there is immune compromise or someone with other high risks, real and consistent use of barriers like gloves and dental dams may be necessary and condoms aren't the only barrier!) Not setting agreements in stone and trying to keep them about risks (this post is a little out of date, but it's an ok jumping off point to think about STI risks) gives you more ability to keep them alive and moving when needed.


This isn't to say anyone should change them unilaterally "because we were keeping the agreement flexible" but it is such that the goal is to always be able to go to our partners and say "Hey as we continue dating I feel that my risk profile is changing in these ways, can we talk about whether that changes our agreements or not?" or "I've been seeing <other partner> for some time and they and I are going to be revisiting our boundary agreements soon, can I check in with you about what different outcomes of that might mean for you and me so I make network-aware decisions?" without giving one partner power over another partner's relationship, but having the conversations we need to reframe our agreements over time and as make sense for us. Our polyamory may be very stable and look the same for several years and need minimal adjustment, or we may be in a time of higher frequency change and need to have more conversations, or to use more protection with more partners because those changes temporarily increase our risk profile. Not all relationships are sexual, and not all processes of dating and finding new relationships include sexual risk, but for lots of us they do and adjusting accordingly doesn't mean anything bad for our existing relationships - in fact it can be a sign of care to bring it up and take it into account. Also, remember that for some people, more frequent testing is more comfortable than changing barrier agreements - and these are personal agreements, so you decide together what you want.


There is a lot of stigma around STIs and shame around sex overall in our culture, so avoiding talking about it explicitly is more common than it should be. Only by being open and honest about actual behaviors, actual risk, and real timing of testing and use or non-use of barriers can we build a less shameful culture around these things in our polyamorous community. So, instead of euphemistically talking about "fluid bonding" and being "clean" lets share the timing and results of our latest STI panels, collaboratively plan how often we'll get new ones, and decide which of our partners we need barriers for which activities with based on risk rather than feelings when possible.


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I'll be teaching at Tethered Together in Stamford, CT this weekend - come say hi if you're there, and join me for Beyond the Kitchen Table on Saturday and Just the STI facts, Ma'am, on Friday. I'll also be hosting a polyam mixer Saturday night at the con.


As always you can find links to all my social media, my book, peer support sessions, and classes here.

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