Fluid Bonding - Feelings and Risk Profile
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
“Fluid Bonding” or “Fluid Bonded” is a phrase used to indicate that a partner or a part of a network exchanges bodily fluids through sexual contact, choosing not to use barriers for many activities. Lots of polyamorous people have slightly different policies on when they use barriers, and for what activities. Some of them would say they’re fluid bonded when they stop using barriers for oral sex; some wouldn’t consider themselves fluid bonded until they’ve had anal (PIA) or vaginal (PIV) sex with no barriers. (To date, I’ve never met anyone who considered themself fluid bonded because of manual sexual activity without gloves, but now that I’ve typed the sentence, it solidifies my certainty that they must exist.)
However, the cultural underpinnings in North America, at least, in monogamous and polyamorous circles alike, generally underrate oral sex as “not really sex,” or only penises being inserted into an orifice counting as “risky behavior.” This means that the majority of the time, fluid bonding or not is a discussion of whether to use barriers in vaginal and anal sex. Risk-wise, this adds a few additional STIs to the mix, but as you might have gathered from the STI fact post earlier this week, before even getting to this conversation, unbarriered oral and manual sex and barriered PIV and PIA sex has already exposed you to BV, HPV, HSV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis. While many of these have a higher risk if the additional fluid exchange of unbarriered contact with vaginal fluid for a penis-haver or of semen being added to the mix for a vagina-possesor is added to the mix, the risk increase for skin-transferred infections is very low. The risk for other infections varies, and goes up depending on how many interconnected fluid bonded partners there are in a network, and on whether anyone in the network is immune compromised or otherwise more susceptible than average to infections or side effects of infection. In the end, the actual risk-assessment must be extremely personal; and looking up the most current data on infection risk and number of cases can help you make this decision. (WHO has them by region, and the US CDC has numbers from 2018 posted. San Francisco’s City Clinic has a great chart about risk.)
The most important part of having conversations about fluid bonding, for many people, are not actually the STI transmission risk parts. It’s the part of the conversation where feelings come into it. Monogamous culture associates unbarried sex with exclusivity, and exclusivity with a relationship being “serious,” or “special,” “more intimate” or “the most important.” This monogamous social conditioning can carry over; as can the very real feeling of losing something in your relationship that makes it unique, if your partner brings up the question of fluid bonding with someone else. Risk-wise, it may make no difference to you for your partner to choose to fluid bond with someone else when they already are with you, but it may very well be a deeply emotional topic that is difficult to discuss, much less agree to.
In an ideal world, you’d have had earlier conversations and agreements about what conditions it’s ok to consider adding partners to the fluid bonded part of your network; and how or when to bring it up - to do it in a regular check in before you bring it up with the partner you’d also like to fluid bond with, or at the next regularly scheduled check in after they bring it up with you, or something similar. But most of the time, we haven’t been so deliberate and well prepared, and therefore so lucky. We’re figuring out how to handle the conversation as we go.
So, be kind and understanding that your partners might need reassurance about how you feel; that asking every possible question about risk and belaboring points you think you’ve already explained sufficiently might be based in an emotional response that you need to meet with emotion and empathy, not with anger over a “lack of logic.” If you can’t reach an agreement in the first conversation, these are some things to consider while you both take a break:
Some concerns for the partner being asked to consider:
Is there a risk increase that is motivating your response? Do you or a partner have immune issues? Are you at higher risk for other STIs because of a previous infection?
Does a risk in your meta’s extended network exist that you think your partner is minimizing because of what they want?
Are you reacting to your feelings about STIs in general or a known STI that this meta or their network have a different risk assessment than you do? If you check in with your partner on transmission rates do your feelings align with risk? If not, are they feelings you can set aside, or do they inform your boundaries around this issue?
Are you reacting to how your partner presented this?
Are you reacting to feelings about your relationship with your partner and how it might change? If so, are there ways they could reassure you?
Some concerns for the partner asking to consider:
Are you turning a blind eye to risks your partner is pointing out because of affection for another partner?
Have you presented this information suddenly or after the fact? In presenting it that way, have you violated a relationship agreement?
Have you expressed your empathy for your existing partner’s concerns and feelings or are you expressing anger and resentment at their not immediately agreeing with your risk assessment and request?
Are you prepared for the possibility that your partner may react by choosing to change their safer sex practices with you? Do you have a plan in mind for what your preferences are if your partner offers that? Do you intend to fluid bond with the partner you’re asking about and adjust practices with this partner regardless? Or would it change your opinion if you could only be fluid bonded with one of them?
I don’t like to make proclamations about what people should do in relationships, but I think, if you haven’t considered these questions, these are the big things to figure out about yourself and your own preferences before you come to turning points where you have to have conversations about this:
Do you need relationship agreements around how you and partners will inform one another of changes in fluid bonding? Do you want those to be collaborative conversations like discussed above, or do you want to establish boundaries with one another (for example “I will only be fluid bonded with someone who is also exclusively fluid bonded with me; therefore if that status changes I will start using barriers with you for these activities”) and just let each other know when there is a change in the status quo?
Do you have STIs that are dealbreakers for you to have in your network? At a certain level of closeness within the network but not past a certain number of connections out? Not with certain precautions? (for example; HSV as a dealbreaker in a partner or meta but only if they have periodic recurring outbreaks; or HIV in a partner unless you use barriers and have access to PrEP, and in a meta if your shared partner isn’t using barriers and on PrEP)
Do you put a lot of emotional weight on being fluid bonded? Is that weight a sense of heightened intimacy that would continue to exist even if your partner also shared it with someone else? Is it a reaction to monogamous conditioning about being “only” or special you think you can change? Is it a reaction to that conditioning that you think you can’t change in the short term?
Being aware of your feelings and preferences gives you the power to give partners notice before these issues come to the forefront and lowers the odds that a conversation goes badly, or that your partner(s) resent(s) you for the results. The goal is to be able to have a couple of conversations and come to a decision about whether you’re going to change safer sex procedures with one or more partners, rather than retreating into defensiveness and resentment over proposed changes.
Be safe, and have productive conversations with your loved ones about it!