“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m in my early 20s and in my first relationship with a girl. It’s been a couple months; I like her a lot, and I’m really happy. When we started having sex, I wanted to use safe(r) sex methods like gloves and dental dams until we both got tested and I finished my course of the HPV vaccine. We had both never used dams before, and when we tried to, it was not great.
Now she complains to me about how much she hates them. I think the reasons are that she doesn’t want to use them long term. I’m on the same page—I don’t want to use them long term either, but she started complaining about them before I could even tell her that. At this point, asking her to use them until I get tested/finish my vaccine makes me feel like I’m burdening her. I know the risk level is low because of our situation, but my tolerance for this is not very high.
It makes me feel like she isn’t respecting my boundaries. I wish she had been like, “That was awkward, and kinda sucked. Let’s see how we can make this better until you get your stuff sorted,” instead of always complaining. She says she will use them in the short term, but now I feel bad for asking.
Is this something that we can talk through, or is this something I should leave her over? A lot of advice I’ve read says that it’s the latter. I really like her though, and want things to work out—but I also don’t want to be in an unhealthy relationship.
Congratulations on your first relationship with a girl! This is an important step on your journey through love and sexuality, and can be celebrated regardless of if the relationship itself works out because it takes courage and self-love to start a new kind of relationship. This same courage and self-love also forms the foundation of your boundaries, Conflicted, which means that you should be congratulated on knowing and asserting what feels safe for you when it comes to having sex.
It’s become something of a norm in queer community to take certain forms of sexual safety seriously while shrugging off others, so it feels important for me to let you and our readers know that your concerns are valid. Even low(er)-risk activities, like manual sex (hand jobs, to put it more plainly) and oral sex can potentially result in the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HPV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and others. Getting tested and the use of safer-sex methods, like the ones you have tried, can significantly reduce risks and help us to enjoy healthy sexual lives.
Unfortunately, safer sex materials certainly can be difficult and awkward to use—particularly dental dams, which at this point have even become something of a joke among the queer folks who are most likely to benefit them. As former Xtra editor Eternity Martis reported, dental dams can be expensive and hard to find in stores, and the technology used to make them simply hasn’t caught up to the need for safer sex to be, well, sexy. And if this is true for the dental dams that are expressly made for this purpose, that’s doubly so for the kind that can be made by cutting up and unrolling a condom.
It’s also true that sex can never be 100 percent controlled or “safe,” which makes mindful acceptance of a certain amount of risk essential to a healthy sexual life. So is destigmatizing and demystifying STIs, almost all of which can be cured or managed through access to appropriate health care. Queer folks in particular are often stereotyped as being “diseased”—a belief widely held during the AIDS crisis—and sometimes internalized homophobia can express itself as heightened anxiety about sexual health, so it can be important to challenge ourselves when it comes to this. The key, however, is that you get to decide when, how and how much you want to challenge yourself at any given time—no one else gets to do that for you.
Here we come to the issue of your partner complaining about using dental dams and gloves. I definitely don’t love that it feels like she’s disrespecting your clearly-stated sexual boundaries—that’s not an acceptable relationship behaviour. However, I’m not sure it’s as simple as “leave her because of it,” since you mention you’re really happy with her otherwise.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is simultaneously entrenched in erotophobia (sex-negativity) and rape culture. The result is that many—perhaps even most—people do not know how to communicate their sexual needs and desires, or understand how to demonstrate respect in sexual situations. However, it’s important to distinguish a lack of communication skills from willfully overriding someone’s boundaries. The former might be workable in a relationship; the latter is not.
Something to consider is whether her boundary-pushing behaviour is limited to this one issue, or if it is part of a larger pattern of undermining or shaming. Does she do things that make you feel guilty or afraid on a regular basis? Placing your conversations about sex in context with the bigger picture of how you feel when you are with her may help you to understand the root of the problem—which hopefully is that she simply doesn’t know how to express her feelings about sex, rather than that she doesn’t respect you as a person.
Sex is hard for most people to talk about. It triggers deep, sometimes unexpected feelings in many of us, and it is often attached to an individual’s sense of self-worth and loveableness. I’m curious about what your partner might have to say about why she doesn’t like using safer sex equipment—is it purely about physical sensation, or is there a more emotional reason, such as feeling disconnected or rejected? Note, however, that such feelings would not be your responsibility to take care of if they happen to be present, Conflicted; this is just to say that getting curious and vulnerable might open up some new avenues of conversation between the two of you.
If you do try and talk things out, the quality of your partner’s response will likely be indicative of the health of the relationship. My suggestion would be for you to lay things out in a plain and honest yet compassionate way (so long as that feels safe for you). This might be as simple as setting up a time to talk and then telling your partner, straight up, “I don’t feel great about the way you’ve been talking about us having safer sex. I know you don’t like dental dams, but when you complain it makes me feel guilty about asking.”
In a healthy partnership, you should be able to talk about things like this and feel heard and respected. An apology from your partner—as well as an offer to talk about how to make things better—might be in order.
If she responds with anger or guilt-tripping, or makes you feel like you’re in the wrong for wanting to have the conversation, that would be a fairly serious red flag in my book. Your body, health and comfort should be a priority in your relationship!
Trust your feelings, Conflicted. Conversations with your partner about sex should leave you feeling clearer and better about your relationship, and more confident that your partner cares about your needs and feelings (even if you don’t come up with practical solutions right away). If you start to feel confused, ashamed or afraid of denying your partner unprotected sex during a conversation, take those feelings as warnings that something unhealthy is going on.
Our first relationships—especially our first queer relationships—are powerful, significant steps in our journey through life. You deserve to have that experience with someone who takes you seriously, who makes you feel loved even when things are awkward or you aren’t giving them exactly what they want. Love is more than the good times, Conflicted. Love is also having the weird, awkward, tough conversations; it’s about showing care and being cared for when the going gets tough. Love is patient and kind, and love is also respect. You are worthy of being respected, Conflicted. Always.
Need advice in a hurry? In our video series “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” Kai Cheng Thom offers concrete suggestions to help keep your relationship happy and healthy in these harrowing times. In our latest installment, Kai tackles bisexuality and coming out etiquette. Watch the episode below.