Talking about condoms with a new partner

Some of my women readers, newly in the dating game after divorce or death of a spouse, tell me that they feel uncomfortable asking a new partner to use a condom. “If I ask a man to use a condom, it sounds like I don’t trust him,” they say. “If I have them on hand myself, he’ll think I sleep around.”

My belief is that if you can’t talk about safer sex with someone, you really shouldn’t be inviting that person to be an intimate partner! But I know it’s hard, especially if you’ve been in a long-term relationship and suddenly find yourself out in that scary world of dating, sex with new partners, and the risks that weren’t a part of our zesty youth.

I recommend never waiting until the heat of passion to bring up the subject. Instead, when the sparks and kisses signal that sex is likely in your future, have the discussion. Then you’ve agreed to be prepared when you’re ready for the next stage.

In my single past, these were some useful ways to approach the subject:

“I always use condoms with a new partner to protect us both.”

“I’ll buy the condoms — do you prefer a special kind?

“Your condoms or mine?”

I’ve had occasions when a man refused, saying something like, “Sex with condoms interferes with my enjoyment.”

I would reply, “Is no sex more enjoyable?”

At this point, of course, I knew the date was over, and I was glad to know in advance that he didn’t value my sexual health or his own. If he was willing to go to bed with me without protection, then he did that with his last partners, and they did it with their last partners, and so on.

I don’t claim that I used a condom with everyone all the time when I was single. In my younger days, the STDs we were likely to contract were either visible or could be cured with a prescription drug. But I got smarter with age, and became more demanding of barrier protection. If I knew someone well already, someone who had become a good friend, and I knew about his relationships and his sexual health status, we would get blood tests, and then feel comfortable about condomless sex. But that took deep discussions and friendship.

Let me hear from you — what do/would you say to bring up the subject of condom use?

(photo of Miriam Schuler, known as “Condom Grandma” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she volunteers in the Senior HIV Intervention Project.)

Tips for reclaiming sexuality after a health event

Many readers have reported concerns about how to reclaim their sexuality after a heart attack, cancer, or other health event. I asked licensed psychologist and sex therapist Stephanie Buehler, Psy.D., to provide some tips for the new book I’m writing. Her information was so valuable that I didn’t want you to have to wait for the book:

  1. Speak to your physician about when you can resume sex and what kinds of limitations you might expect or need to work around. If you are uncomfortable talking about it with the physician, perhaps you can bring it up to the nurse. Nurses are often interested in helping patients achieve an optimal quality of life, and are trained to educate patients as well.
  2. If neither your physician nor the nurse is sexually savvy, then contact whatever organization is associated with your disease. For example, both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society publish booklets on sexuality and illness.
  3. Broaden your ideas about what constitutes “sex” after an illness event. Sex is more than intercourse. Count holding hands and cuddling as sex, and you and your partner might feel less disappointed or glum.
  4. If you are the person affected with a health problem, don’t conclude that if your partner isn’t bringing up sex, it is no longer important. Your partner may not want to intrude or make demands and is waiting for a sign of readiness from you.
  5. If you are the partner of the person with a health problem, accompany your partner to a physician’s visit to discuss sexual effects of any surgery or treatment. Educate yourself so that you can be a support to your partner, and so that you and your partner can discuss how to go forward.
  6. If you had sexual problems before the illness event, now might be a good opportunity to address them. It may be that your health problem contributed to your sexual problem. Again, discuss this with your physician or nurse.
  7. If you are having trouble resuming satisfying sexual activity, consider seeing a sex therapist. A sex therapist can help you identify obstacles and give you information and suggestions. Sometimes there can be deeper problems, like facing the fact that you are not invincible, that can also be addressed with a therapist.

Stephanie Buehler, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and sex therapist, and Director of The Buehler Institute in Irvine, California. Visit her blog about sex and intimacy.

Note: You can locate a sex therapist in your area through AASECT, American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors & Therapists.)

Want more ideas? Read my 7 Tips to Spice Up Your Sex Life post.

Seniors: Please Just Say Yes to Condoms

The media blast continues over the Big News that seniors are still having sex. (At what age were we supposed to stop,and why?) I’m happy to see this media coverage help raise awareness, even though I marvel that it’s also raising eyebrows.

A very interesting story appears in the August 13, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report about a subject I’ve harped on all year — the fact that seniors in the dating world are often in denial about their risk for contracting STDs. “Sex Ed for Seniors: You Still Need Those Condoms: Sexually transmitted diseases stalk older singles, too” by Deborah Kotz makes this point:

With Viagra and Internet dating sites at their fingertips, a growing number of seniors are enjoying a renaissance between the sheets, but some are paying the piper, contracting sexually transmitted diseases. As HIV carriers live longer, the majority will be over age 50 by 2015, and even now about 15 percent of new infections occur in this age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other STDs, including herpes, chlamydia, and human papillomavirus, which is linked to cervical cancer, are also making the rounds. “While it’s a good thing that older people are more sexually active, they need to connect the dots, see that they’re at increased risk, and make sure they use condoms,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Kotz discusses a University of Chicago study revealing that nearly 60 percent of unmarried women ages 58 to 93 said they didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex. An Ohio University study found that about 27 percent of HIV-infected men and 35 percent of HIV-infected women over 50 sometimes have sex without using condoms.

Kotz makes the excellent point that postmenopausal women may be particularly prone to getting infected with blood-borne diseases like HIV or chlamydia.

That’s because their thinner and more fragile vaginal lining can easily tear during penetration, allowing pathogens to enter the bloodstream. And new research indicates that older women are at risk of getting infected with HPV, which can give rise to genital warts or cervical cancer.

The message is this: If you’re dating and sexually active, please use condoms, whatever your age. Men complain to me that it makes sex less pleasurable, especially when erections are less reliable. Women insist that they’re not at risk and they would be embarrassed to insist on condoms. Haven’t we heard variations on these objections from youth? Isn’t this one area where we can learn from experience and our own good sense?

Sexual adventurer, age 58, has “every time/ everyone” condom rule

Many thanks to the people who are responding to my request for interviews for my next book! I am getting such interesting stories! For example…

When I asked Tinggi, age 58, how active his sex life was, he said, “Depends on what you mean by ‘sex’!” His erotic activity includes self-pleasuring to orgasm one to three times a day, and intercourse with one to three or more partners (male and female) per week, one to two orgasms per partner. “I tend to have several partners at the same time,” says Tinggi. “I’ve been with two of my partners for five years, another for two years. All of the relationships are open and all my partners regularly have sex with others.” His sexual adventures in the past few years have included multiple partner scenes at sex parties, masturbating for four hours while riding an anal plug while being videocast globally, and nude theater performances.

Tinggi is diligent about practicing safer sex, and has not indulged in partner sex without a condom in 30 years. “My barrier policy is standard, long fixed, and known by all who have shared erotic times with me: Barriers are always used, for everyone, every time, for any genital contact,” he explained in a comment on my blog. “This ‘every time/everyone’ policy makes life simpler — no need for elaborate calculations as to number of partners, who they were, days since last std check-up, partners since our last date, etc. When sex is likely, or probably, or possible, or even a wisp of my imagination, I bring my own supply of barriers. Should the opportunity arise, and both having shed clothes, I simply say, ‘Ok, now time to get Charles (not my name) dressed,’ and put on a condom.”

When dates insist on sex without a barrier, which rarely happens, “the date becomes a chaste one and a last one.” Steady dates, people with whom he has sex repeatedly, get the same treatment each date: “every time/everyone.”

“I do not ask my dates about STD check-ups, partners, etc. I am going to use barriers regardless of my date’s answers. People can have an STD of which they show no signs detectable outside of a laboratory. I believe this ‘every time/everyone’ policy protects my dates, myself, and my community. A sad fact is that HIV is being transmitted in our retirement homes – by their residents. It is already there waiting for me. Barrier use can be eroticized to become a fun and arousing part of sexual interaction.”