STI Etiquette and Acknowledging Asexuality

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


I have an ethical-dilemma question. I’m a 26-year-old straight man, and about four months ago I finally broke up with my girlfriend of two years. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but the woman was evil incarnate. She was deeply manipulative, cheated on me several times, constantly told me I was unattractive and hinted she could do much better – just an awful person. She really wrecked my self-esteem, to the point where I now have social anxiety, even after we’ve broken up.

In the past two months, I started rebounding, and have slept with three women. Two of these were one-night stands, and one of these was the ex herself. (Alcohol, loneliness and late-night texting results in bad ideas.) She was her usual awful self and was horrible and smug about me calling her, saying I’d never get over her because I’d never get anyone better. She also told me she’s dating several men. I swore I’d never contact her again. But then a week ago, I discovered a sore and my doctor says it looks like HPV.

My question: I’m not sure which woman I got the HPV from. Do I have to tell them I have it? And if I do, can I just tell the other two women? Do I have to call Satan? I really don’t want to call her, and I know that even if she already has it, she’ll be horrible about it and blame me. 

First of all, I’m genuinely sorry your ex was so terrible to you. Cheaters and emotionally abusive partners are awful, and it can take a really long time to undo the emotional damage they inflict.

You mightn’t believe me now, but you are already ten times the person she is. She is such an insecure, nasty, controlling individual that not only did she need to hurt you to make herself feel powerful, but she also abused your trust repeatedly – and then tried to blame you, instead of taking responsibility for her own lack of empathy and common decency.

Everything she did is a reflection on how pathetic an individual she is. You, you were just unfortunate enough to be victimised by her. That’s all.

Her treatment of you is not a reflection on you. The only thing being with an emotionally abusive person may possibly be an indicator of is low self-esteem: that you believed you were deserving of her treatment, and that you stayed with her despite her blatant cruelty. I hope you breaking up with her was one step towards realising that you deserve better.

There are several more hard steps to take: healing and rebuilding your self-esteem; examining whether there were underlying self-esteem or relational issues that made you accept abusive treatment, and working on them; figuring out what you want and need from future relationships; and finally getting the courage to start a new relationship, when you’re ready.

Take your time with these steps, and get support where you can: friends, family, a therapist if you need it. But remember: you deserve better.

Secondly, I really hope you’re not too stressed about the HPV. Approximately 80 percent of sexually active adults will get some strand of HPV in their lifetime, so you’re in excellent and plentiful company. And thankfully, most strands are relatively harmless, and most people who get warts or sores find that their outbreaks become very rare or even cease altogether after a year or two.

So fret not. As long as you consult with your doctor, as you’ve done, and follow any treatment advice, there’s no need to worry.

Now, on to your dilemma. Quite simply: yes, you have to tell her, and the other women. Sorry about that. But when it comes to STIs, you always have to do the right thing and have the potentially awkward conversation. This reason is two-fold.

1) Many STIs, HPV included, don’t have immediate physical symptoms. If your sexual partners have indeed contracted one of them – either from you or or from someone else – they may not know, and may remain unaware for some time.

Many STIs have serious but initially invisible side-effects, some of which can be very harmful. If you don’t tell your partners that they may have been exposed, you’re not giving them the chance to take care of the problem as soon as possible, and so you’re leaving them vulnerable to major health problems.

While you may be thinking that HPV just involves some genital warts that your ex mightn’t even get, the reality is that certain strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer and fertility issues, so it’s pretty important for women exposed to HPV to get tested and treated.

I know, this seems like a big deal when I just told you HPV wasn’t a big deal. And it’s not – most of the time. But you’re not going to be the dude who takes a chance with other people’s health.

“But Roe!” I hear you (silently) cry, “adults should be responsible about their own sexual health, so shouldn’t it be up to my ex to look after herself?” In an ideal world, yes; but, sadly, people are stupid and don’t get tested regularly – and some regular STI tests don’t check for everything – so if you know something they don’t, you should tell them.

Because, remember: you’re a better person than she is. And it’s not just her you’re helping, by the way, because . . .

2) People have sex. Spoiler, I know. While you mightn’t really care about your ex catching something, think of the lads she might be sleeping with who are also being exposed; and the girls they’re sleeping with, etc.

You know what it’s like to suddenly find something unwanted happening with your junk. So be empathetic and tell you ex, for her partners’ sakes. Because, remember: you’re a better person than she is. And because by the sounds of it, being with your ex is going to be a punishing enough experience for them.

Now I will throw you a lifeline.

You have to tell your ex that she may have been exposed to HPV and to get checked – but you don’t have to actually inflict yourself with personal contact if you really don’t want to. Set up a fake email account and drop her an anonymous message.

Now, disclaimer: this is not what I would usually recommend. Generally, if you had sex with someone, you should show them the courtesy of having an honest conversation. But if you really fear someone will react to the news by being emotionally abusive, or if it’s not physically or emotionally safe for you to contact them openly, then anonymous email is your get-out-of-jail-free card.

Other disclaimer: the email plan may also backfire if she realises you sent it. For example, if it turns out she was lying about the other men she’s dating (very possible) and has only had sex with you. In which case, you may have an extra-awkward conversation ahead, but you’ll also know that she was lying about dating other people. Proving, yet again, that you’re a better person than she is.

Good luck.

***

I’m a 24-year-old bisexual woman, and one of my close friends is a 26-year-old straight man. We’ve known each other for years, get on so well, and I think we have serious sexual chemistry. I’ve fancied him forever, flirt with him all the time, and have even made a couple of drunken (and not-so-drunken) passes at him – but he has always rejected me.

For years, he’s told me that his upbringing was very religious and it fucked up his view of sex – nothing that some therapy and some good sexual experiences couldn’t fix. But now, he’s suddenly after telling me that he’s asexual. And basically, I don’t believe him.

He flirts with people, me included, so I don’t believe he’s not attracted to anyone. I just think it’s a way of hiding from sex and not addressing the issues of his upbringing. I said this to him, and he got really pissed off at me, but didn’t deny it either. 

I think we’d be great together, and he just needs to learn how to trust sex and find it empowering. How do I help him do this?

My dear, thank you for writing in, I’m very glad you did. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the chance to say this:

STOP. STOP. STOP IT RIGHT NOW.

There are so many layers of problematic, patronising sexual harassment going on here, it’s difficult to know where to start. But how about here:

This man does not want to have sex with you. He has been insanely clear about not wanting to have sex with you. Stop trying to convince him, yourself, and now me, otherwise.

Stop objectifying him. Stop disrespecting his boundaries. Stop making unwanted advances on him. Stop ignoring his lack of consent to your sexual attention.

Stop dismissing his sexual identity because it’s inconvenient for you. Stop thinking that your sexual desire gives you the right to harass, judge, and disrespect others. Stop being a person who engages in the vernacular of rape culture.

Stop. Stop. Stop.

This man has obviously already had people in his life who shamed him, who were oppressive and judgmental and harmful in their attitudes towards sexuality and identity, and who really hurt him – and now he has you, too.

As someone who’s bisexual, I’m sure you’re aware of the stress and anxiety and discrimination that a person can face when opening up about their sexuality – and you have openly disrespected your friend’s trust and identity not just once, but twice.

He revealed to you that sex triggered difficult and deep-rooted emotions in him, and you dismissed these feelings and persisted in trying to have sex with him. He revealed to you that he is asexual – something that’s already deeply misunderstood and hugely disrespected – and you’re again dismissing him and persisting in trying to have sex with him.

Stop. Stop. Stop.

I’m inclined to think that some of your utter blindness in regard to your behaviour is due to the cultural attitude towards men’s sexuality, and the myth that men always want sex, from anyone, and so “no” doesn’t really mean “no”.

This is the same attitude that makes it so difficult for men to come forward about, and receive support for, sexual abuse and rape. It also means that conversations about men giving or withholding consent are virtually non-existent, failing to equip young men with the emotional tools to talk about, express and respect their own sexual boundaries.

And men who aren’t taught to harness the power of consent aren’t likely to understand its power for their partners, meaning that the cycle of sexual disrespect and abuse continues.

I also think some of your behaviour is rooted in the lack of cultural awareness about asexuality, which is an orientation marked by non-sexuality. I repeat: it’s an orientation, not a choice, nor a disorder.

Asexuality is different to celibacy or abstinence; the latter two are choices. Asexuality is a (non)sexuality, like heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, etc. Asexuals may not find themselves attracted to others, or they may find people attractive, but have no desire to act on these desires by engaging in sex.

People who are asexual can absolutely form healthy, long-lasting romantic relationships, and some asexuals do have sex – but it’s usually to please their partner, or due to cultural pressure, peer pressure, or the desire to conceal their asexuality.

Asexuality is largely misunderstood both due to its cultural invisibility, and because it’s difficult for sexual people to understand. (Though for asexuals, our entire culture can be difficult to understand. Do you realise how weird basic things like advertisements are for people who don’t experience sexual attraction? Do you realise how bizarre music videos seem? Desperate public groupings on nightclub dancefloors? We all look ridiculous. I digress.)

But a lot of your behaviour is simply caused by the fact that you don’t want to understand. You want to have sex with your friend, and you don’t care that he says no, or why he says no. You’re hiding behind this mask of faux-concern about his attitude toward sex so you can pretend that having sex with him, giving him those “empowering, good sexual experiences” you’ve prescribed him, are for his  benefit, not yours.

Allow me to burst your bubble: ignoring someone’s identity, choices and clear lack of interest isn’t respecting or empowering them. Pressuring someone to have unwanted sexual with you isn’t a “good” sexual experience.

Asexuality is a real and valid orientation, regardless of what you think about it, or if it disrupts your plans to bully your friend into sex. You’re not looking out for your friend’s best interests. Your arguments are the same arguments used to defend sexual violence against men and women. You probably shouldn’t have sex with anyone until you learn how to respect boundaries and consent.

Your friend deserves better.

Everyone does.

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Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

Reader responses

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Heather
at 28 September 2015 at 15:02

Found the link to this on a FB group, can I say you rock! on your advice about asexuality? 🙂

JJ
at 28 September 2015 at 15:07

Thank you for your brilliant response on asexuality. It means a lot to people like me!

Cassie
at 28 September 2015 at 20:58

I would just like to thank you for replying how you did. As an asexual her letter was very heartbreaking to read. Your reply was harsh but 100% warranted. She needed to hear it!

Thank you

Roe
at 30 September 2015 at 09:11

@Cassie: Thanks for the comment, really appreciate it. Please feel free to add any more insights or thoughts you have here in the comment section; this piece has had a great reaction so I’m sure readers would love to hear more.

Roe
at 30 September 2015 at 09:14

@JJ: Thanks so much JJ, really appreciate the feedback, & if you have any other thoughts from your own experiences, always feel free to share here in the comments – more voices is more insight, which is what we’re aiming for!

Roe
at 30 September 2015 at 09:14

@Heather: Thanks so much Heather, glad you’re enjoying the column!

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