Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health

3 Treat Your Partners Well and Expect Them to Treat You Well

It all starts with our expectations. When it comes to how sexual partners treat each other, do we have low or high standards? And, do we believe that every one of us deserves to be treated with respect and kindness?

We all have the right to safe, healthy, and satisfying experiences with partners — whether they are short-term hook-ups or on-going relationships. This holds true even if you've had bad experiences with partners in the past. Yet, most of us lack a rulebook or "know how" when it comes to partners.

So, how should sexual partners treat each other? How can I talk about sex without feeling embarrassed? Are there special rules for hook-ups? What should I do if a partner mistreats me?

Five Good Reasons to Take This Step

  1. Be more confident talking about sex. Talking with your partners about your desires — what you like and don't like — might seem awkward and scary. But, with a little preparation and practice, you'll be ready.
  2. Have more satisfying interactions with partners. Good partners will respect your wishes and boundaries, treat you as an equal, and seek your consent. With any partner, you should feel safe and comfortable, and be able to experience pleasure.
  3. Protect your sexual health and well-being. Partners who really care about you will care about your sexual health. They will take steps with you to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and, if relevant, unplanned pregnancies.
  4. Feel more comfortable handling any sexual encounter, including hook-ups. Whether it's a casual hook-up or a long-term relationship, the same rules apply. Learn how to talk about your desires, set limits, and practice safer sex.
  5. Learn about the warning signs of sexual violence and how to get help. Sadly, sexual violence is common. It occurs when a person pressures or forces someone to do something sexually that they don't want to. This is never justified, and it is never a sign of love.

Making it Happen: Tips and Advice

Treat each other with respect.

When you are intimately involved — meaning you share your body with someone — you should respect each other. So, what does that mean exactly?

  • It's best to be up front and honest about your intentions. Tell your partner if you are looking for something casual, or if you hope to start a relationship. From the very beginning, let the other person know where you stand. But, it's OK if you don't know what you want; just be honest about that too. And, if what you're looking for changes over time, be sure to let your partner know.
  • Listen to your partner and value their unique qualities. Get to know your partner, and learn about their values, desires, and boundaries. And, don't pressure or try to change someone to meet your own needs.
  • Even if it's your first date, you should both have an equal say in decisions, like where to go out to eat or what to do later. One person should not dominate or control specific situations, or the relationship overall.
  • You deserve to be treated well, even by someone you just met online or in-person. Since dating sites are anonymous (you can hide your identity), it's easier for people to say critical, mean things. This can really mess with your self-esteem. Remember, if someone behaves that way online, they'll probably do the same in person.

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Get your partner's consent.

Before you are sexually involved with someone, getting their consent is essential. What is consent? Consent means asking your partner — every step of the way — if what you're doing sexually is ok and if they are comfortable doing it.

In response, your partner needs to clearly and freely answer "yes" using words. Your partner can't give consent if they are asleep, drunk, or under the influence of drugs.

So, what does consent actually look like? You might ask your partner:

  • Do you want to ______?
  • Would you like to try ______?
  • Is ______ ok with you?
  • Does ______ feel good to you?

To give consent, your partner should clearly, freely, and positively respond. For example, by saying:

  • "Yes." (Their tone of voice should indicate that they really want to do so.)
  • "I would like to do that."
  • "That feels good to me."

Remember, a partner can say "no" to any type of sexual activity, even if they have done it before. If something scares you or makes you feel uncomfortable, you can say "no" at any time — even during sex.

Sometimes people in relationships decide to use a safe word that means no or stop during sex. This helps send a clear message and avoid confusion. For example, you might say "mustard" or "apple." It can be any word that you agree upon, and can easily remember.

No one should ever pressure or force you into having any sexual contact that is unwanted. That would be sexual violence or assault. Also, a partner should never threaten to leave you if you don't have sex, or if you refuse to do other sexual activities. 

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Talk openly about your sexual desires and boundaries.

Open, honest communication between partners is key. But easier said than done, right? For many of us, talking about sex can be embarrassing. But it gets easier with practice. And, it's worth the effort. You can have better sex, feel safer, and be closer with your partner.

Your partner — especially a new one — is not a mind reader. So, try to be clear and specific about your desires and boundaries. Talking should go both ways — open up, share, and listen to each other.

You can start by discussing what feels good to each of you and what is off-limits. There's no set guidebook for sex. Different things appeal to different people. It's all about what feels good and right to you and your partner, at the time.

And there's no set script for talking about sex. So, use your own words and say what feels natural to you.

So, how do you start this conversation?

  • First, know yourself. Explore and think about what you find sexually appealing. This is not set in stone, and will probably change over time.  But, talking with your partner will be easier if you've thought about this ahead of time. (See Action Step 2 for some ideas.)

  • When and where should we talk? This is not a one-time conversation. It should be ongoing, whether it's with a new or long-term partner. You can talk before, during, and after you've been intimate. And, these chats can make your sex life more satisfying and interesting. You can talk in person, via text, or by phone. There are really no hard and fast rules. What's important is that you are talking.

  • How can I describe my desires? When it comes to sex, the possibilities are endless. You might start by asking each other, "What do you like? and Is there something new that you would like to try?" It's all about finding things that appeal to both of you. Also, your desires might change over time. So, keep checking in with each other.

    Then, you can explore and experiment, and discuss if it was enjoyable for both of you. And, keep in mind, you can also show what you like through touch — you can give physical signals to indicate what feels good.

    In all sexual encounters, both partners — and their desires — are equally important. If your partner doesn't care about what makes you feel good, that's a bad sign. You might want to ask yourself "Will I be happy with this person, or is it time to move on?"

  • What if I'm afraid of hurting my partner's feelings? It's always best to be honest about what you like and don't like, rather than suffer in silence. But, tone matters. Be gentle and try to give compliments first. Praise your partner for the things that you do like. Then, if you don't like something, speak up calmly.

    For example, you could say, "Please do more of this _____ and less of this _____ ." Or, "I'm not comfortable with that," or "That doesn't feel good to me. Can we try _____ instead?"

  • How can I set boundaries? You can discuss boundaries before you get physical, and/or while you are in the heat of the moment. You can say no at any time, for any reason. Remember, each partner has the right to decide if, when, and how they will be sexually involved.

    For example, your partner might ask, "Would you like to try _____?" You might respond "No, but how about _______ instead?" It's best to state boundaries calmly and clearly.

  • What if my partner pressures me to do something I don't want to? Remember, you have the right to only do the things you want to. Don't feel obligated to do something to please your partner, or if you're afraid of being rejected. It's completely up to you to decide what you will and will not compromise on.

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Talk about safer sex.

Before getting sexually involved, caring and responsible partners will discuss safer sex and take steps to protect each other. This goes for both casual partners and long-term partners. These conversations can have a big impact on your health now, and in the future.

Safer sex can help prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and unplanned pregnancies. Safer sex can include choosing lower risk sexual activities, using condoms and/or dams, taking medications, and being on birth control. (Note: dams are a thin square piece of latex rubber that can be used during oral sex).

Safer sex also means getting tested for STIs, including HIV, and telling your partner if you currently have one before you get physical. You can take steps to reduce your risk of sharing many STIs (See Action Step 2 to learn more).

So, how do you bring up safer sex without feeling awkward?

First, know that you're not alone. More and more people are talking about and practicing safer sex every day. In fact, your partner will probably be relieved, and even thank you for it.

Here are some tips to help smooth the way:

  • Know thyself. When it comes to safer sex, what is non-negotiable for you? For example, always using a condom? Always using another form of birth control? And, remember, no one should ever pressure you to have unprotected sex.
  • When and where should we talk? It's best to plan ahead. A practical guideline? Talk when you still have your clothes on. Then, you will be prepared when you do have sex — with condoms and/or birth control. Or, if you have HIV or herpes, you can take medicines and other steps to reduce the risk of sharing these STIs.

    While face-to-face is probably best, you can also discuss safer sex via text or by phone. It's usually easier to have the chat in a private, calm place, rather than in a public place filled with people.

  • How should I approach the talk? Try to be relaxed, and treat it like it's totally normal. Be positive and point out the benefits to both of you. Be caring, and avoid accusing your partner of bad behavior in the past or present. But also be confident and firm.

    You can practice ahead of time — by yourself or with a friend. Use your own words, and say what feels natural to you. And remember, you should never apologize for insisting on safer sex.

  • Starting the conversation. You can lead by example, and might say something like:

    • "I really care about you, and think we should talk about safer sex."
    • "A worry-free sex life is great for both of us. Let's talk about safer sex."
    • "Safer sex makes perfect sense to me. Can we talk?"
    • "I really like you, and think we should take things to the next level. But, before we do, let's talk about keeping it safe."
  • If your partner is on the same page, great! Then, you can talk specifics. What steps will you take to keep each other safe? For example, using condoms, using other types of birth control, and/or taking medications to reduce the risk of sharing STIs, such as herpes or HIV?
  • If your partner is NOT on the same page about safer sex. Learn how to make your case for safer sex. Below you will find some good reasons that you can offer up to your partner. Choose the specific points that make sense for you and your situation:
    • Reduce worry and enjoy sex more. You can say, "Sex is much more relaxing if we aren't worried about STIs or unplanned pregnancies. Peace of mind makes everything better, and much more fun. It's good for both of us."
    • STIs are about as common as the common cold. You can say, "STIs are so common that by age 25, half of all people who have sex will get at least one. If you have unprotected sex — even just once — you are at risk. Many STIs don't have any symptoms and you usually can't tell by looking."
    • Odds are stacked against us if we don't use birth control. You can say, "Getting pregnant now would really interfere with our plans. If we don't use birth control, the odds are definitely against us."

      "Did you know that if women don't use birth control, 85 out of 100 women will get pregnant in one year? And, it only takes once to get pregnant."

    • Testing alone isn't enough. You can say, "Testing only protects us from STIs if we do it routinely, get tested for the right STIs, and only have sex with each other. In other words, we need to completely trust each other. If that's not the case, safer sex should be standard practice."
    • If one partner has HIV and the other doesn't. You can say, "We can reduce the risk of sharing HIV to practically zero if we each take medication every day, get tested for STIs regularly, and/or use condoms."
    • Your partner believes you've been dating so long that you can stop using condoms. You can say, "It doesn't matter how long we've been dating. Before we stop using condoms, we both need to get tested for STIs, discuss our results, get treatment if needed, and commit to only having sex with each other."

      And, if your partner is of the opposite sex and you want to avoid pregnancy, you might say, "Before we stop using condoms, we need to find another form of birth control and start using it to make sure it's fully effective."

WARNING: If your partner refuses to have safer sex, that's a warning sign that this person may not care about or respect you. Or, your partner might not be informed. In any case, don't agree to have unsafe sex to hold on to your partner. Risking your health and future is not worth it. Quite simply, you deserve better.

Talking condoms and comebacks

It's time we all got comfortable talking about condoms. After all, male latex condoms and female condoms are the best protection against most STIs, and they can also prevent pregnancy and HIV. And guess what? Sex is just as pleasurable with condoms, according to recent studies.

Male condoms are more popular than ever, and they come in many different styles, flavors, and textures. They're ready to use at a moment's notice, and don't require a trip to the doctor.

Female condoms can be inserted up to eight hours ahead of time, and are available for free with a prescription at pharmacies. So that things go smoothly, it's best to practice using one before you have sex. (To learn more about condoms, see Action Step 2.)

Starting the conversation:

It's best to be calm and matter-of-fact, and treat condom use like it's normal and no big deal. Here a few ways you can start the condom conversation:

  • "I always use condoms with new partners to protect us both. It's a win-win for both of us."
  • "Using condoms is standard practice for people who care about each other."
  • "Condoms can give us peace of mind, and make sex much more relaxing."
  • "There are so many different styles, textures and flavors. They can actually make sex more fun."
  • "STIs are incredibly common. Either of us could have one, and not even know it. Most don't have any symptoms, and you usually can't tell by looking."
  • "What kind of condoms appeal to you? Want to pick out some together? Let's try different types to see what we like best."
  • "Condoms can also prevent pregnancy, even if we're using another birth control method. Added protection is always a bonus."

Note: If you think you might have a random hook-up, always bring condoms with you. Don't count on the other person to have one, or on having an in-depth conversation at the time.

What if my partner won't use condoms?

You can try some of these comebacks to common excuses to try to change their mind. But, if your partner still refuses, you need to think really hard about whether you want to have sex with this person. No one should ask you to put your health at risk.

Partner: "I'm clean. I don't have any diseases. Don't you trust me?"
Reply: "It's not about trust. It's about biology. Anyone can get an STI. Half of us will get at least one STI by age 25. Either of us could have one, and not even know it. Condoms protect both of us."

Partner: "They don't feel good and ruin sex." 
Reply: "With all the different textures, sizes, and flavors, I'm sure we can find one that feels good."

Partner: "You have to stop to put one on. They kill the mood."
Reply: "I can help you put it on, and this can be part of our play." (Note: if you use a female condom, you can insert it well in advance of sex).

Partner: "I'm so big, they don't fit me."
Reply: "Condoms are designed to fit every man — no matter how big. Just check out the shelves, you'll see lots of options. And, they come in many different sizes."

Partner: "My pull out game is strong."
Reply: "It might work for you, but's it's way too risky for me. Plus, there's no protection from STIs. We have much better birth control options."

Partner: "I can't keep my erection if I put one on."
Reply: "If I help you that might take care of it," or "How about we try the female condom instead? I can put it in ahead of time."

Partner: "You're already on birth control, so we don't need them."
Reply: "Birth control doesn't protect against STIs, including HIV. Only condoms can do that."

Partner: "Let's just do it this one time without one."   
Reply: "Nope, it only takes one time to get an STI or pregnant."

Partner: "I don't have a condom."
Reply: "I have one right here." Or, "Let's go buy some together."

Partner: "Why don't we just get tested for STIs? Then we can stop using them."
Reply: "Getting tested is not foolproof. Unless we only have sex with each other, test results won't protect us."

Partner: "At our age, we don't need to worry about STIs or use condoms."
Reply: "Actually, anyone, of any age, who has unprotected sex is at risk of STIs and HIV. In fact, STIs are on the rise among people our age (50-plus). This is no surprise since many of us are single and dating again."

Partner: "I'm on PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) so why do we need condoms?"
Reply: "PrEP can only prevent HIV. Condoms can prevent other STIs we should also be concerned about, like gonorrhea and syphilis."

Partner: "But it's only oral sex. There's no risk."
Reply: "Actually, there is. You can definitely spread STIs this way, too." 

Partner: "But it's only anal sex."
Reply: "When it comes to STIs, anal sex can be the riskiest. So, we need to use a condom and lubricant."

Talking about STIs and HIV

Before you get physical, you should talk openly and honestly about STIs, and tell each other if you currently have an STI, including HIV. But also keep in mind the answer might not keep you safe. Most people don't know they have an STI, since they often don't have symptoms. Or, they have never been tested, or they have not been tested recently. In fact, one in eight people with HIV don't even know they have the virus.

Starting the conversation:

Here are some simple statements you can make:

  • "Sexually transmitted infections are almost as common as the common cold."
  • "I think we should both get tested for STIs, including HIV. Either of us could have one and not know it. We could go together or on our own, and then share our results."
  • "Have you ever been tested for STIs and HIV? If so, for which ones? When? Have you had sex with anyone since that time?
  • "Before we get physical, we owe it to each other to be honest. Let's be open about whether we currently have an STI or HIV. Do you agree?"
  • "Are you sexually involved with anyone else? Do you plan to be?"

I have an STI. How do I tell my partner?

This can be tough when you're starting a new relationship. But remember, you can still date and have a sex life. There are many steps you and your partner can take to reduce risk.

When should you bring this up? Before you get physical — or do anything beyond kissing — it's a must to tell your partner if you currently have an STI. After all, your partner needs to decide what risks they are willing to take. Some people wait until they get to know someone, while others like to get it out of the way on the first date. The timing is totally up to you. (To learn more about dating and sex after an STI diagnosis, see Action Step 2.)

  • How should I bring it up? It's best to choose a private place. Keep it short and simple, without a lot of drama. You could say something like:
    • "I think I can really trust you, and I want to share something with you. Last year I found out that I had __________. I also wanted you to know there are steps we can take to reduce your risk of getting it."
  • Then, share a few facts. For example, if you have herpes, you can say that you are taking very effective medicine to reduce your outbreaks. If you rarely have outbreaks anymore, you can say that, too. Be sure to point out that you can reduce the risk of sharing herpes by taking antiviral medication, using condoms, and avoiding sex during outbreaks. And, you might point out that this virus is very common. In fact, one in six people have it.

How might your partner react? Your partner might be confused or worried. That's the most common reaction. It's not usually straight out rejection. Give them time to think it over and learn about the infection. Also, you can ask if they have any questions you can answer.

However, sometimes people don't react well. They might be afraid and reject you. Take this as an important cue — you are much more than a diagnosis. And, you will find other partners who appreciate all of you.

On the flip side, if your partner reveals an STI infection to you, it's best to stay calm, listen, and get informed before you decide whether and how to move ahead with this person.

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Setting digital boundaries.

Just like you set other rules, you may want to discuss digital boundaries with your sexual partners.

When it comes to the digital world, think about what makes you feel comfortable. Then, discuss your boundaries with your partner and make an agreement. For example, is it ok to post, tweet, or comment about our sex life or relationship status? How do you feel about sexting or sending revealing photos? (See Action Step 4 for more advice.)

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Understand sexual violence.

Sadly, many people experience sexual violence by their partners. This occurs when you are pressured or forced into having any unwanted sexual contact, such as kissing, touching, or any kind of sexual intercourse. Sexual violence violates your trust and feelings of safety. Forcing you to have sexual contact — without your consent — is a crime.

Partner abuse comes in many other forms. It can also be also emotional, verbal, physical, digital, and financial. Abusive partners are often very controlling, threatening, and possessive. (See Action Step 4 for specific warning signs.)

If you have been sexually assaulted, immediately seek medical care and professional help. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

This type of trauma can be hard to discuss, but it's very important that you talk with someone. Many organizations across the country can provide valuable support, and help you safely deal with the situation. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or have an online chat with a specialist at www.online.rainn.org. Specialists are available 24 hours a day/7 days a week, and it's confidential.

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Final Thoughts

When it comes to treating sexual partners well, this should be a two-way street. Good partners — whether they are short-or long-term — will care about you and your sexual health. They will take steps to keep both of you safe. And, they will treat you with respect and kindness. If your partner doesn't measure up, it might be time to move on. But, if you've found a good one, you might want to learn more about building a positive relationship. Check out Action Step 4.

Resources to Learn More