How Do I Negotiate Safer Sex With Someone I'm Dating?

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Photo © Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Question: How do I negotiate safer sex with someone I'm dating?

Answer: Even in the best of situations, negotiating safer sex to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be incredibly awkward. Even though we know it's the "right" and "responsible" thing to do, we often leave a lot unspoken.

According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only one in three young adults in the U.S. have ever discussed HIV with a sexual partner.

More concerning is the fact that only 35% have ever been tested for HIV, while more than half expressed reluctance at even bringing up the subject.

So profound are the barriers to discussing HIV and sex that many are needlessly putting themselves at risk by not speaking up or fully expressing their concerns.

Some of the reasons for not discussing safer sex include:

  • Lack of knowledge about HIV or condoms.
  • Embarrassment or general discomfort with sexuality.
  • Fear that it might suggest distrust, promiscuity or infidelity.
  • Fear that it might "kill the mood" or scare away a sexual partner.
  • Fear of (or inability to deal with) resistance from your partner.

Cultural and/or traditional gender roles can further complicate discussions about HIV, as well as the one possibility that people often fear: what if the person I'm dating is HIV-positive?

Keys to Negotiating Safer Sex

Overcoming these fears start with education.

Simply put, the more you know, the more empowered you will be in not only negotiating safer sex, but overcoming any resistance you may encounter. This includes:

Secondly, it's important to assess your possible reactions should a sexual partner resist, refuse or ignore your requests. In doing so, you can find the means by which to address any misconceptions your partner may have, while considering alternate solutions should the conversation ever hit a brick wall.

Most importantly, remember that "negotiation" does not mean bartering down. You need to set your intention from the start, and confirm to yourself what lines won't be crossed under any circumstance.

Finally, you will need to accept that negotiating is a mutual process. If you're initiating the conversation, give your partner time to absorb what is being asked. Try not to frame a conversation around either "you" or "me," but instead focus on issues of mutual trust and benefit.

How Early is Too Early?

You've just started seeing someone. You think there's a possibility it might lead somewhere.

So when is the right time to start hinting at your concerns? Might the person get the wrong message? Or is it better to simply wait until the sexual sparks start flying and deal with it then?

The truth is that, when contemplating relationships, we're often looking for hidden signals—those subtle hints—that provide us an opportunity to broach subjects we might otherwise avoid. On the one hand, we may be reluctant to discuss things like HIV and safer sex. On the other, we're often relieved when the subject finally arises.

In the same study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation, researchers learned that of the 1,437 people surveyed:

  • 75% said that they would be "suspicious" or "concerned" if HIV testing were brought up by a sexual partner.
  • Conversely, 78% said they would be "glad" if their partner suggested a test.

This is not so much a contradiction as it is a reflection the complex psychosocial dynamics of HIV, in which fear (of stigma, illness, etc.) often mitigates sound and reasonable judgment.

From the moment you start dating a potential love interest, employ words or terms that effectively state your intention—things like "mutual trust," "self-respect," "healthy," "safe," "open," "not judgmental." The aim is not to bait that person into a conversation he or she may not be prepared for, but rather to articulate how strong your intention is to pursuing a relationship that is both healthy and safe.

If You're Moving to "That Stage" in Your Relationship

You've gotten past the awkward stage and are now becoming more physically intimate with each other. You know that it would be far better to discuss safer sex now, but are unsure how to begin. What if the person takes offense? What if there is no response at all? What does that mean?

In the end, there is no "script" one can refer to when having a frank discussion about sexual behavior. There are ways, however, to alleviate the stress:

  1. Find a place where you both can be private and confidential. Avoid public places or any site where you and your partner may not be able to express yourselves fully.
  2. Start by confirming your mutual desire and mutual interests. Try not to simply state your point of view ("Here's what we should do"), but rather focus on creating a two-way conversation in which you both have an equal stake. Example:
    "I really want to be with you, too, and I really want to make sure we do it right."
  3. Focus on mutual benefit, but not at the expense of informed choice. While getting tested for HIV may be the optimal goal, to insist that "there's nothing to worry about" minimizes what that person may actually be feeling. Coercion of any sort—even if "positive" and well-intentioned—should be avoided at all cost.
  4. Acknowledge any emotions that person may be feeling before offering insights or solutions. Keep affirming that you're both in this together. Never minimize or dismiss the other person's concerns. Examples:
    "I can understand how condoms might seem a turn-off, but maybe there's a different way of looking at this—something you and I can explore together."
    "I understand what you're saying about condoms, but maybe we should consider what might happen if we don't use one."
    "It's not about me not trusting you. It's about us learning about each other and committing to protect each other—you as well as me."
  5. If you find yourself discussing an HIV test, consider getting tested together. However, be aware of the window period, and make a point of discussing any feelings you may have about the possible outcomes—be a positive test result or a negative one.
  6. Provide your partner with educational resources or medical referrals, if needed. Try not to crowd that person or push for an answer. The aim is to allow your partner the time make an informed choice, not the "right" choice.
  7. If you are unable to come to an immediate consensus, agree to revisit the conversation later.
  8. Be resolute. Don't compromise if it means putting yourself at needless risk. Accept that everyone has to make their own choices, and that only you can be responsible for yourself.
  9. Consider PrEP if you are at high risk of infection. HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is comprised of a single daily tablet which can  reduce your risk of acquiring HIV by up to 75%. Learn more about PrEP and whether or not you might be a candidate for usage.

For more information or support, speak with your doctor or contact your local HIV/AIDS organization. HIV hotlines can often assist with referrals, and are usually found in the yellow pages under "AIDS, HIV Educational Referral and Support Services" or "Social Service Organizations."

The HIV/AIDS Channel of is pleased to have been named one the "Best HIV/STD Health Blogs" of 2015 by the editors of San Francisco-based Healthline.


Kaiser Family Foundation. "National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health, Knowledge, Attitudes and Experiences." May 19, 2003; publication 3218.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Interim Guidance for Clinicians Considering the Use of Preexposure Prophylaxis for the Prevention of HIV Infection in Heterosexually Active Adults." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). August 10, 2012; 61(31):586-589.

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