What is Your Risk Tolerance?

Couple snuggling on rocks
Couple snuggling on rocks. Marcus Mok/Asia Images/Getty Images

Sex has a lot of potential risks. It can make you emotionally vulnerable. It can lead to pregnancy. You might be exposed to an STD.

Sex has a lot of potential benefits. It can help you forge a connection with someone, or make you feel closer to someone you already care about. It can feel good to your body or to your heart. It can lead to a pregnancy.

Balancing the potential risks and benefits of sexual activity isn't always an easy task.

Some people know they want to be mutually monogamous with one person for their whole lives, they want to wait for sex until they fall in love and get married. Other people enjoy having a lot of casual sex, with or without practicing safe sex, hopefully with open eyes about any risks that it may bring. Most people fall somewhere in between.

It's natural for your risk tolerance to change throughout your lifespan. What seems scary when you're a teenager may not seem like that big a deal once you're in your 30s or 40s. Heavily stigmatized diseases may seem like less of a big deal when you know a lot of people who have lived with them, or when you've lived with them yourself. Pregnancy may go from something you dread to something you long for.

It's natural for your risk tolerance to change in different relationships. While you might not want to risk exposure to genital herpes for a casual fling, it may seem entirely reasonable to do so in a relationship that you're planning to be in for the long haul.

Just as sex acts that seem incomprehensible with one partner may be enticing with another, risks can go from inconceivable to reasonable as interactions change.

Risk perception can also change with the progress of science and medicine. For example, the fact that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can help people reduce their risk of HIV might make them less concerned about certain sexual activities.

It might also help some people discuss their diagnosis and have an easier time negotiating safe sex.

The truly important thing is to be honest with yourself, and with your partner, about what you're willing to risk and what you aren't, not to mention what you're willing to do to mitigate risks if a condom should break or another issue should occur. Some questions you might ask yourself include:

  • If we are potentially fertile with each other and experience a contraceptive failure during vaginal intercourse, would we use Plan B? Get an abortion? Consider keeping the child?
  • If one of us has herpes and the other doesn't, should the infected partner consider using suppressive therapy to reduce transmission? If they don't want to, how does the other partner want to mitigate risk, or don't they care?
  • If I'm dating someone with HIV, do I want to be on PrEP? If they're virally suppressed, is it enough to think of treatment as prevention? Or do we just want to have safe sex?
  • If we have sex and then break up, and I going to regret my choice to have sex? If so, is it something I really want to do?

    There's no right answer as to what people should do to keep themselves safe in their sexual relationships. Sex, like everything else has risks. It's just a matter of which ones you choose to accept and how you choose to handle them -- whether that's through screening, practicing safe sex, or other means. My only suggestion is that you should make it a choice. Think about what you want and don't want in your sexual relationships rather than simply hoping you'll never have to deal with any negative consequences.

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