How to have better conversations about sexual health

Adelaide O'Mahony

Adelaide O'Mahony

Trainee Contemporary Psychotherapist Adelaide O’Mahony is a Trainee Contemporary Psychotherapist interested in self-esteem and the relationship we have with our bodies. She's in placement at the Community Psychotherapy Network in London.

After a year that deprived people of human touch, it is no surprise that there has been a rapid increase in casual and unprotected sex since the easing of lockdown measures. The president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) issued a warning that not only did the UK enter the pandemic with gonorrhoea and syphilis levels not seen since the Second World War, but with fears that rates could now worsen.

In my personal and clinical experience as a psychotherapy trainee, I have found that a large part of what prevents people from asking new partners about their sexual health is the stigma and misinformation that exists around sexually transmitted infections (STI). You may find yourself in a situation with somebody, titillated with the possibility of intimacy after months of isolation. In that moment it could feel intrusive, mood-dampening or just uncomfortable to ask if they’ve been tested recently.


How to initiate conversations about sexual health

In order to initiate an open and honest conversation with sexual partners, it is important that we first address our own knowledge and beliefs around sex and health. Many STIs are unfairly stigmatised and cause embarrassment despite being easily treated or managed. In order to not project our own feelings of shame onto potential partners, we must be curious of the stories we have learnt around sex and our bodies, and understand the things we feel ashamed about. It can be attractive if a partner is able to hold space without judgement, especially when discussing topics that can be vulnerable. Reassuring them that their information is safe with you and will be met with kindness is a positive way to build connection and encourage honest communication.

The most important relationship we have is with ourselves. This is why it’s good to check in with your own body before touching anyone else’s. Getting to know your own body and noticing what it feels like when it’s healthy, run down or aroused is an essential part of bringing awareness to your own sensuality and sexual health. If a person or situation doesn’t make you feel safe enough to ask a question such as when they last got checked for STIs, honour that emotion and consider if you would like to continue with the encounter.


How can psychotherapy help?

Psychotherapy can be a useful place to explore your relationship with sex and how you relate to others. Prior to my own training, I thought it would be inappropriate to speak with a therapist about these parts of myself, but since then and through starting to work with clients I know just how enlightening these conversations can be.

As John Gottman said, 'every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay.' Even if that relationship is only for the night, it can be sexy to initiate conversations about sexual health from a well-informed position and without judgement.

Psychotherapy can offer a safe space to explore your feelings. You can look for an accredited therapist on the UKCP website.

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