A Cheat Sheet for Talking About Safe Sex

Practicing safe sex is easier said than done. Or actually, it's harder, because we often just don't know what to say to our partners. Here are the right words to use in awkward situations.

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Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its annual report on sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. Although the data, which are for 2009, show some progress in lowering the rates of STDs, blacks are still bearing the brunt. African Americans accounted for approximately half of all chlamydia (48 percent) and syphilis (52 percent) -- and nearly three-quarters of gonorrhea (71 percent) -- cases in 2009.

Yes, this is bad news. But before we get down on ourselves and label African Americans promiscuous, we have to remember that just about everyone -- black and white -- has sex. And a lot of folks, regardless of race, are not using condoms. In actuality, many studies have shown that African Americans report fewer sexual risk factors than their white counterparts, meaning that we use condoms more often.

But the reality is that for a number of reasons -- including little or no access to good health care and treatment, and women sharing male partners because high rates of incarceration and poverty have led to a lack of available men -- too many African-American communities are already saturated with these STDs. We therefore find ourselves coming into contact with these diseases more often than do people in the mainstream community.

This is why we really need to be careful by being even more diligent about using condoms and getting tested regularly. Not to mention, having an undiagnosed STD can compromise your immune system, making you more vulnerable to seroconverting (acquiring HIV) if you come into contact with the virus.

So what can we do? The key is talking about these issues with the people we choose to sleep with. Yeah, I know, that can be extremely difficult for some of us. We may be embarrassed or ashamed, we may not feel empowered, or we may be too worried about what the other person will think -- or afraid that he or she will leave us. Or we just don't have the facts about STDs and safer sex and don't think that we are at risk.

But in fact, all of us are.

We are not dating and having sex in our parents' or grandparents' day, when a shot of penicillin cured all, and getting pregnant was the most pressing consequence of unprotected sex. We are living in the era of AIDS. And none of us can afford to have a coy, timid or uninformed approach when it comes to our sexual health.

In the spirit of World AIDS Day today, The Root, instead of talking about how you need to start having these conversations, asked Chicago-based sex expert Rachael Ross, M.D., to help us provide you with invaluable tips on how to have these conversations with your partner or partners.

Here are six common scenarios:

"There isn't anything slutty or 'gay' about talking to your partner about condoms before you have sex," Ross confirms. "That is called being responsible, because everyone is at risk." She suggests asking your prospective partner about his condom use in previous relationships to ease into a conversation about your desire to use condoms.

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