Adina Koch, 27, lives in Jamaica Plain and is the manager of community health programs at Martha Eliot Health Center (including Project Protection, their HIV/STD testing and counseling program and young adult resource center). She’s also an active member of Connect to Protect, working on efforts to reduce stigma surrounding sexual health and access to care for young LGBTQ people of color. You can also find her sitting by Jamaica Pond or at Shabbat dinner with a rowdy group of queer Jews.

The Debrief: When Is It Hard to Be Safe?What makes using condoms challenging?

During my STD testing and counseling sessions, after having covered all of the informational basics, I always ask this question. I get a variety of answers, almost all spoken with eyes averted.

“I don’t have them around.”

“I forget.”

“They’re uncomfortable.”

“My partner doesn’t like them.”

“I’m on birth control.”

“She would have told me if she wasn’t on birth control.”

“I’m sick of having to use them.”

Safer sex supplies are expensive. Or maybe the person at the checkout counter could pass judgment you don’t need. Or you’re allergic to latex and struggle to find out what you can use instead.

You may think, why bother? You may not really focus on keeping all those health facts in your head, along with all the other feelings and ideas already in there.

Also, add lube. Lots of lube. Water-based lubricant is the most recommended.

When I say “condoms,” as Aida said before, it’s more than just “put on a condom.” It’s about using the type of barrier—including condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, finger cots or gloves—that is going to be most comfortable for you and safest for your sex act.

Effective use of these barriers will help reduce the risk of spreading infection. Infections can be transmitted through many kinds of contact with another person’s genitals. Yes, contact with your hands or your mouth can also pose a risk.

I was at a Shabbat dinner with friends and we were sharing our work stories from the week. For me, this always turns the conversation toward sex, mishaps and all. A day in the life of a traveling sexual health educator: latex cracks when it freezes. So leaving a large supply of safe sex supplies in the car during winter in Boston does not end well: condoms and dental dams break, tubes of lube explode and, as it happens, I made a lovely mess at a health fair.

After I mentioned dental dams, a friend said, “I’ve never used dental dams; who here has used them?”

Less than half of the people at the table raised their hands. There were some side glances and laughter, and then the follow-up question: “Why don’t we use dental dams?”

We scrambled to answer. A table full of sex-positive, educated, outspoken people, momentarily silenced.

After we have learned all the facts of safety and testing, do we then know what we want?

Sitting with my client’s vulnerability and getting to the crux of their concerns is much easier than sitting with my own. Sure, I’ll role-play the conversation with your partner so you feel empowered to ask for what you want and need. I’ll talk to you about why you think you might lose your partner and how to deal with it, or how hard it is to bring up safety in the heat of the moment when you just want to let go and have fun in a casual encounter.

But do I know how to ask myself these questions?

People ask me questions they’re afraid to ask anyone else. My answers are direct and factual, trying to meet my clients where they are. I welcome these questions and they feel normal to me, which, in turn, I hope, makes them normal for the client.

Access to comprehensive and supportive education, testing and care is challenging to find. However, what I’ve learned through having these conversations over and over is that factual and direct answers help, but are not enough. What does safety mean? What kinds of safety do I want to pursue for myself, and what kinds of risks can I confidently tolerate? How can I feel comfortable enough to talk with a partner about ways I want to be safe, both physically and emotionally?

Be safe, get tested, know your status. And keep asking the hard questions. I’ll be doing it right along with you.

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