Defining sexual relationships is far from a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Sex can be a deeply personal and often complex matter that can have a profound impact on our lives.

At Better2Know, we understand the importance of being clear about we mean when we talk about “sexual relationships”.

In this blog post, we aim to unravel the intricacies of sexual relationships, explore their diverse forms, and shed light on the potential risks they may entail. By fostering an open and non-judgmental conversation about this topic, we hope to empower our readers to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

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Unpacking sexual relationships: understanding the basics

At Better2Know, we talk about sexual relationships all the time. After all, we need to. Without the sexual activity that takes place in a sexual relationship, you can’t really talk about STIs.

So, what is a “sexual relationship”?

A sexual relationship is a deeply personal connection between two or more individuals that involves engaging in physical or emotional intimacy together. These relationships can encompass a wide range of situations, from casual encounters to committed partnerships and everything in between.

At its core, mutual consent, trust, and open communication characterize and drive sexual relationships forward as dynamic bonds. They allow the people involved to experience pleasure, intimacy, and emotional connection.

However, a sexual relationship usually extends beyond the physical; it is a space where desires, boundaries, and expectations can be negotiated, respected, and explored.

Different forms of sexual relationships: from casual encounters to committed partnerships

Sexual relationships can take many forms, ranging from casual one-time encounters to long-term committed partnerships.

  • Casual sexual encounters: A casual sexual encounter refers to sexual intercourse between people who have little to no emotional connection, pre-existing relationship, or ongoing commitment. These might include one-night stands with anonymous partners or acquaintances. Casual encounters are primarily focused on physical intimacy without the expectations of a traditional romantic relationship. They tend to be short-term connections where partners do not typically discuss sexual health, monogamy, or future involvement.
  • Friends-with-benefits relationships: A friends-with-benefits relationship involves two friends engaging in sexual intimacy without being romantically committed as a couple. There are typically no expectations of exclusivity, though the friends may share a certain level of emotional intimacy. In terms of interpersonal connection levels, friends-with-benefits arrangements exist somewhere between a casual encounter and a monogamous dating relationship.
  • Monogamous relationships: A monogamous relationship refers to an intimate partnership where two people agree to have an exclusive sexual and romantic connection with each other alone. Monogamous couples commit to remain faithful and not engage in sexual activities outside of the relationship.
  • Open relationships: An open relationship refers to a committed couple who have mutually agreed to a non-monogamous arrangement, where one or both partners may engage in sexual intimacy outside of their relationship. Open relationships often operate with clearly defined rules and boundaries around the types of permitted sexual activities, safer sex, disclosure of other partners, emotional connection levels, and more.
  • Polyamorous relationships: A polyamorous relationship structure involves multiple people engaged in romantic, emotionally intimate relationships with each other’s full knowledge and consent. Polyamory differs from open relationships in that it centers on egalitarian romantic connections beyond just sexual non-monogamy. Common polyamorous structures include triads (three partners) or polycules (interconnected partner networks).
  • Abstinence: Abstinence refers to refraining from all sexual activity. Abstinence is often done for spiritual, religious, emotional, and health reasons. Abstinence can also be a spectrum. Some abstinent people will avoid all sexual activity, whereas others may allow sexual activity like outercourse, skin-to-skin contact, and other kinds of foreplay.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many different forms sexual relationships can take, and one is no more valid than another. However, some complications may arise when considering STIs.

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How do sexual relationships relate to STIs?

The type of sexual relationship someone engages in has a direct correlation to their risks of contracting and transmitting STIs. Understanding these connections is crucial for making informed decisions to protect your sexual health.

In casual sexual encounters and hookups, there are higher inherent STI risks. These situations often involve partners who don’t discuss sexual health histories, recent testing, or protective measure use. Anonymous partners may also have concurrent sexual contacts, increasing the possibility of exposure.

Non-monogamous relationship structures like open relationships, friends-with-benefits relationships, and polyamorous relationships involve multiple concurrent sexual partners. This can allow STIs to travel along multiple branching paths within a partner network if preventative steps aren’t strictly followed, such as consistent condom use, frequent testing for all partners, quickly disclosing potential exposures, and upholding negotiated boundaries.

Monogamous couples have relatively low STI transmission risks if both partners enter the relationship STI-free and maintain sexual exclusivity over time. However, any unprotected sexual contact before establishing monogamy or instances of infidelity can introduce an STI. The lower risk relies on honestly discussing sexual histories and getting comprehensively tested when committing to monogamy.

Abstaining from all sexual relations eliminates most STI transmission risks, but not all. It’s still recommended that anyone who has been sexually active at any point get screened to understand their sexual health status.

No matter what kind of sexual relationship you find yourself in, it’s important to communicate openly with your other partners about your sexual health and any concerns you may have about theirs. When communicating, it’s important to emphasise the need for safe sex in order to protect yourself from STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

Make sure you stay safe during your next encounter.

Promoting positive communication: having the “safe sex” conversation with your partner

While it can feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, openly discussing safer sex practices with a partner is essential for maintaining your sexual health. Having this conversation in a positive, respectful way can also bring you closer together and build trust.

The safer sex talk should ideally happen before any sexual activity occurs. Pick a time when you both feel relaxed and not rushed. Frame it as something you want to discuss because you care about your partner and your shared intimacy.

Be prepared to share your latest STI test results and find out about your partner’s status as well. Inquire about their thoughts on protection methods like condoms, dental dams, contraception needs, boundaries around different sex acts, and what safer sex means to them. Listen without judgment.

If a partner becomes defensive, remain calm and reiterate that you intend to establish mutual care, consent, and responsibility—not distrust. If needed, suggest getting tested together.

The conversation may reveal differences in sexual health knowledge that need to be bridged through reliable information sources. Be patient, respect each other’s perspectives and concerns, and work through them together.

Revisiting safer sex practices shouldn’t just be a one-time talk but an ongoing dialogue. Relationships, risk factors, birth control needs, and preferences can change over time. Keeping the lines of communication open, positive, and judgment-free creates the foundation for a mutually pleasurable and secure intimate life together.

Final thoughts

Maintaining sexual health requires taking a holistic, empowered, and communicative approach to our intimate relationships. It involves promoting consent, discussing risks and boundaries openly, and taking responsibility through regular STI testing and prevention practices.

While conversations about safer sex can feel difficult at first, approaching them with honesty, respect, and care for yourself and your partner(s) helps build trust, intimacy and mutual wellbeing. Prioritizing sexual health is an act of kindness – to yourself and to your partner(s).

No matter what form your sexual relationships take, STI screening, and open communication empowers you to explore your sexuality in a way that is physically and emotionally safe for all involved. Stay proactive, get tested, and approach each connection from a place of informed confidence about your sexual health status.

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