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Have Fun, Be Safe: A Provider’s Guide to Supporting Young People with Multiple Sexual Partners

Approach these conversations in a way that is affirming, inclusive, and nonjudgmental.

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By Charlie Blue Brahm, MA

June 28, 2024

The stigmatization that exists culturally around having multiple sexual or romantic partners makes it all the more important for youth-supporting professionals to address conversations in ways that feel affirming, inclusive, and free of judgment.

The first step to supporting young people with multiple sexual or romantic partners is to be able to name the societal default: monogamy. A monogamous relationship is one in which a person has only one partner at a time, rather than multiple partners. Although this is generally understood to be about sexual exclusivity, monogamous couples often implicitly expect to be the most important emotional connection in one another’s lives as well.

We live in a culture that is built around monogamous relationships. The Sexual Health Alliance defines mononormativity as “the social narratives according to which monogamous relationships are the only acceptable relationships, and all other ways of structuring our relational lives are […] in some way deviant, deficient, defective, or delusional.”

Because of societal norms that prioritize monogamy, it can be hard for young people to feel comfortable opening up about having multiple sexual or romantic partners.

Because of societal norms that prioritize monogamy, it can be hard for young people to feel comfortable opening up about having multiple sexual or romantic partners. This is true for young people who identify as polyamorous and non-monogamous, but also for young people who are interested in monogamous relationships but who are currently dating or having sex with multiple people.

Build trust and center the young person’s experience, values, and journey.

As a youth-supporting professional, we know you work hard to be a trusted adult. When working with young people who have multiple sexual or romantic partners, building trust requires centering their experience, values, and journey. It requires learning how they want their relationships to look. Making space for them means avoiding assumptions, checking your own biases, and questioning stories you might have internalized about people who have more than one sexual or romantic partner.

Centering a young person’s experience means giving them all the information they need to support their own decision-making rather than deciding what is best for them. For example, we know you want to help young people stay safe, and because of that it may be tempting to focus on the fact that having multiple sexual partners can put a young person at increased risk of contracting an STI.

However, it’s crucial to honor young people’s agency in deciding what is most important to them and what is an acceptable level of risk-tolerance for them.

However, it’s crucial to honor young people’s agency in deciding what is most important to them and what is an acceptable level of risk-tolerance for them. Plus, if you focus only on STI risks instead of letting a young person guide the conversation, you might unintentionally be shutting down topics that they want to cover like healthy relationships and consent.

To create a safe environment for young people to share potentially sensitive details and feel comfortable asking questions, it’s important to leave your own personal values out of the conversation and respond in nonjudgmental ways.

Check out these trainings on “Should I share my personal opinions?” and “How do I avoid coming off as judgy?” from Healthy Teen Network’s Sex Ed 101 for Educators series for more information. These e-learnings are primarily designed for sex educators, but the guidance on affirming and supporting young people is relevant for youth-supporting professionals across fields!

In addition to avoiding assumptions and judgment, it can also help young people to feel heard if you reflect the ways they talk about their sexual and romantic connections. For example, if a young person tells you they have a partner and a girlfriend, use those words when discussing their relationships.

Additionally, youth-supporting professionals must recognize that stigmatization around having multiple sexual or romantic partners can be even more pronounced when a young person is not straight and cisgender. Queer and trans identities still bear the burden of harmful cultural narratives of deviance on top of those associated with non-monogamy.

This double stigmatization that LGBTQ+ young people with multiple sexual or romantic partners may experience in other areas of their lives makes having a trusted adult all the more important. To create a safe space for these young people, make sure to always use affirming, gender-inclusive language.

Remember that a person’s gender is not tied to their anatomy.

This applies to both the young person you’re working with and the ways you ask questions about their sexual partners. Remember that a person’s gender is not tied to their anatomy.

If you want to dive deeper, you can check out certification programs like this one from the Sexual Health Alliance on Consensual Non-Monogamy.

Be prepared to get into the nitty gritty.

In order to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, young people who have multiple sexual partners need much more than vague guidance on deciding about fluid bonding or increased risk of STIs with multiple partners. As a youth-supporting professional, it’s crucial that you can either answer their questions in detail or direct them to resources where they can find more information (or ideally both!).

For example, you might run into some of these scenarios when supporting a young person with multiple sexual partners…

  • Encouraging a young person to think about the safety practices of their metamours—the people that their partners are partnered to or sexually active with—when making decisions about STI testing routines or fluid bonding.
  • Providing guidance on which sex toys are safe to share among partners (or in different orifices) and how to clean them properly.
  • Giving specific information about STI transmission rates from different forms of sex (oral, vaginal, anal) and with sexual partners who have different anatomies to help a young person decide when to use barriers based on their level of risk tolerance.
  • Sharing information on the time it takes for different STIs to show up on tests to help decide on safety practices like using barriers or avoiding certain sex acts when one of their sexual partners has sex with someone new.
  • Clarifying that for some STI tests, it’s useful to get swabbed in different areas (throat, vagina / front hole, anus) to catch localized infections based on the types of sexual activity they are engaging in.

Stay up-to-date on the latest clinical guidelines for PrEP.

Finally, we also encourage you to check out the new clinical guidelines for PrEP. Rather than screening for certain risk factors, the new guidelines recommend that providers “[i]nform all sexually active adult and adolescent patients about PrEP” and “prescribe PrEP to anyone who asks for it, including sexually active people who do not report HIV risk factors.”

Be prepared to answer questions.

Beyond just getting more familiar with the facts, it can also be helpful to prepare for answering questions that you might find challenging or uncomfortable. For more guidance, check out this free training from Healthy Teen Network’s Sex Ed 101 for Educators series.

We believe every young person has the right to be who they are and love who they love. For the young people who don’t fit societal expectations of loving and having sex with only one person, being able to have affirming, informative conversations with a trusted adult can make a world of difference.

Charlie Blue Brahm likes to meander through a topic, asking “why” until they can see a full and vibrant picture, accepting complexity and contradiction rather than flattening people or situations for convenience’s sake. This worldview has taken them through a path of learning first how to understand and create technology, then how to understand and organize people who create technology, and now how to understand and design for the people who use and are affected by technology. Read more about Charlie Blue.