Why I’m No Longer Using the Term “Fluid Bonding”

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In the decade and a half I’ve been non-monogamous, I’ve had numerous conversations about so-called “fluid bonding.” I’ve negotiated the circumstances under which it is okay, not-okay, and maybe-okay to do it in various relationships. I have discussed the potential risks brought about by myself, my partners, or even my metamours choosing to fluid bond in certain relationships, and how those impacted might protect their sexual health. I’ve had literally hundreds of conversations involving this subject.

And I’m rejecting the term. When I talk about barriers, safer sex practices, and sexual health, I will no longer be using the term “fluid bonding.”

Here’s why.

“Fluid Bonding” is Vague

If you ask ten polyamorous people what “fluid bonding” means, most of them will probably tell you something like “having sex without barriers.” In practice, though, the term “fluid bonding” is far more specific in its widely accepted meaning than that. When most people say it, they are referring to the act of having penetrative penis-in-vagina (or, less commonly, penis-in-anus) sex without a condom.

Under this definition, I have only ever “fluid bonded” with two people in my entire life, including my current nesting partner. But that feels like a ridiculous, reductive, and wildly inaccurate assessment of how I have had sex over the years.

Notice I said most people use the term this way. Not all. And I’ve definitely seen instances where people thought they were on the same page about its meaning, leading to hurt and even feelings of violation and betrayal when it turned out they were not.

When we assume we all use a term in the same way, miscommunications are inevitable. Nowadays, if a partner or prospective partner tell me they’re “fluid bonded” with this or that person, or expresses a desire to fluid bond with me, I’m going to be asking far more questions rather than assuming I know what they mean.

“Fluid Bonding” Makes it Harder to Have Accurate Safer Sex Conversations

Here’s the reality: semen is one bodily fluid, but not the only one. And semen going into a vagina is just one way of sharing bodily fluids in a sexual relationship (and one way you can transmit an STI.)

If you’re having oral sex without a condom, dam, or other barrier, you are exhanging fluids. If you are touching your partner and then yourself with your hands (or touching more than one partner’s genitals in one session) without changing gloves or handwashing in between, you are exchanging fluids. Any kind of kink activity involving blood, such as needle play, is a fluid exchange risk. Hell, even saliva is a bodily fluid. So if we’re getting really technical about it, kissing is a form of fluid exchange (a low risk one, but some STIs can be transmitted in this way.) And that’s before we even get into the fact that for some STIs to spread, skin-to-skin contact is all you need.

I’m not telling you any of this to scare you. Quite the opposite, actually. STIs carry a heavy stigma but most of them are also easily avoidable, treatable, or manageable. I’m telling you this because having the correct information is how we can all make better choices to keep ourselves and our lovers safe and healthy. Regular testing, clear and specific negotiations about barrier use or lack thereof, and knowing the facts is how we do that.

I’ve also seen people, particularly non-monogamy newbies and those not clued up on sexual health, assume that if they are not “fluid bonded” (i.e. having unbarriered intercourse with a penis) with any of their partners, then they are free from any sexual health risk and can eschew testing. The reality is that anyone who is sexually active should be testing at least occasionally, if not regularly.

Continuing to use this term makes it harder to have accurate conversations about sexual health. It perpetuates the idea that penetrative sex with a penis is the only form of sex that carries a risk. This belief is simply inaccurate and frankly dangerous. It prevents people from being fully informed and protecting their sexual health accordingly.

“Fluid Bonding” is Heterocentric and Cissexist

Part of rejecting “fluid bonding” is tied to my broader and long-standing desire to completely decentre penetrative sex with a penis as some kind of pinnacle of sexual experience. Penis-in-vagina intercourse is one type of sex. It’s not “full” sex (look out for my rant on that subject, coming soon to a sex blog near you!) It’s not “real” sex. When we centre it above other activities in our discussions about sex, we are perpetuating cisheteronormativity.

When we talk about “fluid bonding”, we are assuming that one partner in the equation has a penis and the other has a vulva. This may or may not be true. Further, even if this does happen to be the combination of bodies we’re working with, penis-in-vagina (or anus) intercourse may or may not be a part of that couple’s sexual relationship.

This is heterocentric. It is also cissexist. In reality, relationships can include any combination of gender identities and genital types that you can think of. In reality, penetrative sex is a part of some sexual relationships but not all. And any sexual relationship likely involves at least some form of fluid exchange unless you’re covering your entire bodies in latex prior to sex and not kissing.

“Fluid Bonding” is Emotionally Loaded

If having unbarriered sex with your partners is emotionally meaningful to you, I’m not going to tell you it shouldn’t be. I also prefer to have unbarriered sex in situations where it feels safe and comfortable to do so! As I said, I’ve only had unbarriered penis-in-vagina sex with two people in my entire life. This should tell you that I do not, personally, consider it trivial.

However, I think we should be very, very careful about applying emotionally loaded terms to conversations about safer sex.

A relationship with Partner A isn’t less emotionally meaningful than a relationship with Partner B just because you use barriers with one partner and not the other. There are so many reasons you could make this choice. Perhaps one partner has much more casual sex outside of your relationship and using barriers makes you feel safer. Maybe you or one of your partners is trying to get pregnant in one relationship but not another. Perhaps one penis-owning person has had a vasectomy and another hasn’t. So many possible reasons, and none of them are “I love this person more than that person.”

With that said, some people do use so-called fluid bonding as a sign of emotional significance in a relationship. Again, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t do this. The emotional weight you apply to sexual decisions is highly personal and up to you to negotiate with your partner(s.)

However, I believe the term “fluid bonding” automatically confers this emotional weight, whether or not the people in question believe in or experience it. That feeds into problematic (and often heteronormative and mononormative) assumptions about which sex acts do and don’t carry emotional significance.

Sex without a barrier is not inherently more connective (or “bonding”) than sex with one.

So What Am I Using Instead?

My overall goal in rejecting this term is to get far more accurate and specific in my conversations about sexual health. It might seem useful to have a shorthand but, as we’ve seen, that shorthand is so imprecise as to be functionally useless.

So instead, when negotiating sexual health, I’ll talk about what I am actually doing with whom. How many people am I having sex with? What barriers am I using or not using for which activities? How often and in which circumstances do I have casual sex, and what precautions am I taking when I do? How often do I and my partners test, and what were our most recent results? And so on.

Does it take longer? Sure. Is it a little clunkier? Yes. Can it feel more vulnerable, or even embarrassing, to get so specific? Yes. But it’s a hell of a lot more useful for everyone.

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