When it comes to having sex, the best way you can support your health is by knowing what all of your risk reduction options are — plus how and when to use them.
Many people think of barrier methods (like external condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, and gloves) as the only options for STI prevention. But there’s another choice: fluid bonding.
Opting for fluid bonding isn’t the same thing as spontaneously engaging in unprotected sex; it’s an intentional decision. Like any other STI prevention or contraceptive tool, it isn’t right for everyone. Some people may decide to fluid bond early in a relationship, and other folks may never want to fluid bond. The only “right way” is the way that works best for you and your partners!
So, what even is fluid bonding, and how do you decide if it’s right for you? Let’s unpack it.
What is Fluid Bonding?
Even if you haven’t heard the term “fluid bonding” before, you’re probably familiar with the concept. At its simplest, fluid bonding means agreeing to forego a barrier method and share bodily fluids (most often, this refers to genital fluids) with your partner.
The keyword there is agreeing. Fluid bonding is different than just not using a barrier method during sex because there isn’t one around. Rather, it’s a mutual, pre-planned decision to cease usage of barrier methods entirely (or at least for specific sex acts). People who fluid bond with their partners will typically discuss that shift well in advance, and may opt for a new round of STI testing and may contemplate some updated parameters within the relationship — but we’ll get deeper into the how-to in a bit.
Crucially, fluid bonding isn’t something that is exclusively done between monogamous couples. People in polyamorous partnerships may opt to fluid bond with specific people in their polycule, as long as other barrier methods and STI testing boundaries are put in place. You don’t have to be STI-negative to fluid bond, either. Ultimately, you and your partners will decide what level of STI transmission risk everyone is comfortable with, which may include fluid bonding with a partner who is positive for a chronic STI (like herpes or HIV).
Put simply, fluid bonding is an intentional form of risk awareness and management when it comes to STIs.
Fluid Bonding Benefits
There are many reasons why folks may consider fluid bonding within their relationship, and each reason is going to be specific to that partnership. Here are just some of them:
Increased emotional intimacy
The decision to forego barrier methods involves lots of conversation about desires, boundaries, risks, hygiene, and fears. Having those deep conversations can bring you closer together!
Potentially greater pleasure
Some people find that sex without a barrier method feels better for them, both psychologically and physically. People who opt to fluid bond may do so specifically because they’re focused on improving their sexual pleasure.
Trying to conceive
If you’re trying to get pregnant, barrier methods will literally get in the way of that. Some folks may opt to fluid bond specifically because they’re trying to conceive, or because they’ve decided that the risk of pregnancy is acceptable.
Folks who fluid bond may find that they have more intentional conversations about hygiene, both when it comes to their body and to their toys. For example, one partner may prefer to shower before oral sex without a barrier method. Another partner could then ask about oral by saying something like, “want to shower together? I’d love to taste you later.” And if folks are opting to not use barrier methods with shared toys, they’ll likely have deeper conversations about toy sanitization.
Spontaneous sex and quickies are absolutely possible with barrier methods. But folks who are fluid bonded may find that spontaneous sex feels even more possible because they don’t have to plan to have a barrier method with them ahead of time (or go buy some if they forget).
If you’re thinking about fluid bonding, your benefits (and drawbacks) may look different. Make a list of the reasons why you’re considering it and move from there!
Getting Started with Fluid Bonding
Making the decision to fluid bond requires lots of intentionality, soul-searching, and communication. Some folks may find that the decision comes pretty easily, but others may have more factors to consider (like potential pregnancies, STI transmission risk, or other sexual partners). If you’re thinking about fluid bonding (or just want to be prepared for a future conversation), here are some steps to take.
Start the conversation
When it comes to any type of new sexual experience, communication is fundamental. If you’re planning on introducing the concept of fluid to your partner, I recommend introducing the topic with the intention to talk about it later. Ask your partner, “I’ve been thinking about how we use barrier methods and I’m curious about fluid bonding together. Is that something you’d be open to talking about later?”
Then, based on their response, plan a date night to talk about it in more depth. You want everyone involved to have time to think about how they feel, so I don’t recommend springing the conversation on them!
Here are some questions to ask yourself and your partner:
– Why are we considering fluid bonding? What benefits are we anticipating?
– What STI risk factors may still be present for us? How can we manage those?
– Is pregnancy a concern? If so, how will we prevent unwanted pregnancies or manage an unplanned pregnancy?
– Are we thinking about fluid bonding for all of the sex acts we engage in or just some? (e.g.: fluid bonding for oral and vaginal play, but not for anal play or rimming)
– Do we have other partners whom we should talk with?
– If we have other partners, what types of barrier methods and STI tests should we utilize in those relationships?
– What other questions do we have? What resources can help us find the answers?
– How can we check in with each other to make sure everyone is comfortable?
Like any big sex talk conversation, I recommend having this in a fairly neutral place (like your living room) or while doing a small activity (like drinking tea or making a meal).
Update your STI tests
You’ve probably already talked a bit about your STI status, but if you’re considering fluid bonding, it’s time to revisit that conversation. Schedule time to get STI tests together and then talk through your results. Remember, the decision to fluid bond should be coming from a fully-informed place, so even if this conversation feels overwhelming or inconvenient, it’s important to have! STIs are common (the CDC estimates that on any given day in 2018, 1 in 5 people in the United States had an STI), and there’s no shame in getting one — but the most common symptom is no symptoms at all, so get tested for some extra peace of mind.
If someone has a chronic STI, like herpes, HPV, or HIV, consider the other risk management factors that you might utilize. Talk with your medical provider about your specific situation, because everyone is different. Some questions they might ask you include “Does the negative partner take PrEP?”, “Has the negative partner had their HPV vaccine?”, “Is their viral load detectable?”, and, “Is the positive partner on medication for symptom and outbreak management?”
Testing positive for an STI doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t fluid bond, but it does mean that you should have deeper questions about what an acceptable amount of risk is in this situation for you and your partner. You may also plan on getting more frequent STI testing done so that you can know early if you do end up developing an STI. Remember, all STIs are treatable! You can find your local testing site in the United States here.
Plan for alternative contraception
People who choose to fluid bond may still have concerns about potential pregnancies. So, if pregnancy is a possibility for you and your partner, think about other, non-barrier method forms of pregnancy prevention. There are a lot of options here! You can opt for an ongoing method, the pull-out method, a long-acting reversible contraceptive, or even just keeping emergency contraception on hand. Some folks may want to build upon a cushion in their savings account just in case they do get pregnant and decide to seek an abortion, too.
What If Your Partner Isn’t Down to Fluid Bond?
You and your partner may have a long, heartfelt conversation about fluid bonding, and…they might still not be interested in it. There are just as many reasons for someone to say “no” or “not right now” to fluid bonding as there are reasons to pursue it. Still, receiving that “no” can sometimes cause us to feel rejected or not trusted, even if we know that we have a healthy, trusting foundation. Here’s how to navigate those sticky situations and come out stronger and more bonded for it.
What to do if your partner doesn’t want to fluid bond (before they’ve tried it)
First things first, thank your partner for being honest and sharing that they’re not comfortable with fluid bonding.
Saying “no” to a partner can be incredibly overwhelming or scary for some folks, even when trust is there, so that “thank you” serves as validation that yes, your partner is allowed to set their own boundaries.
Next, check in on the reasons (if they haven’t shared them yet). This isn’t about trying to convince them to change their mind, it’s about understanding their perspective and concerns. That piece of knowledge can help bring you closer together and can help reduce the feelings of rejection you may be experiencing.
Finally, ask your partner if they want to check in on this again at some point in the future. They may want to wait for a specific milestone (like finishing grad school or reaching an undetectable HIV viral load) before they consider fluid bonding. If that’s not the case, let them know that if they decide they want to talk about it again, you’re here. Then, circle back to the reassurance — let them know that there’s no pressure and that you appreciate their openness.
What to do if your partner doesn’t want to fluid bond (after they’ve tried it)
On the flip side, you and your partner may decide to fluid bond, and then… they may change their mind.
There are a lot of reasons why this may happen- heightened anxiety about potential pregnancies, purity culture shame, or simply not loving having to clean up bodily fluids. Someone may also decide to stop fluid bonding because of an increased STI risk or because they’re having an active STI flare-up (like a herpes outbreak). If that’s the case, talk together (and with your medical provider) to see if you should get additional testing, too.
Regardless of the reason, I recommend talking about it with the same level of intentionality, honesty, and curiosity that you brought to your exploration conversation.
Remember, it isn’t a “step back” in your relationship to decide to use barrier methods again. Any time someone is open and honest about their sexual desires and boundaries is an opportunity for the relationship to move forward in a deeper way. That conversation is always worth having. Thank them for their honesty, check-in on their reasons, and, if relevant, make a plan to re-evaluate in the future.
Fluid bonding is just one option in your sexual health toolkit, so explore around and find the tools that work best for you!