WHETHER YOU’RE SHOULDERING YOUR BACKPACK and heading into the great unknown, or just popping to the next country over for a weekend jaunt, you’re likely up for some exploration. This could mean visiting every museum in town, or it could mean meeting some new friends and enjoying some safe, sane, consensual sexual fun. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re getting it on after getting off the airplane, here are some tips to keep you healthy.
1. Bring your own condoms.
Model yourself on the Boy Scouts: always be prepared. Get some polyurethane condoms, as they are less likely to degrade in heat than natural latex or lambskin, and fewer people have allergies to them. Stash a few in your travel bag, in a place safe from possible puncture or damage. Check the expiration dates regularly. Try to avoid ones that have spermicide, since that can give you or your partner a nasty rash. Other countries may not have the same regulations about the quality of condoms as the one you’re from, so it’s always better to bring some rather than run to the pharmacy or decide you don’t need any after all.
2. Be vigilant to possible symptoms.
This sounds a little melodramatic, but with the rise of antibiotic-resistant STIs, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your body. This doesn’t mean panicking over every twinge or ache. But it does mean that, even if it’s inconvenient because you’re in the middle of Thailand, you should go to the doctor if you think anything is amiss. It is much, much better to get treatment and deal with the situation early than it is to wait until things get out of control, or until you unwittingly pass an STI on to someone else who is less-equipped to deal with it than you. Remember that some STIs are more common in particular countries — for example, there was a serious outbreak of a specific strain of chlamydia in northern Australia when I was living there — so if you’re visiting one of those, and feel a little itchy when you pee, get tested straight away.
3. Just get tested regularly anyway.
If you’re regularly having new sexual partners, it’s good practice to get tested every six months or so. No matter where you are, if possible. This can be pretty difficult while you’re traveling, depending on where you are and how receptive the medical profession in that country is to STI testing.
4. What is sex, anyway?
The most common way to contract an STI is through penetrative sex, which wearing a condom goes a long way towards preventing. There is an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhoea that can be transmitted orally — that is, through performing fellatio on a partner with a penis, if they happen to have it. You can get STIs in all kinds of creative locations (I knew someone who had a patch of genital herpes on his back), so it’s best to discuss strategies with your partners before you get naked and frisky.
5. Try to control your lowered inhibitions.
Traveling feels like a constant adventure. You might be trying new things like drugs or alcohol, as well as new partners or other new experiences (like sex clubs, or hiring a sex worker). Do your best to be aware of the risks inherent in whatever is going on, and try to work with them. If you are visiting a sex worker, try to use barrier methods for their safety as well as yours, and ensure that they are not engaged in human trafficking, coercion, or are underage. Try not to engage in recreational substances without at least one person around you can trust to keep an eye on you and help you out. Be aware that people can change personality fairly abruptly under the influence — I had an ex who turned into a different, much more abusive person when he drank.
6. Be aware of your options if something happens.
If you do end up being concerned that you might have been exposed to an STI, look into your country-specific options. If you are somewhere that has a negative view of sexual health, your best bet may be cutting your trip short and heading home immediately, but let’s hope that’s not necessary. You can get post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV or unwanted pregnancy, within 72 hours of exposure…which is why you might have to drop everything and race to the pharmacy or the airport. These can sometimes be expensive or hard to get, but you may be able to get help from your consular offices if you’re in a pinch. The best course of action is to bring these medications with you if you think there’s any chance you might need them; if you’re going to a country that you know will make it difficult to get them at the last minute, it’s always best to plan ahead than be caught in the lurch.
7. You are subject to the law in whatever country you’re in.
This might seem obvious, but if the country you’re in has very strict regulations about people kissing in public, it’s not free-wheeling and romantic to smooch it up on the steps of City Hall. Many countries have made homosexual activity illegal, and in some cases, this can be punishable by harsh imprisonment or death. In Egypt, male homosexual acts can result in ten years of hard labour, while Sudan executes offenders who have been caught more than three times. Chechnya has been rounding up their gays and sending them to concentration camps. Heterosexual behaviours are also subject to punishment, in some cases, especially if one of the participants is underaged or if paying for sex is involved. If you break the law, the consulate likely will not be able to help you, and you will be subject to punishment. Be very, very careful.
8. Bring your birth control and try to time it effectively.
If you take hormonal birth control, you’re probably already aware that you need to take it at the same time every day for maximum efficiency. The progestin-only “mini pill” doesn’t work at all unless you take it like clockwork, although other blended pills can skip a few hours or even a day without losing the effectiveness entirely (unless it is the very first cycle on that pill, in which case you aren’t protected). If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t adjust well to time changes or forgets to take the pill without an alarm on your phone, make sure that you have that alarm set up for wherever you’re going to be. You might end up taking it in the morning rather than right before bed, depending on where you are.
9. Please keep your sex life private.
Please don’t bang your new friend on the street, in the back room of a club, or, god forbid, in your hostel dorm room. The first two open you up to arrest or attack, while the last option is just plain rude. Keep your private moments private and get a 2-person room.