A common topic I get asked is how to address the issues of barriers in a poly relationship. Luckily, the covid "cohorts" have made this a little easier to grasp, as they essentially work the same way. In fact, I used the example of fluid bonding while explaining how covid cohorts work to My 75-year old mother! You have a group of people who do not mask with each other, but then when they interact with anybody outside the cohort/puddle, masks (barriers) are essential.
This is a huge, important topic within both the poly and the kink communities. In many circles, fluid bonding is a very serious commitment. It takes a LOT of trust in your partner. Many fluid bonded puddles are kept small to avoid too many variables. When you start getting variables in there, it stops being a safer sex option and starts to just sound like fucking around. Here's an in-depth(er) look.
What is fluid bonding?
Roughly described, fluid bonding is the practice of having sexual (mucous membrane) contact without barriers so that fluid exchange may happen. Any contact with mucous membranes is an at-risk contact. I tend to reference "membrane contact" as opposed to "sexual contact" because people inevitably define sex differently. And just so we are all on the same page, mucuous membranes are located in: vagina, clitoris, vulva, anal cavities, urethra, penis/glans, and mouth/throat.
Now think of a little puddle of water. That's you. You are contained in a glass. That's the barriers (condoms, gloves, and dental dams). That circle of glass protects your puddle from anything outside the barrier. As long as the circle (glass) has no cracks, all the water inside is safe and clear from all the stuff outside.
Why do we play barriered?
One would think that this is a no-brainer, but apparently it isn't. Think of it this way. Condoms are disease control. Birth control is birth control. Being on the pill, having a vasectomy, etc, has absolutely nothing to do with the concept of barriers. This is all about disease control. Again, thanks to covid and mask mandates, we see that having a default of barriers actually helps curb any transmission. The same is with membrane encounters. We only remove the barriers after a strong relationship of trust is present.
There's an attitude circling of "No paper, No play". This is not, in any way, a replacement for ethical barriers and bonding. The idea of "clean papers" is a vast misnomer. It is not a safer sex option, it's just a false sense of safety. Yes, the paper says that at one time, this person was free of STIs. Like, at one time, when the photo was taken, this person had green hair. But what happened just after the snapshot? What about all the time that has passed since then? Unless you are hooking up in the doctors office, time has passed and the "paper" is nothing more than firestarter. It's easy. If they have a recent clean check, you can comfortably have barriered play. Not a clean check? Get treated first, then start talking.
When should we talk about barriers?
In ethical poly relationships, rather, in ANY relationship (even a one-night stand or club-hookups) your safest default go-to for ANY sexual contact is to be barriered (it keeps our water clean and contained). For Me, it is one of the first things I discuss with someone. First date kinda stuff. I do this because it gets the potentially awkward conversation out of the way before I have the chance to get emotionally hooked, or have to have the talk after a heavy petting-potentially more kinda date. My typical discussion goes like this: "So, this might be premature, but I'm all about communication. So here's the deal. If anything were to happen with us as far as sexual contact - and I mean mucous membrane kinda contact - it's gonna be barriered. And to me, that means condoms, dental dams and gloves. Down the road, if we really click, I am open to being fluid bonded, but that's just a down-the-road kinda thing. Also, I get STI testing every six months, my last test was two months ago and it was clean. How about you? What are your thoughts?"
Be open. Share your expectations. Define terms like "contact" or "barriers". Some people see barriers as condoms for p/v only, while others it means any time a mucous membrane has any contact. Clarifying our words keeps everything up front and open. And as My Mentor Tizbee always sez: If you can't talk about it, you shouldn't be doing it!
It's also super important to respect people's pasts. Asking if they have ever had an STI is just plain wrong. Asking how often they get tested, and when their last test was is ok, and I believe that if you are looking to be intimate, that is basic must-know information. You can also ask about the results of that last test. But remember that stigma is real, and a positive test could just mean we trusted the wrong person. Dealing with that result, getting treatment, and establishing better personal boundaries makes a much healthier partner than one who refuses to get tested so that they never have a positive test.
Now what about sex without barriers? The lure of the feel of the tongue on the labia or penis, not having to readjust a clumsy dam, condoms pinching or wriggling... gloves feel funny... whatever the reasons, at some point a regular partner might be considered as someone you want to be fluid bonded with.
How do we talk about being bonded, and who gets to talk about it?
I firmly believe that if you are having non-barriered contact, you have a right to know who else is having non-barriered contact, as well as all of their non-barriered partners. If they won't tell you, keep the barriers up. What rights do you have to know who else is in the puddle with you? I say "ALL of them!" You absolutely have every right to know who your partners are having non-barriered play with. And a responsible partner will know who their other partners are bonded with.
The puddle could be a potential puddle of two, or an existing puddle of two or more that you would be joining (or having someone join). Typically, we would sit and discuss the fluid bonding dynamics with the entire cohort/puddle, so that everyone is on the same page. This would be discussing current safer sex practices with everyone looking to join your puddle. We do this all together, so that communication is open and clear, and nobody is left having to play "telephone". We agree that barriers are the norm for contact outside the puddle? Cool. We defined what barriers we use and when? Awesome. Remember "barriered" can mean so many different levels. Do we use gloves for fisting? Is oral barriered with condoms or dental dams? What happens if someone gets pregnant? We all agree! Yay!
If you are looking to join an existing puddle, remember that there are variables in your glass of pristine water. One other partner? Who is it? Who are they fluid bonded with? You remember in school when they say you are not just having sex with your partner, but also your partner's partners and their partners' partners and so forth... This little glass is starting to get some cracks and holes in it. Trust and communication are key, and assumptions are seldom secure. Always converse, clarify, and communicate. Remember also that it is never a negative thing to reintroduce barriers. If there is a leak in your glass, the only thing you have a right to do is reaffirm your personal barrier boundaries.
I have, in the past, seen puddles get continually murky, to the point where the only option is to start barriers again. The only relationship you have a right to control is the one you are directly involved in, so the use of barriers must always be a personal choice. If you aren't comfortable with a metamour, you cannot insist your partner start barriers with them again, but you can reintroduce barriers for your direct personal contact. Ethical, sustainable relationships are developed on trust, honesty and communication, not guilt, demands, and ultimatums.
How do we build a wall around our puddle?
With a puddle of two, we go to the clinic and get tested at the same time, so that we know we are putting our combined puddle into a clean glass. We get our results back and go celebrate... barrier-free. But what if this isn't the case? If you are adding a new partner to an already existing group, the process is essentially the same. I assume everyone has sat down and discussed what levels of barriers are accepted by everyone with outside partners, and committed to following the guidelines. Everyone trusts the other people in the puddle, and the new person is ready to join.
So now, everyone goes and gets tested (not just the two who will be removing barriers, but the entire puddle). Why everyone? If you still need to ask that, I suggest you start reading this over again. Everyone, because it is the entire puddle that is accepting the risk, as well as posing a risk to the new person. Once all results are back negative, feel free to toss the condoms, dams and gloves! Or save them for the next partner...