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Guidelines for Negotiating Safer Sex

What is Negotiation?

Negotiation happens when two or more people who want different things discuss solutions to reach an agreement that satisfies everyone’s interests as much as possible. The goal of negotiation is not to win, but to succeed together. With respect to safer sex practices, sometimes this is a straight-forward event; you or your partner suggests it, both agree, and off you go! Other times, it may be more complicated. This is when you may need to negotiate.

Why Negotiate About Safer Sex?

There are several benefits to negotiating the use of safer sex practices. They include:

  • it helps you to stick to your safer sex philosophy;
  • it helps ensure the consistent use of safer sex practices, which reduces the risk of a pregnancy as well as getting or spreading a sexually transmitted infection;
  • it can strengthen the relationship through the discussion of intimate issues.


Many people find that once they get past the initial shyness or discomfort, negotiating can be a hot “preliminary” before play. Some people enjoy being invited to talk so intimately, while others like listening and getting ideas. Negotiation can be a form of flirtation and verbal foreplay.

Steps of Negotiation

Get Informed!
Learn about safer sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The more you know, the easier it will be to talk about it and to articulate your reasons for choosing to practice safer sex. And, as you learn about the benefits of choosing safer sex, it will likely strengthen your resolve to practice safer sex!
You can learn more about healthy sexuality and safer sex practices from Health Services’ Sexual Health and Safer Sex pages.

Decide When and Where
When.  Choose to talk before getting into the “heat of the moment”. Coming to an agreement before you have sex allows you to be prepared and more relaxed. Also, don’t spring the discussion on your partner. Give your partner the chance to prepare his/her own thoughts by planning together when you will discuss it. Finally, don’t have this discussion when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Where. Choose a place where you are comfortable, and where you can talk in private without disruptions.  If you are concerned about a negative reaction from your partner, consider having the discussion in a semi-public place, such as a private booth in a restaurant or during a walk in the park. The discussion can remain private, but there will be other people nearby.

Get Started!
Sometimes it’s difficult to start the discussion. Practice what you will say in advance, with a friend, or in front of the mirror. Here are a few opening lines you can use:

  • “I heard that our age group is at highest risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections. What do you think about that?”
  • “It’s tough for me to talk about this, but I think we need to talk about sexually transmitted infections. I’ve been tested; have you?”

Clearly Define the Issue
You and your partner need to agree on what issue you will be negotiating (e.g. use of condoms, sex outside the relationship etc.), and what each of you wishes the outcome to be. State what you want and why you want it.

Brainstorm Solutions and Alternatives

  • Be creative; share any idea that pops into your head. Have fun with it!
  • Don’t criticize ideas during brainstorming, even if you think the idea is silly or impractical. Ideas that first seem silly may prove to be very good or may lead to solutions that are very good.
  • Possible strategies may include: using a water- or silicone-based lubricant with condoms to improve sensation, or “outercourse” (i.e. no penetration) until an agreement is reached.

Evaluate, Select and Implement the Best  Solution
Once you have a bunch of suggestions, discuss what criteria will make an idea acceptable.  Discuss the solutions until you reach an agreement.  Once  you come to a mutually agreed­ upon decision, it is vital that you follow through and be consistent with your safer sex practices.

When Negotiating...

  • Express your feelings using “I” statements. By talking about what you feel and think, you avoid demanding or blaming. For example, say: “I want...” “I feel ...” “My reasons are...”
  • Focus on interests, not positions. A person’s interests determine his or her position. By exploring your partner’s interests, you will discover the real issue at hand. For example, a person may say that he does not want to use condoms (position), but through exploration you will discover that he is concerned that his enjoyment (interest) will be affected. You can then address this concern with appropriate suggestions.
  • Listen to and acknowledge your partner’s concerns. “I understand what you’re saying, and I want you to enjoy our time together. Could we try...”
  • Repeat in your own words what you think your partner has said to find out whether you are understanding  him/her. For example, say: “It seems to me that you feel that...”
  • Give your partner time to think about what you are saying; don’t rush.
  • You don’t need to make a final decision during your first discussion. Safer sex is a big topic. Take your time, and if you need, decide together when you will continue the conversation.

Non-verbal Negotiation

A number of studies find that less direct approaches are as effective in promoting the use of safer sex practices as more direct, verbal suggestions. Non-verbal strategies include:

  • Strategically placing a condom on the dresser or a pillow
  • Placing a safer sex pamphlet in view to initiate discussion or to “drop a hint”
  • Seduction (i.e. putting the condom on your partner)
  • Use flattery (“Ooo, we’ll need to use an extra-large condom!”)

Some Things to Think About

Power imbalances can affect your ability to negotiate successfully. Negotiating safer sex may be more difficult if there is an imbalance of power related to age, financial situation, the threat of violence, etc. It is important to be aware of the factors that may be barriers to successfully negotiating safer sex and to brainstorm strategies to overcome these obstacles.

If your partner does not want to practice safer sex, ask yourself if this is the type of person you really want to have sex with. Recognize that if he or she does not want to use protection with you, he or she probably did not use protection with previous partners. Are you willing to take the risk?

If you are involved in an ongoing relationship you can tell your partner that your desire to use condoms is based on your growing awareness of safer sex, not a lack of trust in your relationship. For example, you can say to your partner: “I am hearing more about sexually transmitted infections, and I want to talk about safer sex.” Even if you have not been using safer sex practices, it is never too late to start!

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