If you’ve been online for any period of time, there’s a recurring theme you might have witnessed. It goes like this: some startup will announce their latest Big Idea, and the whole Internet will be brought together in one joyous moment of united poking fun to declare “how wonderful, Silicon Valley Has Invented The Bus.”
Well, it’s happened again – only it’s not a California tech bro who’s getting lambasted this time. Youths, if social media is to be believed, think they’ve invented something called “fluid bonding” – or as you and I know it, unprotected sex.
“Fluid bonding is a term that describes a pre-established agreement between two or more people to intentionally go without barriers," Luna Matatas, sex educator, and creator of Peg The Patriarchy, told Women’s Health.
“For some, becoming fluid-bonded marks one step towards increased seriousness in a relationship,” she explained. “For others, removing barriers during sex is a way to cement a milestone.”
In other words, “fluid bonding” is when you and a partner consciously decide to have sex without condoms – or dental dams, internal condoms, finger cots, gloves, or any of the other forms of barrier protection available for safe sex (bet you didn’t know there were so many!). For many monogamous couples, it’s a natural progression when a relationship reaches a certain point. So why do we need this strange new term for it?
In fact, it’s not new – people have been using it at least as far back as the mid-aughts. But there’s a good reason you may not have heard it before, and the clue is in that word “monogamous.” Before the term made it into a steady feed of mainstream publications over the past year or so, it was already old hat to those in the polyamory and open relationship communities.
“In Polyamorous circles, the "fluid bonding" connotation carries a lot of weight,” explained polyamory blogger Russell back in 2013. “For starters, it recognizes someone as a serious, long-term, intimate partner. It's a big fat flag that says this person is super-special in your life.”
Because of that, the idea is not without controversy in the polyamorous world, where some people prefer to reject the idea of “tiered” relationships. But there are other problems with the practice too – and they should be considered by anybody thinking about fluid bonding, whether they be polyamorous, monogamous, or something else.
“[Fluid bonding] places a lot of trust in someone. They're being trusted to follow mutually agreed-upon controls around their sexual activities,” wrote Russell. “Polyamory being what it is, a single breach of conduct by one person could expose a network of six, eight, or ten other individuals. That's a lot of trust. That's why fluid bonding discussions will quickly expand beyond the dyad to everyone in an extended Polyamorous network.”
Put simply, unprotected sex is, well, unprotected. It comes with risks: of STIs, which may not even be symptomatic – some, like chlamydia, gonorrhea and even HIV can lay dormant for months before any symptoms start to show – and pregnancy, which usually is. In its reinvented monogamous incarnation, proponents of fluid bonding point out that it’s a practice that requires trust and mindfulness – far from an accidental bareback fling, or worse, the sexual assault known as “stealthing”.
“It's important to know that fluid bonding can put partners at risk of STDs,” wrote Elizabeth Boskey for VeryWellHealth. “Not all doctors test for all STDs, but not everyone realizes that, so testing can give you a false sense of security.”
“In addition, many couples don't realize how frequently STDs have no symptoms. They may incorrectly believe that it's safe to stop using barriers even without testing if neither partner has any obvious symptoms.”
On top of that, some warn that the idea of “fluid bonding” can promote the idea that unprotected sex is somehow “more meaningful” than protected sex. That’s a problem, because it can lead to people feeling pressured into foregoing protection, and risking their health, in a bid to “prove” their commitment to their partner.
“Fluid bonding should never be a way of proving your love or your trust,” wrote Boskey. “Why would you even start to discuss the possibility of having unprotected sex with someone if either love or trust was a question?”
“Some people think unprotected sex means a higher level of commitment to the relationship, but that's a belief many sex educators want to change,” she added. “Practicing safe sex shouldn't be seen as a sign that someone doesn't trust their partner. Instead, it should be seen as a sign of respect for their body and a symbol of their desire to protect the person (or people) they love from harm.”