“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Sitting in a small room with no windows, it would have been easy to blame the heat rushing to my face on the stuffy room. But I knew that the question had a bit more to do with it than I wanted to admit.
Did I have a boyfriend? It was the first line in a series of questions I got every time I went to a gynecologist. And while it was easy to answer when I was a teenager, it’s gotten progressively harder year after year.
When I was 16, I heard the series of questions for the first time. Do you have a boyfriend? No. Are you sexually active? No. Easy.
At 17: Do you have a boyfriend? Yes. Are you sexually active? Yes. Do you always use condoms and birth control pills? Yes. A little more awkward, but still easy.
From 18 to 20, it was pretty much the same. Steady boyfriend, birth control pills, and condoms.
On paper, it was easy for my gynecologist to see that I was doing what I was supposed to do to have safer sex.
And that’s all that mattered. Nevermind the fact that these doctors’ questions didn’t ask me if I was happy in my relationship. They never asked if I felt trapped or scared or sad all the time. I was following the protocol for a healthy sex life and that’s what mattered.
At 21, I was a single woman. And that’s when the questions started to get harder. Do you have a boyfriend? No. Are you sexually active? Yes. Do you always use condoms and birth control pills? Sometimes.
Every conversation ended with my doctor chastising me. The questions became something else entirely. Have you thought about the consequences of sleeping around like that?
The questions he never asked me was why I was “sleeping around,” as he called it, how I felt leaving a monogamous relationship, or if I ever thought I’d go back to one.
Sitting in the back of a Planned Parenthood, on a bench while a technician entered my most private information in an old desktop computer, I tried to brace myself for the series of questions that came next. Are you sexually active? Do you use birth control pills and condoms every time? Do you know the consequences of your lifestyle?
I wrung my hands in my lap, looking down at them and feeling myself bow to the shame I’d been taught to feel in this moment.
The technician stopped typing and watched me. She waited, maybe trying to guess what she’d done that suddenly caused me to go mute. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she guessed.
I no longer knew how to answer any of the questions I was used to asking, so I stayed quiet until I realized that I’d come here for something and if I didn’t ask about it, I would walk out with nothing.
“I’m polyamorous,” I said, readying myself for the explanation I so often had to give friends.
Instead, she nodded. “Okay, any current partners?”
Dumbfounded, I nodded back. And then shook my head. “Do you mean, like, long-term partners?”
She smiled slightly and said, “Doesn’t have to be. Just anyone you’ve had sex with recently. Have you had multiple partners since you were last tested?”
I nodded and she continued. “Okay, and are you on birth control?”
Her smile grew a little wider. “That’s great. That’s what I have too. Copper or hormonal?”
“Okay, and is that the only form of birth control you use?”
I tightened the grip of one hand in the other. “Not always.”
She leaned forward, closer to me and further away from her computer. “Is that what you’re here for today?”
A series of word vomit came out as my mind tried to find excuses as to why it happened before she could begin reprimanding me. “I was with a new partner and it was only for a second but I told him I didn’t want to have sex but he got on top of me and tried to put it in while he was kissing me and he managed to get in a little but I pushed him off but I’m still worried about if I could have gotten anything and I don’t want to spread anything to my other partners even though I do use condoms with my other partners but I’m still worried because I don’t want to give them anything.”
She let my story go on without saying anything, just watching me softly as I told her what happened. Eventually, I fell silent again, embarrassed and eager to leave.
“Sometimes things happen that we can’t control,” she said. “What he did was not okay and I hope he’s not a partner that you’ll see again. It’s not okay that he took advantage of you like that. And it’s not your fault it happened.” She said it so simply, so matter-of-factly. The voice in my head that told me to feel shame about the situation was suddenly quieter.
“Can you tell me about your other partners?”
I looked up, surprised at a question I’d never gotten from my gynecologist before.
“I’ve been seeing this really sweet couple lately. They’re the only partners I’ve been seeing repeatedly.” I started thinking about them both, her melodic laugh and friendliness that made everyone in the room want to be her friend, his soft yet strong hands that I loved to be wrapped up in, and I smiled.
And she smiled back. “That’s great! I’m glad you found them. And you’re using condoms with him, then?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But you’re still worried about giving them something because of this guy?”
She turned back to her computer and started typing again. “Okay, I have a few more questions so I can decide what tests you should get.”
“Shouldn’t I just get all of them?”
“What tests have you had before?”
I shrugged. “All of them, I thought.”
She reached next to her computer and pulled out a small brochure. “Here’s everything we could test you on. Let me ask you this: how have you been tested before?”
“Well, urine and pap smear.”
“Then you haven’t had everything.”
For the next twenty minutes, she explained to me that I’d never been tested for HIV or herpes, suggested that I not get tested for herpes unless I experience an outbreak, and what we’d do if I did test positive for anything.
It was the “we” that I liked the most. We will handle it this way. Here’s how we would talk to your partners about it.
In my sex ed classes, no one ever told me much about what to do when you’re polyamorous and have romantic relationships with multiple people.
Polyamory wasn’t an approved topic in my district. Instead, my teacher was allowed to have us write letters to our hypothetical fetuses about why we weren’t going to kill it.
No one ever told me polyamory was any option when I was 12 years old and wondering why Bella couldn’t just be with Jacob and Edward. It was a lifestyle I had to find on my own when I realized for the last time that monogamous relationships made me feel sad and trapped.
Polyamory wasn’t a word I used with my parents, my friends didn’t know what it meant, and my big sister found the love of her life at 22. Discovering polyamory was the strangest sensation because, while I was attempting to find the community I’d always craved, I’d also never felt so alone in my life with no one to help me navigate new waters.
Sitting in that small Planned Parenthood examining room, while the technician explained to me every step of the testing process and how I often I should get tested in the future if I have multiple new partners, I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.