My friend goes through many hook-ups and short-term relationships. She seems to really enjoy the attention and validation (as well as sex). However, some of these relationships have verged on being sexually abusive. She also doesn’t use condom on the account that her partners do not like them. Both of these have me worried for her health and wellbeing, but she denies the abusive element in the relationships and isn’t open to the idea of STD test. How should I start a constructive conversation with her about my worries?
It sounds like you’re really concerned about your friend. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t like to see your friend contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI), or experience an unplanned pregnancy – which are both possible when a person has unprotected sex. No one wants to see their friend get hurt, whether physically or emotionally.
Sex can be a tricky topic to talk about – even with friends we’ve known for a long time. Sometimes, bringing up this type of conversation can result in a friend getting defensive or shutting down. In many cases, this can be because they might be worried about being judged negatively, or that you’ll somehow think less of them.
It can be helpful to start the conversation by asking your friend how they are doing generally and how they are feeling about their relationships.
As the conversation unfolds, listen to your friend, and try your best to put any judgments or assumptions you might have on hold. While it can be unsettling to think of the potential risks involved in her situation, ask her how she feels about it. Some helpful questions could be:
• What does she like or enjoy about her relationships and sex life?
• Is there anything she doesn’t like about it? Does she have any concerns her situation?
• Have there been any times that she has felt uncomfortable, threatened, scared, or unsafe?
Before you start sharing your concerns, ask for permission. Your friend may not want to talk about it and that’s her decision. Tell your friend you’re not trying to lecture or control her – you just really care about her health and safety. It can be helpful to express your concerns based on what you have observed, rather than any assumptions you might have about your friend’s behaviour or feelings. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve had a few relationships recently, I’m a little concerned if you’re doing OK, can we talk about it a bit?”
Be ready to offer support. If your friend shares your concerns, you could offer to talk more about what her reasons are for navigating her relationships this way. If there are concerns about her physical or emotional wellbeing, you could encourage her to talk about her sexual health with a health professional, or speak to a counsellor. It can help to talk through what’s involved in getting a sexual health check. You can even go with your friend if she’d like some support. The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre is another great resource.
If your friend doesn’t share your concerns, let her know that you appreciate the chance to talk openly and are still her friend, even if you have different viewpoints. Maybe you can leave it with letting her know that there are some great online resources to draw on if she ever feels unsure or confused about whether what’s happening in her relationships is ok. If she is ever worried about unhealthy, abusive, or violent behaviour in her relationships, she can also contact 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 or through online chat.
At the end of the day, you can’t make your friend do anything – having or not having sex is a personal choice, and ultimately, she will be the one to decide if she wants to make any changes. It can also be important to bear in mind that people have casual sex for different reasons – whilst for some, it can be associated with depression or low self-esteem; for others, it can be empowering, or for pleasure.
Of course, if you ever feel that your friend is at risk of immediate harm from someone, it’s important not to keep it a secret and get urgent help.
Your friend may make decisions that you don’t agree with, or behave in a way that may not align with your own beliefs or values. Try and remember that open communication is important so that she knows she can come to you for support if she needs it further down the track. As her friend, you can remind her that you are there to be supportive, not to judge her for her sexual behaviour.
No matter what she decides, acknowledge your courage to speak up – she is fortunate to have a caring friend who is looking out for her.