**EDIT** Apparently I wasn't clear enough so it needs to be repeated. This post is ONLY about classifications of relationship statuses and does not cover all the variables & details about who gets to go into each category. These categories are where I START from, not the end-all, be-all of my risk assessment procedures. I cover those topics elsewhere.**
It has come up recently in conversation several times what the definitions of things like fluid-bonding & HPV boundaries & so forth are. So I decided now was a good time to write it all out.
My approach to poly relationships is that each relationship is its own thing and I do not concern myself with the behaviour of my partners with other people unless that behaviour directly affects me (breaking dates with me to go out with someone else who doesn't like me, for instance). I see no value or benefit to being concerned with which sex acts my partners perform with anyone else on an emotional level, and I do see a lot of harm in doing so. Sex, to me, isn't special just because it's sex. Sex is special if the person I'm having it with is special. So I have no attachment to my partners performing certain things just with me, or avoiding certain acts with other people. Sex with my partner is no less special because he also has sex with his other partners, and it's no more special because he doesn't have sex with, I dunno, the checkout girl. Sex with my partners is special because anything with my partners is special, and because my partners themselves are special.
So when I make fluid-bond agreements, or when I use the term "fluid-bond", I am putting more emphasis on the "fluid" part than on the "bond" part. Remember, the only reason for me to be concerned about my partners' behaviour is when it directly affects me. Bringing home an STD directly affects me. So I have different levels of activity between myself & my various partners based on my risk assesment of my physical safety with that partner.
When I say that I have a "fluid-bond" agreement, I do not mean that my partner and I have agreed to only transfer fluids between us. My agreements are based on boundaries, not rules, and that sort of agreement is an imposition on other people's behaviour. My agreements do not tell my partners who they can or can't transfer fluid with. They lay out the circumstances under which *I* feel safe to transfer fluids with them (and vice versa). They are free to make their own decisions on what they do with whom, and I will modify my own behaviour with that partner based on those decisions. I then tend to seek out partners who have similar levels of risk to my own so that I can enjoy relationships with as few restrictions between us as possible without worry or concern (regular testing helps with that too). If they have similar levels of risk as me, then I don't need a rule telling them how to behave. If they have significantly different sexual values than me, then a rule won't stop them when they feel it is important or "right" for them to do it.
Some people put emphasis on the "bond" part, which is some kind of unique connection between them that is symbolized by the transfer of fluids. Some people are incapable of enjoying sexual activity without a deep, emotional connection to their partners, so a fluid-bond might be a statement of the level of emotional committment between the partners.
There are too many variables for me to say automatically that this is a bad thing, but it has been my observation that the people who tend to choose this method are more likely than not to do so for reasons that tacit highlighted in his Whats Wrong With Rules Anyway post. Saying "I am not interested in sex unless I love you, therefore being fluid-bonded says how much I love you" is one thing, but many people do not use terms like "fluid-bond" to describe what they do with each other - they use the terms to describe what they don't do with others.
But I'm explaining what I do with my partners, in terms of how I use relationship categories.
So, what is a fluid-bond, in my relationships then?
Since my reason for being concerned with relationship categories is to explain "how does this directly affect me", and in the area of sex that means STD and sexual safety, I define fluid-bonding exclusively around fluid-transfer activities that can transmit STDs. If it isn't going to transmit STDs to me, then I'm not concerned with categorizing it. Sweat and saliva do not transmit STDs. Certain viruses have been known to be found in the saliva, but those classified as STDs are either not found in the saliva, or not in high enough counts to infect someone under the circumstances of kissing. Those infectious diseases that are transmitted by kissing are either not STDs or are transmitted by contact - cell shedding - or airborne, not fluids.
HSV is transmitted by kissing. But 1) I don't consider something an STD if you can catch it from your grandma and 2) since you can also catch it from sharing drinks and other non-direct-contact ways, and it's also very rare to catch it in such a manner, I consider the attempts to completely avoid HSV to be futile* and a direct downgrade in my quality of life (i.e. the payoff is not worth the sacrifice).
So this means that, to me, a fluid-bond is willing to share any activity that transfers body fluids that can carry STDs. Blood, vaginal fluids, penile/seminal fluids, but not saliva or sweat. If a couple uses condoms and dental dams correctly & without fail every single time, a couple can have penetrative sex (PIV, anal, oral) and not be fluid-bonded. If a couple does not have Penis-In-Vagina sex ever, at all, but does engage in oral sex without barriers, this couple would be fluid-bonded, by my use of the term meaning exchanges body fluids.
Since there are so many ways to catch something that either don't involve fluids, or can be transmitted because of human error even with fluid precautions, I have a tendency to just avoid certain activities unless I'm willing to fluid-bond with that person. I'll kiss, pet, make out with, grind on, etc. with someone without too much concern, but if I'm interested in going down on them, or having intercourse, he's probably someone I am also willing to exchange fluids with. If he's so unsafe that I'm not willing to exchange fluids with him, then I'd just rather avoid those activities completely, than risk either accidental exposure or exposure to something that is contact-borne.
A lot of people are willing to have that intermediary step, where they are interested in penetrative sex of some kind, but prefer to maintain fluid barriers. That's fine. And when my partner is not sterile, I can see the need for that intermediary step in my own relationships too. But as a general guideline, in order for me to take that step closer to exposure, I want to feel confident that the risk of exposure is as minimal as possible, and if it's that minimal, then there isn't any need for the intermediary step without extenuating circumstances (i.e. contraception), for me.
So this brings us to HPV boundaries. HPV and HSV are the easist STDs to catch, and not stopped by avoiding fluid-transfers. If you avoid activities that can transmit either of those, then you will also avoid all the other STDs, and pregnancy, and a few other non-sexual illnesses. Since I've already decided that complete 100% avoidance of HSV is impossible, that leaves HPV as my Gold Standard.
Therefore, HPV boundaries are avoiding any activity that is likely to transmit the HPV virus. This means no direct oral, genital, or manual contact with the partners' genitals. Kissing does not appear to transmit HPV, but oral sex does, even with condom use. General guideline for me is if the clothes below the waist stay on, it's probably safe (allowing for exceptions, but they are exceptions to the "rule").
This allows for a lot of other sexual activities while still maintaining a reasonably safe risk level. If my partner does not have any symptoms of an oral HSV infection (and I'm fairly confident that he knows what they are & is being honest when he says he doesn't have any), then I'm pretty comfortable engaging in activities that include contact above the waist, no-contact sex (phone sex, masturbation-voyeurism, etc.) and/or some BDSM activities. I can have a long-term, emotionally intimate relationship with a partner and maintain HPV boundaries indefinitely if I think there is a good reason to do so. This means that I can actually have a sexual relationship with a partner who has HPV or HSV and not put myself or my other partners in a higher-risk situation.
If I want to explore those activities that are prohibited by my HPV boundaries, then that means that I am confident that these activities will not significantly increase my risk (in much the same way that monogamous people in long-term committed relationships are willing to forgoe condoms and other barriers). And if I deem my partner to be safe enough to not significantly increase my risk, then I'm generally willing to go straight from HPV boundaries to fluid-bonding, with only circumstantial exceptions.
Also generally speaking, one of the main things that makes me feel confident that these activities will not significantly increase my risk is testing. If my partner doesn't have an STD, then he can't give me one. Recent & regular STD tests, combined with an assessment of his behaviour, is a statistically safer way to avoid STDs even than regular condom use with a partner of unknown status. Although there is some trust involved, it is far less trust than any monogamous couple who just takes for granted that their partner is completely sexually fidelitious to them and doesn't have anything from a prior relationship. But if it is reasonable for monogamous people to "trust" their spouses and never get tested, then it shouldn't be any less reasonable for a polyamorous person to trust their partners in a relationship that is transparent, hard to hide secrets (the more people in the group, the harder to keep a secret from all of them), and where all the participants regularly get tested for STDs including prior to becoming partners.
I am far less likely to be "surprised" with an STD in my poly relationships than a monogamous person who has never been tested, whose partner has never been tested, and who does not have the safety net of several pairs of eyes checking in on the relationship participants making it more difficult to "cheat", given that anywhere from 40%-80% (depending on which study & which article you read) of people claim to have cheated on their partners at some point in their lives, that STDs can be asymptomatic and/or can lie dormant for quite some time, and that most people don't bother to get tested for STDs unless they think they already have one or have just been unwillingly exposed to one. While STD tests are not 100% accurate (nothing ever is), they're certainly much more accurate than "well, he would tell me if he had something, right? Since he hasn't, I assume he doesn't."
So, to sum up:
|HPV Boundaries||Maintaining HPV Boundaries means that I am restricted to activities that are not likely to transmit HPV (and by extension, any other STD except possibly oral HSV). Oral, genital, and manual contact of the genitals is off-limits. All other activities are OK.|
|Barriered Sex||Barriered Sex means that I am restricted from fluid transfer. Condoms, dental dams, and gloves for activities that involve blood, vaginal fluids, and seminal/penile fluids. May be used for contraception rather than STD precautions.|
|Fluid-Bonding||Fluid-Bonding means that I have no restrictions on activities for STD reasons. Willingness to exchange body fluids that can carry STDs. Condom-free intercourse & oral sex, blood play, etc.|
Any of these can be modified based on individual details, such as whether a potential partner has a known infection of some kind, whether a potential partner has simliar risk aversion strategies or not, or other personal preference red flags such as a potential partner's willingness to get tested, his willingness to disclose, his understanding of STDs & sexual safety, his willingness to meet my other partners, his willingness to introduce me to his other partners and/or friends, etc. As with most of life, the actual risk calculation is quite complex and many people don't even realize all the variables that go into their risk calculation.
Lots of people also try to predetermine which activities are OK and which are off-limits, and, IMO, if you think you can just list all the activities in the world & guess your reaction to them, you are seriously underestimating the sheer breadth and depth of human sexuality. Rather, I try to come up with classes of activities, with a clear guideline for how each activity gets into that class. Then I can determine the safety of engaging in any given activity based on its class, even if I had never previously thought of that activity before, even if I can't reasonably confer with my other partners first, even if I am caught off-guard by something spontaneous. What kind of STD can the activity transmit, how does it transmit it, and is our relationship within the class that would potentially expose me to that STD?
*By "futile", I mean that it is close enough to impossible to completely avoid all possible forms of HSV transmission as to round down to "impossible". But I do NOT mean that one shouldn't minimize exposure. Taking precautions like avoiding kissing someone while they have a cold sore, using antivirals for those with active infections, etc. can be reasonable. Plenty of people will go their entire lives without ever contracting HSV. But if you think it's actually possible to completely avoid HSV entirely, you're fooling yourself. Minimize the risks, but accept the fact that you will be exposed to it one day. If you're fortunate, you might never actually succumb to it, but plan for it like you do a cold or the flu or a car accident - try to avoid it but don't think there's a 100% way to avoid it, and it's probably not the end of the world if you do get it.