The prospect of catching a disease may be most likely to cross your mind during a one-night stand, or perhaps when you see a scantily clad woman cruising cars in the red-light district. In reality, though, STDs occur predominantly in the context of ongoing relationships.

Cindy Masaro, research coordinator at the University of British Columbia in Canada, recently conducted a survey with fascinating results. She wanted to understand how people are sizing up their partners. When it comes to assessing STD risk, what information do people rely on?

“What I found was that familiarity, trust, and assumed knowledge of the partner’s sexual history were the three major things people used in assessing partners,” says Masaro.

While that sounds all warm and fuzzy—intimacy, after all, is built on familiarity and trust—Masaro’s study made it clear that the qualities that help make up a good relationship don’t necessarily translate to partner safety. The 317 people she surveyed had all relied on partner attributes and the nature of their relationships—and all had sought treatment at an STI clinic.

Nearly all the subjects’ STD trouble could be traced back to assumptions. Masaro found that people were deciding about STD risk based on whether the partner had a similar background, shared in the same circle of friends, or seemed intelligent. More than one in five said they’d assume a sex partner was safe if he/she was physically attractive, and more than two in five if the partner seemed like a “good” person.

Seventy percent said they would be confident a partner was safe “if I felt I could trust them.” Clearly they did trust the partner if they let him/her in their pants. Trust is virtuous, but it turns out to be a lousy method of prevention.

“We all make inaccurate assessments, and feelings of attraction and affection interfere with risk assessment,” Masaro says. “When you have that person sitting in front of you, everything else goes out the window. You’re attracted to them so you don’t want to see anything wrong with them.”

And who wants to ask, anyway? A conversation about STDs is bound to be uncomfortable, and nothing kills a moment like an impromptu interrogation under the sheets.

Talk is cheap—and invaluable

When it comes to sex, there are few more effective ways to ensure partner safety than sitting down to have The Talk. That conversation may be accompanied by a good deal of anxiety but, as we explore here, it doesn’t have to be awkward. Believe it or not, it can even be sexy.

Rule No. 1 in assuring you and your partners are safe from STDs is to start talking long before you pull back the covers. (Yes, you have to have the talk.) Choose a scenario in which you feel relaxed and calm, like a private dinner or a long walk, when you are sure to have one another’s full attention. Be sober and mentally present.

Lori Rolleri, program manager with ETR Associates (Education, Training, Research) and a nationally recognized trainer in STD prevention, suggests not jumping into the conversation blindly.

“Talking with partners about staying safe is really a two-step process, in my mind,” she offers. “I think it’s really important to first have a clear understanding of what your own expectations are for a romantic relationship, so think about your boundaries and limits. And then, if you didn’t get good sex education in school or speak with a doctor, you need to do some proactive research to learn about STDs and contraception.”

Rolleri is keen on a holistic approach: Consider the whole sphere of physical and emotional consequences that can result from a sexual relationship, and then put the conversation in those contexts. STDs and unwanted pregnancies are two possible outcomes, both of them difficult to discuss and profoundly difficult to manage. But another two possibilities are emotional reward and genuine physical pleasure.

The Pleasure Principle

“We don’t hear people talking about pleasure when it comes to managing STDs, but it’s a really important and practical piece of it,” says Rolleri. “What kinds of things turn you on? What feels pleasurable? What do you not want to do that feels uncomfortable or awkward?”

One great value in considering pleasure principles is that they can provide a conversation starter. If you’re concerned about appearing overly guarded or prudish, your concerns about safety can be couched in a discussion about physical pleasure. “What do you like?” can segue to “The more comfortable I am, the more free I can be” and then to “I’m really comfortable when all the risks are off the table.”