The New Rules Of Engagement

Here are five must-do tips from our experts

We may get angry at brothers who are living on the down low. We may be furious that we've been lied to and cheated on. But the reality is that rather than focusing on being mad—or trying to figure out who's on the DL and who's not—we need to take care of ourselves. Remember that HIV is much more easily passed from a man to a woman than from a woman to man, so it's up to each of us to protect ourselves every time we have sex. Here are five must-do tips from our experts:

KNOW YOUR HIV STATUS

Get an HIV test, and make sure you know your partner's status. If you're seeing someone new, before the clothes come off and the condom goes on, get tested together. And now it's easier than ever. This year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a rapid test for HIV. You and your partner can go to the doctor together and get your results in as little as 20 minutes. "Getting tested must be part of our dating ritual," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., author of What Your Mother Never Told You About S-e-x (Perigee). She's not kidding.

DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT A CONDOM

Aside from abstinence, the best way prevent HIV infection is to use a condom. You've probably heard this message a thousand times, but that doesn't make it any less true, says Hutcherson. She advises couples to incorporate condoms into foreplay.

But what about married women and women who are planning to have children? Patricia Nalls, founder and executive director of the Women's Collective, a Washington, D.C., social-service organization that supports women living with and at risk for HIV, says that couples should only stop using condoms when they decide to have a baby. Then they should go and get tested together before engaging in unprotected sex. Nalls notes that many of the women who come to the Collective after finding out they're HIV-positive were infected by husbands or boyfriends. "Marriage will not protect you from AIDS," she emphasizes.

TALK THE TALK

It's vital that you and your partner can safely and comfortably discuss your sexual histories and sexual preferences. Hutcherson acknowledges that this can be a difficult conversation. "But it might save your life," she says. Still, Nalls warns that talking, by itself, is no guarantee you'll get the truth from a man. But as therapist and author of How to Love a Black Man Ronn Elmore, Psy.D., advises, we still have a responsibility to ourselves to keep alert. "If you see that your man considers the occasional 'little white lie' a harmless deception under certain circumstances," says Elmore, "there's a high possibility he'll not always be forthcoming with you either." But the only way to discover whether he's a truth teller or a liar is to talk, talk, talk.

TAKE TIME TO KNOW HIM

Dealing with a man who cheats means we may suffer much more than a broken heart, so we have to enter relationships wisely. DeShantra Moore, a counselor at the Women's Collective, advises sisters to "get to know your man's character—not only by looking at how he treats you, but noticing how he treats others as well. How does he regularly demonstrate that your happiness and health are a priority for him?" Write down what's acceptable in a relationship and what's not, and keep that list on hand at all times. "Often out of insecurity, women will begin to justify and make excuses for bad behavior," says Moore. If he's exhibiting behavior that makes you suspect he's untrustworthy— you're probably right.

DON'T ENTER A RELATIONSHIP WHEN YOU FEEL VULNERABLE

Feelings of vulnerability can impair our judgment, especially when it comes to choosing a lover. If you've recently been hurt by a failed romance, or if you're in the midst of a long, dry season, a new love may seem like an antidote to loneliness, Elmore offers. Everyone needs to be held and loved, but when your confidence has been shaken, your judgment may be clouded by neediness. You may ignore signs that a man is wrong for you. Advises Elmore: "Hold off on any new romance until you can ensure that your heart goes only where your head has already signed off." —Asha Bandele

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