Talking to Partners
Although it is normal to feel embarrassed after a positive STI diagnosis, you are not alone! Half of sexually active people will contract one before they reach the age of 25. Any time a person engages in sexual activity, they are taking a risk. This does not mean we should be afraid of sex, but it does mean we need to be open to conversations that can sometimes feel uncomfortable.
Disclosing to a past, present, or (hopeful) future partner about your STI status may seem daunting. If you really think about it, though, when you’re making the choice to have sex, you should feel comfortable talking about it out loud (and not just when you’re ~not sober~)! When it’s a question of your or someone else’s health, everyone has a responsibility to tell the truth. Honesty is important, no matter how serious the relationship is. Imagine that the roles were reversed. Wouldn’t you want to know?
Upon hearing the news that you have an STI or STD, people will not always react in the woke and accepting way you’d hope for. Some people may get upset or angry: you cannot control their feelings or actions. That being said, never let someone make you feel dirty or promiscuous for having an STI. It is a normal and frequent effect of being a sexually active human! So, always demand respect. You will find that most people will appreciate your honesty and openness, even if it is a little awkward. Whatever their reaction, you did the right thing. Special note: avoid having any of these conversations while intoxicated or during foreplay. At these times, people may not have the best ability to make rational, responsible choices about their own sexual health.
Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if you are not in contact with a former partner anymore. It can also be awkward, especially if this person was a one-night stand or someone you would similarly like to avoid. A conversation with your healthcare provider can help you determine what people from your past need to be notified; each STI has a unique window of time from exposure to infection to diagnosis, and everyone you’ve had sexual contact with inside that window deserves to be notified . There are services that allow past partners to be notified anonymously by a healthcare provider or forms of online messaging (try Don’t Spread It or inSPOT) if that is what you are most comfortable with. Otherwise, something as simple as “Hey, ___. I just want you to know I recently tested positive for ___. I think you should consider getting tested as well” can communicate exactly what needs to be said without complication. It is up to you if you think face to face, a phone call, or a text is the best way to go: as long as they have the information so they can make responsible healthcare decisions. You can tell them you are sorry that this happened and share any information about the disease you have, like symptoms and treatment options, but encourage them to see a healthcare professional. And remember to take care of yourself. It’s easy to feel dirty or bad about the possibility of spreading your STI, but the fact is that it happens: it happened to you, it happens to other people, and the most important and responsible action you can take is to prevent infecting anyone in the future and telling relevant partners to ensure they can take control of their sexual health.
Avoid playing the blame game here. There is no point; the important thing is that you both get the necessary medical treatment. Remember that some STIs might not show symptoms (like gonorrhea) and some can take a while to show up (like herpes). If you are in a monogamous relationship, it is not always fair to assume someone was unfaithful upon learning one or both of you have an STI. Either partner could have contracted it before the relationship even began. It’s always a good idea for both partners to get tested when commencing a new relationship. For curable STIs, make sure you both get treated, because you do not want to continue passing it back and forth. Do not have sex until everyone is cleared of the infections (it’s just not worth it). For mangable STIs, consider talking to your doctors about how this might affect your sex life as a couple going forward. If transmission is a concern, talk about what methods of protection you may need to start or continue using. Some people might choose to forgo protective measures even knowing the risks of transmission, but this is a conversation to be had between consenting partners.
If in the past you have been diagnosed with a curable STD and have already taken care of the infection, you do not necessarily need to disclose that to a new partner. Still, having the “talk” is important regardless. Asking questions like “Have you ever been tested?” and “Do you know your STI status?” before having sex is perfectly acceptable and normal (even if it feels awkward), and if you feel like telling them you had one in the past, go for it.
If you are living with a mangable STI/STD, dating and sex may feel a little scary. Remember, you are not your STD and it does not define you. You will find that a lot of people still want to have sex or be in a relationship with you despite your diagnosis. Rejection is always a possibility, but do not let that discourage you. One concern for college-aged people is how this will affect lifestyles. “Hookup culture” gets a little bit complicated when you have a longterm STI. Consider only telling people about it while they’re sober, or at least sober enough to make a sound decision about what risks they are or are not willing to take. Also avoid dropping this information during foreplay, because sometimes in the heat of the moment people do things without thinking them through. It is really up to you to decide when it is right to tell someone (as long as it’s before any possibility of sexual transmission). Some people prefer to discuss it the second there are any hints about the possibility of sex, while others like to get to know someone a better first. One option to bring it up in conversation is by starting with “Hey, have you ever gotten tested for STIs?”. Maybe they will surprise you and let you know they have one too! It is important you are educated about your condition, how it spreads, and any medical action you are currently taking. It is imperative to be able to accurately explain that while you do have an STI, you always use protective measures during sex/you are on medicine that makes transmission less likely/etc. This information can help the conversation go a little more smoothly. Here’s an example:
“Hey, when is the last time you got tested for STIs?”
“A couple months ago and it came back negative, why?”
“I am asking because I was diagnosed with HSV-2 a few years ago. Do you know what that is?”
“No, what is that?”
“It’s another name for herpes.”
“Yeah. I really like hanging out with you and I want to hook up. I know that herpes may sound scary, but it’s really not. I’m on this medicine called Valtrex that I take every day. It makes it pretty unlikely that I will give it to you, especially if we use a condom and just avoid hooking up when I’m having an outbreak. The decision is completely up to you, but I want you to know we can be safe about it. Do you have any questions about it or us?”