Having a sexually-transmitted infection (STI) is often treated like a shameful secret. It’s a secret that one in five Americans is living with, according to the CDC.
STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia have become more treatable through medical breakthroughs in medication. But while these STIs may be curable, they can come with medical complications if not treated in a timely manner. And while other STIs may not have cures, they are treatable long-term. Any sexually active adult needs to be participating in STI testing to stay on top of their sexual health.
But what should you do if you’ve got a positive STI status and want to become intimate with a new partner? Here’s how to talk to a new partner to disclose your STI status.
Why Should You Disclose Your STI Status?
According to a 2020 study by KFF, also known as The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, about one in eight adults in the United States are uncomfortable discussing STIs with a sexual partner. One in seven is also uncomfortable talking about STIs with their doctor, which may prevent them from getting tested.
Misconceptions about STIs are rife, with large portions of the public being unsure regarding whether STIs are curable. Only slightly more than half of adults know that gonorrhea and chlamydia are curable with medication and that herpes is not. About half of adults say that they’re unsure if human papillomavirus (HPV) is curable.
With misinformation and misunderstanding about STIs, it becomes easier to understand why anyone would be concerned about sharing their status or even getting tested in the first place. There’s a societal and psychological stigma to having an STI. Think about the language that’s often used when someone tests negative for STIs. People often say, “I’m clean.” But that suggests that having an STI makes someone “dirty.” Studies have suggested negative words like “gross,” “scary,” or “embarrassing” are associated with having a sexually-transmitted disease or infection.
But the reality is that over half of the people in the U.S. will get an STI at some point in their lifetime. According to the CDC, reported STIs reached an all-time high in 2019 with 2.6 million infections. Not disclosing your status to your new partner may result in spreading your STI, allowing these rates to continue to climb.
When you talk to your partner about your status, you can have a conversation about safe sex practices to help reduce the potential for spreading your infection. You can also help play a part in ending the stigma and the misinformation about STIs. It may be hard to talk about your STI, but addressing it is better for you, your partner, and society as a whole.
How Should You Disclose Your STI Status?
The first step to disclosing your STI status is to become aware of it. According to the KFF study, 96 percent of adults know that STIs can be asymptomatic and still be transmissible, which is true. Regardless of if you have symptoms or not, you should get tested right away if you’ve had sex with a partner who has an STI.
But you should already be getting tested regularly if you’re sexually active. If you’re wondering if it’s time to get tested, Planned Parenthood has an online quiz to help you determine if you’re due and, if so, which tests you need to take. If you’re positive for an STI, what should you do next?
Talk to your doctor or a healthcare provider at an STI testing clinic.
You may have some understanding of your STI diagnosis, but as the KFF study demonstrates, there’s a lot of misinformation about STIs out there. Before you tell your new partner about your diagnosis, you must get the facts yourself.
If you’re uncomfortable talking to your primary care doctor, you can schedule an appointment to speak to a healthcare provider at a local STI testing clinic, such as a Planned Parenthood clinic. Make a list of questions about what you want to know regarding what this STI may mean for you and your new partner. Some questions you may want to ask include:
- What symptoms may arise with this STI?
- How can I prevent spreading this STI to my partner?
- Is this STI curable with medication?
- Can this STI go away on its own?
- How often should I get tested to monitor this infection?
Once your questions are answered, you’ll be better prepared to address any questions your new partner may have.
Decide how you want to tell your new partner.
If you’re just getting to know this potential partner, you can consider disclosing through text. But if you’ve already begun dating them and met several times face-to-face, you may feel more comfortable talking to them in person.
If you do decide to tell them in person, be prepared for any number of reactions. Because of the stigma surrounding STIs, some people may react negatively to this news. It’s good to have an exit strategy if someone becomes angry, aggressive, or otherwise upsetting to you when they hear what you have to say.
Have a conversation.
Having a sexual relationship requires open communication between two people. So treat disclosing your status as a chance to talk about both of your sexual histories and get a complete picture of your and their sexual health.
Here’s one way to ease into the conversation:
“I want you to know that I care about your health and well-being, which is why I want to be upfront and tell you that I was tested on [insert date] and have been diagnosed with [insert STI]. If you decide you want to be sexually active with me, I want you to feel confident and comfortable. I’m here to answer any questions you may have about this.”
Then, address those questions with the new-found knowledge you acquired from your healthcare provider. If they can’t think of any questions, guide them through some information they may want to hear but haven’t considered yet. For instance, what safer sex practices could prevent the spread of this STI? Are you taking medication to cure this infection? And, if so, when does your doctor expect the STI to be cured?
If your new partner acts aggressively and you no longer feel comfortable, remove yourself from the situation. You do not deserve to be mistreated for your status. And you don’t want to start a sexual relationship with someone who would treat you in such a way.
If your new partner is receptive to the conversation, answer their questions and then open the discussion up to them. Just like it’s essential for your partner to understand your sexual health, you need to understand theirs. Some questions you may want to ask your new partner include:
- When was the last time that you were tested for STIs? Do you know which ones you were tested for?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with an STI?
- Do you always use condoms/barriers?
- Do you have any other current partners? Are any of them STI-positive?
If your partner doesn’t feel comfortable answering these questions, you may want to reconsider if you want to be intimate with them. This conversation is for both of you, so if they withhold information, they may not have your best interests at heart.
Disclosing an STI status can feel frightening and embarrassing. But the more we’re willing to have these difficult conversations, the more we can put an end to the stigma around STIs. Societally, we’ve created a vicious cycle. We fear talking about STIs because we have a negative view of them, so we allow them to spread because we don’t talk about them. Let’s end the cycle by being willing to spread information and prevent the spread of infections.