Talk about your sexual histories together instead of asking “Do you have an STI?”Even though we've come a long way with safer sex, having a sexually transmitted disease still holds a huge amount of stigma. In reality, talking frankly about sexual health can build trust and intimacy, if done the right way. I talked with Cassandra Corrado, a sex educator and writer, about this stigma and how to discuss sexual health with your partners, both preventively and if you already have an STI.
Why Is There Such a Stigma?Like most social stigma, the taboo around STIs is a mix of practicality, culture, and religion. For nearly all of human history, STIs were not treatable at all, so the stigma developed out of a very real danger. In the west, this understandable social fear of STIs became intertwined with Christian notions of chastity and purity. If you’re being a good Christian, Corrado told me, “You’re only having sex with your cisgendered, heterosexual partner. Under that model, there would be no transmission of STIs, because how could you possible get one if you’re only having sex with your spouse?” Essentially, getting an STI means you sinned, you committed adultery, and you’re being punished. We teach young people about STIs by only talking about the scariest possible outcomes, and making no mention of the fact that the vast majority of STIs are curable and every single one is treatable.
How to Start Talking About STIsSo how should we actually talk about STIs? The key here is a shift from “you” and “I” to “we.” If you want to ask someone you have or are going to have sex with, talk about your sexual histories together instead of asking “Do you have an STI?” Maybe you go get a test together. Put yourselves on a team with the common goal of having safe sex, rather than putting one person in the hot seat. “This approach really lays the groundwork for having a much more open sexual relationship with less judgment,” says Corrado.
How to React When a Partner Has an STIBut what if someone just up and tells you they have an STI, like Colette did? Corrado was very clear on this one: “The first thing you should do is take a breath.” Try to delay your reaction. When we react reflexively, we tend to show our unconscious biases, all the messages we’ve absorbed from the culture. If you can take a breath, you have a much better chance at not just regurgitating toxic cultural messages. The second thing you should do is say "thank you.” This person just did an extremely brave thing, in order to protect you. Not only that, they are entrusting you with very personal and sensitive information. You should feel honored, and now it’s your job to make them feel safe having told you. After these two steps, you can ask some questions. But the kinds of questions you ask are important, according to Corrado: “By key questions, I don’t mean ‘How did you get this?’ ‘How long have you had it?’ ‘Who did you get it from?’” Those questions make people feel like they’re on trial in Salem in the 1600s. What you should ask about is what safe sex would look like given their STI status. “What does this mean for our boundaries?” “What are the risks for me?” “What barrier methods work for you?” Those are all good places to start. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable escalating a sexual encounter, it’s always OK to end it, for any reason, including learning that your potential partner has an STI. However, it is important to ask yourself why you’re ending it. Do you really know what the risks of transmission are, given precautions like condoms, or is your middle school sex ed teacher whispering in your ear?
Do everything you can to prevent your partner from having a knee-jerk, shaming reaction.Cassandra explained that the amount of risk you expose yourself to by having sex with someone with an STI varies very widely: “In the case of somebody having herpes, they may have not had a outbreak for a very, very long time,” she says. “Transition risk goes down. Somebody with HIV could technically be undetectable and therefore untransmittable.”