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Illustration by Marta Pucci

Sex

How to tell your partner you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

by Jen Bell, Writer
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There’s a lot of misinformation and stigma about STIs, and they can be uncomfortable to discuss. But we need to talk about them.

STIs are common, especially among sexually active teenagers and young adults. In a nationally representative US health survey, 24% of teenage girls who were tested were found to have an STI, most commonly Human papillomavirus (HPV), which often has no noticeable symptoms (1).

Openly discussing sexual health is not something we are taught to do, but it’s an important part of caring for ourselves and others. It’s important to break down the unnecessary shame and stigma associated with STIs—this stigma causes increased rates of STI transmission, prevents people from getting treatment, and negatively affects their health and quality of life (2). Research shows that people who disclose their STI status to their partners have significantly more positive feelings about their sexual self-concept than those who don’t disclose (3).

So how to tell your partner you have an STI? Here’s a step-by-step list.

1. Get tested

It’s possible to have an STI without knowing it. Most STIs get passed on when there are no symptoms, and people don’t realize they’re infected. And some STIs, including Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), don’t show up on a test until months after a person gets them, but can still be passed to others. So it’s a good idea to get tested at the beginning of any sexual relationship, and then again a few months later—and practice safer sex in the meantime.

If your tests came back negative, great. It’s still important to talk to any dates or partners about your sexual histories and safer sex, and remember to get tested again in a few months.

But what if you were diagnosed with an STI? Here are the next steps.

2. Get the facts

Don’t believe everything you hear about STIs. Do some research so you can feel confident about symptoms and treatment, and how the STI can be transmitted. Remember that lots of people have STIs and don’t know it, so if you know your status and act responsibly, the chance of passing on the STI is low.

3. Talk to your partner before sexual contact (and if you have oral herpes, before kissing)

The best time to talk about this is before you start having sex (including oral sex). Depending on which STI you have, you might need to tell them even earlier: If you have oral herpes, you should tell them before you kiss. If you have a genital STI, then it’s important to tell your partner before you have any type of sex: fingering, oral sex, vaginal, or anal sex.

Whether it's a casual or serious relationship, it’s important to discuss your sexual health history with your partner, and ask them about theirs. This allows you to find out if your partner has any STIs, and gives both of you the chance to make an informed decision about what types of sex you want to have and what safer sex precautions you want to take.

4. Decide how you want to communicate

If you decide to meet and talk face to face, choose a place where you feel safe and comfortable to have this discussion. If possible, have an exit nearby so you can leave the discussion and get away from the person if their reaction is aggressive or makes you feel unsafe.

If you’re not able to meet in person or you don’t feel safe doing that, you could also message or video chat with your partner—it all depends on your relationship and how you prefer to communicate.

5. Prepare for the talk

Do it at a time and place where you feel safe and confident, especially if you're not sure how it will go. You might want to make plans to check in with a supportive friend after. Some people like to get it over and done with, others prefer to go on a few dates and get to know the person first (in a non-sexual way of course!)—it’s up to you, and also depends on how soon you want to have sex.

6. Open up the discussion

A good way to start is by telling your partner that you care about them and want to do everything you can to make sure you’re protecting them. You could open by asking them about their sexual health history, and if they ever had an STI or currently have one. Or you could simply tell them you have an STI, and ask if they have any questions. Maybe you want to go over what that means in terms of safer sex precautions or medication.

It’s totally normal to be embarrassed at first, but you’ll feel better once you get it over with. And your partner will probably be grateful that you brought it up.

This discussion is also a chance for you to learn more about your partner’s sexual history. Here are some good questions to ask when talking about sexual health with your partner.

Questions to ask

  • Do you know if you have any STIs?
  • When was the last time you were tested for STIs?
  • Do you always use condoms and/or dental dams?
  • Have you ever shared needles with someone for tattoos, piercings, or shooting drugs?
  • Have you had any STIs before? Which ones? Did you get them treated?
  • Do any of your other current partners have any STIs?
  • Are you having (unprotected) sex with anyone else?

Your partner or date might lie about their STI status, but at least you asked. Their reaction to discussing this subject will help you get to know them better. If they are really against talking about it, it might affect your decision about having sex with them.

7. Anticipate possible reactions

Your partner might thank you for letting them know, reassure you that their feelings for you haven’t changed, and be impressed by the fact you brought up this subject with them. Their response might make you like them even more.

But it’s also possible they won’t take it so well. Maybe they will express disbelief (“It can’t be true!”), or be afraid (“What are we going to do?”). It’s possible they could be judgmental (“Did you sleep around?”) or express rejection (“I don’t want to be with you if you have an STI”).

If you get one of these reactions, you’ll probably feel pretty bad. You could choose to reply with the facts, and let them know if they are being judgmental or misinformed, but it’s also understandable if you don’t want to, or don’t feel up to responding at that moment. You can leave and then contact them later on. Maybe they will also have a different attitude after they had some time to think about it.

If you’re not happy with their reaction and actually never want to talk to them again, that’s your decision too. Remember that these types of responses are giving you information about them, and are not about you. Take some time to look after yourself and do what makes you feel good, alone or with supportive friends or family.

8. Be proud, you did it!

It can be scary to open up and be vulnerable, and share something about yourself and your sexual history. It’s a difficult conversation to have, so be proud of yourself for taking this step, no matter how your partner reacts. The only wrong way to tell someone you have an STI is to not say anything at all.

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