How to Tell a Partner You Have a Sexually Transmitted Infection
Here’s How to Tell a Partner You Have an STI Without Being Awkward
Whatever the differences on a molecular level, it’s no secret that sexually transmitted infections are treated differently than other infections.
If you have a cold, it’s not the same as having chlamydia. If you have the flu, it’s not the same as having gonorrhea. The former infections are treated like they’re no big deal, just a normal part of life. The latter, however, are seen by many people as signs of moral depravity, promiscuity, or some other vague degeneracy — even though it’s possible to get a cold or the flu from a sexual partner, too.
It’s an unfair and unpleasant double standard born from the sex-negative culture that we live in. Slut-shaming and kink-shaming are the norm, and things associated with sex are considered bad in a variety of ways that are hurtful to all of us in ways big and small.
One way sex-negativity is hurtful to people is the fact that people get tested for STIs less often than they should, frequently due to fears that they will have STIs, and will be judged based on their STI status. A lot of the transmission of STIs that currently happens might not occur if people tested more regularly and were, as a result, more upfront with their sexual partners.
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But the reality is that so many sexual interactions occur in a climate of blissful ignorance. People with STIs aren’t yet showing symptoms, don’t know any better, and prefer not to. But what would things look like if we had a healthier culture around learning and disclosing STI status?
In order to help sexually active people take steps towards this imagined future, AskMen spoke to several sex experts about how to disclose the facts that you have an STI. Here’s what they had to say:
Why Disclosing Your STI Status Is Important (and Necessary)
If you know — or suspect — you might have an STI, it’s likely that you’ll feel bad to some degree. After all, our culture conditions people to see STIs as dirty and worthy of judgment. And those negative feelings may make you reticent to talk about it or share the news.
But it is a situation that calls for some old-fashioned bravery.
“When you get a positive STI result, the last thing you might feel like doing is texting your current flame about it, or even worse, your ex,” says activist and sex educator Nora Langknecht, marketing manager for sex toy brand FUN FACTORY. “But updating your partners about your test results is super important. It’s a matter of consent for sexual activity and of respect for that person’s health, autonomy, and wellbeing. It gives them the chance to get tested themselves and seek treatment if necessary.”
“The fact of the matter is that STIs are not only extremely common, but also largely treatable,” Langknecht adds. “With regular testing and honest communication, it’s unlikely that any infection will develop into something with dangerous consequences.”
When it comes to advising future partners of your status, it’s about giving them the opportunity to engage in informed consent when it comes to getting intimate with you.
“Sex comes with risks, that’s just the nature of it,” says SKYN Condoms’ sex and intimacy expert and author Gigi Engle. “But everyone deserves to assess their own risk level and decide if they want to roll with it or not. So, telling someone your STI status is important because it gives the person the choice to decide what risks they’re willing to take.”
She also points out that this could give them a positive sign rather than a negative one.
“You’re actually less likely to get herpes from someone who is medicated for herpes [with antivirals] than with someone who isn’t aware of their STI status,” Engle notes.
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Apart from the basic ethics of it, it can also escalate to a legal issue depending on a variety of factors, Langknecht says — in no small part because with STIs, as with most health issues, delaying treatment can lead to seriously worsened outcomes. .
“Obscuring or lying about a positive STI result could lead to penalties, including jail time,” she notes. “But more than that, the sooner you let your partners know, the sooner they can get tested and seek treatment if needed. Early detection and treatment dramatically decrease the chances of serious infections (which can cause infertility and other long-term health problems).”
Ultimately, Langknecht says, “honest, timely communication is the right thing to do from every angle. And the sooner you break the news, the sooner everyone can get back to having fun.”
Tips for Disclosing Your STI Status
Engle says that, when wrestling with the emotional fallout from the news that you have an STI — whether from a positive test, symptoms showing up or hearing from a past sexual partner — it’s important to remind yourself that “you’re not a bad person” and “you’re not dirty.”
If you’re going to open up about it to a potential partner, it’s a good idea to spend a little bit of time thinking about what you want to say first, according to Rebecca Story, founder of sexual health brand Bloomi.
“Understand that everyone has the right to great intimacy and fulfilling sexual partnerships, so think about what you want to explore, leave behind, or accomplish with this relationship,” she says. “Before having the conversation, outline what you will say. To feel more informed about how to communicate, speak with a clinician or health provider beforehand, as they are well-versed in guiding people through these types of conversations.”
However, if it’s a current partner you need to disclose this to, Langknecht notes, it’s a bit trickier.
“Choose an appropriate time,” she advises. “They may not react well if you drop the news when they’re in the middle of a mental health slump, for example. Don’t begin with accusations, and don’t assume anything at all. In this case, it’s all about that communication. It’s tough, but you’ll get through it.”
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One pro tip she notes is if you’re prescribed antibiotics for your infection, to talk to your doctor about getting “expedited partner treatment.”
“That’s an extra dose of medicine that you can give to someone who may have been exposed,” Langknecht explains. “It’s best for them to get tested first to confirm their results, but letting them know, ‘I have an STI, but I’ve paid for your treatment if you want it’ is a great way to soften the blow.”
STI Status Disclosure Examples
Of course, sending someone a message — whether it’s an email, a text message, a DM, a letter, or some other format — about your positive STI status can be deeply awkward.
“Be extra considerate of tone, especially if you’re communicating over text,” says Langknecht. “Keep the memes and GIFs to yourself, or send them to your most compassionate friends’ group chat.”
“Humor is a natural way to relieve tension, but in the case of a positive result it’s best to be clear and kind,” she adds. “Don’t be vague, and definitely don’t cast shade or blame. When you let them know, focus on the facts and next steps (testing, treatment if necessary).”
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“This is not the time to talk about your own anxieties or judgements,” Langknecht concludes. “Give the person the information and give them time to process. STIs are extraordinarily common, and in most cases won’t have any long-term health effects. Try not to focus on stigma or scary stories.”
So what does that look like in practice? Langknecht suggests sending a message that looks something like this:
“Hey, I know this is difficult, and I’m sorry, but I tested positive for [X], you should maybe hit a clinic and let anyone else you’ve been with know, just to be extra cautious.”
If it’s just an exposure and you don’t have a confirmed test result but want to do the right thing and let them know, Langknecht suggests:
“Hey, I just found out I was exposed to _____. I’m going to get tested and will let you know if I have a positive result, but wanted to let you know in case you wanted to book a test too.”
The situation’s a bit different if it’s someone you’ve never slept with before, however.
“If it’s a potential partner, be upfront about it, but gentle,” If it’s someone you haven’t had sex with yet (aka, haven’t engaged in anything that could transmit), telling them you don’t want to have sex just now should be sufficient. Disclose it and find workarounds, or straight up don’t have sex.”
For advising a future partner rather than a past one, Engle suggests a message like:
“Hey, just letting you know because transparency is important and I really respect you: I am positive for herpes and am currently taking Valtrex daily. I haven’t had an outbreak for [X amount of time]. I wanted to inform you of my status. Hope that’s cool with you.”
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Story, meanwhile, leans towards using texts or other digital means to set up a face-to-face conversation on the subject, and advises against sending a textual message to reveal STI status.
“Not only does this put your privacy at risk, it can feel abrupt and impersonal to the recipient,” she says. “The best approach is to schedule a verbal conversation and create a space where you both can share your experiences, thoughts, feelings and reactions.”
If you’re telling an existing partner about a recent STI diagnosis, Story suggests something like:
“I recently got tested for STIs and wanted to share my results with you. Would you like to schedule time for us to talk about it together?”
Ultimately, Langknecht sees this as something that we may be coming to find less stressful, culturally.
“We’ve all picked up a few things over the pandemic,” she notes, “like when you have to message all the attendees of a party you threw because someone later tested positive for COVID. An STI disclosure message is like that: a bit less scary than it used to be.”
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