4 things to keep in mind when talking to your partner about STIs
In the life of a romantic relationship, there are many important conversations to be had. What do you need to feel safe and supported within a partnership? What does great sex mean to each of you? How do you feel about monogamy, marriage, and kids? There's one conversation you should have right at the beginning, though, before anyone brings their toothbrush to anyone's house, and that's about STIs.
This is the talk no one wants to have (fine, almost no one), but it doesn't have to be awful. Here are some things to know when you're preparing to have the talk.
Having an STI doesn't make you dirty or bad.
It's important to realize this - the stigma around STIs, specifically that having one means a person is immoral, careless, or deficient in some capacity, runs really deep. (There's a reason why you're probably nervous about having this conversation with your partner, even if you aren't disclosing that you have an STI.) The fact that what used to be referred to as a sexual transmitted disease is now more often referred to as a sexually transmitted infection (more accurate because they are usually temporary) is a step towards dismantling the stigma. Once you start processing your relationship to the stigma around STIs, it can become easier to see the situation, whether it's just talking about the last time you got tested, telling your partner you have an STI, or learning that they have one, as less foreboding and more as something you can handle.
Make sure you have the facts about STIs, how they're transmitted, and how they're treated
"Different STIs come with different stigmas," says J, a nurse practitioner in North Carolina. "Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are easily treatable and curable, so while it might be uncomfortable to share that information with someone, the answer to what to do about it is pretty straightforward." J recommends not waiting to tell your partner if you have either of these - the sooner the better, so that they can get treated. If you feel comfortable, you can offer to accompany them to visit a health care provider. While viral infections like HPV and HIV are more stigmatized, says J, they're also treatable. "When I have to disclose a diagnosis of an infection to someone, I tell them that having the infection doesn't make them dirty or indicate they did anything wrong. Although we can talk about condom/barrier use all day, they're not perfect, and viral infections like HPV and HSV can be transmitted outside the area that a barrier covers." Remember - one out of two sexually active people will contract an STI before age 25.
There are resources to help you talk about STIs with your partner
Check out this great video by the folks at Planned Parenthood about talking with your partner, which includes conversations between couples (and folks who are telling an ex or a hook up) about STIs, so you can get a sense of what to do (and not do). With her patients J offers to role play the disclosure conversation, as well as tell their partner for them, and connects them with resources like STD Anonymous Notification, an online tool which sends a text or email indicating that a sexual partner has tested positive for an STI and you (your name isn't mentioned) are recommending they get tested. It's a great resource for folks who don't necessarily feel safe disclosing their status in person, as well as those who are informing someone with whom they're no longer in a relationship, but still want to do their due diligence.
You, and only you, decide how, when, and if to disclose your STI status
"A good friend of mine with HSV (that's herpes simplex virus) dreads disclosing to people," says J. "She saves it for people she's dating that she's serious enough about to want to have sex with--aka a few dates, so that she can try to suss out whether it's worth the emotional work for her to do that and try to weed out those who would turn her away just because of that."
If you do decide to talk to your partner about STIs, make sure you're doing so from a place of empowerment, with facts and resources that are based on science, not stigma.
Written by: Chanel Dubofsky is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.