The CDC estimates that Americans have a 50% chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection before they turn 25. Even though STIs are remarkably common, most people feel uncomfortable having honest conversations about safety with new sexual partners. Having an STI is never going to be a walk in the park, but sharing your status doesn't have to be so intimidating.
Title illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
First: Come to Terms with Your STI
A positive STI test is a bummer, so if you just found out, feel free to cry, get pissed off, or throw a solid temper tantrum. Once you allow yourself to have your reactions, the stronger feelings will subside, and you may be able to see the situation with a little more objectivity.
In reality, most STIs aren't that big of a deal. Many can be cleared up with a simple dose of antibiotics. Some HPV strains can be eliminated by your body without any outside intervention. A lot of people with herpes only have a handful of outbreaks in their entire lives. Even HIV, the absolute worst-case-scenario when it comes to STIs, is much more manageable thanks to recent medical advances. You don't need to freak out, but you do need to educate yourself about your STI. Talk to your doctor about symptoms and treatment. Check out Planned Parenthood and read about transmission and risk factors.
Since there's still a stigma associated with having an STI, you may feel ashamed at having contracted one in the first place. Try to be gentle on yourself. Even the most safety-conscious people are susceptible to getting an STI. Condoms and dental dams aren't foolproof. One of your partners may have lied to you about their status, or you may have been cheated on by a partner who passed an STI on to you. And you know what? Sometimes we just make mistakes. Unless you want to live in a world where we have careful, methodical sex in full-body condoms, there's always going to be risk involved in getting naked with another person. If you feel shame, remind yourself that you are not your STI. You're a person who has a particular STI, but your STI isn't the entirety of who you are as a human being.
Choose the Right Time
One of the trickiest questions that comes up is when to disclose your status to a new partner. Of course, you need to tell them before engaging in any potentially risky sexual behaviours. You don't want to wait until you're playing the "just the tip" game to talk about STIs. If you're wrapped up in the heat of the moment, there's an extremely slim chance you're going to untangle your limbs to talk about safety. Plus, you don't want your partner to feel like you've been hiding your status from them.
But if you're taking your time getting to know each other before being intimate, you can also take your time to share your status. After all, your sexual history is personal information, and it doesn't need to be divulged right away if your partner isn't at risk. You can give yourself anywhere from a few dates to a few months, depending on how long it takes you to feel comfortable even entertaining the thought of being intimate with someone else. Waiting it out has the benefit of allowing the two of you to see if there's enough chemistry between you to proceed; there's no use sharing your status with someone if you realise you don't want to be intimate with them. Waiting also decreases your chances of being written off by your partner. An ideal response from a partner would be, "damn, that sucks, but this feels like it could be going somewhere and might be worth the risk", instead of "well, that chick seemed pretty cool, but it was just that one date... "
You also want to make sure to tell your partner in private. This is not a conversation to have at Starbucks. At their home is a good option, since it allows them time to process the information in their own space. Face-to-face can feel intense, but it really is the best bet.
Practice What to Say
There's no getting around it: telling someone about your STI status can feel awkward. But you can prevent a lot of discomfort by having your statement already prepared. Think about how you'd want to be approached if the roles were reversed, and find the words that feel natural to you. Try something like, "I've been having a really great time with you. Before this goes any further physically, I wanted to talk to you about something important. I have (fill in the blank)."
From there, tell them a few details about your STI. You don't need to channel your 8th grade gym teacher, but some basic information is nice, especially since you probably don't know the extend of their STI education. For example, "I have herpes. I don't know if you know anything about it, but I'm happy to answer any questions you might have. I've only ever had one outbreak, and other than that I have no symptoms. It is contagious, and there's still a risk that you could get it even if we use protection." Tell your partner which activities are safe and which ones are risky. For example, "I don't have oral herpes, so it's safe for me to go down on you."
If you feel really nervous about starting this conversation, try saying something like, "I'm starting to like you a lot, and I wanted to talk to you about something personal. It's hard for me to talk about, so I hope you can try to listen without judgment." This will set your partner up to respond compassionately. If you have a friend that you really trust, you can try practicing saying the words out loud in front of them. Try to speak calmly and confidently. Don't put yourself down. If you can set the tone from the get-go, you'll model the type of reaction you want your partner to have.
Consider Telling Your Story
There's no denying that people make judgments about those with STIs. If you think it might make you feel better, consider sharing some of your story as you're disclosing your status. For example, "I got herpes from an ex who told me they were clean" or "I want you to know that I'm HIV positive. My mum passed it to me during childbirth." This isn't to say that there are "acceptable" and "unacceptable" reasons for contracting an STI. You could just as easily say, "I'm usually a very safe person, but got wrapped up in the moment this one time and made a mistake."
Give Your Partner Time to Make a Decision
After you've shared your status with your partner and answered any questions they may have had, tell them you're going to give them some time alone to think about the next steps. Say something like, "Here are some resources I've found helpful. I'm happy to talk about it in more detail, but I wanted to give you some time to think about it on your own. Maybe you can call me tomorrow?" Then leave. This gives you the opportunity to make a dignified exit, and gives your partner some time to process the information on their own.
Don't Take it Personally
I know this can be exceptionally hard, but try not to see it as a personal rejection if someone decides they don't feel comfortable sleeping with you. Some people are going to be arseholes about it, but try to take it as a sign that they weren't worth sleeping with anyways. Others are simply reacting to the risks and making a decision about their own body. Choosing to err on the side of safety isn't the same as a personal judgment or rejection. Remember, you're a person who happens to have an STI, but your STI doesn't define you.
Above all, you should be immensely proud of yourself for being honest! So many people aren't brave enough to talk about their STI status, which only leads to higher transmission rates. Sharing your status is a sign of respect, maturity, and general awesomeness.
Vanessa Marin is a licensed psychotherapist (#78931) specializing in sex therapy. It's her mission to take the intimidation out of sex therapy and bring the fun back into the bedroom.