A few years ago, one of my friends called me in tears. She confided in me that she tested positive for herpes earlier that week. Her biggest fear though wasn’t having herpes. It was what others would think of her having an STI. It was the untrue but unsettling possibility that no one would want to date her again. And with so much misinformation about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unnecessary stigma surrounding them, I understood her concern.
But I reminded her that she wasn’t alone in her experience. Nearly 20% of the US population has an STI or HIV, which is nearly 1 in 5 people. That means that many people have navigated disclosing their positive status to their partner(s), dating, having pleasurable sex, and finding love.
Talking about STIs with a new partner can feel uncomfortable, especially since most of us aren’t taught how to have this conversation (thanks to the abysmal sex education in the US). However, it’s an important communication skill to develop to extend care towards yourself and your partner(s).
So, we’re sharing tips for how to communicate your positive STI or HIV status with new partners.
Destigmatize your mind
Despite the fact that STIs are extremely common, the harmful language used to describe people with a positive status is still pervasive in our society. This derogatory language can consciously and subconsciously shift the way you view yourself and speak about yourself to others. It can also impact the treatment you believe you deserve.
Disclosing your status to a new partner before being intimate shouldn’t involve you speaking unkindly of yourself, apologizing for your status, or accepting disrespectful behavior. I invite you to practice this short manta for self-love before disclosing:
My body is not an apology.
I am enough exactly as I am.
I am worthy of pleasure and intimacy.
I am deserving of respect and compassion.
Understand your status
Being knowledgeable about your STI is not only beneficial for managing your diagnosis. It’ll also improve your ability to clearly and confidently discuss how your STI is transmitted, treatment options, and steps to prevent transmission to your partner(s). Consulting your healthcare provider or facts from trusted organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Sexual Health Association, and Planned Parenthood can provide you with accurate information and resources for your partner(s).
For some, disclosing without much preparation might feel perfectly fine, especially for those who have experience sharing their status. Others might appreciate time to practice by themselves or with a trusted friend. Running through or even writing down what you will say to your partner(s) ahead of time can help you feel more empowered, ease your mind, and provide the structure to effectively get your point across.
Keep your disclosure statement short and sweet, and only include necessary information. For instance, while it’s important to share what you’re currently doing to treat your STI, you don’t need to explain who you got the STI from, unless you want to. Further, it’s equally important during your disclosure for you to ask about your partner’s status as well.
Here are some examples of how you might start the conversation:
- Before we have sex, we should talk about our STI status. My last STI test was [insert date here] and I’m [positive/negative] for [insert STI here]. What about you?
- Before we take things further, it’s important for you to know I have [insert STI]. I’m currently taking medication to manage it. I’m sure you have questions, so I’m happy to answer them.
- I want to share something with you that’s personal and important to me [insert disclosure statement].
- I want to talk about our sexual health history so we can make sure we’re protecting each other before we hook up. [Insert disclosure statement and questions about your partner’s sexual health history].
- I need to let you know something. I have [insert STI here]. We can still have a relationship/be intimate. It isn’t a major problem, but I thought you should know before we went any further.
Decide the details
Decide ahead of time when, how, and where you plan to share your status. You might decide to lead with your status and disclose on your first date/interaction with someone. You might wait until you’re certain you’re interested in going further with someone sexually or romantically. Either way, it’s important for disclosure to happen before any sexual activities, including oral sex, fingering, anal sex, and vaginal sex. If you’re positive for herpes, this also includes refraining from locking lips until you’ve had the conversation.
Assuming your partner is close to you geographically and not long-distance, talking face to face can help limit miscommunication if you feel safe to do so. Choose a public location like a coffee shop or park with an exit nearby so you can quickly leave if your partner’s reaction makes you feel unsafe or disrespected. If you’re unable to meet in person or feel uncomfortable doing so, you might choose to tell your partner(s) over a phone call, video chat, or text. No matter how you choose to share your status, your safety is a priority.
Have the conversation
Open up the conversation with your disclosure statement. Share with your partner(s) how everyone involved can practice safer sex and help prevent transmission. Additionally, this is an important moment for your partner(s) to share their status, their STI history, and when they were tested last. You might find that your partner(s) previously or currently has an STI to disclose as well and understands your experience.
After you disclose, be open to answering respectful questions from your partner(s) and have a few resources to offer, so they can learn more information on their own. Giving your partner(s) a day or two to do some reading about STI facts before they decide whether they want to move forward can help give them the time and space to have a more informed and understanding conversation with you. There’s no way to predict exactly how your partner(s) will respond to your disclosure because everyone is different.
I will say this, having an STI is not the end of dating or your sex life. Many people respond to disclosures thoughtfully and respect honesty, which can be a huge component of establishing trust. If your partner’s reaction is aggressive or rude, then they’re not the type of person you want in your life anyway. Your partner’s reaction is not a reflection of you, it’s a reflection of them.
Debrief and celebrate
Sharing your status is a vulnerable moment, so debriefing with a trusted friend can feel restorative and comforting. Be proud of yourself! Disclosing for the first time can feel challenging, but your honesty and transparency is worth celebrating-just like my friend was able to celebrate the first time she disclosed to her now long-time partner.