By Cory Stieg
[E]arly on in relationships, it can feel like you have to be careful and strategic about what information to divulge to your partner and when. This is particularly true when it comes to sexual health, because although your partner doesn’t need to know about every time you’ve had bacterial vaginosis in your lifetime, they may need to know about your STI status.
If you have an STI, it’s your responsibility to tell your partners before you have sex, says Kristen Lilla, LCSW, a sex therapist and sexuality educator. That way, your partner can make an informed decision that’s right for them. “There’s no law about discussing your STI status, but it is the ethical thing to do for your health and someone else’s,” Lilla says.
That said, no one has the right to judge you simply because of your current or previous STI status — so just because it’s important to share these health details, that doesn’t mean your partner is free to shame you. Each day, more than 1 million STIs are acquired worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, so there’s no reason to justify or apologize for your STI status, Lilla says.
There’s not necessarily a perfect time to tell your partner that you have an STI, because every relationship progresses at a different pace, but you should absolutely do it before having sex, Lilla says. “Some people prefer to have this conversation right away when they begin dating someone, and may not want to be with someone who judges them for having an STI,” she says. “Other people do not want to be judged, and may feel embarrassed or even guilty, so they might prefer to wait until they get to know someone and have established some trust before discussing it.” But if you wait to share your STI status after you’ve already had sex, then it can make your partner feel betrayed, Lilla says. Although you might be comfortable having sex and using condoms as a barrier method to reduce the risk of STI transmission, your partner might not be if they know you have a particular STI — and that’s okay, but it warrants a (sex-positive and shame-free) conversation to figure out where everyone’s boundaries are.
If someone judges you for having an STI, you deserve to be with someone else who won’t judge you.
Kristen Lilla, LCSW
So, how do you have the talk? Find a time and place that allows you and your partner to actually discuss the topic calmly — preferably out of your bedroom, Lilla says. “If you feel comfortable, it’s okay to talk about how you feel about your STI status,” Lilla says. For example, you can start by saying, I really like you, so this is difficult for me to talk about, Lilla says. Or, I know some people are freaked out by STIs, but I’m not ashamed to share my status. “It also helps to let the other person know if you are taking medications or not, and give them an opportunity to ask questions,” Lilla says. You don’t have to explain to someone how you got an STI, but you should be prepared to answer any specific questions that your partner has about the STI you have, and how that impacts their risk, she says.
Of course, the details of the conversation are dependent upon the people involved and the STI in question. If you have a bacterial STI, such as chlamydia, then your conversation will probably be different than one about a viral STI, like herpes, Lilla says. That’s because one STI is treatable, and the other isn’t. If you have an STI that’s been treated, Planned Parenthood suggests you say something like, I think it’s important to be honest, so I want to tell you that I got tested for STIs last month and found out I had chlamydia. I took medicine, and I don’t have it anymore. But it showed me how common and sneaky STIs are. Have you ever been tested? There are different implications for every type of STI, so this might not be exactly what you say. For many people, talking about getting tested can be a good jumping-off point.
This may all be easier said than done, since STIs can be a tough topic to navigate, especially if you already feel vulnerable, Lilla says. Unfortunately, many people feel embarrassed or ashamed about having STIs because of unfair societal stigma. But as long as you’re honest, you can’t go wrong — and again, nobody should shame you for having an STI. “If someone judges you for having an STI, you deserve to be with someone else who won’t judge you,” Lilla says.
Ultimately, you’re obligated to make sure your partner knows everything there is to know about your current STI status, so they can make the decision that’s right for them (and vice versa). And if you talk to your partner before becoming sexually active, then you haven’t exposed them to anything, so there’s nothing to apologize for. “What’s more important is to talk with your partner about how to move forward being sexually active in a way that feels safe and comfortable for both of you,” Lilla says.
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