I’m a queer, nonmonogamous, polyamorous, female-identifying person. Due to the nature of having multiple sexual relationships, I get tested for STIs (as opposed to an STD, an STI might never produce symptoms or develop into a disease) more often than most — a full panel every three months, unless there’s a new partner or a scare. Despite my diligence, I was recently diagnosed with HSV-2, a form of genital herpes. I’m far from alone.
The reality is that around half of the human population will get an STI at some point, and between 56 and 65 million people in the U.S. are living with an incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD). About 110 million people in the U.S. — that’s about one-third of the population — have an STD at any given time, and worldwide, more than 1 million new STIs are contracted every single day.
Sure, it can be scary to talk to a partner about STIs, but it’s this stigma that keeps people from getting tested, having open conversations, and making smart choices. Instead of shying away, keep these six things to keep in mind when having the STI talk.
1. Plan ahead.
Don’t save the conversation for when you’re already without several articles of clothing. Face-to-face is probably best, but you can also discuss safer sex via text or phone if necessary. “Blurting out a disclosure as you’re reaching for a condom is better than not disclosing at all, but just barely,” says sex educator and coach Ashley Manta. “Give your prospective partner the opportunity to sit with the information, ask for clarification, and do research on their own before making a decision to engage with you sexually or not.”
2. Define your safer-sex standards.
If you have anal, oral, or vaginal sex, barriers like condoms, dental dams, and gloves are among the best ways to help prevent STIs. You may also want to think about what precautions you’ll take if you or the person you’re having sex with has an STI. Determine the specific tests you want to have — and have partners test for — to avoid an argument down the line about what constitutes a “full” panel of tests. For example, I get tested for HIV, HSV-1, HSV-2, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea every three months.
“It can be helpful to do a little research, so you have a more secure sense of your own decision-making,” says Carol Queen Ph.D. “Searching reputable medical, STI-specific, and/or sex information sites and checking in with your doctor can give you a clearer perspective about what you want and don’t want to do.” She notes that a partner doesn’t need to agree with your POV and safer-sex standards for themselves — they just need to be OK with adhering to those standards when you have sex with them. “Likewise, if you find someone with stricter standards than you, go with their limits when you have sex. It’s not just about which standards are correct — though that’s relevant, of course — but also about what makes you feel comfortable enough to enjoy yourself and feel safe.” A partner who doesn’t respect your safer-sex standards might not respect other boundaries either, so this can be a definite red flag.
3. Avoid using euphemisms.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people refer to an STI status as “clean.” If being STI-free makes you “clean,” does having one make you “dirty?” I think not. Even more so, it’s often factually inaccurate. “Saying ‘I’m clean’ is very often misunderstood, yet widely used,” says Nicole Prause, Ph.D., founder of Liberos. “What people typically mean is that they haven’t seen any symptoms of what they believe are sexually transmitted diseases on their genitals. This is, of course, not any sort of reassurance.”
4. Don’t make it extra scary.
STIs are incredibly common, and you are being a responsible sexual being by sharing this information with your partner. “You don’t have to qualify it or nervously build it up with dribble like, ‘Um, yeah, so, um, there’s this thing I have to tell you, and it sucks, and it’s totally OK if you’re not down for it but…’” says Manta. Instead, she recommends getting straight to the point. Try: “I’m really enjoying our connection, and I think I’d like to explore things sexually. Before we do, I want to let you know that I have _____.” If you can provide specifics, go ahead. Then, stop talking. “Take a breath,” says Manta. ”Let them process the information. If they have questions, do your best to answer them or have a resource list handy.” I recommend The STD Project, Exposed (STDcheck.com’s blog), and Go Ask Alice.
5. Ask to see test results.
“Even if you [are communicating with] an honest person who wouldn’t lie about their STI status, many people who have an STI don’t know it,” says Queen. Ask to see current STI test results, and keep in mind that even they are negative, any sexually active person is prone to picking up an infection from any sexual encounter as soon as they walk out the clinic door. “Don’t ask about how many partners they’ve had,” says Queen. “You can have lots of sex with lots of uninfected people and catch nothing. The math is misleading.” She adds that you can have very safe sex with someone, rendering their STI status nearly irrelevant, so don’t think of this talk so much as a way to weed out dangerous people, but as a way to get a sense about what’s possible with this person and whether they respect your standards.
6. Make a date to get tested together.
“There is a lot of judgment that goes with [asking someone about their status], so it can be easier to say to your partner, ‘I would like to get tested together before we have sex. Do you want to go together on Thursday?” says certified sex educator Lindsay van Clief.
“I get tested for STIs every six months, but that’s not always the norm for my partners,” says Kristy, 22. “Ideally, I want them to get tested regularly, too, so I try to normalize it and turn it into a date. Like, let’s grab coffee, get tested, and then go for a walk or whatever. Seriously, getting tested is only as weird as you make it.”
If you’re looking for more tips and conversation starters, the National Coalition for Sexual Health’s (NCSH) Five Action Steps to Good Health is an excellent place to start.