Conversations involving sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have come a long way, and that’s, in part, because STIs are a common occurrence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 2.5 million people reported chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis cases in 2019. And, on any given day in 2018, the CDC estimates that one in five Americans was dealing with an STI. So if you have one, you’re far from alone. Prevalence has helped normalize open and honest discussions about STI status, but a new survey indicates there’s a long way to go.
A recent poll, conducted by at-home and lab-testing company Testing.com, found that one in four Americans had sex while knowing that they had an STI, and they didn’t share that information with their partner. The survey, which included 1,250 sexually active adults, also found that half of the singles didn’t share that they had an STI before they had a one-night stand. Another 40 percent didn’t share their positive STI status before having sex with a casual partner.
OK, but…why? The reason most people cited was that they had “embarrassment and shame” around their diagnosis, whether they had a one-night stand, sex with a casual partner, or having something more steady. And, it’s worth pointing out, a sizable portion of people said they never shared their STI status because their partner never asked.
If you have an STI and you haven’t perfected the art of discussing it, it’s understandable that you might not be excited to share that news with a partner. But sexual health experts stress that it’s so crucial to have that conversation, no matter what your arrangement is, to protect your health and the health of your partner, says Janet Brito, PhD, an AASECT certified sex therapist. Still, she and other sexual health experts admit, it’s not always easy.
“There’s incredible shame and stigma around STIs, and this is one of the primary reasons people don’t disclose—for fear of judgment,” says David J. Ley, PhD, an Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist who specializes in sexuality and author of Ethical Porn for Dicks. “Secondly, people often don’t know how to discuss these issues, because most sex education is around ‘don’t do it, or you’ll get STI and be tainted forever.'”
But certified sex therapist Rachel Needle, Psy.D., co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, points out that the COVID-19 pandemic has normalized to some degree talking about health and asking questions about testing and contact. “This can hopefully translate to conversations regarding STIs,” she says. Meaning the conversation might not be as intense as you imagine in your head.
Every STI and its treatment is a little different, though, and it’s essential to come to the conversation with reliable information you can share with your partner, Brito says. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis, for example, are curable with certain antibiotics, and you may be cleared for sex again once your treatment has wrapped up, usually within a few weeks. Some STIs like genital herpes are not curable, but you can take medications to reduce outbreaks and lower your risk of passing the infection on to other people. Still, “if you are having any symptoms, it is best not to engage in sexual activity until the symptoms have resolved to avoid spreading the infection,” Brito says.
How to talk to a sexual partner about your STI status regardless of the arrangement
Ley suggests talking about your STI status this way: “Let’s talk about sexual health because it’s something I take pretty seriously. Here’s how I approach contraception, here’s my health status, and the last time I got tested. How about you?”
This might sound simple, but experts stress the importance of not waiting until the last minute to have this conversation—and this advice holds even if it is a one-night stand. “It’s important to have this conversation before you are turned on and horny, because your brain is in a different place at that time, and you are incentivized to minimize things that might get in the way from having sex,” Ley says.
Of course, this conversation about sexual health goes two ways, and you want to know your partner’s status, too. Needle suggests asking, “when was the last time you were tested for STIs?’ and then follow up with “what were the results?” If they avoid the question, she recommends asking again. “If they continue to dodge it, you have a decision to make,” she says. “While many are uncomfortable with conversations that they are not used to having…healthy communication is the key to a healthy relationship.” And, if you don’t feel comfortable having that conversation, Needle says it might not be best to “reconsider” the encounter.
And as discussion about STI status unfolds, you can also talk about internal and external condoms which, the CDC explains, effectively reduce the risk of STIs like HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. External condoms also reduce the risk of genital herpes and syphilis when the infected area or site of potential exposure is protected. by the condom, the CDC says.
If you have a curable STI and don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it, it’s more than OK—and even recommended—to put off having sex for a few weeks until you know that your infection has cleared. But, if you have an incurable STI, it’s crucial to make sure your partner is aware. Either way, if you’re having sex with an STI, it’s important to let everyone involved know the deal.
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