You’re pressed against the wall of a new date’s apartment as they kiss your neck and reach to undo your pants. Every atom in your body is ready for more, but then your brain kicks in: Shit. We haven’t talked about STIs yet.
Or perhaps it happens when you’re on cloud nine after defining your new relationship. You’ve gone over whether or not you want kids, proper toilet paper orientation, basically everything except sexually transmitted infections. It’s the only nagging thought dampening your excitement.
As much as you’d like to tell your brain to shut up in these moments, discussing STIs with sexual partners is essential for taking care of your health, even if it does seem incredibly awkward.
Here's why you need to have the talk.
Ideally, you’d talk about STIs before having sex with any new partners. But we live in the real world and we know that that’s not necessarily the norm. So why is that? You might tell yourself it’s fine to skip this talk. Who wants to talk about your last STI test or that time five years ago that an ex gave you chlamydia? Can’t you just assume that this person would mention it if there was something to bring up? Your last STI check was all clear. You have condoms. It’s all probably fine, right? Listen, we understand the urge to completely ignore this topic.
“Ultimately, having this conversation is about sexual health, but there’s a cultural bias that feels like you’re in some way accusing someone if you bring up STIs,” Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist in New York, tells SELF. “There’s still a lot of stigma.”
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you are not accusing someone of being promiscuous or dishonest by asking them about their STI status. Anyone can get STIs and many come with absolutely zero symptoms. Assuming “oh, he would tell me if he had an STI” assumes that they got tested recently, which may not be something you’ve discussed yet. Likewise, assuming “I’m sure she doesn’t have an STI” is most likely completely baseless—you cannot infer STI status from anything other than an actual test.
So, yes, you need to have this talk—even if you’ve already had sex with this person. The rates of many sexually transmitted infections are on the rise for various reasons. And while medications can clear up STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea, others, like herpes and HIV, are incurable.
That doesn’t mean getting an STI has to devastate your life. Even STIs that aren’t curable are often manageable with the correct treatment, and people with these conditions can still lead full, happy, sex-filled lives. But trying to avoid STIs, especially those transmitted via bodily fluids, is generally easier than dealing with them after the fact. That’s why talking about STIs with your sexual partner (or partners) is so critical.
Here's how to bring it up.
The way you bring up STIs depends largely on the status of your relationship. Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how you do this. All the advice in the world doesn’t guarantee that it won’t be a little awkward. But here are some tips that may help.
If it’s at the moment before sex with a new person:
You can pause that up-against-the-wall moment to ask if your partner has been tested for STIs and what the results were. But at this point, you don’t really know them well enough to do much with that information.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask. The way they respond to this question can be a great litmus test. But unless you know for sure that your partner recently got tested and hasn’t had sex with anyone else since then, operate under the assumption that they might have an STI and that you should have the safest sex possible. That may mean using a condom, a dental dam, or both. (Remember that these barrier methods don’t protect against all STIs, since some, like herpes and HPV, can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact.)
You can ask your partner if they have these barrier methods around or pull one out yourself. If they question you or protest, Fleming suggests saying something like, “Since we haven’t gotten tested together, we definitely need to use a [barrier method].”
This is also a great way to lay the groundwork if you think you’ll have sex with this person again. “The assumption is that you’re going to be tested eventually,” Fleming says.
If you’ve been seeing someone and want to get tested before having sex:
Tosin Goje, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Cleveland Clinic, says that she often sees women who want to be screened before having sex in a new relationship. “You should have a conversation with your partner and have them screened also,” Dr. Goje tells SELF.
Although bringing this up at all is great, it might be best to do it in a non-sexual context when both of you are thinking clearly. If you’re a little freaked out to mention it, admit that. You can say something like, “I’m nervous to talk to you about this, but it seems like we might have sex soon, and it’s important to me that we get tested for STIs first.”
As an alternative, you can get tested and kick things off by sharing your results. This can make it clear that you’re not judging or shaming your partner by bringing up STI testing. It’s just a normal part of having sex with a new person. Fleming suggests saying something like, “Since it seems like we’re going to have sex soon, I decided to go get tested. When did you last get tested?”
If you’ve had sex with them already:
Maybe you’ve been using condoms and/or dental dams up until this point, but now you want to stop. If you don’t know what to say, keep it simple: “If we’re going to stop using condoms/dental dams, we need to go get tested. Just to be safe.”
Perhaps you got caught up in the moment, had unprotected sex, and are wondering if it’s OK to just make that your M.O. with this person. In that case, try, “I know we haven’t been using protection, but if we’re going to keep doing that, we should get tested so that we can really enjoy it safely.”
Again, it might be easiest to have these kinds of conversations when you’re not right on the brink of sex. And if you’re going to be having unprotected sex with someone, you should talk about not having unprotected sex with other people, too.
What if they aren't receptive?
We’d hope that everyone would be open to discussing sexual health with someone they’re about to have sex with. But since STI stigma is real, even someone who’s otherwise a total catch might be confused or offended. Hopefully they’ll come around quickly once you discuss why it’s important to you.
“If you ultimately explain that this is non-negotiable and they still say no, then you may want to question if this is the right partner for you,” Fleming says. “If they’re not thinking about…what you need to be comfortable, that’s a red flag.”
Katie M., 32, knows this all too well. Soon after she graduated from college, she started dating someone new. The first few times they saw each other, they made out, but eventually things got more heated, Katie tells SELF. When they were on the verge of having sex, she said, “I’m fine with sex, but we both need to get tested before that happens.” But her partner pushed back, saying that they should just trust each other.
If you find yourself in this situation, Fleming suggests saying something like, “I’ve never received this reaction before. Can you tell me why you’re so against getting tested?” You can also explain that trust has nothing to do with it if you haven’t been tested recently, and that you’re trying to look out for their health, too.
For various reasons, Katie stopped seeing that partner soon after their STI discussion. Seven months later, she met the man who eventually became her husband. They were dating long-distance and hadn’t yet had sex when he made plans to stay with her over Thanksgiving. “I told him that if we were going to have sex while he was there, we both needed to get tested,” she says. He had an STI report from his doctor in his suitcase the day he got off the plane.
What if either one of you tests positive?
You may expect to have celebratory sex immediately after you both get your test results. But if one of you tests positive for an STI, you should ask your doctor what the diagnosis means for your sex life. You might need to abstain while completing a round of antibiotics, for instance. If you’ve already had sex with this person, it would be worth having a conversation about whether or not they should be tested and treated, too.
Opening up to your partner about having an STI can be unnerving, but it won’t necessarily be the disaster you might imagine. Carly S., a 26-year-old with genital herpes, has been there. Herpes never fully goes away, even if you take antiviral medications to help prevent outbreaks and lower the odds of spreading the virus.
When Carly started dating after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, she knew she’d have to tell potential partners about having herpes. She worried that it would torpedo budding relationships, but the first guy she told simply responded, “OK,” and that was that.
“I know it’s not a big deal [to have an STI], but it was kind of like validation [that] not everyone is going to think I’m gross,” Carly tells SELF.
When Carly stopped seeing that partner and brought up her STI status to a different man, he also didn’t judge her. He said, “That sucks that that happened to you.” They’re still dating today.
Bottom line: An STI does not need to ruin your life, sexually or otherwise. “It’s not who you are; it’s just a thing you have,” Fleming says. “You need to take care of yourself and your partners, but it in no way defines you, who you are, or what you can offer as a partner.”
Also keep in mind that if you and a new partner get tested together, the prospect that one of you has an STI is already on the table. That might make it even more likely that you’ll receive the nonchalance Carly encountered. So might sharing enough medical context to explain why your specific STI isn’t the end of the world, like how long treatment will last or what medications you’ll be starting to lower the chances of spreading the infection.
Remember: You got this.
Anyone who treats you poorly for talking about STIs (or having one) probably isn’t worth it. Whether you are bringing up STI tests or the fact that you have an STI, there’s always a chance that someone might respond cruelly, ghost you, or do something else along those rude lines.
It’s their right to decide who they do and don’t want to have sex with. But if someone treats you poorly over taking responsibility for your sexual health, they’re likely not a great partner to have in the first place.