Last Updated on July 29, 2021 by Nancy Carteron, MD, FACR
So, you have an STI.
You might even being learning to live with your status by now (you certainly should be, but I know this takes time) and you might have finally resolved to regard the experience as a phenomenal learning opportunity – one you wish you wouldn’t have had to learn first-hand, sure, but a learning opportunity, nonetheless.
Either way, the time has come to have “the talk.” NO ONE wants to have the talk with anyone EVER, but you must have it for full consent and if you want to develop a healthy relationship with someone – at least enough to get physically intimate with them that is! Woot.
It may shock you, but sex is still fantastic with an STI. Do your best not to worry too much about that right now, I’ll get you there.
Anyhow, now what? What in the world are you going to say to the potential partner so they don’t run for the hills?!
There are many ways to go about telling someone you have an STI, however, not all of them will help you feel good about the outcome. What I’m about to share is certainly not a guaranteed method, by any means – it’s just what I think works best. I’ve had quite a bit of luck in this approach: I’ve been married, I’ve had great long-term relationships, and I’ve never lost a partner simply because of my STI. So, in some ways, I’m proof there’s a good way to do this kind of thing. Others tend to agree, and I talk about their perspectives in depth here.
In the end, only you will know what works best for you, but until you’ve figured it out, you can try these suggestions on for size.
Find a Medium that Feels Safest for You
First of all, it is my belief that any mode of telling someone you have an STI is great. Disclosure is important, and everyone is going to come to the conversation with different needs and risk assessments.
This is one conversation where today’s ingenious and creative technological approaches could help. However, you might prefer an in-person approach, and that’s ok, too. Even though the conversation might feel tougher/more embarrassing in person, it provides you an opportunity to gauge their initial reactions, and it allows them to see how sincere you are. But for others, in-person might not be safe or practical, so that’s where text or apps could help.
All in all, any disclosure is a win-win.
However, if you choose an in-person approach, where you tell someone you have an STI is just as important as how. What I mean is, the place you choose to sit someone down to have this conversation should be fairly neutral and a calm atmosphere.
At the bar, while babysitting your best-friend’s two-year-old, or at a crowded coffee shop are all HORRIBLE ideas.
In my experience, a special trip over to the individual’s home while they were alone and not in a hurry with the pretense of, “Hey, can I drop by for a few minutes, I’d like to chat with you about something?” has been really successful.
Talking to someone about sexual health in the comfort of their own home or in a relatively private setting serves two purposes. It allows the person an opportunity to react how they would naturally without being influenced by on-lookers, and it leaves the individual in a comfortable environment to ask as many questions as they like or to do their own research without pressure, which, leads me to my next point.
This is a Mutual Discussion
This conversation is an opportunity to talk about sexual health as a whole, which is a reciprocal discussion. It is not an admonition of guilt or shame. By sharing your status, you are opening the door for your partner(s) to share their status.
Although you have a known infection, your health is equally important, and you want to learn about their status and safer sex practices as well.
While the responsibility tends to feel skewed toward the person with the STI, the responsibility to discuss risk is actually shared equally and having a mutual discussion about risk can build intimacy and trust as opposed to detracting from it!
Be Honest, Positive/Neutral, & Resourceful
In sharing your status, it’s incredibly important you’re honest, but you only have to share what’s comfortable for you. No one has a right to information about you that you are not comfortable sharing which could include things like who you contracted an STI from (if you know), how many partners you’ve had, etc.
I’ve always shared how long I have had genital herpes, what I’ve learned from the experience, how hard it’s been at times, and what it means for my health. Many times, I’ve told my story in tears – not with the intent of playing the sympathy card or coercing an empathetic response (although, I’m sure it could have been perceived that way) – because, for a long time, it was an embarrassing and scary conversation to have and re-telling my story generally re-surfaced some old emotions. Regardless, I think that is all O.K., because it’s authentic.
From there, I shared some of the key facts and figures, and then I let them ask whatever questions came up for them. I gave them the information I know, what herpes does and doesn’t mean for me, and the very realistic truth that an STI has been manageable for me and has not hindered anything in my life. I have passed my STI on to others, but not all of my partners have contracted it (quite a few have not). So the risk is still very real and also manageable.
Lastly, I share some of the resources I’ve used to gather my information. Letting the person(s) know there’s a lot of information on the web and encouraging them to do some research on their own is always great. This let’s them know you respect their opinion and that this kind of decision takes some consideration.
Give Them Time
Then, I leave.
Often, I’ve shared my story and then said something along the lines of, “I know this is a lot to take in, and I’m not expecting a reaction or response immediately – no matter where you want to go from here, I respect that entirely, of course. Do some research, and then let’s talk about how you feel when you’re ready.”
Their Response is Not Personal but Should Always Be Respectful
Everyone is different. Obvs.
Some people have responded immediately with an incredibly surprising, “You mean, that’s all you had to tell me? So what? This doesn’t change how I feel about you.” Others have needed more time to digest, to come back and ask me questions, and then to digest some more. Because of the taboo nature of STIs, it’s hard to decipher how anyone will react, but you always always deserve kindness and respect.
In the end, some people may choose not to continue the relationship. This is an understandable reaction, even though it will probably break your heart.
Consider yourself lucky to know why they do not want to go further. You could probably care less about the silver-lining to all of this right now, as your heart is breaking…. But remember, most people never know why a person stops calling them or chooses to see other people; they are stuck analyzing everything they did and wondering if it was their looks, their personality, their family, whatever.
Should someone choose to end the relationship as a result of your STI, know it actually has nothing to do with you. They were scared – sometimes rightfully so, because the stigma is intense – and the relationship had not developed enough for them to be willing to take the risk. Sucks, yes, but it’s not the end of your dating career or sex life. You’re still worthy despite your STI.
Believe me, it’s true.
And, for those of you who like bullet points, here’s the abridged version of how to tell someone you have an STI:
- Tell them using a medium that is safest for you.
- This is a mutual conversation, not an admonition of guilt or shame.
- Be honest about your experiences, but only share as much as you are comfortable.
- Be positive or relatively neutral about yourself and your STI, let them ask questions, share the facts and figures, and point out some good resources.
- Let the person have some time to do their own research and to decide how they would like to proceed.
- Don’t take their decision personally.
If All Else Fails…
Should you be in a situation where you have already put a person(s) at risk and you cannot bring yourself to discuss your status directly, should you feel that telling the person(s) would put your safety at risk, or for any other reason you are not able to have a conversation, there are a couple of websites designed to notify partners of your STI for you anonymously.
These are great sites designed for those in fear of judgement but wanting as much as possible to “do the right thing.”
- InSPOT (U.S., e-card based)
- Let Them Know (Australia, email and text-based)
- The Drama Downunder (Australia, e-card and text-based)
- How to Tell Someone You Have an STI II
- STI? What Now? Your Ultimate Reference Guide
- When to Tell Someone You Have an STI
- STIs and Relationships: Partners
- Thoughts About Finding Out My Sig. Other Has an STI/STD
- Which Sexual Activities Put You At Risk for Which STIs/STDs
- Your Safer-Sex Tool-box
- STI Interviews