Last Updated on July 29, 2021 by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Lately, I’ve had a few conversations about when someone should tell someone else they have an STI/STD. Namely, this refers to when a person is beginning to date someone and if they need to tell a partner right away or if they can wait to tell someone until after they’ve been dating a while.
This presents a huge ethical dilemma when it comes to living with an STI/STD, dating, and entering into new relationships.
I’ve heard any number of approaches, listened to the opinions of people without STIs/STDs, and have tried almost every tactic myself. While I haven’t always told people when I should – sometimes not at all (you can read my STI Interview or find my response to telling past partners about HSV1 in this post about telling people about your STI) – I think, the majority of my readers aim to and the general public hopes that someone living with an STI/STD will be as morally and ethically sound as possible.
From what I’ve come across so far, everyone approaching me with the same question seems to want to do their best to not embody the stigma that is attached to STIs/STDs. Thus, they want to be as open and honest as is expected while also having a fighting chance at a healthy new relationship.
The negative responses I’ve heard come mainly from people assuming an individual with a sexually transmitted infection or disease should tell a potential partner right away – even before beginning to date. Kind of like, “Hi, my name’s Jenelle, I have genital herpes, and here’s my number in case you’d like to ask me out sometime.”
Quite frankly, this is an opinion based on ignorance. Remember, ignorance and stupidity are two entirely separate things. I too was once ignorant about STIs/STDs. I believed only certain kinds of people got STIs, STIs defined your life, they did zombie-like things to your body, and basically, STIs were the end of the world – a physical and mental pathogenic apocalypse, if you will.
However, none of the assumptions I held were actually true for me, nor are they true for most people.
The sexually transmitted infections and diseases that are life-long are always manageable, and because so many people have them from so many different walks of life, having an STI is also not an indicator of a person’s character.
Before everyone hastily gets into a fit of rage about what I’m saying here, know this: it is not ok, moral, or ethical to put a person at risk of contracting an STI without allowing them an opportunity to make a conscientious and informed decision.
Simply, I’m saying, as long as you are just getting to know someone (without the accompanying physical activities), it’s perfectly acceptable to wait to share your STI status. You can also come right out and tell them if that’s your style. If that makes you feel better and the potential rejection is easier to handle before you have also begun to invest in the other person emotionally, go right ahead!
Either option can be perfectly moral and ethical.
I think it helps to look at this as an ethical dilemma from a non-STI perspective.
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A Look Outside of the STI Realm
I like to present this dilemma in a non-STI light when considering whether it’s ethical to wait to tell someone until after you have established trust and have developed the relationship a little….
For instance, when people start dating, do all parties generally tell their life stories, every embarrassing thing they’ve ever done, their complete health histories, or past indiscretions immediately? The most common answer is no.
People do not share absolutely everything with everyone upon first meeting. Were that the case, can you imagine how much of a verbal vomit would ensue on all first dates?
No relationship would ever last past the first half hour.
To further illustrate this, let’s say you have: a misdemeanor, felony, or a juvenile record; a father/mother who’s bi-polar, a hoarder, is in prison, committed suicide, who you support financially; a brother who is handicapped that you take care of; a unique kink or fetish, an interest in role-playing, an aversion to cunnilingus or fellatio, never had an orgasm; a fear of the dark, post-traumatic stress disorder; diabetes, toenail fungus, a small penis or a large labia…..would you tell someone any of this upon first meeting? Would you tell the person you’re seeing within the first few weeks/months/etc.? Sure, some of this would naturally come up in conversation….but most things potentially embarrassing or highly personal would be reserved for those people you were really feeling a connection to and whom you were considering investing in a deeper or more intimate relationship with.
I should emphasize that if any of the above awkward things about you ( insert any other personal information in replace of those items above – including STIs) were putting the person you were seeing at risk, you would be morally and ethically obligated to tell that person. In fact, if that were the case, you should tell that person before the act which puts them at risk occurs and while they are not in a compromised position (ie. clothes off and/or intoxicated).
Until then, it is entirely up to you what you would like to disclose.
When Do You Have To Tell Someone You Have An STI?
To summarize and to make sure I’m making my point as crystal clear as possible before the hate mail comes piling in: as long as you are not putting the other person at risk by engaging in any of these activities, it is perfectly ethical to wait to tell a person you have an STI.
Should you like to tell them earlier, that is also entirely up to you, and that’s an ok approach as well.
I’ve found, the people who take the approach of letting someone know as soon as they start dating tend to feel less frustrated when a rejection occurs as a result of disclosing their STI status. Whereas, the people who choose to wait until they’ve developed some trust and can foresee the relationship going to the next level emotionally and (especially) physically tend to have a little bit better results maintaining the relationship. By then, the other person(s) is more likely to be willing to consider taking a calculated risk. However, those same people are liable to be more hurt when the person they are seeing chooses not to take a risk and ends the relationship. This is generally because the person with the STI has also begun to invest their emotions into the relationship.
So, you see, it’s really six to one, half a dozen to another.
Overall, choosing when you are going to tell someone you have an STI involves imagining what you would do in the other person’s shoes and deciding what is right for you and that specific relationship. There are positive and negative aspects to both methods, of course, and both can be considered ethical approaches.
Only you can decide which approach is best.