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.
****I have been a victim of someone who did not believe they were morally obligated to share their STD status and was extremely surprised after I was diagnosed. There is nothing worse than realizing someone you loved just gave you HPV Genital Warts without believing or trusting that you would’ve given them the chance had they given you the choice. This is a FOR SURE end of a relationship EVEN if it continues on, you can almost guarantee this persons deceit and denial will constantly be seething from their soul. I am having a VERY hard time coping and hope that people realize NOT disclosing that information BEFORE you put someone at risk is WRONG. Thank you for this article.
Hi Sarah –
Thank you for your comment. Your feelings are not at all uncommon and are quite understandable. Have you come across this post yet – https://thestiproject.com/anger-genital-herpes-scabies/ – it might give you some additional perspective to consider?
I think, when dealing with those initial anger feelings, it’s important to take an introspective look back at oneself as well. It’s so very easy to want to place the blame on the other individual entirely, yet, we had a part in the activity which ultimately brought us the STD too. What I mean is, most people do not develop a relationship before engaging in sexual activities, they do not establish trust (you said you were in love – I’m assuming you had been seeing each other for quite some time, so that part, likely, does not apply to you), most people do not talk about the number of previous partners they’ve had, do not talk about the number of previous partners they’ve had without using protection, do not talk about whether or not they have ever been tested (and which tests they’ve taken specifically), nor do they get tested together before choosing not to use protection. ALL of those things are necessary for safer and healthier sex. And, even then, when engaging in any kind of sexual activity, the risk is still not reduced to zero. Simply, when choosing to share your body with someone else, there is always a risk. Even having done all of the things I’ve mentioned, you and your partner would be at risk for the STDs they don’t test for. Your partner was putting themselves at risk for additional STDs too, interestingly enough – despite already having genital warts – there are 19 or so additional things they could have contracted by not having those conversations and being responsible prior to engaging in sexual activities.
Please understand, I am not at all admonishing your partner’s unethical behavior. If they were aware they had genital warts and did not tell you in advance of putting you at risk, they were in the wrong. Period. There’s no way around that and nothing that exonerates that person from taking away your right to make an informed and conscientious decision. Thank goodness the HPV you have is generally considered low-risk (albeit, temporarily unsightly) and will eventually go away (yes, it may be some time before this happens and it is very hard to tell when it has completely cleared your body, so, you may transmit the virus even after the visual symptoms have cleared – shitty, I know). It sucks, plain and simple. No ifs ands or buts about it. 🙂
However, moving forward, you can grow and become a stronger and more informed person as a result of this experience. When people say STDs are the gift that keeps on giving, I like to view the phrase in an entirely different light than they intend it to be taken! 🙂 Genital herpes has made me more ope-minded, more educated, and more aware of my choices – past and present. Because I’m sure you don’t want an additional STD (I’ve been there – that also sucks), you’ll likely be much choosier and more careful with your body – ie. having those conversations before engaging in sexual activities, having a full panel of tests done before engaging in sexual activities which are unprotected, and then choosing what level of risk you are willing to accept for that individual. It’s all a very eye-opening and enlightening experience once you get past the frustration and shear anger you’re feeling right now. The anger is healthy, normal, and I encourage you to explore it beyond just placing all of your frustration on that one person. Do that too, of course, that’s completely natural, and then expand on it! 🙂
For instance: Are you also upset this will come between you and new partners?!?! (In my experience, it has had more to do with how well I’ve developed the relationship than the STD itself.) Are you angry because you don’t know when the genital warts will be cleared and for how long you have to disclose this information going forward? Are you angry because you don’t want to be associated with an STD and the stigma surrounding STDs? Maybe you’ve answered yes to all of the above? I certainly did. 🙂
I hope this doesn’t feel like a lecture; this was a great opportunity to address some of the other facets of the anger you and so many others have felt/are feeling.
And most importantly, all people deserve the right to make conscientious and informed decisions!!
Thanks again for your comment, Sarah – it’s incredibly valid and so many others are feeling exactly as you are right now. Just knowing their frustration isn’t in vain is so very helpful.
Wow what an awesome article! My ex-boyfriend brought Herpes into my life about 2 years ago. I don’t blame him because it was my choice as much as him to engage in intercourse, plus he never had any signs or symptoms which made it even harder to tell. (I know I know we should have both been tested prior to engaging in intercourse). Now that I have been single for about 11 mos an old friend has resurfaced and we are going on a date. I am super nervous about the information I will have to give him if we do decide to continue a relationship. It literally makes me queasy to think about it, but at least I feel comfortable knowing that I don’t have to spill that pot of beans on the first date!
Hi there –
Thanks so much for your message! It’s so nice to hear you’ve taken a positive approach to what can often be a very trying experience. Cheers to you!
I’m excited to hear about this old friend – you’ll have to keep us updated how the conversation goes once you get to that stage. You’ve already got your attitude working in your favor – confidence and self-image are huge to prospective significant others and they respond much better when someone has finally found a way to love and accept themselves again – it comes through in your dialogue. Anyhow, I wish you all the best – definitely let us know how it goes!
What a blessing to come across your website on the first day of this new year. The last day of last year came with news that I had been exposed to genital herpes. I have felt anguish all morning, uncertain of my emotions… Reading your article and your response to the comments has helped tremendously and I am extremely grateful that I researched STD’s before talking with my partner. I am still sorting through the frustration, hurt, fear and resentment I feel that he did not offer me the opportunity to decide the fate of my health. We are both in our 50’s, and staying in good health is a priority. I am upset by my own ignorance, and realize now that it was also my responsibility to ask some questions before engaging in unprotected sex. Thank you again for your time and compassion.
Hi Michelle –
Thank YOU, kindly, for your comment. What a way to say ‘Happy New Year,’ huh – I have to marvel at his lack of tact; better late than never, but on New Year’s Eve? Maybe he knew he’d be putting you in a precarious position later that evening should he still not have told you? Anyhow, I am so happy to hear you’ve found some solace in my posts.
Your due diligence will serve you well throughout your decision-making process, albeit, a bit in hindsight (as you mentioned), of course – that’s how we learn best though. It just goes to show, you can find yourself in rather challenging situations no matter your age/wisdom. (Samantha from ‘Sex and the City,’ anyone?) 🙂 Really though, you have all the right to be taken aback entirely – to say the very least.
On the bright side, there’s a good chance you’re still entirely in the clear. Despite having had unprotected sex, if he did not have an active outbreak, your risk of contracting genital herpes from him was reduced by quite a bit. If you have any strain of the virus (HSV1 – cold sores, for example), your risk is even further reduced.
Interestingly, I had almost the same conversation with a reader privately via email a few days back. As the conversation is relevant to the position your guy has put you in and the subsequent decision(s) you’ll have to make, I’m going to include my email response to the reader below – pertinent details adjusted for the sake of anonymity.
Feel free to reach out privately via the contact form or respond here and let us know what decision you went with, and thank you so much for letting me know this was helpful!
Longest reply ever! 😉 Really though, I wish you all the very best, Michelle. Thanks so much for your message!
Ive been living with genital warts for 5+ yrs now. Ive had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Ive felt completely filthy and undesirable since contracting HPV from my first sexual encounter. So much so that I havent even bothered dating or forming relationships with females out of fear and my lack of self esteem. Thank You for this site and giving me some info on how to maybe move forward.
It is super hard and frustrating sometimes to deal with an STD. Everything that you listed it exactly how I feel after being diagnosed on 2010 will genital herpes. You are definitely not alone. It changes the complete out look on life and how you approach relationships, but it does get easier!!! Hang in there! 🙂
Thanks so much for your reply, Alisha!
You’re welcome, Andrew. I’m glad to know it’s been helpful, even if only just skimming the surface so far.
Alisha’s right; it will get better, and being your own advocate will help… What I mean by that is doing as much research as possible. You made it to our site, so that tells me you’ve been doing some digging. Keep researching. Cliche’ as it may be, in the case of an STD diagnosis – especially something that can be stubborn like genital warts – education is power. Educating yourself, being as healthy as you can in the meantime, and using that education to reduce internal stigma – characterizing yourself as undesirable, filthy, etc. (all not true, but I get why you feel that way) – will definitely help.
And, of course, you’re welcome here any time.