By Jenelle Pierce
The idea of talking about your STI status can feel utterly daunting, and if you’re thinking about having that discussion with a new partner, you probably have no idea where to start. That’s why we’ve created this guide to help move your STI conversation forward while, hopefully, easing some of your anxiety around discussing your status.
Some Housekeeping Items First:
A person can’t be tested “for everything,” and “full STI panels” usually only include 4-5 common infections (there are more than 30 STIs). Every “full panel” tests for a different combination of infections, and there are a handful of different types of tests that can be administered for each of those infections, all with different testing windows.
Testing windows are the length of time someone must have the infection before it can show up on a test. Meaning, if you contract an infection today, and get tested tomorrow, it probably won’t show up on a test. So, the date someone was tested is just as important as which infections were tested and which tests were administered.
Some of the questions you might want to know about a partner or your partner might want to know about you:
When were you tested?
What were you tested for?
Did you engage in sexual activities — aka “mouth stuff,” “hand stuff,” “butt stuff” in addition to penetrative sex — right before or right after you were tested?
If you’re negative:
If you’ve recently been tested and received negative results, first, high five! It’s awesome that you’re getting tested, and because no one wants a new infection, it’s also awesome your results were negative. As a result, you might be inclined to start an STI conversation by letting your partner know that you’re “clean.”
Resist the urge to use “clean” to describe your test results — because that implies that if someone who is negative is “clean,” then someone who is positive is “dirty” — and that language contributes to shame and stigma toward people who’ve contracted an STI. Instead, try something like, “I’ve recently been tested for [these infections], and my results were negative. Have you been tested for any STIs, and if so, when, for which infections, and what were your results?”
Resist the urge to use “clean” to describe your test results — because that implies that if someone who is negative is “clean,” then someone who is positive is “dirty”
The key take-away: Be specific.
If you’re positive:
If you know you have an infection, then you’re likely even more apprehensive about disclosing your status. While the conversation will always generate a little anxiety, if you incorporate these 8 tips, it will get easier and easier with practice.
#1 Disclose before engaging in activities.
It’s important you disclose your status before engaging in activities with someone.
This may seem like an obvious tip, but disclosure is tough, and people who have an STI often feel targeted by the insistence that they disclose all infections upfront. However, if you have an STI, it’s in your best interest to disclose upfront as well.
For legal reasons: there can be some ramifications for not disclosing prior to engaging in sexual activities,
For your physical health: people who have one infection are more likely to contract another infection.
The key take-away: your health is no less important than someone’s who doesn’t have an STI.
#2 Be clothed and sober.
Sometimes one thing leads to another quickly, and it’s easy to get ahead of yourself — if you don’t keep this in the back of your mind. Making sure you disclose your status while fully clothed and sober helps ensure decisions are free of coercion, which is just a complex way of saying that it’s important everyone involved makes decisions with a sound mind.
Our brains change when we’re aroused and when we’re impaired, so our ability to make fully informed, consensual decisions becomes compromised. You want to know that a person is choosing to move forward with you from a fully informed and consensual place.
Our brains change when we’re aroused and when we’re impaired, so our ability to make fully informed, consensual decisions becomes compromised.
#3 Pick a safe environment for you.
Some experts will tell you that you must disclose your status in person, but I’m not one of them. An in-person disclosure might not be accessible or safe, so for those reasons, I believe you must consider your specific relationship and circumstances and then determine the best modality for you.
An in-person disclosure might not be accessible or safe
Maybe a text message is going to be the best fit? Maybe you’d prefer to put it on your Tinder bio? Or maybe you do like the idea of sitting down and discussing face-to-face? It’s your choice.
#4 Try to stay calm and confident.
The more you present the information in a matter-of-fact way, the more likely it is to be received that way. However, this is hard to do if you’re newly diagnosed and still wrestling with stigma, so take this tip with a grain of salt.
Allow yourself some grace if you’re not quite there yet, and know that with practice and time, disclosure gets easier and feels less burdensome.
#5 You decide how much you share.
You get to decide how much you share about your past sex life, including how you contracted the infection, number of partners, and whether or not you’ve had any curable STIs.
Just because you’re sharing an STI status does not give someone the right to pressure you to disclose more personal information than you’re comfortable — so be clear about your boundaries and hold firm to what feels safe.
#6 Share a couple of resources and offer to answer questions.
Next, offer to answer any questions they may have, within your stated boundaries, and let them know you’ll be open to discussing in the future if questions come up as they’re doing some of their own research.
#7 Give them space.
Give them some time to digest the information and resources you’ve shared with them.
Most people harbor some serious misconceptions about STIs, and we’re usually not given a lot of relevant or practical guidance to help us through those conversations. That fear and misinformation leads to internalized stigma, so it can take time to reconcile what they thought they knew with what they’ve learned.
#8 Don’t take it personally.
No matter what, do your very best to not take their response personally. People experience rejection for all types of things, and we rarely get to know the details. While it’s important you respect their decision, it’s just as important you know that one rejection is not an indicator of your entire sex life or relationships going forward.
While these tips are meant to help you work through an STI disclosure, they can be applied in a variety of ways. We aren’t usually given a lot of practical tools to help us walk through the conversation calmly, because STIs carry such immense stigma, so it’s going to take some trial and error to determine the best approach for you. Talking about STIs with new partners and disclosing your status might seem overwhelming at first, but with a little bit of practice and the incorporation of these tips, you can alleviate that anxiety and feel confident about your sexual health conversations.
Jenelle Marie Pierce is the Executive Director of The STI Project: Breaking the Stigma®, the Founder of the herpes activists network, HANDS, and a Spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com. As an STI+ Sexual Health Educator and content creator, Jenelle has been dismantling stigma by reclaiming STI narratives® through awareness, education, and acceptance since 2012.
Jenelle also tri-chairs the Communications Action Group for the National Coalition for Sexual Health (NCSH), and she is a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), the International Union Against Sexually Transmitted Diseases (IUASTD), the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association (ASTDA), the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR), the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), and The Intermountain West HPV Vaccination Coalition.
Jenelle's work has been featured in popular TV, radio, and print outlets such as: The Washington Post, CNN, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Jezebel, Forbes, HuffPost Live, NPR, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Refinery 29, The Daily Mail, Bustle, and many more. Current bylines can be found in O.School, SELF, HepatitisC.net, Kinkly, PornHub’s Sexual Wellness Center, Allure, and more.