The Right Way to Tell Someone You Have an STI, According to Experts
Honesty is the best policy.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can harm your health. But they also mess with your head. Testing positive can leave you feeling singled out and alone, making you judge yourself harshly and question what you may have done wrong.
But none of this self-flagellation is warranted. STIs are incredibly common, especially the ones that are considered lifelong, such as genital herpes and HPV (human papillomavirus). More than one in six people between ages 14 and 49 have been diagnosed with one or both of these viruses, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV is the most common STI in the United States, with 14 million new cases each year.
carily, most people diagnosed with an STI keep it a secret. According to a recent survey, 72% of infected people didn’t inform their partners. This isn’t an issue if your STI was cured with meds, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, and is in the past. But herpes and HPV are not technically curable, so it’s crucial to let a partner know if you’ve ever tested positive. While herpes typically doesn’t lead to bigger health issues, HPV might. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts, while others can lead to cancer of the cervix, head, neck, anus, and penis.
Accepting your diagnosis is hard; telling a potential new partner might be one of the toughest conversations you ever have. We enlisted experts for their tips on how to make this potentially awkward talk as painless as possible.
Where and when to ‘fess up
It’s always best to come clean before you and your new partner become intimate. Do it in person; this isn’t the kind of info you want to fire off in a text. Have the conversation, “on a date or during dinner, when you feel the relationship is heading towards sexual intimacy,” suggests Sherry A. Ross, MD, a Los Angeles-based ob-gyn and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
Or consider a more neutral setting, like on a walk. People tend to be more comfortable discussing difficult things when they aren’t facing each other, and a walk offers a sense of space. It gives the potential partner the opportunity to reply, “I need to give more thought to this’ or ‘I don’t think this is right for me, thank you for being honest with me,” explains Sari Cooper, founder and director of the Center for Love and Sex in New York City.
The exact right words to use
If you have herpes, say exactly that: “I have herpes” or “I’ve been diagnosed with herpes.” Next, Dr. Ross advises explaining that right now, you don’t have any active lesions, so it’s unlikely you’d transmit the virus. If you take antiviral medication to prevent outbreaks, say so, and add that as long as you take meds, use a condom, and steer clear of any sexual activity when you have an outbreak or feel one coming on, the chance of a partner picking it up is extremely low.
If you haven’t transmitted the virus to any past partners, let them know, and tell them how often you do have outbreaks. Finish with, “I wanted to share this information with you so you are not misled.”
As for HPV, say that during routine testing at your ob-gyn’s office, you tested positive for HPV. Explain that almost everyone is thought to contract HPV at some point in life, and most of the time, a person’s immune system fights off the virus and they eventually test negative—though you might still transmit the virus even after a negative test result. (“If future paps are completely normal without the presence of HPV, you still have the potential to transmit [HPV] to your partner,” affirms Dr. Ross.) Add that using a condom can reduce that risk further, but it’s important that they know.
If nerves are getting the best of you, try creating an STI script that helps you voice what you want in a confident and reassuring way, says Dr. Ross. “The more prepared you are, the better it will sound, and the better your partner will take the information,” she adds.
Once you’ve said it, take a deep breath and allow your partner time to react and ask questions. If they ask something about medication or transmission rates and you don’t know the answer, don’t wing it; direct them to resources (like this or this) so they can learn more on their own.
Treat a negative response as a red flag
Once you’ve answered their questions and assured your partner that you are taking precautions, be an empathetic listener. If the person has more concerns, “suggest making an appointment with your doctor as a couple,” says Cooper.
Millions of people find out that a partner has an STI, and even so, they accept that fact and continue with the relationship—a relationship launched on trust and honesty. Sadly, though, a huge stigma still surrounds STIs, so it’s possible for your partner’s reaction to not be so great. If they don’t react in a mature and sensitive way, make you feel ashamed, or say it’s a total deal breaker, then this was not the right person for you.
“If they choose to end the relationship, it is not because of you but rather likely due to their fear,” says Rachel Needle, psychologist and certified sex therapist in West Palm Beach, Florida and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes. Don’t take the reaction personally, and stay optimistic, because there will be others who will respond more positively. Adds Needle: “Remember, you are not your STI.”
Please humor the below questions (I know some of them seem like no-brainers, but need to cover even the basics/most obvious for our readers):
Do you really have to tell your partner you have an STI?
What if you had chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, but were treated— do you still need to share?
Do you need to inform your partner if you’ve had HPV in the past (low risk and/or high risk), even if you have normal paps now and your HPV tests have been clear?
And then the big, hard-hitting question: (FOR THERAPIST):
How do you tell someone you have an STI? (some people feel guilt over it or treat it as though they’re a bad person, and this needs to be destigmatized… what’s the best approach?)
The stigmatization of STIs can lead to internalized shame. Many STIs, for example herpes, are very common. You can contract certain STIs in different ways. Thus, contracting an STI is not necessarily a sign that you did something wrong or made poor choices. Remember that you are worthy of love.
-When should you tell your partner you have an STI? At what point in the relationship?
It is important to share with your partner that you have an STI before becoming sexually active. While it can sometimes be an uncomfortable conversation, it is important to educate your partner and to give them a choice. Having an STI is nothing to be ashamed of.
The STIs that are lifelong are almost always manageable, do not always result in physical signs, and are not a reflection on someone’s character.
-How prepared should you come (your partner will most likely have questions)?
First, make sure you tell them in person, face-to-face. Be prepared to education your partner about the STI you have including ways you can be sexually active and reduce the chance of transmission. If you feel comfortable you can share with them how you contracted the STI and how if at all it has impacted you. Allow your partner to ask any questions they have and provide them with good resources to learn more on their own.
-What if your partner responds negatively?
It is unfortunately a possibility that your partner will not respond positively to your disclosure. Offer them the opportunity to give it some thought and do their own research to learn about the STI you were discussing. If they choose to end the relationship, it is not because of you but rather likely due to their fear. In the end, if this is a deal breaker for them, then they were not the partner for you. There will be others who will respond more positively. Try not to take a partners reaction personally. Remember, you are not your STI!