Disclosing that you have an STI is not an easy task. Even though the prevalence of STIs is high — one in two sexually active people will contract an STI before age 25 — all STIs are curable, treatable, or manageable. However, society still shames and stigmatizes us if we get a positive diagnosis. That’s why it can be especially difficult to tell our partner(s) when we’ve contracted something.
Disclosure can be a vulnerable experience, especially when it comes to sex and dating. But, ultimately, everyone deserves a fulfilling and pleasurable sex life with compassionate, respectful partners regardless of STI status.
Still, it’s never easy to tell someone, especially when you don’t know how a potential or existing partner is going to react. To ease the situation, here are some tips to help you prepare for and have the conversation.
Get tested if you aren’t sure.
Before you rush to call every human you hooked up within the last 60 days, get yourself tested to be 100 percent sure. Your doctor will determine exactly what your diagnosis is, test for other STIs, and get you started on the proper treatment.
Educate yourself on what your diagnosis means.
It’s a good idea to take some time to educate yourself on your diagnosis. What does symptom management look like? How does it affect your body, like your energy levels, pain, etc? This also involves understanding what safer sex looks like for you now, depending on your specific diagnosis, and how you can navigate intimacy outside of any STI related limitations. Take the time to find quality resources and involve yourself in online support communities.
Have a support system.
If family or friends aren’t supportive, or as understanding as you would like, get involved in one of many support communities dedicated to STI+ folks. You can listen to a library of inspiring, faith-restoring conversations between STI positive people, on the Something Positive for Positive People podcast, hosted by Courtney Brame, activist, and founder of the non-profit of the same name.
Figure out who you need to tell, and decide how you want to tell them.
Determine your recent sexual partners who need to be made aware of your diagnosis. They will likely need to get tested, too.
When it comes to dating and disclosing to new, or potential partners, Emily Depasse, sexologist and activist dismantling STI stigma, tells O.school, “As an overall rule, an STI status, whether you're STI positive or not, should be communicated prior to engaging in sexual activity.”
Should you do it via text/dating app? Before the first date? On the first date? Third? To figure this out, Brame says “if your intentions and values align and you see this progressing to a place where a partner can potentially be impacted by your status, it's important to give them that choice then.”
There isn’t necessarily a “best time” because it will depend on your intentions, and that will depend on the person. Go with what feels safest, and most comfortable for you. As Depasse notes, “It doesn't necessarily need to be the first thing you blurt out on a date, but it's less than desirable to be reaching for those words after clothes hit the floor.”
Is it okay to disclose your STI over text?
Go for it! Disclosing your status over text is absolutely okay! Depasse and Brame both enthusiastically advocate for disclosure via text message for many reasons (with the caveat that text messages can be screenshotted). For one, it can reduce the fear of rejection. This method also offers the partner receiving the news time to process and to react with (hopefully) grace. It offers both physical and emotional safety in the chance that the reaction is less than savory.
What should you actually say when you tell someone you have an STI?
With online dating, there is the option to list your positive diagnosis in your bio. For some, this is an easy way to put it out there without having individual conversations, and potentially be directly rejected. You’ll never know who “swipes left.” This method isn’t for everyone though.
When it comes to actual dialogue, whether in-person or via text messages, Depasse thinks it’s a good idea to ask yourself some questions to guide and prepare you, like “What would you want to know? What would you want to leave the conversation with?” She also mentions that roleplaying can be a helpful tool for getting comfortable with disclosure conversations, “Whether you're disclosing via text or in-person, it may bolster your confidence to practice with yourself or entrusted friends.”
Note that this conversation doesn’t have to have a serious and dramatic tone, it can be lighthearted, flirtatious even, stressing your excitement in the potential to be sexually intimate with them.
For some inspiration, Depasse offers some examples of how to present your diagnosis.
“I really, really want to [explative] you/with you, but I want you to know that I do get cold sores, so there is a possibility I could pass them to you through oral sex. Here are a few resources that talk about what that means and how we can move forward together.”
“I have [STI] and I'm really over the stigma and hope you are, too. I can share some resources with you if you're open to moving forward together. I appreciate your honesty either way.”
You never know exactly how someone will respond to your STI disclosure. When asked how she prepares for these situations, Depasse responds, “I think it's especially important to maintain awareness of the current social stigmas.” She stresses the importance of acceptance, not just of your own status, but of the rejection that may very well come along with it. “Though more people are willing to talk about stigma and work to defeat it, my comments section and popular media tell another story.”
She says to remember that, as with other anxiety-inducing conversations, it’s never going to go “exactly as planned,” so be gentle with yourself, and see what you can learn from the conversation for the next time.
Offer partner(s) resources.
There is a wealth of both educational and community resources. Articles, podcasts, websites, organizations, and so much more. Offering a couple of choice resources to your partner(s) not only takes the pressure off of you to be an expert, but can help your partner interrogate and unlearn stigmatizing narratives of STIs that frame those who contract them as “dirty”, irresponsible, or unable to have a pleasurable sex life after diagnosis. Depasse also notes, “offering resources for a partner allows them time to sit with and digest your disclosure, and what that might mean for your partnership.”
Navigating dating after a positive diagnosis can be a challenge, but the most important thing to remember is that you are just as worthy and deserving of sexual and romantic intimacy. Authentic self-acceptance of your diagnosis will go a long way in helping you disclose to others. Depasse reminds us, “the most simplistic path to comfort in sharing a positive STI status is simply knowing and accepting your truth. You're an STI positive person, but you're so much more than your status.”