So things between you and a new partner are going well, and all signs lead to embarking on a sexual relationship. One day, your partner utters the phrase, “We need to talk.” Immediately, you begin to wonder, “Is it me? Is it us? Are we no longer on the same page? What did I do wrong?” In this same moment of self-reflection, your partner discloses that they have an incurable but manageable sexually transmitted infection (STI). You freeze and flashback to your high school sex education classroom: slide after slide of each infection, a teacher that wrongly taught you “STIs = consequence.” You’re not only unsure if you want to move forward — you’re unsure of how to respond.
Two months after receiving my undergraduate degree in gender and sexuality studies, I received a positive herpes diagnosis. That day in July didn’t just change my approach to relationships, it shaped my professional life and care aspirations. From that day forward, my awareness and focus around herpes and STI stigma continued to grow and transform into my area of expertise as a sex educator and therapist. I wanted to be the kind of therapist that would understand the feelings around a positive STI diagnosis, and the educator who would go beyond their prevention and treatment methodologies. I wanted to dive deeper into all of the moments when I questioned my sense of self, my future, and my relationships. In order to accomplish that, I needed to confront the common denominator of those questions’ origin — the mechanics and perpetuation of STI stigma.
The stigma and lack of education around STIs often instills unnecessary fear. The Guttmacher Institute reports that of the 30 states that mandate sex education in the U.S., only 17 require that the information be medically accurate. When your teacher projected images of various STIs and their symptoms, did they ever share facts about STIs in the United States? Or that one in two sexually active persons will contract an STI before age 25? Or that one of the most common symptoms of having an STI is no symptoms at all? More than likely, the answer is probably not. Even the most comprehensive of sex education classrooms that work to include this information fail to address STI stigma and its impact.
Don’t Blame or Assume
A positive STI diagnosis or status is never anyone’s fault. It doesn’t make anyone “bad,” “dirty,” or “unworthy” of meaningful relationships and pleasure. A positive STI status simply means that someone engaged in a sexual experience with another person who was STI-positive which, as we learned, is not unusual. It’s the result of bodies coming together, similar to how we catch a cold or other virus from a co-worker or friend. The discomfort around positive STI diagnoses and STI-positive folks does not stem from the infections themselves, but from their sexual association and origin.
Do Your Own Research
It’s expected that you will have questions after a partner shares their positive status with you, especially if your sex education sounds anything like the examples listed above. Your partner may share several resources with you, but it is not their sole responsibility to educate you about the infection they carry — they are not their infection. If your partner does not offer any resources after disclosing, feel free to ask them for a few of their favorites. A simple, “Thank you for sharing. Do you have any resources that you could share with me?” is likely to be enthusiastically received. If you’ve searched Google and still aren’t sure what you should be reading to self-educate about STIs and their stigmas, below are a few general resources:
- Ella Dawson’s TEDx Talk: STIs aren’t a consequence, they’re inevitable
- The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA): A user friendly organization with resources that are most likely to answer any lingering questions you may have about oral sex and STIs, myths versus facts, presenting symptoms of specific STIs (probably some you haven’t heard of), and which tests are most reliable.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Here you’ll find a hub of data related to STIs, risk of transmission, and more. It should be noted that much of this data is not yet inclusive of transmission rates among LGBTQ+ folks at this time, which is another growing point for research and education.
- O.school: Now that you have a foundation for how to respond to a positive STI disclosure, maybe you’re wondering how to tell partners if and when you test positive. O.school’s guide for disclosure details the how-tos around disclosing via text or in-person, and recommends what to include in the conversation.
- Something Positive for Positive People Podcast: Podcast turned nonprofit. Here you’ll find over 100 episodes of STI-positive folks sharing their experiences
- SexELDucation: I started the SexELDucation Instagram page as a safer space for exploring STI-positive experiences, unlearning STI stigma, and exploring authenticity in relationships. From disclosure, to rejection, to self-care during herpes outbreaks, you’re bound to learn something new about yourself, your relationships, and how you show up in this world.
Self-Reflect Before Making and Communicating Your Decision
Your partner likely expects and understands that you may need additional time to work through what this means for your partnership. As you’re researching and reflecting, learning and unlearning, you may be placed in uncomfortable positions within your thought process, beliefs, and values. It’s not easy to have long held assumptions be challenged or broken down, especially those that relate to something as personal as our sexuality. Be patient and honest with yourself about where you are, and communicate that with your partner.
Be Mindful Of Your Language
When it comes to STI stigma, language is everything — especially when we’re communicating with an STI-positive partner. When framing your response, whether it’s an acceptance or rejection, communicate your decision with intention and respect, and without blame or shame. Thank your partner for sharing their positive status with you and acknowledge the value in that truth. Tell them about your efforts to self-educate, and share the time you spent on self-reflection as you arrived at your decision. An example might sound something like, “I’ve done a little research and still don’t know everything, but I am ready to move forward and learn together if you are.”
If you found yourself leaning towards rejection after your self-reflection period, know a person often fears that response when disclosing a positive STI-status. As you communicate your decision with your partner, acknowledge that fear. “Thank you again for sharing your positive status with me. I know that STI stigma is a thing, and that there’s often a fear in sharing a positive status with your potential partners. I spent some time researching and reflecting, and I’m not sure I’m in a space where I’m ready to move forward sexually.”
No matter your decision, responding to a partner’s STI-positive disclosure is an opportunity to refine communication around your sexual health, pleasures, and boundaries.