When, Where, and Why: Telling Your Partner You Have an STI
Finding out you have an STI can be upsetting, intimidating and scary, especially with all the misinformation and stigma out there. One of the things we’re often most scared of and upset about when we’re diagnosed is having to tell potential or current sexual partners. The American Sexual Health Association currently reports that half of all people will have an STI at some point in their lifetime, and yet, we’re rarely provided any information about how to disclose our STI+ status to our partners.
But guess what? Disclosing your STI status to your partner can be a supportive and affirmative experience. When disclosure goes well, it can:
Establish trust and a bond between you and a partner
By disclosing, you are making yourself vulnerable, whether this is a one-night-stand or something more serious. You are also actively demonstrating to a partner that you care and value their sexual health as much as your own.
Destroy negative stereotypes of STIs or people who have them
I love this part! When I disclose that I have genital herpes type 1, I love smashing the stereotypes. I do this by explaining how common it is (1 in 5 Americans have it); how having sex with me doesn't automatically mean my partner will contract it. In fact, it actually means they probably won’t, because I know when I’m coming down with an outbreak, and can take the proper precautions (medication, abstaining from the kinds of sexual contact that can be transmit it). There are many people who don’t know they have herpes or HPV, so having sex with someone who not only knows their status, but also takes care of their health is important!
STIs are incredibly common, and yet, there is so much misinformation out there. People fear what they don’t know. If you can educate one person, you’re helping break the the very unnecessary stigma that impacts you and the millions of other people who have or have had STIs.
Of course, disclosure doesn't always go well, and it can also be difficult.
When it goes poorly, it can look like:
- Disbelief: “What? I can’t believe YOU have this!”
- Judgment/Ignorance: “Wow, so, did you sleep around a lot, or what?”
- Fear: “I don’t know if I can deal with this.”
- Rejection: “I can’t be with someone who has an STI. Sorry.”
If any of the above reactions happen to you after you’ve disclosed, you’ll probably feel raw, uneasy, sad, and disappointed--and that’s okay. All of those feelings are certainly valid.
You can choose to say something in the moment to your potential partner. For example, if they say: “Wow, did you sleep around a lot?” You can combat that with facts, “Actually, you can get herpes/HPV/HIV from having sex with one person.” If you want to take this a step forward, and call the person out on their slut-shaming, you could say: “Your comment is really judgmental and misinformed. If I contracted it from sleeping around, that’s not any better or worse than contracting it from one person.”
If you’re feeling too emotionally raw to speak in the moment -- or don't want to -- just leave. You can always choose to reach out to this person later on (and they might do the same to you after they’ve had some time to digest the information). If you would prefer to write them off and never speak to them again, you get to do that, too.
After a disclosure goes poorly, it’s important to practice self-care, and understand that someone else reacting badly says much more about them than you or your STI status. This is about their failing, not yours.
One of my best disclosures went like this:
“So, I have herpes…. If you have any questions, please ask.”
“Oh, really? I mean, it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
“Well, that’s good, because it shouldn’t.”
He later commended me for my confidence.
If you have an incurable STI, like herpes (oral and/or genital), HIV, or some forms of HPV, or you have a treatable STI, like Chlamydia, that you're still in the process of treating (so it can still be transmitted to others), and you’re going to be sexual with anyone, it’s important to disclose to any or all sexual partners, before being sexual with them in ways where they can contract the STI from you. Practicing safer sex is also extra important, but because safer sex doesn't provide 100% protection, disclosing is still essential.
It can be overwhelming to figure out how to do this, so here’s my when, where, and the why when it comes to telling your date you have an STI.
This one can be tricky. There are times that are definitely not good to disclose your STI status to a date; the main one being right before you engage in sexual activity. If you have oral herpes, you’ll want to disclose this before you kiss. If you have genital herpes, HPV, or HIV, you’ll want to disclose this before any type of sex happens (fingering, oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex).
You want to protect yourself, feel safe and confident when you have this conversation, especially if you’re unsure of how the conversation will go. If you feel at all uneasy in the physical space you’re in, make note of this, and have the conversation at a later time in a space you feel confident, safe, and relaxed. If you’re feeling calm, the conversation will go much better than if you’re not.
So when do you disclose? As someone with genital herpes type 1, I’ve done it in a few different ways.
I’ve disclosed via text message when the topic of sex has come up saying, “Hey, by the way I have herpes. It’s not a big deal, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.” I’ve disclosed in person by starting with, “So, tell me about your sexual health history. Have you ever had an STI or do you have one currently?” I prefer to disclose in person, because I like to see the person’s immediate reaction. I’ve disclosed on the first date and on the fifth date. It really depends on how you’re feeling about the situation (and how soon you want to have sex). Some people like to get it over with quickly--like pulling off a Band-Aid--while others like to wait. Neither way is wrong, as long as you make sure you’re also practicing safer sex by using condoms and other barriers.
There have been a few times where I felt I had to disclose on the first date, because, for example, one man made a herpes joke. I could have let it slide, or laughed along with him, but I didn’t feel like contributing to my own marginalization and oppression. I don’t remember the beginning of the “joke”, but it ended with, “...and that’s how you get something like herpes!” I felt comfortable and safe enough with him to call him out right then and there. I said: ‘That’s not funny. I have herpes, and it’s actually not a big deal.” He ended up feeling bad, and apologized profusely. Later, we had sex.
I’ve disclosed in a few different places: in the car, at a date’s apartment, at my apartment, on the phone, or via text. It’s important to disclose where you feel safe and confident, so you can be as vulnerable as you need. Ideally, where you disclose will also have a built-in exit for you within easy reach so you can end and get away from the interaction quickly if the person you're telling reacts aggressively to your disclosure or in any way that makes you feel unsafe or simply is unsafe.
I find it best to disclose on my own turf (at my apartment), so I have more control of my environment. I would caution against disclosing in a public space (restaurant, coffee shop, bar, sidewalk), just because it can make things awkward for all parties involved. You want to be able to express yourself freely, and you want your partner to be able to do the same. They may have a ton of questions or they may be silent. Either way, it’s helpful to have this conversation in a private, quiet, safe space.
There are some people (even some healthcare providers!) who don’t think you need to disclose that you have oral herpes or even HPV. However, it’s important for partners to tell each other about their sexual health histories. For one, it’s a way to build trust in the relationship (whether it’s going to be a casual thing or something more serious). Second, you shouldn’t take a decision away from your partner. I contracted genital herpes type 1 from an ex who cheated on me. I had no choice in the matter. He took that from me. You don’t want to do this to someone. It’s incredibly hurtful. It also means that sex won’t really be fully consensual, because without all the information to know what they’re consenting to, including what known risks are involved, a person can’t make fully informed consent.
I’ve had a few instances with dates where they disclosed their herpes status after I disclosed mine. I was glad they disclosed, but I wondered: “Would they have disclosed to me if I hadn’t been the one to initiate this conversation?” This experience taught me just how important it is to ask about a date’s sexual health history. A date may not be thinking about protecting you--maybe it’s subconscious, maybe it’s malicious (in which, case, that’s a BIG, RED flag)--but either way, you can protect yourself by initiating this conversation. Sure, they can choose to lie, but at least you asked. You tried.
The worst part about disclosing is the anxiety you might feel before it happens. You’re getting ready to share something vulnerable about yourself and your sexual history. You'll usually fear judgment, shame, and rejection. But just for the record, I’ve never had someone say anything outwardly rude or judgmental to me when I disclosed to them. I know this definitely can happen, but it’s not the only narrative out there, and it shouldn’t shame you into silence.
The only real “incorrect” way of handing disclosure of your sexual health history is by choosing NOT to disclose. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but it’s one that definitely needs to happen.
Want some help or support with all this? Scarleteen's direct services -- our moderated message boards, our SMS/text service or our live chat are all available to you. We're happy to help talk you through this, before or after disclosing. Click here for a menu of our direct services.