If your school’s sexual education course looked a lot like the “Mean Girls” scene when Coach Carr says, “don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die,” you’re not in the minority. Sexual education around the country has been seriously lacking for years when it comes to informing our youth about how to have sex and how to best protect themselves while doing it — especially when it comes to STI and STD transmission.
For those who can relate and need a refresher: STIs (or sexually transmitted infections) — the more modern and accepted term over STD (sexually transmitted diseases) — are spread by sexual contact. The “bacteria, viruses, or parasites that cause them can be passed from person to person in blood, semen, or vaginal and other bodily fluids,” per the Mayo Clinic.
They’re also very prevalent: the CDC estimates that one in five people in the U.S. has an STI. Some of the most common types of STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, syphilis, and HPV. That means 20 percent of us will have an STI at some point; it also means a significant portion of us may have a partner sit us down and tell us they have an STI.
While our schools may have failed us, there are resources that help explain what to do if you find out you have an STI, like this guide from Planned Parenthood. But there’s not a lot of information out there that focuses on how to respond if you find out your partner has an STI. Knowing what to say and how to respond is incredibly important, says certified sex therapist Aliyah Moore, Ph.D. These are her top tips on how to respond if a new or potential partner tells you they have an STI.
1. Try Not to Panic
Because the stigma around STIs is alive and well, it may be jarring to hear the person you’re interested in has an STI. However, if you approach the conversation with openness, “it will ease any tension that you and your partner may feel discussing sexual health,” says Dr. Moore.
So before you respond, take a deep breath. Know that “the stigma and lack of education around STIs often instill unnecessary fear,” says Dr. Moore, as most STIs — like gonorrhea and chlamydia — can be treated and not further transmitted. And though STIs like genital herpes do not have a “cure,” they can still be managed through antiviral treatment.
That said, it’s OK to have questions after a partner shares their STI status with you. Dr. Moore suggests asking the following questions to gather more information about the diagnosis:
- Will I need to be treated too?
- Do we need to start using barrier protection?
- Do we need to refrain from sexual activity altogether, and for how long?
You can also ask your partner for some time as you allow yourself a few hours or days to process the information.
2. Don’t Blame This Person or Assume You Know Everything About Their Sex Life
It’s likely the person disclosing their STI may feel embarrassed about having an STI. So although it may be hard to hear, treat this person with the same respect you’d expect if roles were reversed. Remember that “disclosing an STI is a sign of trust and shows that your partner wants you to be healthy, too.” As Dr. Moore notes, typically “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 doesn’t mean anything more than that.
3. Consider What Language You Use When You Respond
When it comes to STI stigma, language is everything. And Dr. Moore advises those on the receiving end to “impart compassionate, empathetic words to your partner and, as much as possible, refrain from using triggering words that might feel off or disrespectful.” Specific words you should refrain from using are “bad,” “dirty,” or “unworthy,” says Dr. Moore. Instead, focus on asking your partner any questions you may have. You might also thank your partner for sharing their positive status with you before you became physically intimate, and acknowledge the value in that truth.
4. Schedule a Doctor’s Appointment
Though Google can help with some preliminary questions you have, it’s likely best to speak with a trained medical professional who can advise on your specific circumstance. There, you can get your own STI screening done, and also talk with a doctor, so you can understand what is at risk, how to take proper care of yourself, and the best preventative treatment you can take knowing your partner has (or had) an STI.
5. Know That You Can Still Have a Healthy, Happy Sex Life With This Person If You Choose
Some STIs are curable and fully treatable with antibiotics, others remain in your system forever. However, the ones that remain in your system — including herpes simplex virus (HSV), HIV, and human papillomavirus (HPV) — can still be managed with treatment. For example, for a herpes diagnosis, you can take antiviral treatment, which can “prevent symptomatic genital herpes recurrences and improve quality of life and suppress the virus to prevent transmission to sexual partners,” the CDC states. And for HIV, you can take daily treatment, which can suppress your HIV to undetectable levels, virtually eliminating the risk of transmission to sexual partners.
For more information on how and what you can do, talk with a medical professional about your or your partner’s specific diagnosis, who can then provide you with resources or options to protect your health during sex.
6. If Your Long-Term Romantic Partner Tests Positive For an STI, Do Not Assume They Cheated
Though your mind might immediately jump to conclusions, try not to get ahead of yourself. Dr. Moore says that some STIs don’t always show up right away. “It’s possible that you or your partner got the STI in a previous relationship without even knowing it,” she says. Especially since some STI-positive people could have an asymptomatic case. Using the above list of tips, take some time to consider everything your partner tells you. Then, schedule a time to get tested yourself. Even if your partner did contract the STI through cheating, taking time to process your feelings while you prioritize your own health can help you respond with intention, which is never a bad thing.