Despite what you may have learned, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are extremely common. And if you receive a positive diagnosis, trust that you’re not alone and it’s not the end of the world (or your sex life!).
It’s possible to have pleasurable sex and healthy relationships, with or without an STI.
But knowing and sharing your STI status with your partners is a key part of that equation.
According to the
All of these can either be treated or managed.
According to sex educator Emily L. Depasse, findings indicate that over half of the U.S. population will test positive for at least one STI during their lifetime. And the
But Depasse reminds us to be mindful of missing or overlooked groups, and how STI stigma impacts this data.
“What we have are those reported STIs,” Depasse says. “These numbers don’t account for those who may be unaware of their infections, are embarrassed to seek treatment, and/or feel unsupported by the medical population based on their race, orientation, body type, etc.”
This means STIs could be even more common than current research suggests.
STI stigma exists for so many reasons, including:
- purity culture messages from religious leaders
- abstinence- and fear-based school sex education
- sex-negative parents or authority figures
- people perpetuating shame or stigma in everyday conversations
- TV shows and movies using STIs as punchlines or jokes
- general misinformation and a lack of knowledge around sexual health
- stigma toward sex as a whole within society
“Most [people] didn’t receive a comprehensive sex education and were taught that an STI only happens to a certain kind of person (i.e., stigma as opposed to science),” Depasse says. In fact, medically accurate sex and HIV education is only required in 22 states, as of 2020.
Simply put: We rarely receive the necessary tools, resources, and information on how to safely navigate sex. That’s why there’s stigma surrounding STIs, and sex in general.
“Getting tested regularly shows that you care about yourself and your partner(s),” says Dr. Sara C. Flowers, vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “And getting comfortable talking with your partners about safer sex, STI testing, and STI status [is] a part of a healthy sex life.”
It’s also necessary so all partners can grant informed consent.
“Sex is only truly consensual if everyone is fully informed about the risks involved,” she adds.
Another important reason is because, as Depasse puts it, you can’t look at someone’s genitals to determine their STI status.
“Many sex education classrooms focus conversations around STI symptoms [but] neglect to inform that the most common symptom of an STI is having no symptoms at all,” she explains. “Some STI symptoms may be so minor that they go mistaken as an ingrown hair or scratch, or someone may simply have an asymptomatic infection.”
Anyone else remember those worst-case scenario symptom photos from health class? Yep, those didn’t exactly set us up for an educated view of the reality of STIs.
Untreated STIs may also lead to health issues (like pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility, in some cases) or unknowingly passing them to partners. Regular screenings can prevent this.
How often you should get tested depends on many factors:
- your age
- your sexual orientation
- the date of your last test
- whether you’re sexually active
- how many partners you’re sexually engaging with and barrier methods used
- the types of sex you’re having
- if you’ve recently been exposed to an STI
This quiz by Planned Parenthood can help you figure out if it’s time for you to get tested.
It’s best to speak with a healthcare professional to create a testing plan best suited for your needs. And keep in mind that asking to be tested “for everything” doesn’t necessarily include everything.
STI testing isn’t always a part of a standard physical, either. So be sure to discuss with your doctor what STI testing would be best for you.
At-home STI kits are another great option when in-person testing may be inaccessible.
“People always worry about the ‘perfect’ disclosure — place, time, what to say, etc. The most important thing is that the conversation happens, and not only does it happen, it’s mutual. All involved parties have a status to share,” says Depasse.
A “successful” STI disclosure is disclosing your status, no matter the outcome. But if you’re feeling worried or hesitant, these tips may help you navigate the conversation more confidently.
When to say it
When to disclose depends on the situation and STI.
Flowers’ rule of thumb: If you already know you have an STI, let your partners know before any sexual activity, like vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
If you find out after you’ve already had sex, let them know about your status ASAP, even if you’re not still in contact with them regularly.
For example, if you have oral herpes (commonly known as cold sores), consider disclosing before sharing a first kiss or before genital contact, as oral herpes
“The important thing is that you share the information — and the sooner, the better,” says Flowers.
Disclose in a safe, comfortable space, either in person or over text. “Ideally, this happens before you’re in the midst of a hot and heavy makeout session,” says Depasse, but “you can still take a step back and have the conversation without losing the heat of the moment.”
It’s not a one-time thing, either, especially if you have multiple partners or your status changes.
“It’s an ongoing mutual conversation [and] an opportunity for you and your sexual partners to check-in with one another,” she adds.
How to say it
Be honest and confident
Flowers suggests keeping it straight and to the point.
“You can start by letting your partner(s) know that you care about their health, which is why you want to let them know that you’ve been diagnosed with an STI,” Flowers says. “Then you can let them know about the results of your STI test — which STI(s) you have and what that means for your health and theirs.”
Still don’t know what to say and how to say it? Depasse recommends starting with templates and trying different ways of disclosing.
She even offers some templates to get you started on her Instagram:
- 7 Ways to Bring Up STI Screening with Your Sex Partners
- How to Disclose Your Status to Casual Sex Partners
This video from Planned Parenthood also offers different ways to navigate the conversation.
Be mindful of your language
Saying you have a “positive” or “negative” STI diagnosis is much less stigmatizing than words like “clean,” “dirty,” or “STD.”
“Your STI status doesn’t make you good or bad, ‘clean’ or ‘dirty,’” adds Flowers. “Having an STI just means you’ve been in close contact with another person who has an STI.”
Depasse reminds not to apologize for a positive STI status, either. “It’s never anyone’s ‘fault’ that they have an infection.”
Offer education and support
“For folks disclosing their STI status, there can be, and often is, added pressure of being an educator about the infection they have,” says Depasse.
But sharing medically accurate facts, including preventive treatment and barrier method options that may reduce the chance of transmission, can help people overcome stigma rooted in misinformation.
Discussing STIs can bring up different emotions — especially if one partner has an STI. Some folks may need time to think about whether they’re comfortable moving forward. Be gentle with yourself and offer each other support and grace during the process.
“Remember, you’re not a risk,” says Depasse. “You’re an informed decision.”
Talking about sex, especially STIs, can be nerve-racking. But it becomes easier with practice.
“I think with anything, the more you do it and create a habit out of it, the less invasive or awkward it becomes. It becomes something that’s a normal part of your sexual scripts,” says Depasse.
She recommends practicing your disclosure with friends and family who already know and love you: “They’ll help reinforce your greatness — beyond your STI status.”
Make space for discomfort
Depasse says that it’s common to feel uneasy about sharing a positive STI status or asking for a partner’s status. So expect potential moments of discomfort or awkward silence.
Remember, everyone has different comfort levels, too. So if someone rejects you for a positive STI status, try not to take it personally. This is oftentimes a direct result of STI stigma and misinformation.
Don’t let that stop you from disclosing again. You deserve to be completely accepted and experience pleasure, whether or not you have an STI.
If you’re worried about what to say when someone rejects you after an STI disclosure, Depasse offers some tips on her Instagram.
STIs are very common, and receiving a positive diagnosis isn’t shameful. Not to mention, they’re all curable or manageable. But testing and disclosure are two ways to keep all partners as safe and healthy as possible.
It may feel awkward at first, but it’s important to have honest conversations with partners about testing histories, STI statuses, and how to have safer sex.
Sharing medically accurate information, being kind and confident, and offering each other grace and support during the disclosure process can go a long way.
If you or your partner receive a positive STI diagnosis, try not to stress. People with STIs can — and do! — have pleasurable sex lives and happy, healthy relationships.
“Remember that having an STI has nothing to do with who you are as a person. Plenty of people have STIs, so you’re not alone. But sharing your STI status with a current, ex, or potential partner shows that you are confident, trustworthy, and someone who values your own health and safety, as well as the health and safety of others,” reminds Flowers.
“You’re doing the right thing, and you’re totally capable of having these conversations,” Flowers adds.
Morgan Mandriota is a New York-based writer who is passionate about exploring the intersection of pleasure, healing, and holistic well-being. She currently works as a staff writer with Psych Central where she specializes in creating content about sex, relationships, mental health, and alternative approaches to wellness. Her work has been published in notable publications, including Betches, Bumble, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Health, mindbodygreen, Shape, Tinder, Verywell Mind, and Well+Good. In her free time, she enjoys chasing sunsets, playing video games, spending time in nature, swimming in a sea of CBD salve, trying different therapy practices, and working on her passion project Highly Untamed. Connect with Morgan on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website here to learn more.