Talking about sexually transmitted infections can be tricky. Most of the time, sex educators focus on how to have the conversation before you have sex. Reid Mihalko’s safer sex elevator pitch is a really good format for that:
Reid’s Safer Sex Elevator Speech
Write down your answers for each and then try it out on yourself in the mirror or on a friend or a lover.
- When were you last tested for STDs, what did you get tested for, and what was the status of those tests?
- What is your current relationship status and sexual orientation, and what, if any, relationship agreements do you have that the other person should know about?
- What are your Safer Sex Protocols and needs?
- One or two things that you know you like sexually (or might want to do with this person).
- One thing you know you don’t like sexually (or that you aren’t up for today).
- Optional: Quick rundown of any risky sexual things you’ve done since you were last tested.
- Last step: Then ask the other person, “And how about you?” and listen to what they say and how they say it…
But what do you do when you discover that you might have picked up a bug after you’ve had sex with someone. Can you tell them about it?
In my opinion, the responsible thing is to contact anyone you might have exposed and give them the info so they can get tested and/or keep their eyes open for possible symptoms. I don’t limit this to STIs, either. Whenever I come down with an infection, I think about the people I might have exposed and let them know. Perhaps my take on this is a bit different from some peoples’, but my partner is a public health nurse and I know how much easier it is to stop diseases from spreading when you share the information as soon as possible. So here are some tips to make it easier.
Be direct about it
There’s no reason to dodge the facts. If you’re not sure if the other person has information about it, find some links to share with them. Scarleteen and the CDC are good places to start. If you let people know through email, you can double check all your facts and they can sit with the information and do their own research. Plus, if there’s more than one person you need to tell, email makes sure that you don’t forget anything out of repetition. If in-person works better for you, have the info you need handy or offer to send links later.
Let them know what the common symptoms are so they can keep an eye open. You might also want to share what treatment you’re getting because it normalizes the experience and shows that you’re taking responsibility for your health.
Unless you deliberately got infected and passed it on, there’s nothing to apologize for. It’s easy to feel ashamed of an STI, especially since a lot of people think of folks with STIs as dirty. But they’re no different from the flu, measles, or other diseases that people get. People frequently pass viruses and bacteria around without feeling ashamed of it, so the only reason I can see for being ashamed of an STI is having absorbed sex-negativity.
If your partner blames or shames you, do your best to not take that on. Remember- you’re doing the stand-up thing by telling them and you don’t need to let their reaction throw you.
Don’t assume you got it from them
Unless you’ve only ever had sex with one person, you really can’t know for sure where you were exposed to an STI. Having an STI doesn’t necessarily mean that they cheated. A lot of people have them and don’t ever have a symptom. It can be months or years before they find out, depending on how often they get tested. So instead of assuming that your current partner is the person who passed it along to you, let them know that you tested positive and that they should get checked out.
If you can have that conversation without shaming or blaming them, you’ll leave much more room to make your relationship even better than ever. Remember- you might have been exposed any time after your most recent STI test (plus whatever time there is between infection and when it can be tested for). And they might have been exposed any time after theirs. So think carefully about that before you jump to conclusions. (Of course, if you both tested negative and then you later test positive, that’s more likely to indicate a possible cheating situation, but be sure of your facts before you say anything you might later regret. Especially if you’re the one who might have “slipped.”)
Do I really need to do this?
Some folks might ask whether this is something they really need to do. After all, shouldn’t everyone be getting tested and watching out for themselves?
In my view, not only is sharing this information the responsible thing to do, it’s also the best way to care for your relationships. My partner once had a client who had giardia, which is a GI bug that can be spread through oral sex. He didn’t want to tell his girlfriend because he was afraid that she’d be angry that she had been exposed to it. Molly explained that if his girlfriend did come down with it and found out that she’d gotten it from giving him a blowjob and he hadn’t told her, odds were that he’d never get another blowjob again. (Understandably, in my opinion.) Given the consequences of not treating an STI, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
I know this can be especially difficult if your exposure happened while cheating. But in that case, it’s probably going to come out sooner or later and I think this is one of those situations in which the only mitigating factor is whether you come forward with the truth or not. Yes, it’s possible that it’ll precipitate a breakup, but my guess is that’s even more likely if your partner finds out later. Bite the bullet and get it over with.
Want an example? Well, it turns out that I recently tested positive for entamoeba histolytica, a GI infection that can be spread through contaminated food and water, as well as rimming and possibly, oral sex. I have no idea where I picked it up- it could just as easily have been from food as from sex. But it doesn’t really matter, other than affecting my ability to let the person I might have gotten it from know. So here’s the email I sent to my recent partners:
I wish I didn’t have to share this with you, but I seem to have picked up a GI bug and I want to give you a heads up in case I’ve passed it along to you.
I tested positive for entamoeba histolytica (info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entamoeba_histolytica and http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/amebiasis/index.html) which a kind of amoeba. It can spread through oral sex, especially rimming, as well as through contaminated food. Most people have very mild symptoms, including cramping, stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea. If you’re having any of these, let your doctor know. It’s reasonably easy to treat with antibiotics.
I’m bummed about this, but I’m hoping that you’re not having any problems. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
So far, each of my partners has thanked me for sharing this information with them and for having the integrity to be honest about it. They’ve also asked me how I’m feeling (mostly fine) and if there’s anything I need. The fact that I was direct, unashamed, and unapologetic gave them the room to do that.
If you ever find yourself in this kind of situation, please think carefully about letting your current and past partners know. It might feel difficult in the moment, but you’ll be able to look back on it and think about your actions with pride. And it leaves much more room for happy, healthy relationships, with your current partner(s) and future ones, too.