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Talking to people about STIs

Openly discussing sexual health can be scary, but it’s an important part of caring for ourselves and others. Find out about how to talk about STIs with sexual partners and other people in your life.

Talking about STIs can be daunting, especially if it’s telling someone you like that you have, or think you might have, an STI.  

Openly discussing sexual health is not something we are taught to do, but it’s an important part of caring for ourselves and others. It can feel scary but there are lots of ways to make this process easier. 

When to talk about STIs

The best time to talk about STIs is before you start having sex (including oral sex). You might be worried that this will break the mood, but it’s an important thing to do, and means you can take the necessary steps to have safe sex.  

Having a conversation about sexual health with new partners before you have sex is a chance to learn about each other and means you can both make an informed decision about what types of sex you want to have, and how you can keep yourselves and each other safe. 

I don’t have an STI – why do I need to talk about them?

Even if you know for certain that you don’t have an STI, it’s still important to talk with your partners about how you will have safe and enjoyable sex. You might want to have conversations about using condoms and getting tested. 

Also, they might have an STI and be trying to work out the best way to start the conversation! 

Remember: not all STIs have symptoms, so the only way to know for sure that you don’t have one is to get tested. 

If you have an STI, it is important that you tell new and existing partners about your sexual health status. This is to help keep people safe and reduce the transmission of STIs. It is also important, if you are diagnosed with a new STI, to inform any previous partners as soon as possible so they can get tested.  

STI disclosures and the law 

For most STIs, there is no legal requirement to tell your sexual partners that you have an STI. However, the rules are slightly different for HIV. 

If you’re having protected sex there’s no law saying you must tell your partners that you have HIV. It’s your choice whether you tell them or not. 

However, in England and Wales there’s a risk of being prosecuted for ‘reckless transmission of HIV’ if all the following are true: 

  • You had sex with someone who didn’t know you had HIV 
  • You knew you had HIV at that time 
  • You understood how HIV is transmitted 
  • You had sex without a condom 
  • You transmitted HIV to that person 

The law in Scotland is largely the same, except that a case can also be brought if HIV hasn’t actually been transmitted but someone has been put at risk of transmission without their consent or knowledge. 

Aside from your legal responsibilities, at Brook we believe that telling your sexual partners that you have an STI is the right thing to do. This can be nerve-wracking, but there are lots of ways you can prepare for the conversation that make it feel easier. 

Anonymous partner notification

If you have been diagnosed with an STI and are worried about contacting your previous partners, there are ways to tell them anonymously. Sexual health services will often offer you the opportunity do this, or you could use a service like Tell Your Partner.

Whichever way you do it, telling previous partners that you have been diagnosed with an STI so they can choose to get tested and treated is the right thing to do. 

Top tips for having a conversation about STIs 

Here are some top tips for having a conversation with your partner(s) about having an STI. 

Ask for help 

You could get in touch with your local sexual health service, who will be able to support you with understanding all the important information about the STI that you have and provide guidance on informing sexual partners about your status.  

You could also talk to people you trust, and perhaps work out with them what you would like to say. 

Decide how you want to communicate 

If you decide to meet and talk face to face, choose a place where you feel safe and comfortable to have this discussion. If possible, have an exit nearby so you can leave the discussion and get away from the person if their reaction makes you feel unsafe. 

If you’re not able to meet in person or you don’t feel safe doing that, you could also message or video chat with your partner. It all depends on your relationship and how you prefer to communicate. 

Prepare for the talk 

Arrange for it to happen at a time and place where you feel safe and confident, especially if you’re not sure how it will go. You might want to make plans to check in with a supportive friend after.  

Some people like to have the conversation straight away, while others prefer to go on a few dates and get to know the person first. However you choose to do it, it’s up to you, and depends on how soon you want to have sex. 

Open the discussion 

You could begin by telling them you have an STI and ask if they have any questions. Maybe you will want to talk about what kinds of protection you will need to use, or more generally how you manage your STI. 

This discussion is also a chance for you to learn more about your partner’s sexual history. You could ask them: 

  • Do you know if you have any STIs? 
  • When was the last time you were tested for STIs? 
  • Do you use condoms or any other type of protection when you have sex? 
  • Have you had any STIs before? Did you get treatment? 
  • Are you having unprotected sex with anyone else? 
  • Do any of your other current partners have any STIs? 

When asking these questions, it’s important to be sensitive; it’s a chance to build trust and be honest with each other but shouldn’t be a hostile or one-sided interview. 

The person’s reaction to discussing this subject will help you get to know them better. If they are really against talking about it, it might affect how you feel about having sex with them. 

Be prepared for their reaction 

Hopefully the person will be glad that you have brought it up and react positively. Being brave and honest could bring you closer together and build trust, and possibly even make you like each other more. 

But it’s also possible they will react with fear or judgement. It’s important to remember that this is not your fault and not something you need to manage. If you feel like it, you could choose to address their reaction, but it would be fine if you chose not to. You can always leave and pick the conversation up later on once they have had time to think.  

However, if you’re not happy with their reaction and don’t want to speak to them again, that’s also fine. Remember that these types of responses are giving you information about them and are not about you. Take some time to look after yourself, seek support if you need it, and do whatever makes you feel good and safe. 

It can be scary to be vulnerable and talk about your sexual history, so regardless of how the person you tell reacts, you should be proud of yourself!  

Talking to people other than your sexual partners about your STI status 

There are various reasons why you may need to talk to people about your STI status. This could be friends or family because you want support. It could be that you need to tell your employer if you need time off work to go to an appointment. You may need to speak to pharmacists who aren’t already aware of your health status, or security at the airport if you are travelling with medication, or it may just come up in conversation with people. There are lots of situations that can arise, some of which you will be prepared for, and others which will be unexpected.  

With all situations that involve telling people about your STI status, the main thing to remember is that you have nothing to be ashamed of, or apologise for. Like with any medical condition, you are entitled to respect, support and understanding. If any conversations are tricky, or you expect them to be, you can always reach out to organisations that specialise in the STI you have. Support groups may be particularly helpful, so you can speak to other people who have a similar experience to you.  

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