How to Navigate Dating, Love, and Sex With an STI/STD
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 20% of all Americans have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This means one out of every five people have an STI, and nearly half of those occur in people ages 15-24 years.
It's important to understand the facts when dating and being sexually active. The choices you make can affect your partner and their future partners. While many people use the terms STI and sexually transmitted disease (STD) interchangeably, they are not the same.
Since not all infections become diseases, the healthcare community is moving away from using "STD" in favor of the less stigmatized "STI."
On this page, discover how stigmas and shame can impact dating and sex with an STI. We discuss tips from two experts that can help you date when you have an STI and have the hard but necessary conversation with your partner.
Unpacking Stigmas, Shame, and STIs
Despite the large number of people diagnosed with an STI, there remains a shroud of shame surrounding a positive diagnosis.
This impacts the number of sexually active people who seek annual screenings for infections, many of which have little-to-no symptoms. And, if you don't know you have an infection, you don't get treated. Without treatment, and with exposure, infection will probably spread to other people, and many of the infections can result in long-term health problems, including:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Conversations about sex are often difficult. In fact, even without the subject of an STI, many find the conversation raises feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy.
Dr. Gary Schoolnik is an attending physician in internal medicine and infectious disease. He notes that STIs are unlike other infections as stigmas surround the diagnosis. Schoolnik says these misconceptions that only "bad" or "dirty" people get STIs result in judgment and myths about the infections.
"Some societies consider women to be 'clean' and 'pure,' or suggest that women who contract an STI are promiscuous," he says. "Yet the facts are that anyone who has sex can contract an STI, and half of Americans will acquire one or more STIs during their lifetime."
While these misconceptions may apply most to women, people of any gender can also be harmed by the idea that a positive diagnosis makes them “dirty” or shameful.
Tresa Wallace is a nurse practitioner with many years of experience in women's health. She agrees with Schoolnik that the stigmas around STIs keep patients from seeking medical care, which may delay treatment.
"To avoid the shame of asking friends or seeking help, often individuals turn to Google or social media platforms to get information about their condition," she says. "This, in turn, can lead to misinformation, misdiagnosis, and worsening symptoms or complications."
Many of these stigmas stem from sex education that tells students only certain individuals contract STIs. Nurses are uniquely positioned to debunk these STI myths and reframe the stigmas through education in their practice and the community.
Sharing your status with your partners can be unnerving, especially if you fear rejection, but people diagnosed with STIs can have fulfilling dating and love lives.
What Does Dating, Love, and Sex Look Like With an STI?
Dating with an STI can pose a number of challenging obstacles, while still being fun and exciting. Finding a community that shares in your experiences as an individual with an STI can provide validation when dating gets tough. While most STIs are common and curable, dating with an STI can feel frustrating, alienating, and difficult.
Schoolnik says that knowledge really is power when you're dealing with an STI. Having an undiagnosed infection is much more dangerous than finding out what you have and getting treated.
"Do not let shame or embarrassment prevent you from following proper STI testing guidelines," he says.
Schoolnik recommends including STI testing into your regular wellness routine. This includes:
- Annual testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea for sexually active women under 25 years of age
- Annual testing to chlamydia and gonorrhea for men who have sex with men and sexually active transgender people
- Annual testing for all sexually active people over 25 years of age who are at increased risk, including those with multiple partners, those sexually active with symptomatic partners, and individuals participating in unprotected sex
Wallace advises you to set boundaries when you are dating and to be honest with your partners. The best time to discuss your STI is before you have sex and, ideally, face-to-face. She recognizes that this is a vulnerable conversation, but it is crucial when you want to have intimacy in a relationship.
Although this conversation may be daunting, the key to protecting your health in your relationship is transparency and honest communication. The following section offers you insight and tips to prepare for and have a conversation with your partner.
How to Tell a Partner You Have an STI
It is your responsibility to tell your partner about an STI before you have sex. But that conversation can be challenging.
Let's break down how to have an honest discussion with your partner step-by-step.
Before the Conversation
1. Destigmatize Internally
Before you have a conversation with your partner about your STI history, it's important that you first destigmatize internally. Nonverbal communication also has value. Some research has shown that up to 70% of what you say is nonverbal. Your partner can read body language, even if they can't verbalize what they see.
If you believe there is a stigma attached to your infection, you'll inadvertently communicate that, which can impact how your partner reacts to the conversation. Talking about an STI is already a challenge; there's no need to make it more difficult than it already is.
You can help destigmatize internally and communicate the facts when you:
- Spend time researching
- Understand your infection
- Know how it's transmitted
- Know the available treatment options
Talk with your healthcare provider and seek out reliable sources as you do your research. For example, hospital websites and the CDC are reliable sources.
2. Practice the Conversation
It helps to practice your conversation before you actually have it. You may want to tell yourself in the mirror first to watch your facial expressions and body language. Next, consider practicing with a friend who can pretend to be your partner. This allows you to respond to questions and get feedback on your body language.
3. Share the Facts
As you're practicing what to say, include information you've learned in your research. This helps your partner understand how the infection will impact your sex life. Be sure to mention that STIs are increasingly common and do not mean that you or anyone else with the infection is "dirty."
STIs can be contracted with just one exposure, so there's a chance your partner has already been exposed with another partner.
Finally, stress that all STIs can be treated or cured and the importance of everyone having an annual screening since most STIs have very few or no symptoms.
4. Prepare for Reactions
Before meeting with your partner, it's also important to prepare for how they may react. They may have questions, concerns, or reject you entirely.
Remember that no matter what their reaction, it doesn't change who you are and it isn't an accurate assessment of you as a person.
During the Conversation
1. Sharing Takes Courage
As you're preparing for this conversation with your partner, remember that it takes courage to be vulnerable. Accepting your positive status is a radical act of self-love that's important to share. This may lead to a few rejections by people who can't see past society's stigma.
However, your authenticity and bravery will also open the door to caring responses from partners who want to explore a conscious relationship, where you are both committed to a sense of purpose and growth.
2. Share in a Safe Environment
Plan the conversation in a safe environment where you feel comfortable connecting and being vulnerable. You want to have this conversation before having sex, but it should be at a time when you are both fully clothed and not heading for the bedroom.
As you're talking, remember that this conversation shows your partner that you respect them and care about them.
Initially, your partner may be shocked, upset, or have questions. When you're practicing the conversation with a friend, practice these responses, so you are comfortable acknowledging their concerns and giving them time to express them.
3. Remove Yourself if You Feel Unsafe
Your partner may react in a way that you don't expect. For example, they may be inappropriately judgmental or reject you.
Take care to stay present in the situation so you can remove yourself anytime you feel unsafe. You'll have time later to grieve the loss of the relationship, but at the moment, it's important to protect your safety.
You have a choice to explain to someone who is inappropriately judgmental that they are misinformed, or you can choose to walk away and never speak to them again. The choice you make is yours, and yours alone.
But their initial reaction is also an indication of their personality and character, not of who you are or what you deserve. Judgment and rejection are red flags. It may well be the best decision to walk away sooner rather than later.
After the Conversation
1. Give Them Time
Your partner may need time to process the information. If they pull back from you for a short time, that's normal. You can help keep the lines of communication open by checking in with them to see if they have other questions or need to talk again as they process the information.
2. Practice Patience
This may be a time when you must practice patience. Be sure to seek support for yourself as you need it from friends and a supportive community.
3. Continue Routine Testing and Communication
No matter how your partner takes the news, it's important you continue to be routinely tested and treated as needed. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn't yield the result you want. But the only wrong way to handle telling your partner that you are positive for an STI is to not tell them at all.
In addition to these tips, finding community is essential to validation and a sense of belonging. You may also benefit from the advice of others who have taken this journey before you. Consider finding a community of individuals who have had an STI for support and direction.
Meet Our Contributors
Tresa Wallace, NP
Tresa Wallace is a nurse practitioner at The Pill Club. Wallace started her nursing career working in oncology and went on to spend 12 years as a labor and delivery (L&D) nurse. Following her time in L&D, Wallace worked as a nurse practitioner in various capacities, including at a private practice OB/GYN, a community mental health clinic, Planned Parenthood, and most recently, the OB/GYN department at Louisiana State University. Wallace earned her bachelor's in nursing from Loyola University in New Orleans and master's in nursing from Frontier Nursing University.
Dr. Gary Schoolnik
Dr. Gary Schoolnik is chief medical officer of Visby Medical. He is also professor of medicine (emeritus) at Stanford Medical School, attending physician in internal medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University Hospital, and associate director of Stanford's Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection. Schoolnik received his medical degree and infectious diseases subspecialty training at the University of Washington in Seattle and served as chief resident at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His academic research focuses on the molecular, genetic, and genomic aspects of infectious agents and on the development of new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics.
Page last reviewed March 25, 2022
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