First, here’s what you need to know about sexually transmitted disease (STD) facts:
- STDs are super common. The American Sexual Health Association states that more than half of all people will contract an STD.
- Your partner is at risk of contracting an STD if you’re engaging in any sexual activities (even kissing, according to the STD Project).
- In most states, it is illegal to knowingly transmit an STD. One woman in Oregon was even awarded a $900,000 settlement after suing the man who gave her herpes.
Despite how common it is to have an STD, it’s easy to feel alone and scared because of your diagnosis. Even high-profile celebs like Charlie Sheen feel this pressure. After he came out as HIV-positive, the most shocking part of his reveal was that he paid millions of dollars over the past few years to keep his diagnosis a secret.
This is the same man with a history of assault and substance abuse — but apparently, his biggest shame is HIV.
STDs, also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), affect one in two sexually active persons by age 25. That number seems ridiculously high, but it points to one fact: STDs are common, and they aren’t the end of the world.
So, why do so many people avoid telling their partners about their STDs?
Fear Is Part Of The Problem
We had a weeklong sex-ed course at my middle school. It was the most talked-about week of the school year because, on the very last day, we were going to learn about the most off-limits topic of all: STD facts.
And that meant pictures.
We sat around our desks and stared at the overhead projector. Our teacher told us that STDs can and probably will ruin our lives. She showed us images of genitalia that had been infected with chlamydia, covered in herpes sores, and swarmed with pubic lice. She said, “This can happen to you if you have sex.” We were horrified.
Of course, I didn’t know that those photos were of extremely rare, out-of-control cases that had been left untreated. I didn’t learn until much later that many people with STDs don’t even show symptoms, instead mistaking a mild herpes outbreak for an ingrown hair.
Sex-ed week did teach us a number of important lessons about safe sex, but it also forced us to be afraid of herpes instead of talking about real STD facts.
This experience is part of the big taboo that surrounds conversations about STDs today. We’re told that these common disorders are shameful and only happen to people who have loose morals. In reality, any sexually active person can potentially contract an STD, even if both people are in a monogamous relationship. HPV, for instance, can incubate within the body for 1 month to 2 years — plenty of time for any number of romantic encounters to come and go.
It’s totally normal to feel nervous about telling your current and past partners about your STD, but remember three things:
- You’re not gross, disgusting, or broken just because you have an STD.
- STDs can be managed with medication, so you’ll still be able to have sex.
- You have an ethical responsibility to tell current and past partners, so they can get tested, too.
If my middle school’s sex-ed week had focused on facts instead of fear, we could have learned some basic facts about preventing and living with STDs. Instead, the moment my generation became sexually active, we held those fear-mongering images of diseased genitalia in our minds. When people think they’re diseased or different, they feel alone.
If you’re afraid of being alone, or if you feel like you’re alone right now, then you might hesitate to tell your partner about your STD status.
But remember this: you’re not alone, and for the sake of your partner’s health, it’s time to make sure they get tested.
Get Your Partner Tested And Avoid Getting Sued
As we said before, you can totally face civil and criminal charges if you don’t tell your partner that you have an STD. The specific punishment varies depending on your state and diagnosis.
However, in order to avoid ending up in court, you need to talk to your current partner about your STD status. Your doctor might also recommend that you reconnect with previous partners within a certain timeframe because the incubation period can vary among STDs.
For instance, if you are diagnosed with herpes, your doctor might ask you to inform your sexual partner(s) from the past two to seven days. HPV, on the other hand, can incubate for two years.
It’s important to know that there are different ways to talk with someone about your STD. You don’t have to plop each person down over coffee and expose your most private details confessional-style. Instead, there are a number of excellent disclosure options and resources you can use to reveal not only your STD status, but also general STD facts.
Here’s what you can do:
Talk To Your Doctor About Disclosure Options
If you’d rather remain anonymous, know that there are different options that might be available to you through various healthcare providers.
- Provider referral:
Simple and totally anonymous. Healthcare personnel will notify your partner that they need to be tested.
- Contract referral:
This is a fail-safe option. If your partners don’t visit the health clinic by an agreed-upon date, healthcare personnel will follow up with them and ensure they’ve been notified that they need to be tested. So, basically, if you want to try talking to your partners on your own and change your mind, this option will ensure they get notified.
- Patient referral:
With this option, you’re the one doing all the notifying.
You can also use resources like So They Can Know, which is a free service that anonymously notifies your sexual partners that they may have been exposed to an STD.
Have An Honest Conversation With Your Significant Other
Maybe you’re fine with shooting off an anonymous email to your previous partners, but talking to your current boyfriend or girlfriend about your condition is giving you the nervous sweats. This reaction is common, especially because people worry that their significant other will break things off after learning about their STD.
Remember that your significant other might not know anything about STDs besides the horrific images that they may have seen during sex-ed. In fact, many people don’t know that all STDs are treatable — a fact that makes your diagnosis much less scary.
When you’re speaking with your significant other, think of it like a conversation, not a lecture. You should have a back-and-forth discussion with your partner about your STD facts, your treatment plan, and the need for them to get tested. You don’t need to frame this conversation as a dramatic, life-ruining scenario, but you should come armed with information provided by your healthcare provider.
Here are some different ways to get the conversation started:
- I want to tell you that I’ve tested positive for (STD). My doctor told me that STDs are extremely common. It’s completely treatable, but now is a good time for you to get tested. Do you want to go together?
- My doctor just told me that I have (STD). I’m glad I know. I want you to be healthy, so you should get tested.
Your partner will probably have a number of questions about your STD, and that’s okay. Make sure that you’ve talked to your doctor ahead of time about your treatment plan, symptoms, and prevention measures.
You can also invite your significant other to a future appointment in order to speak to your doctor with you — that way, you’ll both get the best information from a qualified professional.
Remember that you deserve to have a relationship that is supportive and fulfilling. Don’t let your STD get in the way of having an honest discussion with your significant other. Yes, STDs are hard to talk about — but it’s time to get the conversation started.
by ELISE TORRES