When, Where and Why: Telling Your Sexual Partners You Have a Long-Term STI

There’s a lot of misinformation and stigma out there around sexually-transmitted infections like herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2), human papillomavirus (HPV) and HIV. Often, when clients come in with one of these so-called “big three” incurable STI diagnoses, it presents a major crisis in their lives: How will they tell their partners? What will this do to their relationships? Will they ever feel loved again?

Fortunately, with plenty of condoms, talks around educated consent and recent advancements in medical treatment for all three STIs, it’s very possible for people to maintain safe and fulfilling sex lives no matter their status. For instance, people with HSV-2 can re-assure their partners by taking anti-viral treatments to suppress the infection and reduce their chance of passing on the virus to a partner by 50 percent. There’s also the HPV vaccine, which people of all genders can receive up to 26 years of age. And by now, everyone should be aware that people on HIV treatment with a fully-suppressed viral load are virtually unable to pass on the virus to their sexual partners.

That said, even in this new age of prevention, it’s still a good (and often times legally-required) move to tell potential partners of your status before you hook up. Additionally, we believe conversations about sexuality, what you like, what you don't like, and STI status are important for everyone regardless of your gender, sexuality, and STI status.

Below, we outline five common approaches people living with long-term STIs can use when disclosing and how to deal with the ups and downs of dating with a more “complicated” sexual health history:

1. The “Three-Date Rule”

Do you like to hook up on the first date? Hooking up on a first date is totally possible for folks living with long term STIs like herpes, HPV or HIV. And things might get a little bit more complicated when navigating consent around an impromptu sexual intimacy or experiences. Many people living with chronic conditions like to wait a few dates before disclosing their status — allowing the person to really get to know them, to increase trust and understanding and forge a personal connection before sharing their status. The time buffer also allows some time for you to suss out whether or not you want to disclose this information, their education and understanding around STIs, and if the person you’re interested in will react positively or negatively to the news. A longer lead-up also gives you time to talk to people like your friends, family, therapist and other support structures before disclosure, so they can be there for you if the discussion turns sour.

2. Write it Out

Don’t like wasting time or energy when it comes to pursuing relationships? Then throw out the three day rule. Some folks with long-term STIs say a well-crafted text message or email simply explaining your status is one of the easier ways to disclose. You don’t have to make it a big production. A quick “Just so you know, I’m positive” and then how you like to practice safer sex, allows your potential partner to make an informed decision without using stigmatizing language or making them feel like it’s a bigger deal than it is. Once again, with all the recent advancements in sexual health treatment, being in a serodiscordant (a.k.a. positive-negative) relationship really is possible without much risk. If they write back concerned about what you just told them, you can always send along links or information educating them about any potential risks. Plus, if the person has a stigmatizing or rejecting response, you’ll have time to experience and process your response, have some time to deal with the news alone and/or seek support and confide in trusted friends.

3. The Kitchen Table Talk

It’s probably not the best idea to disclose you have something like HPV when you’re already undressed and getting into some heavy petting with a partner. Discussing sexual health histories involves a lot of disclosure and trust. Even if you have good intentions, or maybe you are pushing back this conversation out of fear, if you disclose at the last minute possible it may result in someone feeling like you were not trustworthy. Hence “The Kitchen Table Talk” which we recommend be done sober, fully-clothed and as honestly as possible. Explain to them what’s going on, how long you’ve been dealing with the STI, and how you plan to keep everyone safe in a potential sexual relationship. Do your homework and be ready to answer any questions they may have. Whipping out a few handy statistics like “an estimated 80 percent of sexually-active people will get HPV at some point in their lives” or “one in six people ages 14-49 in the U.S. have a genital HSV-2 infection” might also be helpful. Remember that by knowing and openly-discussing your sexual health status, you’re already a safer partner than the millions of undiagnosed and unaware people out there.

4. Testing Together

Considering the high prevalence of STIs already circulating around the population, testing together can also be a good way to approach a disclosure conversation. Partners can make screening appointments together at places like Planned Parenthood, LGBT centers and sexual health clinics. Some places even allow you to schedule counseling sessions to help you and your partner(s) work through the results together and make informed choices around safer sex and prevention. For instance, if you come back HIV-positive and your partner is negative, the clinic can prescribe them PrEP that same day to help them stay that way. It’s also a great way to build trust and support within a relationship, and can help transform the topic of disclosure from a one-way to a two-way conversation. Plus, testing together helps you stay safe as well, making it a fair exchange for every party involved.

5. Dating App Disclosure

This one’s not for the faint of heart and could potentially open you up to some stigmatizing and difficult conversations with strangers. That said, putting something like “HSV-2+, deal with it” in your Grindr profile ensures that any potential matches know exactly what they’re getting into when they swipe right. The potential for feeling rejected three dates in because of your STI status is virtually eliminated. Being completely up-front and honest about your status also allows other people with long-term STIs to seek you out and initiate conversations, potentially allowing you to meet both someone who understands where you’re coming from and isn’t afraid of being exposed to anything new. The dating app disclosure approach can ultimately opening up the conversation about sexual health for all the world to see, putting a face to HPV, herpes, HIV or whatever you’re dealing with, and de-stigmatizing the secrecy and shame that perpetuates the spread of these STIs in the first place.

However you decide to disclose, know that doing so is a crucial factor in the consent process. We believe in taking steps toward honesty and openness in any relationships, no matter the potential consequences.

Blog authors all hold positions at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective (G&STC). For more information about our therapists and services please contact us.