If you grew up in the US, it’s likely many of your first impressions of sex were scaremongering, ominous warnings about STIs — or “sexually transmitted diseases,” as they may have been called. (That’s if you got any sex education at all!) These threats were designed to scare youth away from any kind of sexuality, and heavily laden with moral overtones rather than scientific fact.
Now, we have a chance to reset to a much more realistic understanding of STIs — and the truth that they have no moral valence, even if they do sometimes come with cultural stigma. STIs are incredibly common, in many cases curable, and most importantly, say nothing about you as a person or sexual partner. If you’re one of the 1 in 5 Americans with an STI, it may feel like a major obstacle when it comes to sex and dating — and while we’ll never be able to control the judgment or misconceptions of others, it’s more than possible to have a fulfilling, hot and exciting dating life with as someone with an STI.
Decide how you want to disclose
It’s important to disclose your STI status to potential partners — but when and how are completely up to you. Some people prefer to state their STI status publicly, or as part of their dating app bio if they use dating apps, finding that this saves time and helps weed out potentially judgmental people, as well as destigmatizing creating visibility around how commonplace STIs are. Other people do so on a first date, or maybe a few dates in when they know they want to continue seeing this person.
The only real “rules” I think are important when it comes to disclosing STIs are to do so 1. Before you’ve had sex, and 2. In a moment where sex isn’t on the table. It’s helpful to have any kind of significant conversation outside “the heat of the moment” — if you need to have a major discussion with your partner about how they interact with your mom, it puts you both in a high-stakes position to try to bring it up in the car on the way to your mom’s house.
STIs don’t have to be a big deal, but it is always possible someone will react poorly, or that they’ll have questions or things they want to talk through — all things that will be easier to handle if you aren’t half-naked under the covers. (Your disclosure may well be met with one from your date, too — you aren’t the only person with an STI!)
Prioritize your own dignity and wellbeing
If it’s always possible that an individual date will react poorly to your disclosure, what does that mean for you?
Living with an STI doesn’t mean anything about you as a person — it doesn’t mean you’re dirty, irresponsible, a bad partner, or that you have anything to be ashamed of. It can feel challenging to balance the truth that everyone has the right to reasonable concern about their own health, including your dates, with the truth that some people might use their anxiety to make you feel like the above things are true.
Think about what responses from partners you’d like to see when you share this news with them — and what responses aren’t ideal, but that you’ll accept, both from casual and potentially serious partners. Maybe you’re okay with answering some basic questions, but draw the line at reassuring someone through anxiety about being “contaminated.” What feels supportive and constructive for you when it comes to partners on this topic? What feels distressing, stigmatizing or turns you off? Your dates’ reactions to an STI disclosure can for some people be a helpful and useful litmus test for who they want to continue seeing.
Get solid on your own preferences about safer sex
Safer sex, testing, and, for many people, barrier methods are an important part of dating and sex with an STI — but that mandate for safety applies to your partner, too. If you’re the person in a relationship disclosing an STI status, you may feel that the need for safer sex is “your fault” — that you two could be having totally uninhibited, fun, carefree sex otherwise.
First of all, there’s no reason safer sex can’t still be fun and carefree! Second, remember that you deserve the consideration and safety of safer sex practices just as much as your partner does, and that just because they’re STI-free (or think they are), doesn’t mean that will always be the case, especially if you two aren’t exclusive. A good litmus test for new partners is their willingness to get tested — many people never have, assuming that they’re STI-free because they haven’t noticed obvious symptoms, or just because they don’t think they’re the “type of person” or have “the type of sex” for STIs. It’s a mutual responsibility to keep each other safe, and getting the facts and directly communicatingabout them is the first step.