By Louise Head
Often, the only advice we ever receive about sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) is don’t get them. Chances are, your high school sex ed instructor reviewed a long list of scary STI symptoms paired with photos of gnarly vagina rashes and left it at that. Does anyone else find this unhelpful? STIs are still treated with tons of shame in our culture despite the fact that many of them are completely curable and almost all of them are treatable.
STIs are also incredibly common. 50% of sexually active people will have had at least one STI by age 25. What this means is that if you’re a person who has sex, it’s pretty likely that you will eventually encounter an STI and that’s normal. We need a better approach to STIs than crossing our fingers and hoping we don’t get one.
Knowing where to get reliable information about STIs, what our options are when we have one, and how to talk to partners about them empowers us to make confident choices in our sex life. When we know how to get our questions answered, we can respond to STIs from a place of knowledge, not a place of fear.
Here’s some guidance on how to get there.
Get tested for STIs
Getting tested can be nerve racking and also a little bit of a hassle but having accurate, updated information about your STI status gives you the power to make informed decisions about your health. Getting tested is important because STIs often have no symptoms, so you can’t tell if someone has an STI by looking at them. Additionally, STIs are transmitted in different ways and carry different risks. Getting tested allows you to identify which STIs you will need to plan around in your sex life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can help you find low-cost STI testing at a community health clinic based on your zip code. You can also get tested at your gynecologist’s office or at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Know where to get reliable information
When you first learn that you or a partner has an STI, it’s really common to feel overwhelmed. A diagnosis might initially feel like the end of your sex life. Educating yourself about the STI can help to reduce your anxiety and can remind you that there are plenty of options for having awesome, fulfilling sex in your future.
Take learning about an STI step by step. First, what are your most pressing questions? Identify what information you’ll need to address the specific fears that you have. How is this STI transmitted? What are the actual health impacts? How likely is it that the sex acts you practice put you at risk? Here’s a helpful chart for determining this.
Next you need to know where to get trustworthy information. Let’s be real. You can find anything on the internet. You’ll want to know how to cut through all those outdated blog posts, quasi-medical sites, and inflammatory discussion boards to find what you really need.
There are a few online resources that reliably have up to date, accurate information about STIs. You can use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Planned Parenthood, and the American Sexual Health Association. These resources will give you straightforward facts about STIs, how to prevent them, and options for treating them.
Sometimes the internet will not have the answer to your specific concern about an STI. If you need to talk to someone in person, try using San Francisco Sex Information. They will answer any question have about sex via phone or email for free. You can also talk to your gynecologist, primary care physician, or call a local community health clinic.
Before you talk to someone in person, write down your questions and what you want to get out of the conversation. Talking to a stranger about the bumps on your butthole can feel understandably awkward. Preparing beforehand will help ensure that you get what you need out of the interaction.
Communicate with partners about STIs
Most of us were not taught how to talk to our partners about STIs and sexual health. These conversations don’t always feel easy. That’s totally normal! Give yourself permission to be nervous about bringing it up and then commit to doing it anyway.
Talking about STIs with a partner before you have sex allows you to plan for safer sex that feels comfortable to both of you. Try to find an opening line that feels genuine and comfortable to you. Once you put the subject on the table, it’s a lot easier to continue the conversation.
If you’re a direct person you might say, “Hey, I always talk about safe sex when I go on a date with someone. Could we chat about this?” Or you might need to find a more lighthearted way to bring it up. For example, “I know this isn’t the sexiest of turns in conversation but can we talk about our safe sex boundaries?” If you’re really nervous, you can even text a partner to let them know you want to talk about this (just press send!), but you’ll probably want to do the actual conversation in person.
Before talking with your partner, reflect on what you’d like to communicate and what you’d like to know about your partner. This will give you some direction in the conversation. You can start by sharing your own STI status and asking for theirs. From there, you can share your boundaries for making sex safer and ask about theirs. If they haven’t been tested or don’t feel like they have enough information to talk in depth about safer sex, you can direct them to resources.
Sharing that you have an STI
If you have an STI, it is important to let your partner know. This can be so hard! If you are feeling a lot of shame about your STI or fear about getting rejected, it can help to acknowledge this in your conversation with a partner. You can start out by telling them, “Hey, this is hard for me to talk about because i’ve had some previous partners respond badly.” You can also ask your partner to wait to respond until you’re done sharing so that you have the unpressured time to talk about your diagnosis as well as any helpful information about what that typically means for sex between you and your partners.
You may come up against potential partners who decide not to have sex with you because of your STI. This is disappointing but it is also okay. You deserve a partner who makes you feel sexy and desired and who wants to work with you to understand your STI.
What is not okay is any person that makes you feel guilty, ashamed, or worthless for having an STI. No one should use your STI status against you and no one should ever threaten to tell others about your STI status as a way to control you.
Determine your personal risk tolerance
Once you have the information you need about a certain STI, you’ll want to determine how to make sex safer in a way that both you and your partners consent to. There is no one right way to make sex safer because people have different levels of risk tolerance. Understanding yours will guide how you make choices about sex.
Take some time to think through what your personal boundaries are. There is no form of sex that is completely safe. However there are lots of ways to make sex safer. Here are a few ideas:
- Use barriers like condoms, dental dams, or gloves
- Choose sex acts that have a lower risk of transmitting infections
- Get tested regularly with your partner to stay up to date on your status
- Make a safe sex agreement that you and your partner commit to using with all partners
- Take preventative medications (like PrEP for HIV prevention) to target certain STIs
- Have sex with partners who share the same STI as you
Take lots of different options into account and then determine which ones work for you. If you can, identify why certain options feel okay and certain options don’t. This will give you a personal framework for making future decisions about your sexual health.
Once you’ve identified your boundaries, communicate them to your partners and commit to respecting them for your own wellness.
And finally, go have some good sex
Planning for sex when you or your partner has an STI can be an involved process. It requires you to do your research and to have bravery and transparency in communication. However, if you and a partner commit to engaging in planning together, you’ll both end up feeling safer, more secure, and on the same page. Going through the process of learning about an STI, identifying your options, and communicating gives you back power and agency in your sex life. That’s a pretty good foundation for having some great sex.