How to Talk to Your Partners About STIs, According to Experts

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How to Talk to Your Partners About STIs, According to Experts

Sex workers, therapists, educators, and more give their best advice for talking about STIs with your boo.

Although there's been recent progress, including moving away from the language of sexually transmitted "diseases" to the more accurate "infections,” many people still feel shame about STIs. And that’s a shame, because STIs are a fact of life.


From inadequate sexual education, to negative depictions of STIs in media, it makes sense why there’s so much discomfort about them. But STIs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon; in fact, they have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic, with syphilis rates increasing as much as 32% from 2020 to 2021, according to the CDC. In 2023, doctors identified the first cases of a new strain of treatment-resistant gonorrhea in the U.S., showing lower effectiveness of antibiotics. Many of these reports don’t even mention rates of HPV, HIV, or trichomonas, which are not included in all STI panels.


Luckily, we have many ways of protecting ourselves. In addition to the tried-and-true condom, we have access to preventative HIV medications such as PrEP and PEP. New treatments and products are emerging, like Doxy PEP, which can greatly decrease the likelihood of contracting STIs after unprotected sex, and Lorals, FDA-approved latex undies used as a barrier for safe oral sex. 


Many of these options aren’t as well-known as they should be, demonstrating that even open conversations about sex can begin to combat stigma and widen access to resources. Particularly for groups dealing with multiple axes of oppression, like queer men of color, trans femmes of color, and low-income communities, insufficient healthcare and resources can be a huge barrier.


Instead of having discussions about how to best protect each other, we tend to see widespread judgment and guilt about STIs, even amongst queer people. The language of being considered “clean” when discussing STI status reinforces an idea of moral failure after contracting STIs, when sex itself always entails some risk. Having humanizing, transparent conversations with our partners is the best way to manage that risk and care for ourselves and each other. 


But how? Below, we sought out therapists, sex workers, and queer people who have navigated STI status disclosure about the best ways to talk to partners and friends about them. From taking the shame out of STIs to understanding the roots of sex negativity, their advice is illuminating and can help you bust stigma in ways that feel healing. Their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.



Irma Garcia, 32, NYC 

Approach the conversation with time and setting in mind because you and your sexual partner’s comfort are crucial.


As a sex educator, I always acknowledge that STI conversations when dating can be difficult due to shame; approaching the conversation with confidence can help bust stigma. It helps to discuss STI status before meeting up with a sneaky link, and if you and your partner have already had sex, I recommend getting tested two to four weeks later to account for incubation periods. 


When telling someone that you’ve contracted an STI, it can be very common to feel all the feels! First and foremost, tend to your feelings before contacting anyone and try to process any internalized shame you may be facing. When it comes to disclosing your status, you should think of how you want to approach it. If you’re doing so in person, consider the time and place so you can have a thorough conversation. If it’s via text, it's your decision when you want to share the news, but if you prefer to have a specific time to talk, you can request that as well.


Sometimes, we may have to disclose a lifelong STI status like HIV or herpes (HSV), which can be challenging, since those often bring even more stigma, misinformation, and shame. Yet it’s ok to approach them like any other STI — we’re busting stigma here! It may also help to send your person links with current facts about the STI in question and how it’s treated. It never hurts to educate people and interrupt the misinformation cycle. 


Human bodies are whole ecosystems of good and bad bacteria, whether they have sex or not. Contracting an STI is like getting a cold; if you step out in the world, you are exposing yourself to every bacteria and virus out there.



Tricia Wise, 28, NYC (she/her)

You don’t have to apologize for your STI status.


I like to approach my herpes status not as a “disclosure” but as an open conversation about sexual health with my potential partner; after all, these are conversations everyone should be having. I always start by asking the other person when they've been tested last. If they say something like "I've never been tested," that’s an issue for me. If they seem open-minded and honest, then I feel comfortable sharing my status. I like to keep it short and sweet and open the conversation up for any questions and may point them to resources.


You don’t have to approach it as though you’re apologizing for something; you have nothing to apologize for! When people see you’re confident, they are more likely to feel confident as well. If I’m good with myself, nothing anyone can say can hurt me. In the words of the amazing Audre Lorde, ”nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.” Make that your mantra. 


A major reason I started doing sex work was to show that you can be living with herpes (HSV+) and still be hot and sexual. I use sex work as a way to destigmatize herpes — I have it openly in my OnlyFans bio (@safeslvt if anyone is curious). Many of my subscribers are also positive, so it's really nice to hear how my content has helped them. It's also great that my other subscribers get to learn about herpes in addition to getting hot content. 


Herpes stigma is so unnecessary and harmful. Once you’re fully versed in herpes knowledge, I guarantee you’ll feel so much more empowered. You’ll learn that most of the population has herpes. You’ll learn it’s not on the standard STI panel, so most people don’t even know their herpes status. You’ll learn that herpes is just a virus and that the only reason it’s so stigmatized is because it’s primarily contracted from sex. 


Getting herpes forced me to learn how to be a better communicator, set boundaries, speak up for myself, and truly not give a fuck what anyone thinks. 



Zachary Willmore, 19, San Diego (he/him)

You are lovable and deserving of love, regardless of your STI status. 


When I first got diagnosed with HIV, I made the personal choice to take a break from the dating scene. Once I became undetectable and got back into it, it was nerve-wracking to tell people at first. I put it in my bio on dating sites and told people within the first couple minutes of speaking to them to get it over with. The worst part is the anticipation, so I always try to knock that out as quickly as possible. I also make sure to tell people as much about the diagnosis as possible when I let them know, because most people don’t have much knowledge about what it means to be undetectable.


It is admittedly harder for me to talk to people romantically because it can feel like nobody would ever want you, but it's important to remember that that’s not the case. There are plenty of people who understand the diagnosis and will still want to get to know you, and if they don’t, they aren’t worth your time anyway. HIV can be manageable, especially once medicated, and the more people know about it, the less the stigma will affect our lives. 


I originally took my diagnoses very hard, and I cried for almost 12 hours. However, once I actually met with doctors and started to understand more, it got a lot easier to process. What helped most was my friends and family, and understanding that our relationships wouldn’t change and I was still loved regardless.


If you’re in a similar situation, I do not recommend keeping it a secret. It can be hard to tell people but it eats away at you keeping it inside. Telling people I’m close to was a huge pathway to acceptance. 



Shadeen Francis, NYC (she/her) 

Remember that STI stigma is rooted in sex negativity, not anything about the infection itself.


As a sex and relationship therapist, I invite people to keep STI conversations clear, direct, and casual. You may already be talking about turn-ons and negotiating logistics or special details, so you should consider STI testing a part of that planning process.


When sharing an STI status, lead with information and empathy, and leave behind the shame. If this is an STI that is curable, let your partner know that and outline what you are doing to eliminate the infection. The reality is that STIs like HIV and HSV are a part of our sexual world, but neither means the end of your sexual life. Share your status plainly and follow with what that means for your sexual relationships. 


If you are on the receiving end of these conversations, being kind is a great rule of thumb in general. The disclosure is not only vulnerable, but a sign of maturity and sexual responsibility. It should remind you that the kinds of sexual partners you want are the ones who will prioritize consent by giving you the information you need to make informed decisions. Allow yourself time to think about what you want or need or questions you may have.


When it comes to STIs and stigma, sometimes simple is best. We should think about STIs as infections. That’s it. Strep throat, UTIs, and sinus infections are all examples of bacterial infections that we don’t treat as shameful or disgusting. When we have infections like chlamydia or syphilis, they are treated by many like moral or character issues. This is because the stigma itself isn’t rooted in the infection — it is rooted in sex. We largely have a sex-negative culture that uses words like “clean” and “pure” to talk about bodies. 


Having adequate, health-conscious information keeps us from relying on our imaginations or the shame-filled, fear-inducing, often medically inaccurate sex ed that many of us received in schools.



Written by: Adejoke Mason on them