Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
I have gonorrhea,
You might have it, too.
There is no right way or wrong way to tell a partner we have an STI. (Incidentally, all the ways to not tell a partner we have an STI are wrong.) The STI talk — which includes current status, last time we were tested and sexual partners we have had since we were last tested — is an extremely important discussion to have, and full disclosure is required on behalf of all parties.
But it is not always easy to say, “I found a chancre,” to the cute new partner we really like. What if they leave? What if they tell everyone? What if…
STIs happen. They happen to just about everybody (by age 50, 80 percent of Americans will have or have had at least one of the more than 100 strains of HPV). Sometimes we forget to use a barrier method, or it breaks. Sometimes we cheat or get cheated on. Things happen. Many STIs are curable. All are treatable. If you take nothing else from this column, folks, please take this: STIs are not the end of the world.
I firmly believe the single greatest contributor to the high prevalence of STIs in the United States is the stigma surrounding them. To be sure, it is not the only reason, but fear and embarrassment can keep us from getting tested regularly, seeking proper treatment and talking to our partners. We — you, me and the people we sleep with — can start ending that pattern today. Testing is free for students at UHS, treatments can be as simple as a $15 course of antibiotics, and “the talk” can be a quick 5-minute discussion which can help keep us and our partners healthy for years.
Still, easier said than done, right? Like I said, there is no right or wrong way to have the conversation, so whatever feels right for you is the right way to do it. However, here are a few suggestions to try to help it go as smoothly as possible.
1. Do it early. This does not mean we have to announce our status as we shake somebody’s hand, but it should happen before the bedroom. By “the bedroom,” I first mean any sort of sexual contact (not just intercourse) and second, literally, before the bedroom, because our partners probably are not going to react very well if they are reaching for a condom and we blurt out, “I have the clam!” (That’s molluscum, FYI, a totally harmless virus that your body can get rid of on its own.)
2. Don’t be embarrassed. Our partners are much more likely to have a negative reaction if our “disclosure” consists of looking at the floor and mumbling, “Look, uh… um… this is totally embarrassing and I understand if you, you know, never want to see me again, but… uh… I have, uh… yeah, um… I have chlamydia.” Look your partner in the eye and say, “I tested positive for chlamydia. I am taking amoxicillin, and I will be cured by this time next week.”
3. Be specific. “Hey, I have an STI,” won’t cut it. There are more than infections spread by sexual contact, and there are lots of differences between them. Syphilis is curable — herpes is not. Left untreated, syphilis can kill you — herpes cannot. Giving our partners a partial picture is not good enough; we need to let them know what we have, what we are doing about it and how we can help reduce their chances of contracting it.
4. Do your homework. Our partners might have questions for us, such as, “What’s my risk of getting herpes if I sleep with you?” It’s not like we need to be experts, but it is good to be knowledgeable enough to say something like, “Barrier methods like condoms and sex can cut the risk of herpes transmission by up to 70 percent, and I take Valtrex every day. These things won’t totally eliminate your risk, but they will help keep it very low.” A caveat here: If you don’t know the answer to your partner’s question, say so, and find out the answer together. Making up answers is the same as lying.
Again, there is no right way or wrong way to do this; these are just a couple of tips that might help. Or might not. Either way, let’s turn the tables for a couple minutes — we just went to UHS. All clear — huzzah! But our partner comes up to us, looks us in the eye, and says, “I tested positive for chlamydia. I am taking amoxicillin, and I will be cured by this time next week.”
There is no right way or wrong way to react in this situation, either. We all have every right to select our partners based on whatever criteria we see fit. I will reiterate that many STIs are curable, all are treatable and there are steps we can take to greatly reduce our risk of contracting them. Further, your partner demonstrated care and respect for your health and well being by getting tested and notifying you of the results. But if you cannot handle the news, you deserve a relationship that will make you happy. And so does your partner.
Sex can be extraordinarily, toe-curlingly, awkward-face-makingly fun. But there are few things in life which are that fun without requiring any measure of responsibility. STI testing and discussion, and using barrier methods, are parts of being a good, responsible lover. And speaking of barrier methods, next week is National Condom Week — check out sexoutloud.com for a whole week’s worth of events promoting great, safe sex. And even before that, look for me in Friday’s BH, where I will ditch the “roses are red” love poetry and get all romantic and relationshipy for Valentine’s Day. Barf.
Erica Andrist is a facilitator with Sex Out Loud. Do you have questions? Contact her at [email protected]