Editor's note: We recognize that personal safety should always be prioritized over disclosure—and that the act of disclosure puts some folks at risk, regardless of any precautions they've taken.
Openly discussing sexual health with partners, especially new ones, can be challenging. Even the most uninhibited person can struggle to have the conversation. That’s because there is so much unnecessary shame associated with STIs. Stigmatizing STIs not only negatively affects one's happiness and self-esteem but also prevents people from getting tested and treated, which can increase transmission rates.
Firstly, STIs are nothing to be ashamed of as they are extremely common. New data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that reported annual STIs in the United States continued to climb in 2019, reaching an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year, with more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis reported.
Although that may seem like a frightening statistic, as long as you are getting tested, staying informed and discussing STIs with your partner(s), there is truly no reason to be afraid.
Moreover, if you have one, disclosing that you have an STI can be a freeing moment that can seriously boost your sexual self-concept. Once the dreaded STI talk is out of the way, it's much easier to open up physically and emotionally with your partner.
No doubt, it’s a tough convo to have, but it's one people need to be having.
How do I know if I have an STI?
Simple: Get tested!
Many STIs have no immediate or apparent symptoms, so getting tested is important. Don’t self-diagnose, and don’t believe everything you hear.
If you've tested positive, ask your nurse or doctor all your questions about symptoms, treatment and how the STI can be transmitted. If you know your status and act responsibly, the chance of spreading an STI is low.
Remember, getting tested is an excellent step in taking control of your sexual health.
Where can I get tested?
Many services offer discreet at-home testing kits. Walk-in clinics and family doctors also provide testing. But you may prefer to go to an STI clinic (see a list of our fave clinics, organized by city, at the bottom of this 101) that specializes in sexual health for more comprehensive testing and to ask questions you’d struggle to ask elsewhere.
Tell me more! Why should I go to an STI clinic?
We spoke with Helen Jackson, a Registered Nurse who works at a Vancouver STI clinic at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and the Burnaby Youth Clinic, to get her take on STI testing.
STI clinics are thorough, knowledgeable, inclusive and supportive in their approach to sexual health, says Jackson. They can answer questions and provide support in ways that online testing services or walk-in clinics cannot.
Case in point: A standard screening at an STI clinic involves an assessment to determine risk of infection, a urine sample or vaginal swab for gonorrhea and chlamydia and a throat swab and/or rectal swab for gonorrhea and chlamydia (if recommended). Bloodwork is typically taken for HIV and syphilis. Other testing may be indicated or recommended based on your situation, symptoms and assessment.
I’m smashing on a pretty regular basis. How often should I get tested?
According to Jackson, getting tested every six months is a pretty good benchmark for those who have several casual partners.
Generally speaking, your testing frequency should relate to your number of exposures to new partners and potential infections. For example, if you have 100 partners every three months, then getting tested every three months might be more appropriate.
But for most people, if you have several partners during a three-to-six-month period, getting tested every six months and using a condom for every sexual encounter is a good rule of thumb.
Wanting to test more often or after every new encounter generally isn't related to the science of testing; it is related to an anxiety surrounding sex and exposure to STIs!
According to Jackson, if someone wants to test every three weeks, going along with it only encourages their (maybe misplaced or overblown) worry around contracting an STI. If this is the case, it’s more important to encourage the use of condoms to minimize anxiety and educate the client about safer sex and ways to protect themselves from STIs.
If you don't have any symptoms and have not been notified by a partner that you have been exposed to an STI, then getting tested every six months and using condoms is your best course of action.
“We're trying to encourage people to have healthy sexual relationships that they feel safe in, using condoms to help prevent infections and anxiety around sex.”
—Helen Jackson, RN
So… how (and when) do I tell my partner I have an STI?
No matter your relationship status, discussing your sexual health with your partner is important. It allows you to disclose any STIs you have, find out if your partner has any, and it gives both of you a chance to decide what types of sex you want to have and what safer sex precautions you want to take.
The best time to have the conversation is before you start having sex with someone new. And depending on your STI, you might need to tell them earlier than that. If you have oral herpes, disclosing before your first smooch is essential. If you have a genital STI, notify your partner before having sex (that includes fingering, oral sex, vaginal or anal sex).
Undoubtedly, this is a lot easier said than done.
Choose a place where you feel safe and comfortable to have the discussion. If you're unable to meet in person or don't feel safe doing so, try a phone call or video chat with your partner—it all depends on your relationship and your preferred method of communication.
Plan to have the discussion when you feel secure and confident, especially if you're unsure how it will go. Make plans to check in with a friend after your talk. While some people like to disclose immediately to a new partner, others prefer to go on a few dates and get to know the person first—it's entirely up to you and how comfortable you feel!
A great way to start is by saying you want to go over safer sex precautions and what that looks like within your relationship. Telling your partner that you care about them and want to ensure you're protecting them is also a great way to initiate the conversation.
You could open by asking them about their sexual health history and if they ever had an STI, or currently have one. Another option is to tell them you have an STI if you have one, and ask if they have any questions.
It's totally normal to feel embarrassed at first, but you'll feel relieved once it's over. And hopefully/probably your partner will be grateful that you brought it up!
What are some good questions to ask when talking about sexual health with my partner?
- When was the last time you were tested for STIs?
- Do you currently have an STI?
- What have you been using for contraception? Do you use condoms?
- Have you ever shared needles with someone, whether that be for tattoos, piercings or drugs?
- Have you had any STIs before? Which ones? Did you get them treated?
- Are you having protected or unprotected sex with anyone else?
- If yes, do you know their STI status?
I don’t feel safe. Do I have to tell my partner I have an STI?
Although, ideally, it’s something you can talk about with your partner, if you are putting yourself at risk in having the conversation, another option is using an STI disclosure service like TellYourPartner.org.
Tell Your Partner anonymously sends a text to a sexual partner to notify them that they might be at risk for an STI. (Keep in mind that if your partner has only had sex with you, they'll know it was from you).
Tell Your Partner is run by a group of HIV and STI prevention organizations that have come together to support sexual health. They believe that the more ways there are to disclose to partners about STIs, the better off we'll all be.
Ugh. How will my partner react?
Your partner may react in several ways, so it’s important to be prepared for various outcomes.
But take note: How they react to discussing the subject will tell you a lot about them as a sexual partner. If they are against even talking about it, consider that when you decide whether or not to have sex with them.
Hopefully, they will thank you for disclosing your status and asking about theirs, and be reassured and impressed by how you brought up the subject with them. Ideally, your STI status (and their status) won't impact your relationship going forward.
On the flipside, your partner may not be totally honest and disclose their STI status—but at least you asked!
They may respond with disbelief, fear or judgment. Of course, being met with these reactions won't feel great. You can reply with the facts of your situation and let them know if they are being misinformed, but it's also completely understandable if you don't want to and need to take a break before responding. You can leave and then contact them later; they might have a different attitude after some time to think about it.
Take some time to look after yourself and do what brings you joy, whether alone or with a supportive friend. If you're not happy with their reaction, you have the power and agency to not engage with this person!
Their response will speak loudly of them and not you.
Most of all, be proud of yourself!
It takes courage to talk about your sexual health with a new partner. Luckily, each time you do it, it will get a bit easier. Take pride and be kind to yourself, no matter how your partner reacts; talking about STIs is a challenging first step in any new relationship, but one that’s necessary—and a conversation worth having.
Resources: STI clinics
Crossways Sexual Health Clinic – Toronto Public Health
2340 Dundas St West, Toronto, ON M6P 4A9
SAFER SIX – Sexual Health Clinic
27 Roncesvalles Ave Unit 505, Toronto, ON M6R 3B2
CLSC Métro – Free STI Testing
1801 Boulevard de Maisonneuve Ouest, Montréal, QC H3H 1J9
(Next to Concordia, SGW campus)
(514) 934-0354 Ext. 7399 to book with a nurse
Clinique SIDEP+ Montréal
(For trans individuals and men who have sex with men)
CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal
1705 Rue de la Visitation, Montréal, QC H2L 3C3
(514) 527-9565 Ext. 1480
BC Centre for Disease Control – 12th Avenue Clinic
655 W 12th Ave, Vancouver, BC V5Z 4R4
Options for Sexual Health
3550 E Hastings St, Vancouver, BC V5K 2A7
Centre for Sexuality (formerly Calgary Sexual Health Centre)
1509 Centre St S, Calgary, AB T2G 2E6
Planned Parenthood – Dorothy Hecht Health Center of Los Angeles
8520 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90003