I recently tested positive for an incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD) – HSV-2 – during quarterly routine STI testing. In the grand scheme of medical maladies, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve never had symptoms or an outbreak, and it’s being managed via a daily suppressive antiviral (Acyclovir). I'm also planning to retest since false positives are so prevalent.
Still, disclosing one’s sexual health (which includes any STIs) is essential in the negotiation of safer sex practices. By now, everyone knows they should be having safer sex. Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise; there are an estimated 110 million STIs in the U.S. (Hello, points the finger at the pathetic state of sex ed in U.S. schools!)
There are so many ways to disclose a diagnosis while dating. If I'm going to date someone new, I prefer an early-on approach to the dialogue. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time – yours or mine – so I’d rather know ASAP if my pesky infection with a strong negative stigma is going to be an issue. Also, I feel that vulnerability sets a certain tone for healthy communication.
If I have a sense I might want to meet up with someone new, I cut to the chase before I make any in-person plans. Other people wait until after a few dates when there's a stronger possibility of sexual intimacy. Either approach works – it all comes down to what you're comfortable with. The one thing you want to avoid is not disclosing an STI as sexual activity becomes imminent. That's not OK.
“One needs to tell their potential partner(s) about their STD before the relationship becomes physical,” says Dr. Wendasha Jenkins Hall, a sexuality researcher and educator. “This is particularly important if your STD is chronic (think herpes, HIV, genital warts).”
Hall says the conversation should be done in person, and not over the phone, by text message, DM or email. I agree with this approach 100% - for established relationships. “This is a highly sensitive topic, and you should disclose in an environment that is safe, neutral and calm,” Hall said. “However, if you feel that your safety may be at risk, video messaging is also an option.”
Here’s what I text or tell potential partners. It's also what I said (in-person) to established partners when I tested positive:
In the spirit of full disclosure (and since I don’t want to waste your time), my most recent STI panel (December 2018) tested positive for HSV-2. I've never had any symptoms or an outbreak. I'm on a daily antiviral as a preventative (Acyclovir), which when combined with barriers, drops the possibility of FTM transmission to less than 1%, according to my doctor. Please let me know if you have any questions and how this sits with you.
I take my emotions out of the equation, hit “send” or say my piece, and leave it there. Most of the time, partners and potential dates are grateful for the disclosure, and we have a discussion. That’s a positive sign in my dating book. Sometimes, they get weird about it or invoke a no-STD policy (usually imposed by another partner which, by the way, reeks of couples’ privilege). I get that there’s fear surrounding STIs, and fear often triggers rejection. The stigma is very real.
“Be sure to answer your partner(s) questions,” Hall said. “Talk about the medications you currently take to treat your STD and the necessary precautions that can be taken to reduce transmission (e.g., condoms & PrEP) if you both decide to have sex. Be honest about your experiences and provide some resources they may need to make informed decisions.”
Since an estimated 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract an STD by the time they turn 25, this is an important conversation. It’s imperative to tell a partner about an STD before you become sexually intimate. Sure, I’ve had situations where it’s had to be an on-the-spot conversation due to the impromptu nature of the hookup. It's not ideal, but at least it happens before we’re naked.
Read: Honey, I Have Herpes
“Sharing something so personal can be really difficult; however, when telling your partner about your STD, it's important to be upfront and honest. While you are not your STD, this not the time to downplay it or dismiss it as something small,” says Hall.
I get that there’s this gawd-awful stigma surrounding STIs and that people think they’re undateable - and unfuckable - if they've been diagnosed with one. In my experience, that's rarely the case. Sure, some people will reject a partner upon such a disclosure, but I believe it comes from a place of ignorance and shitty societal attitudes. The stigma itself is far worse than the infection.
“With condoms and advances in medications, some may believe disclosure is not necessary,” Hall said. “However, informing your partner(s) of your STD allows them to make the necessary decisions regarding their sexual health and well-being. This is an opportunity that we should not take from anyone, if possible.”
Once you've disclosed your STD and dealt with whatever reaction you receive, the best you can do is practice safer sex, get tested regularly, and continue to communicate with new and current partners.
“Feel confident and responsible in your choice to disclose knowing that there is someone out there who will love you regardless,” Hall said.