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If you’re anticipating sex with a partner, discussing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) probably isn’t part of the fantasy. But those conversations are important. They may help you get the information you need to make informed decisions and set boundaries that work for you.

Like most things, talking about safe sex and STIs gets easier with practice. The more we normalize openness and honesty about sexual health, the less we’ll fear other people’s reactions. The fact that STIs are transmitted through sexual contact does not make them shameful. We all have a role in reducing the stigma. (And as much as conversation matters, always protect yourself. Any sexual activity involving physical contact with another person involves risk.)

Couple talking

Insist on using a condom [Part 1]

Hey, we need a condom.

Oh, it's OK, I don't have anything.

I don't have sex without a condom.

Well, it just doesn't feel the same…

I don't have sex without a condom.

Let's go get some.

Using condoms and latex dams

  • You always have the right to protect your health. Even if your partner says they do not have any STIs, it makes sense to insist on using condoms and/or latex dams. Latex dams, also called dental dams, are thin sheets of latex used as protection in oral sex.
  • Asking about STIs doesn’t mean you’re accusing your partner of lying. Most people who have an STI don’t know it. Even current test results don’t necessarily show recent infections. STI testing is not fully comprehensive.
  • Saying “I don’t do this without protection” is a non-negotiable way to establish your boundaries. If necessary, repeat yourself using the same words.
  • Sexual health requires open, honest conversation with your partner(s), and it’s OK to figure out together what that looks like. However, if a current or potential partner is dismissive or pushy, and does not respect your boundaries, they may not be a safe partner for you. No one should be pressured or shamed for respecting their own health or another person’s.
Couple talking

Appreciate that they practice safer sex

Here, I have a condom.

Oh awesome, you thought ahead. Thanks!

What if you have multiple partners?

Sexual safety with multiple partners

  • If you are (or may become) sexually involved with more than one person, it’s important that all of your partners know they are not the only one. This allows everyone to safeguard their own health.
  • Using safer sex strategies is especially important if you have multiple partners and/or partners you don’t know well.
  • Getting regularly tested for STIs reduces the risk of transmitting them. It helps you and others get any treatment necessary to eliminate infections that can be cured and manage the symptoms of STIs that can be treated but not cured.
Couple talking

Talk about other partners

So, are you hooking up with anyone else besides me?

Actually, yeah. Is that OK?

Totally. I have someone else I see, too. We should talk about safety. Do you use condoms with everyone you're seeing?

Mostly. Not always.

We need to use a condom every time no matter what.

That makes sense. I do get tested regularly, too.

Cool. Me too, I was tested last week and got the all clear.

Couple talking

Insist on using a condom [Part 2]

Do you have a condom?

Aren’t you on birth control?

Yes, but we still need protection. Sorry not sorry.

Don’t worry, I’m clear. Let’s just do it.

I’ve told you no. If you’re going to act like this, I’m out.

Couple talking

Insist on using a latex dam

Will you go down on me?

Sure! Hold on, let me grab a latex dam.

Really? I’ve never used one.

That’s the only way I do it.

OK. Show me how this thing works.

Disclosing an STI

  • Telling a partner that you have an STI is necessary even when you are practicing safer sex (using a condom or latex dam). Otherwise, you’re not giving your partner the information they need in order to make the best choice for themselves.
  • Anyone who discloses an STI should be respected for it, not shamed or judged. When these conversations become easier, we all benefit. Our silence and discomfort enables STIs to spread more widely. 
  • If you have a STI, learn as much as you can about how your STI can be transmitted and how to reduce the risk; e.g., know which sexual activities are safer to engage in.
Couple talking

Talk about an STI [Part 1]

Here’s the thing. I got genital warts from my ex. It’s an HPV symptom.

I didn’t know HPV causes warts.

It doesn’t always, but it can.

Could I get it from you?

Yes, though the risk is lower with a latex dam.

Thanks for telling me. I really like you, but I’m sorry, I'm just not comfortable being sexually active with you.

Couple talking

Talk about an STI [Part 2]

Hold on…I want to kiss you but I have a cold sore right now. It’s caused by a herpes virus. No mouth stuff for me until it’s gone, and there will always be some risk, even when I don’t have a cold sore. But there’s other stuff we can do.

I have some ideas…

What if you’re disclosing an STI?

Couple talking

Talk about an STI [Part 3]

If we’re going to hook up, I need to tell you something.

Sure, what’s up?

I have genital herpes. I want to make sure you know.

Woah, could I get it from you?

Well, I’m taking medicine that reduces the liklihood of transmission, and using a condom lowers the risk too. But it’s totally up to you. There are other things we can do. I’d love to go down on you.

Later…

I really appreciate that you told me. I read about this. I’m OK with it. We’ll use condoms.

Great.

Getting tested

  • In monogamous relationships, it is possible to have acquired an STI from past partners, an unwanted experience such as sexual assault, or possibly an infidelity. STIs may not show up right away. It is important to have a discussion rather than make assumptions about how the infection occurred.
  • Talking about testing becomes easier when you make regular STI testing part of your preventative health routine.
  • There are no tests for some STIs (e.g., HPV in men). Some tests are not routinely done (e.g. herpes).
Couple talking

Talk about getting tested [Part 1]

Let’s both get tested before we hook up.

I just did that a few months ago.

Cool. Let’s do it again so we’re both on the same page.

OK. I’ll make an appointment. I'll send you my results. 🙂

Me too. & for now let’s get sext-y. 😉

What if you need to talk about getting tested?

Couple talking

Talk about getting tested [Part 2]

When’s the last time you got tested for STIs?

Oh, maybe a year ago?

It would be a good idea if we both got tested, just to be sure.

But we’ve been together for months.

We both dated other people before, and sometimes STIs don’t show any symptoms. Let’s do this so we can be sure.

OK, I understand. I’ll call the health center in the morning.

Wengang Xia

Wengang Xia: Fourth-year undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Jersey majoring in planning and public policy; Student Health 101 Student Advisory Board 2015–16.

“The SexPositive app has two wheels with names of different body parts on each. When you spin, it creates combinations— ‘when my x touches x’—and gives valuable tips about each situation.”

Useful?
No matter what results you get, you’ll always see the advice “communication is key.” Even though it’s repetitive, talking to your partner about sex is necessary. 
Rating: 4.5 / 5

Fun?
The wheels sometimes create interesting outcomes, which might look hilarious, like your mouth + a stuffed animal.
Rating: 4 / 5

Effective?
It helps you learn while playing. This allows you to remember what you should do in sexual situations instead of forgetting everything in the moment.
Rating: 4.5 / 5

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Miri Mogilevsky, MSW, is a social worker and freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. She blogs about psychology, mental health, sexuality, and social issues at her blog, Brute Reason.