How to Talk About STIs With Your Partner

Our sex educator gives you the skills you need.

There’s that notorious scene in “Mean Girls” where Coach Carr is teaching a sex education class and says, “If you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia…and die.” It usually ensues in an audience cracking up with laughter.

The sad thing is that this comical scene is not far off from how many sex ed classes go for students in America. We often learn about every symptom of STIs in health class, along with the worst case scenario images cast from a projector for the whole class to see. This approach to sex ed is filled with stigma, fear and lacking in communication. So let’s explore some actual skills for talking about STIs in a way that isn’t scary or stigmatizing.

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Communicate before you get between the sheets.

This is so important. Once you’re in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to hit the pause button to discuss sexual health so it might be best to dive into the conversation when you both have the energy and time. I always tell people that anyone worth having fun, sexy time with will be willing to talk about your health (and theirs!) beforehand.

I suggest starting this conversation with a positive note, something like “I’m really feeling you,” or “I’m really excited to do more sexual things with you.” Then you jump right in, let them know that you care about their health and want to talk about how you both can take care of each others bodies with intention.

Get tested.

It’s important to talk about the last time you were tested. If either you or your new partner haven’t been tested since the last time you had fluid-bonding sex, it might be a good idea to make an appointment for that. You could even get tested together and make a date out of it!

Something important to know about getting tested for people with vaginas is that a pap smear doesn’t cover it all! It’s a common misconception that it does, but your annual checkup with the OBGYN is mainly to check for cervical cancer.

If you want to be tested for STIs, you have to ask. There are different types of tests for different STIs, so be sure to get it all covered. For example, many people don’t know that they’re carriers for HSV1/2 (also known as herpes) because only a blood test can pick up that if you haven’t had an outbreak. Find a health center near you to schedule an appointment before your next sexy date. Planned Parenthood helps to ensure these tests are accessible and affordable, even for those of us without health insurance.

Talk about your comfort level.

It’s okay to want to use barriers (condoms, dental damns, gloves) even if you’ve both been tested and know your status. You can have whatever boundaries you feel comfortable with, and your partner should respect those (and vice-versa).

If you’re living with an STI, you might be nervous to have this conversation—and that’s okay! You deserve to know if your partner is going to be respectful of your body and boundaries before you get between the sheets, including if you have an STI. You both want to take care of your bodies and your initiation of the convo is a huge step towards that.

Language matters.

There’s a lot of stigma and shame around STIs, especially if you’re living with a STI that doesn’t have a cure. When you’re having this conversation with someone new, be prepared to be respectful and nonjudgmental. A few tips for language if you’ve been tested and don’t have an STI:

  1. Use the word “negative” instead of “clean.” Oftentimes, we’re taught to say “Yeah, I’ve been tested and I’m clean.” But this language implies that people living with an STI are “dirty.” That’s simply not true.
  2. Use “STI” instead of “STD.” Many people may be infected with an STI and never actually get symptoms. Having an STI means that an individual has an infection, but that it has not yet developed into a disease. Though these abbreviations aren’t interchangeable, there’s a lot less stigma attached to STI.
  3. This conversation may be a little difficult or awkward. If your partner has brought it up to you, don’t make them feel bad for initiating. Them bringing this conversation to the forefront shows a lot trust between you two! Plus, you’ll learn how to navigate hard-to-talk-about topics.

Sometimes you end up talking about STIs later than you should have. That’s okay!

You might have gotten wrapped up in the heat of the moment, now you’re laying in bed and your mind is running with thoughts and questions. It’s okay if you didn’t have the talk before you had sex but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Whether it’s a one time thing or three weeks into your fling. You can (and should!) still bring up the convo with your partner—even if you used barriers. And tbh, they’re probably thinking similar things in bed right next to you.

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Corinne Werder is a writer, sex educator and girl on the move currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. She looks at the world through the lens of a pleasure activist, femme-of-center queer woman. Her background in sex education comes from her volunteer work with RAINN, her work as a sexual assault/domestic violence advocate and she is currently a student at the Institute for Sexuality and Enlightenment. 

Have more sex questions? Leave a comment below or email webeditor@gomag.com and come back for more every Friday! 

The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only and should not replace or substitute for any medical, or other professional advice or help. For concerns requiring psychological or medical advice, please consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist This column, its author, the magazine and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice contained within this column.