We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. This week’s topic: how to disclose your STD status if you have genital herpes (or really, any STI).
Q: I was diagnosed with genital herpes last year. Now I'm a college student and am trying to navigate hook up culture etiquette combined with herpes etiquette. I've had a few hookups that ended up back in someone’s room, but because of my STD, didn't lead to sex. Is there a way to tell someone "No, sorry, I can't sleep with you" without explaining why? And of I do want to tell someone, how do I go about doing that?
A: It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot, but are trying to figure out the best way to navigate a complex situation respectfully and safely, so props to you! Learning you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) — particularly an (as of now) incurable one like herpes — is often extremely emotionally intense, and can trigger a range of feelings, from disbelief to anger to guilt. Settling into a way of understanding your new situation within yourself can be hard enough … and then there’s other people to consider disclosing to, because it takes (at least) two to tango.
Before we even get to how you might want to navigate the world as a human with one or more unwanted infections in your body, you have to know something really important: you are not alone. I mean really really not alone.
Just look at the statistics: It’s estimated that one in five Americans have the genital herpes virus living inside them — 90 percent of whom don’t even know they have it. HPV, which is what causes genital warts and can end up causing certain types of cancer, is similarly prevalent. Around 79 million Americans are carrying HPV around in their bodies right now, and 80 percent of women will have it by the time they’re 50 years old, but most people don’t know they have it because they don’t have symptoms. Overall, more than half of all humans will get an STI sometime in their lives.
With that said, here's what you need to know about disclosing your status to a sexual partner.
How To Have "The Talk"
The details of how, where, and when you disclose to a romantic partner are all up to you — no one knows your relationship better than you, so no one else can tell you what will work best. Go with your gut on this. However, there are some things you might want to consider before you dive headlong into what I truly hope is a positive conversation, but often has its wrinkles.
Step 1: Understand How Transmission Occurs
The main thing that a partner usually asks if you tell them that you’re positive for an STI is … oh my f&%king god how can I get it from you?! Knowledge is definitely power in this situation — being able to squash stigma-driven misinformation and cite actual facts is super important during a conversation around disclosure, because you may be that person’s first informed gateway into the topic.
So tell your partner not just what you have, but how it gets into the human body, and how prevalent it is. Knowing just how hard or easy it is to transmit the STI in question can freak some people out and make them swear off touching another person for the rest of their life. Or it can make them pause and think … wow, if this disease is so prevalent, it’s kinda just part of living life as a sexually active human. Most people fall somewhere on the middle of this reaction continuum.
For instance, if we're talking about genital herpes, you could say something like: "Herpes is super common — over 20 percent of people have it, and it's even more prevalent in women, because it's easier to catch it if you have ladyparts. It gets transmitted from skin-to-skin contact, and you can actually get it from many parts of someone else's body, not just their special parts (including mouths, butts, and thighs). So really, you don't technically get it from sex, you get it from touching. You're much more likely to get it from someone who has a herpes sore, but you can also get it in between the times when sores are around. While there isn't a cure, there's medication I can take to protect you from getting it, and using condoms also helps."
However, make sure to put these in your own words. Remember, you know best how to talk to your partner!
Step 2: Know The Health Risks
The other thing partners generally want to know about is what having an STI means health-wise. What are the short- and long-term effects of whatever it is that you have and that they might get or even have already? Knowing about the general symptoms can not only help them understand what it could be like to live with the STI in question, but can also help them contextualize what it would mean for their health.
So, things to know about genital herpes are that while it can result in periodic sores on the infected areas (which can be in either the oral or genital regions, or both) that can range from annoying to painful, there aren't really long-term health risks. The important health risks associated with herpes is that if you're sleeping with someone who has HIV, it can increase your chances of becoming HIV infected, and if you have an outbreak during the third trimester in a pregnancy, you can pass it on to your baby, which can be deadly (but is super rare and is preventable with the use of medication and a cesarean section). Read up on what you have so you can clearly communicate any risks to your partner.
Step 3: Be True To Your Emotions
You may surprise yourself with how you feel when you're disclosing, and how you react. The important thing to remember here is that all reactions are equally valid — you can't control your emotions, and that's okay! Tell your partner what you’re feeling, tell him or her what it was like to disclose after you’ve done it ... basically, say and do whatever makes you feel most comfortable in the moment. If you do end up crying, that doesn’t make you any less of a badass feminist.
Step 4: Engage In Self Care
While you shouldn't go into a disclosure talk convinced of a negative outcome (it’s always good to think positive!), the reality is that your partner may not react in the way you want him or her to.
I like to plan something really nice for myself whenever I know I'm going to have a hard conversation. Best case scenario, you won't need it or it will be a bonus treat, but if you don't get a respectful reaction, your future self will be thanking your past self for setting up that snuggle sesh with your best friend or solo wine and movie night.
A Very Important Note on Consent
As to the part of your question about whether you have to tell a partner why you're stopping short of having sex: While it's totally fine to stop fooling around whenever you want (and in fact, you should definitely stop at the moment you no longer want to be engaging in sexual activity), be respectful of the other person or people in the equation.
They won't know that you're halting because you don't want to potentially give them an STI, because you haven't told them! Whatever you choose to say, try to do it in a way that doesn't leave them feeling like they disrespected your body or were forcing you to do something you weren't down with (unless of course that's the case).
So instead of panicking, grabbing your clothes, and running out the door without a backward glance, try stopping and just telling the person that you like them (if you do) and are having fun (if you are) but that you want to push the pause button for now, take it slow, do something besides penetration, whatever it is you actually want to do. There are many ways for you to be honest with this other human without disclosing your status before it would affect them — try being emotionally honest and see where it gets you. If they respond well, that's a good indicator that maybe they would be a person to disclose to ... in the future, when you're ready.
The Bottom Line
The stigma associated with having an STI can be debilitating. Many people with STIs worry that they won't be loved or find partners because they are infected. Fortunately, that's really not the case — there are many robust and growing Internet forums, support groups, and yes even dating sites devoted to persons living with specific STIs. These communities swap disclosure stories and tips, and also meet up for steamy romances and even marriage. And, often your partner will surprise you when you disclose and decide that they want to have a relationship with you regardless of your status.
In fact, the disclosure conversation is a great way to dismantle any negative connotations your partner may have about your STI. Some of this can occur through sharing information, such as learning just how many people have this virus, or how little it affects daily life or long-term health (if that’s indeed the case). But most of it comes just from you being you. By telling someone you like or love that you have an STI, you're humanizing the experience for them. After all, you’re exactly the same person you were before you were infected with whatever it is you have. You’re just as worthy of love.
Images: Jorge Quinteros/Flickr, Giphy