How to talk to your partner about an STI

woman holding the arm of a man while smiling

We know it’s an awkward conversation, but here’s why you need to ask.

Nothing kills the romatic mood quite like “Oh, by the way honey, when was the last time you were tested for STIs?” That said, STIs are serious, and before you sleep with someone, you should be sure they’re free of STIs. This isn’t about slut shaming them: they may only have ever slept with one other person, but if that other person had an STI, they could be infected. This is why asking someone about the number of prior partners they’ve had isn’t the same as asking about STIs. It may satisfy your curiosity, but it has far fewer personal repercussions to you and your relationship than knowing about a possible STI.

Make sure that when you ask this question, your partner knows it’s not because you don’t trust them. Many people don’t know that STIs/STDs are not always visible or symptomatic. This means that someone could have an STI without knowing it. So when you ask them about their status, you’re not implying that they have anything they’re intentionally trying to hide. And because you can’t tell if someone has an STI simply by looking at them, asking them outright is the only way to know for sure.

Now some of us may be tempted to forego knowing to avoid the discomfort. That’s understandable. Oddly enough, “Having sex can often be viewed as less intimidating than having to talk about it,” says Dr. Laura Berman, but she cautions us not to shy away from broaching the subject, claiming that “talking about STDs and getting tested is a crucial part of practicing safer sex.” If not for our own sake, we should consider the potential risk we could bring to our partner. This means that if you’re unsure of your own status, you should get tested before you sleep with someone new.

So, before passion takes over here are some tips on how to start dreaded albeit but considerate conversation.

1. Reconcile yourself to the fact that this won’t be sexy—and that’s okay.

Honesty is rarely comfortable, but avoiding an issue won’t make it go away. “The only thing less sexy than talking about safe sex is finding out that you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that could threaten your life or your fertility,” says Madeline Vann, MPH.

2. Consider your surroundings.

Sandra Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine advises, This “conversation needs to happen long before we end up in the bedroom. Maybe in the kitchen.” It’s just being honest to acknowledge that hormones can get in the way of clear thinking, and tempt us to withhold important information about our STI status if the show is already on the road. The goal is your respective health and safety, so choose a location that helps you both talk without getting sidetracked.

3. Be honest.

Usually the best way to get a direct answer is to ask a direct question: “Have you been tested for STIs?” Because the sheer awkwardness of the subject matter might prompt some people to be less than honest, consider how well you know the person. They may not intentionally mislead you, but they may be tempted to tell you they’re free of STIs simply because they’re pretty sure they are. Regardless of the information we receive from them, we should respect our partner enough to be honest about our own STI status.

Here are some questions we could ask:

  • How recently have you been tested?
  • Have you had any new partners since then?
  • Have you tested positive for any STIs?
  • Are you willing to use a condom?
  • Are you willing to wait and get tested?

4. Know your own boundaries, and stick to them.

Everyone’s personal boundaries will be different, and will likely be based on the amount of risk they’re willing to take. You might be comfortable with your partner not being tested as long as they wear a condom. You might want to wait to engage in any activities that could spread STIs until you’ve both been tested. Whatever your boundaries are, just know that you’ve set them for a reason: they’re yours, and no one has the right to make you compromise them.

Finally, medically speaking, female reproductive systems are intake systems, leaving us more vulnerable to STIs—both to contracting them and experiencing symptoms. Because of this, we have good reason to be more cautious about STI transmission.

Remember that we ask these questions out of respect for both our bodies and for our partner’s. We aren’t trying to shame them or make them feel dirty by asking. Instead, we are trying to build the groundwork for a loving and honest relationship. Keep that front and center, and anyone worth your time will respect you for it.

Iris is the director of ArborWoman.