How to Talk to Your Partner about STIs Without Shame

Oct 31, 2017

How can you talk about STIs without getting into shame and stigma? I’m Dr. Liz from Sex-Positive Psych. And today, we’re talking STIs. Now first of all, when I say STIs, I mean sexually transmitted infections which is any number of different infections that can be transmitted through sexual activity.

So pop quiz, what is the most common STI? I’ll give you a second, write down your response. Do you know what it is?

It’s the common cold! When we talk about STIs, most people assume that we’re talking about HIV, HSV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, all of those STIs that we’ve been told are so dangerous and terrible and horrible. But realistically, anything that is transmitted through sex or through sexual contact can be an STI. And that means that colds are STIs. The flu can be an STI. There are lots of things that can be STIs.

Now when you’re talking to someone about STIs, we are in a culture that tells us all of the time that anyone who has an STI is dirty and slutty and gross and there must be something wrong with them, they must have done something bad because only bad people get STIs. This is simply not true. When we talk about HSV, the herpes simplex virus, over half of the population has HSV-1. This is a strain that is most commonly found orally and creates cold sores. In fact, so many people have HSV-1 that most clinics won’t test you for it. HSV-1 is something that is easily transmitted but it tends to not have serious life term ramifications. Most people who have HSV-1 have one outbreak and never have another or they’ll have occasional outbreaks and those are unsightly and painful but they don’t cause any significant impact on someone’s long-term life.

HSV-2, the herpes simplex virus 2 is most common found genitally. But both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be found in any location on your body. These viruses are also transmitted skin to skin. So wearing a condom doesn’t necessarily stop you from getting them. In fact, one of the common ways that people get HSV-1 is their grandma kissing them. Because when you have a cold sore, you can transmit it. And most of us don’t think when we have a cold sore that we need to not touch anyone with our face. The reality is that over our lifetimes, most of us will end up with an STI at one point or another. Over 2/3 of the population is carrying at least one strain of HSV.

Many people at some point in their life will contract gonorrhea chlamydia or syphilis. When we look at STIs, we treat them as though they are worst case scenarios that are terrible. But the majority of STIs these days with modern medicine, don’t negatively impact people’s lives significantly. STIs generally become a problem when they aren’t diagnosed early and when they are not treated. So the most important thing in STI is just making sure that you’re tested regularly. Yes, even if you’re monogamous, you should be getting tested regularly. Yes, even if you haven’t had very many sexual partners. You should get tested regularly. The reality is that we can get this different STIs at any point in our life through any number of different transmission means. It’s so much better to know that you have something because then you can treat it.

So when you’re talking about STIs, if you’re having a talk with a new partner or a new potential partner or if you’ve just found out that you have an STI, the key is, however you approach it is going to help color how they respond. If I go to someone and I say, “Hey, look I know this is a really big deal and I totally understand if you never want to have sex with me or ever touch me again and I understand that I may need to just be alone forever but I have HSV-1 and I have had cold sores before.” It is way more likely they’re going to freak out than if the information you give them is “Hey, so you know I have HSV-1 with a history of oral cold sores. My last was about three months ago.” If I present this as not a huge deal, it’s much more likely that they’ll be open to asking questions or getting more information rather than just freaking out off the bat.

Now someone tells you information that you’re uncertain about or you noticed yourself having a strong emotional reaction, come from a place of curiosity and compassion. Ask some questions or what does that mean? “OK, you’ve just called and told me that you have gonorrhea. OK, well what does that mean?” “OK, you’re taking antibiotics, cool.” “Do you think you might have gotten it since we last had sex?” “No,” “So you think that I’m probably or that I’m possibly at risk of having gonorrhea? OK, so what shall I do next?” “I should go get tested.” “All right, great! Thank you. I appreciate that.” If someone reaches out to you and tells you that they have discovered that they have an STI, they’re giving you the information you need to be able to go out and get treated.

Even HIV these days with proper treatment can become an undetectable load. And the CBC recently acknowledged that if someone’s viral load with HIV is undetectable, it is not possible for them to transmit the virus. Almost everything we have these days is treatable or containable. Even the herpes simplex viruses. If you're someone who has multiple outbreaks, there are medications like the Acyclovir that are antivirals that will help you of your viral load low and allow you to prevent or reduce future breakouts. So in general, remember that STIs are normal. STIs are perfectly normal! They are a normal side effect of having sex.

The majority of them are not a huge life-changing deal. And if someone gives you information, that is really kind for them to do. And it gives you options. And you, you should get information too. make sure you’re getting tested. Make sure that you are talking to people as humans. And remember not to use terminology like “Clean and dirty.” You’re not clean because you don’t have STIs. You're not dirty if you have STIs. Some people are positive, some people are negative. That’s all that it is. And at the end of the day, they’re still just people. Treat people like people. Don’t shame people for catching things because no one would shame you for catching a cold. And that is the most commonly transmitted STI.

I’m Dr. Liz from Sex-Positive Psych. I hope I’ll catch you next time. If you’ve got questions or comments, please leave them down below. And if you’re interested, subscribe to my channel for more videos just like this one.

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