Sex is great, but like most great things, it comes with its share of risks. While not everyone can get pregnant, everyone does have to consider the risk of STIs. Every year in the United States alone, there are an estimated 20 million new sexually transmitted infections.
Since STIs are so common, most people who are sexually active will have an STI scare at some point in their lives, whether it turns out that they actually have one, their partner has one, or they just had a UTI or yeast infection with STI-like symptoms. While good communication, regular STI testing, and use of barriers can help reduce the risk of getting an STI, it’s impossible to entirely eliminate the risks unless you’re completely abstinent; even prolonged kissing can sometimes spread syphilis.
In discussing STIs, I want to avoid both slut-shaming and STI-shaming. Going forward, I’m assuming that you and your partners (both past and present) are generally respectful and considerate, so I won’t address the (possible but unlikely) scenario of someone infecting another person through purposeful negligence.
Also, I’m going to avoid the word “clean” in this article, since it contributes to stigma against folks with STIs. Instead, I’ll just refer to people as being STI positive, which is more specific and accurate.
Keep in mind that with STIs, even if you think you were tested for “everything,” you may have only been tested for the most common infections: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and HIV. Unless you specifically ask, many doctors won’t also check you for HSV-1, HSV-2, trichomoniasis, hepatitis C, or the dozens of strains of HPV, all of which are also STIs.
As a sexually active person who has often had two partners at once, I have had a couple of STI scares in the past five years. While in both cases I was fortunate that I tested negative and that the diseases my partners had were easily curable, I did have to deal with the nerve-wracking and socially awkward experience of communicating this knowledge to my other partners. To my knowledge, the only STI I have is oral HSV-1, the very common form of herpes that I had my first outbreak of far before I ever started kissing anyone, much less having sex.
So what do you do when you have an STI scare? Here are three concrete steps you can take that will benefit both yourself and your partner(s).
1. Get Tested ASAP and Avoid Sexual Contact in the Meantime
Perhaps the most straightforward and important step is to get yourself tested. Most STI tests are pretty simple, done by blood sample, urine sample, or a swab. While some STIs have visible symptoms, many can be asymptomatic.
If you can afford it and have a primary care physician you’re comfortable with, you can go to them for testing. Otherwise, most cities have clinics with free or low-cost STI testing. A quick google search will reveal many results, but if you’re having trouble, you can start with this CDC resource.
While you’re waiting for your test results, hold off on sexual contact. You don’t want to accidentally transmit an infection to anyone else. Even if it was your partner who tested positive and you might not have it, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
2. Communicate with Others Who Might be at Risk
For me, the scariest part of the STI scares was communicating with my other sexual partners. I worried a lot about them judging me, or blaming me for the potential exposure.
First of all, you should communicate with anyone who might be at risk. Personally, I would let them know as soon as symptoms show, even if you haven’t gotten test results back yet. If you had sex with someone a few years ago and haven’t had any symptoms and have had negative STI tests since, you probably don’t need to contact them. However, if you have had somewhat recent sexual contact with someone, even if you used barriers, you should reach out and contact them even if you two aren’t currently sexually active.
Your message to them can be simple, and done via text if you need to. There’s even an anonymous notification service if you need it. While in-person or a phone call is probably ideal, letting them know quickly is important so they can minimize any potential risk of spreading the STI if it turns out they have one. Be direct and polite, such as:
“Hey, I just wanted to let you know that one of my other partners just got their test results back for chlamydia and they were positive. I’m getting tested tomorrow, and I wanted to give you a heads up so that you can get tested soon too,”
“So I started having some symptoms a few days ago, and I’m not sure if it’s a UTI or an STI. I’m going to the clinic for testing in the morning, but I wanted to let you know asap. I’ll be in touch again when I get the results back.”
How will other people react? Well, they might be scared, angry, or nervous themselves, which is understandable, but chances are they’ll appreciate you being straightforward and letting them know. They might need a little space to process, or initially express frustration, but they shouldn’t be nasty to you. By telling them, you’re doing your best to help them make informed decisions and potentially avoid further transmitting an STI.
If they’re a complete jerk about it (“How could you let this happen?!” or “I bet you got it from that loser you slept with last month”), their anger and fear may be understandable, but that doesn’t excuse them taking it out on you.
3. Get and give support
Knowing you have or might have an STI can be scary. Whether it’s something you can cure with a quick trip to the doctor or a lifelong infection, it’s normal to feel afraid, nervous, embarrassed, sad, or angry. If you have friends you’re comfortable discussing the matter with, reach out to them if you need support.
When giving and getting support, however, keep in mind that it’s not your place to out your partners’ STI status, if that’s applicable. For example, if your boyfriend tested positive for gonorrhea and you’re now getting tested too, be mindful of how you discuss it with your friends. Telling your close friend that someone you had sex with in the past few years has an STI so you’re going to get tested is probably fine; talking to a bunch of your boyfriend’s friends about his recent STI diagnosis is probably not. Other than when talking to medical professionals, you should consider the privacy of the person who told you they have or might have an STI.
If you have the emotional energy for it, provide support for others impacted by the STI scare. Even if they’re not someone you’re currently sexually active with, or even close to, offering an ear can be much appreciated.
That said, neither you nor your past partners should feel obliged to revive a relationship due to the STI diagnosis or potential diagnosis. If your former partner doesn’t want to talk beyond the exchange of basic testing information, you should respect that—and vice versa. If they push you about it, attempting to use the situation as a reason to reconnect when you don’t want to, try saying something along the lines of, “I appreciate you communicating with me about this, but it’s a stressor for me too and I’d prefer to process it alone” and disengage. Even if they might have caught the STI from you, they don’t have the right to guilt you into reconnection.
If you do end up with an STI diagnosis, talk to your doctor about treatment. Fortunately, many STIs can be cured and those that can’t have options for management. There are also STI support groups out there, and your local clinic or healthcare provider should be able to connect you with some resources as well. Having an STI doesn’t make you dirty, broken, or defective. Being honest with yourself and others in your life about it is a brave and valuable thing to do.
While finding out you might have an STI can be an unpleasant surprise, you owe it to yourself and those in your life to seek diagnosis and treatment, to communicate with potentially affected partners, and to give and receive support. STIs are an unfortunate but real risk of sex, and while we should all take steps to minimize the chances of contracting or transmitting one, STI scares are something many of us deal with at some point in our lives. In my experiences, I’m glad that I was honest and straightforward with my partners, and I hope they will do the same for me in the future if they ever think they might have an infection.
Image credit: Thirteen Of Clubs/CC