You’ve decided to disclose your herpes status to your partner—but you’re unsure of how to do it. You’ve Googled into the late hours of the night and devoted every last bit of brain space to your plan. “Should I tell my partner in person? Should I disclose at dinner? What if I wait until we’re too deep in the moment to stop?”
While uncertainty can be frightening, these questions are normal—disclosure isn’t always easy. From someone who’s been there, here are some tips to help you get through it.
Tips for Disclosing in Person
Whether it’s a proposal, pregnancy announcement, or even a breakup, sharing big news often feels worthy of an in-person delivery. But when someone utters the ominous phrase, “We need to talk,” it’s not always clear to us whether the outcome will be good or bad. So how do you approach in-person disclosure of an STI without sending your partner’s heart racing in panic?
- Choose the setting. Meet somewhere you feel comfortable. It could be a quiet bench in the park, or the corner booth in your favorite coffee shop.
- Set the tone of the convo upfront. It’s up to you whether you choose to preface the meeting with some words that convey your purpose. While this holds you accountable, it may also instill anxiety in your partner depending on how you phrase it. Instead of framing the conversation with, “We need to talk [at place and time],” go for a more lighthearted approach like, “Hey, want to meet for coffee tomorrow? I have something important to share. Looking forward to seeing you!”
- Share the news. Once you’ve met up with your potential partner, it’s time to do the actual disclosing part. It always helps calm the nerves a bit if you’ve practiced what you’re going to say beforehand. You should come prepared to answer common questions (like, “What’s my risk of getting the virus if we have sex?”) and offer helpful statistics or other resources that can help educate your partner about herpes.
Tips for Disclosing via Text
Communication is hard. No matter how strong a relationship is, there’s something about being vulnerable that tends to make us stressed and uncertain. If disclosing in person isn’t something you think you’re ready to tackle, texting is always an option.
While ideally we would be able to have these kinds of discussions in person, it’s understandably daunting. So know this: Texting your partners that you have herpes does not make you a coward. It does not make you less than someone who chooses to disclose in person. For many, texting is its own type of comfort zone.
You might say something like this:
“Hey [Name]. I really like you and the time we’ve spent together. Before it becomes something physical, I want to let you know that I have genital herpes [or other STI name]. I’ve learned that the stigma is more difficult than the infection itself. [Feel free to add other information about your personal experience, too.] I understand that you may have some questions and uncertainties, and I’m happy to share some resources that have helped me.”
One benefit of texting is that you can give your partners links to helpful articles (like this one) right when you disclose. Here are some other helpful articles you can consider sending them:
Tips for Disclosing to Casual Sex Partners
But what if you’re just casual sex partners meeting for the first time? No problem. While you likely won’t have as much time to prepare for these conversations, you can still prepare a go-to disclosure statement.
Maybe you're comfortable disclosing at the bar or intimately whispering in your partner’s ear. If you are in a crowded bar or loud club and choose to disclose in person, just ensure that the other person can fully hear you so that consent is established before moving forward. If you prefer somewhere quieter, maybe ask if they want to take a walk outside to chat. If you are in a group, be sure that others in your party know where you’re headed.
You can even use the texting method when you’re meeting a potential partner for the first time at a bar if you can’t find the courage to say it aloud. For example, if you strike up a flirtatious conversation with someone, asking for their number may be the key to your disclosure. Then you can text them something like, “Hey [Name]. I’m having a lot of fun tonight, and I’d like to go further. But before we do, I need to share with you that I have genital herpes.” You can offer a statistic, personal story, or maybe even weave some more flirting. That way, they can think things through before they give you a response.
Tips for Disclosing Prior or During Sexual Activity
So what if your connection with someone has taken on a life of its own and you are now, somehow, in bed with your partner—and you haven’t disclosed yet? “This isn’t supposed to happen,” you think to yourself.
While it’s not how we should discuss our sexual health in an ideal world, it is a reality for many folks. You’re afraid. You wait too long. You get carried away. Lips are kissed, buttons are undone, and you know the rest.
As difficult as it may be, try to take a deep breath and remove yourself from the immediate situation. Maybe that means taking a trip to the bathroom or going to grab a glass of water. Now you’re in a position, whether you’re comfortable or not, to tell your partner why you removed yourself from the interaction. It wasn’t their breath, or the way they were moving. It was what you neglected to tell them for consent to occur. Honesty is especially key in these moments if you want the chance to build trust.
Take a calming breath, and say something like, “It wasn’t anything that you were doing. It’s what I didn’t do. I have genital herpes, and I was too afraid to tell you. I’m not having an outbreak, but there’s still a chance you could contract it, even though it's pretty low.” Then you can offer information about your specific STI, how you both can take steps to reduce the risk of transmission, how to get tested, and symptoms to watch for.
Your message may not come out as clean-cut as this example, and you should prepare yourself that it may be poorly received—the truth of the matter is, we can never really predict exactly how a person will react. The important lesson from this type of disclosure experience is to take these emotions, reflect upon them, and ensure that you develop a plan so that you won’t be faced with the dreaded mid-hump disclosure again.
Many STI disclosures are successful, but there are stories that do not always have happy endings. Sadly, many people are not well informed about STIs like herpes, how common they are, and precautions you can take to prevent transmission.
That said, the unfortunate reality is that telling someone you have an STI has the potential to turn into an uncomfortable (or, at worst, dangerous) situation, especially if you are with someone for the first time or you wait until after sexual activity to tell them your status.
Thankfully, not every potential partner will react poorly. Some may be more than willing to move forward. Some might want to get more information before they decide—and you can help them with that! Others may respond with a gentle rejection.
A Final Word on STI Disclosures
We all must create safe spaces for consent to occur in our relationships. Someone may reject you because of your STI status, and while that’s not the desired outcome, know that the rejection does not speak to you as a person. It speaks to your partners’ lack of understanding about STIs, or perhaps it just crosses a boundary for them.
Regardless of the outcome, know this: Your disclosure is about you, but your potential partner’s response is unrelated to your dignity or worth as a person. And while you may not get the response you want every single time, there are plenty of educated people out there (or people who are willing to be educated!) who will want to start a physical relationship with you.