Editor's Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, "Second Opinion," where patient experts and health writers share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.
Do you have to tell your partner about your sexually transmitted infection (STI)? According to one well-known figure in the sex research field, the answer is "not necessarily," at least when it comes to genital herpes. But is that really the best advice?
Earlier this month, this researcher asserted that while many professionals advocate disclosure as a moral obligation, herpes disclosure constitutes "a gray area." But when the news of this claim quickly made its rounds to the herpes activist community, it sent many, including me, into deep reflection and internal angst. A group of us activists reached out to this person, only to receive the same generic response of respectful disagreement.
But for the countless number of folks who have contracted herpes and other STIs through nondisclosure, this professional's assertion further propelled stigma and the feelings of shame that many feel upon diagnosis. In my eyes, and the eyes of many others in the herpes activist community, disclosure is by no means a gray area — especially for those who participate in nonmonogamy.
Whether you test positive for herpes or not, discussions about your sexual health and STI disclosure are imperative for the other parties to consent. Keep reading to learn exactly why it’s important to talk to your sexual partners about your sexual health and STI status.
STIs: To Disclose, or Not to Disclose?
As a writer who is open about living with genital herpes, one of the most common questions I receive is, “Do I have to tell my prospective partners I have herpes?” Participating in sexual activities with our partners is arguably easier than actually having conversations with them about our sexual health.
Many will say these conversations are awkward, embarrassing, and even frightening. While these emotions and interpretations are valid experiences, they reflect internalized fears and stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections (STIs). With the right communication skills, you can get through these conversations.
The first step in being prepared for these conversations is to know your STI status.
STI Testing Guidelines
The same stigmas that exist around STIs and dating permeate our sexual health care, too. Herpes usually enters conversations between partners only when necessary, but these conversations about our sexual health histories should be in practice well before any kind of STI diagnosis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer general STI screening guidelines based on population and infection, but these may change depending on how often you have sex, your number of partners, and your behaviors. The CDC does not currently advocate for routine herpes screening for all populations, which reinforces not only the fear of testing, but also the stigma associated with testing positive for an infection. For example, one of the CDC’s main reasons for not including herpes on a testing panels is related to the psychological effects of the diagnosis.
Generally, every time you have a new sexual partner, both of you should get tested. Testing should also be considered a must if you are engaging in unprotected (condomless) sex.
Why We’re Afraid to Talk About Our Sexual Health
When we refrain from communicating with our partners about our sexual histories, we may make excuses for our silence: Maybe you “didn’t want to ruin the mood” or you were “caught up in the moment.” Sexual health disclosures are often deemed unsexy and unromantic.
But these ideas contribute to the popularity of optional disclosure among sex partners. Optional disclosure is the kind we’re likely to forget about — the kind we’re likely to shove under the rug in favor of invincibility. We reaffirm herpes stigma by convincing ourselves that “it could never happen to us.”
Why are we so tempted to believe optional disclosure is acceptable? It’s likely rooted in harmful myths about STIs — and that isn’t our fault. Many of us received sex education that taught us what not to do: Don’t have sex before you find someone special. If you do have sex, don’t get pregnant. Don’t contract an STI. There are rarely examples for how to communicate about sex and STIs in a healthy way with our potential partners. Students in these sex education environments are not offered a sense of the realities of what it means to be sexually active. And that’s a huge problem.
How to Accommodate STI Risk Without Sacrificing Pleasure
Many people don’t know just how common contracting an STI really is. One in two sexually active young adults will contract an STI by age 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association. This risk may increase or decrease depending upon use of condoms, numbers of partners, and sexual health practices — none of which represents or alters your worth as a person.
With STI rates climbing in the U.S., we’re long overdue to address the heart of the issue: We need to have conversations about our sexual health. While interrupting a smooch session to chat about our last STI panel isn’t something you often see in the movies, it’s a moment that can and does happen.
Younger generations are often discredited for their lack of communication skills. Disclosing in-person may offer a more intimate experience for some, but many may feel more comfortable chatting with their new online match via technology before meeting up for a date, or if there’s any suspicion that sexual activity may occur.
Remember: Despite society’s hesitance to talk about sexual health, these discussions are not meant to instill fear or eradicate pleasure. In fact, they’re one of many ways that we can communicate with our partners (even if we’ll never see them again) and establish a safer environment for sexual pleasure to occur.
STI Disclosure: The Gateway Conversation
While there's potential for rejection in every relationship, lack of communication and honest conversations about our sexual health and desires may lead to more disappointment than the rejection itself. For me, disclosing my positive herpes status became a gateway to further discussions about pleasure with my partners. It propelled me into honest conversations about my boundaries in the bedroom, as well as my own fantasies, desires, and preferences.