The convo can even bring you two closer together.
Ever had a sex or dating question you were too nervous to ask even your BFF? Don’t worry, we’ve got you. In Elite Daily’s monthly Don’t Make It Weird series, our Dating team will unpack an awkward topic to give you the shame-free answers you need.
If you’re dating in 2021, you’ve probably become well-versed in navigating frequent conversations about your health. You know how to ask a new Hinge match about their vaccination status; you’re comfortable postponing a date until you get a negative PCR test result. Maybe you’ve even had to text a casual hookup about your newfound loss of taste and smell. So why is it often still so difficult to discuss sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing with new partners? And what’s the easiest way to navigate that conversation, anyway?
One major reason people avoid talking about testing is because, well, it can feel a little awkward if you haven’t done it before. Swapping personal info about your medical history with a new partner can be intimidating, especially in the heat of the moment. Rampant misinformation and strong stigmas against STIs don’t help. “It feels invasive, even when it’s someone we’ve been seeing for a while and we’ve built up trust with,” sex and culture critic Ella Dawson tells Elite Daily. “We still associate STIs with being irresponsible or being in some way immoral. There are all these stereotypes built into STIs and so, when we bring it up with someone, I think we worry that they’ll feel judged. We worry that they might make assumptions about us that we’re even talking about it.”
The truth is, sharing that you have an STI (or asking a new partner about their status, or their testing habits) isn’t a big deal, in part because they’re so common. On any given day in 2018, around one in five Americans had an STI, estimated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over half of the U.S. population will acquire an STI at some point in their lives, and many of the most common conditions are curable or easily treatable, as long as you’re aware of your status — which you might not be, since many STIs can be asymptomatic.
Thankfully, it’s easy, fast, and affordable to get tested. If you have any kind of health insurance plan, you might be able to get zero-cost tests at your doctor’s office or nearest health clinic. If you don’t have insurance, professionals at your local Planned Parenthood can also help you find a free or affordable way to figure out your status. Check out this guide for more info.
What can conversations about STI testing look like?
Casey, 26, says the most comprehensive conversation she’s had happened after she first got intimate with her now-boyfriend. In her own words, they were “under the influence, if you will,” and didn’t use a condom. Later, she says, “He texted me, like, ‘If you are not comfortable with it, of course we can use protection. But we can also get an STI or STD test together.’ I was kind of blown away because no one’s ever offered to do that, like, as a date,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah, of course, I think that would be a great idea, whether protection is in the plan or not.’”
From there, she says, she felt comfortable asking him about his STI history and how often he gets tested. “I think it shows a sense of maturity, for sure, that you are comfortable enough to have these conversations and that you actually care about that person’s health,” Casey tells Elite Daily. “I feel like it’s more than just caring for yourself, but caring for those around you.”
Like Casey, 28-year-old Kelsea admits that she hasn’t always had open conversations about STI testing with casual partners; instead, she would get tested after the fact when “protection wasn’t used as much as it should’ve been.” She was surprised when, recently, the person she’d been seeing mentioned he’d just gotten tested and asked if she knew her status. Afterward, it felt natural to talk about whether they were sleeping with other people, or whether they planned to. “It felt casual,” she says. “There was a level of trust that came after that conversation that was based solely on keeping each other sexually safe.”
Elite Daily spoke to several people who had similar experiences. “When I’ve had the discussion, it’s usually brief, and for me, has coincided with the decision to be monogamous with someone,” says 25-year-old Ellen.
If you aren’t in an exclusive relationship, though, you should keep in mind the conversation around testing has to be ongoing — maybe after each time someone meets a new partner, or maybe just every few months. The more you talk about STIs, the easier it gets (and the stronger your relationship might get, too). Rachel, a 29-year-old who’s been in a sexual relationship with someone for almost two years, remembers the time her partner notified her he’d gotten a routine test and discovered he had chlamydia. She tested negative, but appreciated that her partner was looking out for her health.
“I really liked that he just brought the subject up like it was no big deal… We respect each other enough to be like, ‘Hey, here’s what this thing is, and just take care of yourself,’” Rachel tells Elite Daily. “I very much appreciate that he keeps to a [testing] schedule and feels comfortable enough with me to tell me when anything arises.”
When is the best time to initiate conversations about STI testing?
When you’re in the middle of hooking up, it might not be hard to have a clear-headed discussion, but it can also feel awkward (or presumptuous) to bring up the topic sooner. Dr. Jess O’Reilly, a sex and relationships expert and host of the Sex With Dr. Jess podcast, says it’s best to discuss STIs and testing as early as possible — but it’s never too late. Even if you’ve been sleeping with someone for a while, you can always acknowledge that you should’ve brought up the topic sooner, and then segue into a conversation about your most recent test results. “Don’t be held back just because you’ve been sleeping together for a while,” she says.
Sometimes, it takes a few tries to have a thorough, open dialogue. Before Julia*, 24, got intimate with their ex-partner, their partner told Julia they had herpes. “I don’t know if it was just my immaturity or just not knowing if I could ask a question, but I was just like, ‘Oh, OK, cool,’ and then totally moved on — and then avoided going down on them for ages, because I was like, ‘How do I navigate this?’” they tell Elite Daily. “Finally, I remember being like, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ and I think my ex was like, ‘Is it about the herpes?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it is,’ and we talked it out. They explained how it works for them and what they do to take care of themselves. That was a good conversation.”
After that relationship ended, Julia started dating someone else. Because their new relationship wasn’t an exclusive one, they had regular conversations about their STI test results. One time, their partner revealed she’d tested positive for chlamydia. This time around, Julia says they felt better equipped to discuss STIs.
“Even though we weren’t exclusive, I wasn’t sleeping with anyone else. So it sucked to hear, but we also had a very frank conversation about it,” they recall. “I would say that that conversation [with my previous partner] added to the maturity with which I was able to handle STI conversations in my next relationship.”
What are some of the most natural ways to bring up the topic of testing?
Starting with your own history and testing schedule, Dr. Jess says, can sometimes be the easiest move. Dawson agrees, adding that mentioning your own results can make it less scary for your partner to share theirs or ask questions. “It’s something that people feel a lot of shame and embarrassment around talking about, and sometimes, bringing it up in a non-embarrassed, open way with a smile can make it a lot less intimidating,” Dawson tells Elite Daily. “It’s been eye-opening to me now, as an STI-positive person, how shocked some people are when I bring up my status, because they’ve just never had that conversation before in their life. And very often, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, thank you for telling me. I didn’t think about this,’ and then they’ll learn and they’ll incorporate it into their own habits.”
Not sure how to jump-start the convo? Texting lowers the pressure. “You can say, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know that my last test was on X date,’ or ‘Hey, just wanted to let you know that I test positive for herpes or for HPV, and these are the prevention methods I use to keep my partners safe. How do you feel about that? Is there anything you’d like to share with me?’” Dawson adds. Sending a text can also let your partner process any information (or decide how to discuss their own status) without as much pressure.
“You’ve sweat against one another’s naked bodies and you’ve let your guard down and made animalistic sounds as your bodies jerk and spasm in pleasure. If you’ve enjoyed these activities, you’ve already overcome awkwardness.”
Amanda, 24, agrees. “I meet a lot of people through apps, so when I can, I try to bring it up before we actually meet up in person,” she says. “If I meet somebody out and just want to chat about it before I go back to their place, it’s really easy for them to get defensive or feel like they’re being accused of something, and maybe that’s because I bring it up in a really straightforward way… I do think bringing it up over text, or even over the phone or FaceTime, feels less invasive.”
Some people still “get kind of weird” about the topic, but she’s also had very thoughtful conversations. “I had people who are very considerate, like, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought to get tested in a while. Would you rather wait to meet up until I have a chance to and give you a full response?” Amanda says. “And that doesn’t happen very often, but it’s nice when it does.”
How do you get over the awkward factor?
Whether you’re chatting over text or face to face, Marla Renee Stewart, MA, a sexologist and sexpert for Lovers sexual wellness brand, says her biggest piece of advice is to just embrace the awkwardness. And practice talking about it! “Practicing it over and over and over again can be helpful in having it come out of your mouth more naturally,” Stewart tells Elite Daily. Because STIs are often perceived as so taboo, that sense of discomfort might simply stem from a lack of experience with this conversation.
Still feel weird? “Remind yourself that your lips have probably touched, licked, sucked, and kissed the hole through which they pee. You’ve sweat against one another’s naked bodies and you’ve let your guard down and made animalistic sounds as your bodies jerk and spasm in pleasure,” Dr. Jess says. “If you’ve enjoyed these activities, you’ve already overcome awkwardness, and you’ll overcome the awkwardness of a conversation.” Touché.
Why is this kind of conversation so important?
Testing positive for an STI (or finding out that your partner does) is far from the end of the world. Spoiler alert: It’s also far from the end of your sex life. “I want to emphasize that STIs are not a death sentence and quality of life can be top-notch regardless of status. Many STIs are treatable and all are manageable, but only if you get tested so that you can seek treatment,” Dr. Jess stresses. “Getting tested is essential to seeking treatment, and the long-term effects of leaving some STIs untreated include pelvic pain and infertility. It’s much simpler to get tested, treated, and come up with a management plan if it’s a viral STI than to avoid testing and deal with potential long-term consequences.”
Human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most common STIs, has no cure, but the virus’ potential symptoms can be treated: Your doctor can prescribe you medication for genital warts, or if you have what’s called a high-risk case, they can freeze or remove abnormal cells to protect you from cervical cancer. Herpes is also incurable, but daily antiviral medication can shorten or even prevent outbreaks altogether.
Plus, getting and sharing your STI status helps create an open line of communication between you and your partner or partners. “Frank, open conversations can definitely help strengthen relationships because they require honesty and vulnerability,” says Stewart.
In the age of masks and social distancing, we’re hyper-aware of how important it is to protect our partners’ (and our own) health and safety. And really, the way we treat, view, and discuss STIs should be no different. Like COVID, the flu, or even a common cold, STIs aren’t indictments of your habits, “cleanliness,” or even sexual history. “A virus like COVID or herpes or HPV or HIV, [is] not a reflection of your moral character, or even necessarily how ‘responsible’ you’ve been,” Dawson says. “It’s something that happens maybe based on risks that you take, but also luck, and bad luck, and what you might’ve been exposed to without even knowing it.”
As Kelsea says, “If I’m willing to, on a first date, be like, ‘What vaccine did you get?’ then I can feel a little bit more open asking someone about the last time they got tested.” Let’s shake off the shame. Taking control of your sexual health and looking out for your partners is empowering, imperative, and — dare I say it? — sexy.
*Name has been changed.