To whoever needs to hear this today: Just because you're living with an STI, doesn't mean your sex life is over. In fact, far from it. A thriving, happy, healthy sex life can still be a reality for you. You'll just need to follow a few more safe sex tips for people living with STIs to make sure you're taking the best care of yourself and your partners as possible. "[Sex with an STI is] not too different from not having an STI, it just requires a little more thoughtfulness and planning," Fiona Gilbert, a sexual wellness and fertility consultant, tells Elite Daily.
Jenelle Marie Pierce, sexual health educator and Executive Director of The STI Project, tells Elite Daily the first step to a happy sex life is to understand what it means to be “sexually healthy", which doesn't directly translate to being STI-free. "If that were the case, the vast majority of all people would not be sexually healthy, because most people contract an STI at some point in their life," she says. "Although having an STI isn't ideal, it doesn't necessarily have to change your sex life, and it doesn't mean that you're unhealthy. The only thing that has to happen, which might be different from before you had an infection, is disclosure — you have to disclose your STI status before engaging in sexual activities."
Here's what the experts say about having a healthy, safe sex life — including how to talk about your status — while living with an STI.
Do your homework.
The best way to ensure sure your sex life is both healthy and safe is to make sure you understand your diagnosis, as Dr. Lyndsey Harper, OBGYN and founder of the sexual wellness app Rosy, tells Elite Daily. “Many STIs are temporary and treatable. Others are chronic or recurrent. Being educated about your status, the available medications for treatment or prevention, modes, the likelihood of transmission, and possible complications are all important pieces of information to move forward,” she explains.
While this knowledge is power, Dr. Harper says to be gentle with yourself through the process and afterward. “After the initial educational period, it's important to take some time to separate yourself from your STI status. It doesn't define you as a person or as a sexual being."
Cater your safe sex practices to your diagnosis.
What safe sex looks like to you will depend, in part, on your diagnosis, says Dr. Harper. “If the infection is curable (gonorrhea, chlamydia, trich, syphilis), complete treatment of all partners before resuming sexual activity is recommended. In the case of herpes, it's best to avoid sexual contact both before (often there can be a tingling or burning [sensation] before a breakout) and during a breakout to prevent transmission. Sometimes, people with herpes take daily prevention medicine that can further reduce the risk of transmission,” Dr. Harper explains. “In the case of HIV, it's best to be medically treated to reduce the amount of HIV circulating in the bloodstream, practice diligent use of condoms, and consider PrEP (a daily medication taken to help prevent getting HIV) for partners. All of these practices lower the number of infectious bacteria or virus exposure to the negative status partner.” And in all cases, including those with an unknown STI status, Dr. Harper recommends condom use.
Always talk about your status with a new partner.
One of the most important parts of having a healthy sex life while living with an STI is making sure that all parties are informed and consenting. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also can lead to a more satisfying sex life, says Pierce. “STI disclosure requires communication, communication builds trust and intimacy, and building trust and intimacy leads to more pleasurable sexual experiences. When STI disclosure happens, all folks participating in those activities can be present and not hyper-focused on risk, undesired outcomes, or lack of transparency,” she explains.
Pierce emphasizes it's essential to disclose your STI status "before you and your partners engage in sexual activity for the first time," even though it can be an uncomfortable conversation. She suggests doing this when you're both fully clothed and sober, ensuring "there's no coercion and full consent can be given, giving your partner(s) the physical and emotional space to consider what they'd like to do and what it means to them."
She recommends finding a safe environment to talk, be it a quiet park, your living room, or the kitchen table. "Somewhere private and not sexually charged," she says. And if you don't feel comfortable having the conversation face-to-face, don't be afraid to turn to text. "Technology might allow a partner to pause and consider before responding, without you or them being worried about their initial reaction or facial expression."
You don't have to disclose any details you don't feel comfortable sharing, "including how you contracted [the STI] or how many partners you've had," says Pierce. But she does suggest providing tools to help your partner process and understand the information. "Share one or two resources offering facts on symptoms, tests, and treatments, and one or two that address the emotional aspects of living with an STI." Once you've said what you need to say, "allow the individual(s) space to digest without having to make a decision immediately, but whatever they decide, don't take it personally," says Pierce.
Keep your barrier protection handy.
Sexual activity can often be spontaneous, so Carol Queen, Ph.D., a staff sexologist at Good Vibrations and co-author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone, suggests making sure you're always prepared by keeping protection readily available. “Know your barriers and how to use them,” she tells Elite Daily. “Most STI transmission can be minimized by correct and consistent barrier use. This includes what kind of lubricant you can and can't use (no oil with latex!). Bring your gear with you if you go out!”
Remember: Living with an STI doesn't mean you can't have an amazing and healthy sex life, and it's nothing to feel ashamed of. “People who have an STI are just people! Their STI status doesn't define them as a sexual person, partner, wife, mother, or friend,” says Dr. Harper. “When approached from a fact-based perspective, these infections can be navigated, optimized, and prevented."
Queen agrees, and suggests that rather than seeing living with an STI as an obstacle, view it as a challenge that can help you improve your sex life in the long run. "Many people have no STIs — but also no real agency and ease in their sex lives, and if you can really address the issues that come with an STI [...], you will enjoy sex more."
Fiona Gilbert, a sexual wellness and fertility consultant.
Dr. Lyndsey Harper, OBGYN and founder of the sexual wellness app Rosy
Jenelle Marie Pierce, sexual health educator and Executive Director of The STI Project
Carol Queen, Ph.D., a staff sexologist at Good Vibrations and co-author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone