Earlier this year, I came out to the world about something most people would keep to themselves:
I have HSV-2, or what is commonly thought of as genital herpes.
You can read all about it here, but the short version is that the diagnosis caused my main sexual partner at the time to freak out like an uneducated man-baby and dump me.
In light of that delightful experience, I totally get the tremendous anxiety that’s usually involved in trying to have a disclosure conversation with a new partner. If someone I’d been seeing for months, who had claimed to love me, could react with such hostility, then what could I possibly expect from new partners who have no emotional investment?
Luckily, I’m a sex-positive, educated woman who knows how to put her big-girl pants on. As soon as I got over the initial heartbreak of being dumped over herpes, I pivoted to practicing how to have this conversation with potential partners going forward. And then, I went out into the world and actually did it.
And you know what? No one else rejected me because of it. Three of my active partners and one potential new one all expressed sympathy, support, and a clear desire to pursue a sexual relationship with me.
Part of the reason this all went so well is that I went into these conversations armed with knowledge about the STI and how to minimize the risk of transmitting it to someone else, confidence in my own worth, and a lack of shame around my HSV diagnosis.
If you have an STI that can’t be vanquished easily with antibiotics, and you’re scared to disclose to new or existing partners, the tips below are designed to help you have this awkward conversation in the least awkward, most empowering way possible.
Step #1 – Know your stuff.
The number one piece of armor at your disposal is to develop a solid working knowledge of all the relevant information concerning the STI that you’re disclosing. If you have HSV, like me, you can use the information and resources I’ve compiled here. If it’s something else, like HIV or HPV, make sure to do your research. You should know the risks involved for potential partners and how to minimize them, and you should be able to explain all of it calmly and confidently.
It’s also a great idea to have a list of trusted resources to pass on to your partner, so that they have the chance to educate themselves.
There is so much stigma attached to STIs, and much of it is in direct conflict with the actual facts. Even HIV, once the scariest of all STIs, is now a manageable condition with minimal risks – assuming you and your partners are educated and take the proper precautions, like using condoms and taking PrEP.
Having the facts at your disposal will give you a way to counter any fear-based reactions or questions from your partner.
Step #2 – Timing is everything.
I once had a partner disclose his herpes status just before we were about to have sex. He was literally kneeling above me on the bed when he dropped this information. He had plenty of opportunities to disclose in advance of that moment, but for whatever reason, he waited until then.
Lucky for him, I was already pretty educated about it, and it didn’t cause me to end the encounter or to think any less of him. And for the record, he did a lot right – he knew his stuff, had taken the proper precautionary measures to minimize my risk, and was able to clearly communicate all of that.
But waiting until you’re getting hot and heavy to disclose a potentially triggering piece of information is probably not the best strategy.
The best time for a disclosure conversation is when you know you’d like to be physically intimate with your partner, but you’re not yet in an intimate, sexually charged environment. Public places can work in your favor by encouraging calm and decorum – and giving you an easy way to escape if your date is a douchebag. It’s also perfectly acceptable to have this conversation over text or on the phone.
Texting can actually provide the greatest amount of cover and protection if things don’t go as you’d like, and it allows you to carefully phrase your disclosure while making sure to include all the relevant information and links to resources, if necessary.
Step #3 – Lose the shame.
If you feel shame about your STI status, it will show up in the way you talk about it, leaving you vulnerable to negative self-talk and despair if your partner doesn’t respond well. Let’s get really clear on this one thing:
There is NO shame in having an STI.
It doesn’t make you “dirty” or “damaged goods.” It doesn’t mean you’re a bad or irresponsible person. Being diagnosed with an STI is something that can happen to anyone, and you’re certainly not alone. In fact, one of the top stories I hear from other people who have HSV is how surprised they’ve been at the number of people who respond to their disclosure with, “Oh, wow, that’s great – I have it, too!”
If you are harboring shame around your STI status, work on dispelling it now. Read about other people’s experiences online. Talk to sex-positive, educated friends. Remind yourself daily – hourly, even! – that you are not your STI status, and that your worth is in no way diminished by it.
By dispelling any shame you might have, you’re setting yourself up to communicate your status in a calm, confident way – and if someone reacts negatively, you’ll know you’ve dodged a bullet.
Step #4 – Keep it casual.
Sharing your STI status does not need to be this big, dramatic affair with tears and hesitation and intense anxiety. It can and should be an easy, casual conversation – at least, on your end. You have no control over how someone might react, but you do have control over how you present it. It’ll be a lot easier for your partners to understand that it doesn’t need to be a dealbreaker if you phrase things in a chill, unemotional way. Think of how you might feel after hearing each of these two examples:
Example A: “Listen, I have something to tell you, and it’s really not easy, Please don’t freak out. Please please don’t freak out. Oh god, I don’t want to say this. Agggghhh. Okay. Deep breaths. Oh my god, please don’t hate me. Okay. I have…I have herpes! I know, it’s awful, but please just listen…”
Example B: “Listen, I am loving this vibe we’ve got going. You’re fantastic and sexy and wonderful. And since I have some very naughty ideas for activities we could get up to together, there’s something I should tell you first. I’m carrying the herpes simplex virus. I know there’s lot of stigma and misinformation out there, so let me assure you that I know how to take every precaution to make sure I don’t pass it on to anyone else. I also know that this can be a dealbreaker for some people, so I wanted to be up front and honest about it, because I really dig you and would never mislead you.”
Which one would you respond more positively to?
Step #5 – Practice makes perfect.
I’m a seasoned performing artist with a knack for presenting information in a charismatic, articulate manner, and even I needed to practice my disclosure conversations before I started having them. Don’t go into these moments unprepared. Rehearse your disclosure privately, and finesse the way you present the information. Figure out how to say everything you need to say as concisely and clearly as possible. Practice throwing in little bits of flirty energy and a reassuring vibe.
In addition to practicing on your own, you can also enlist a close friend to help. Ask someone you trust to role-play the conversation with you. Just the act of rehearsing your disclosure with another human being can help take some of the anxiety out of the process. It can also help you see where you could improve the way you present the information.
Step #6 – Prepare for the worst.
No matter how sexy and confident your disclosure is, some people will still have extremely negative reactions. Often, with well-researched information and reassurance, these people can eventually overcome the stigma and come around to a more reasonable state of mind.
Others – like the guy who dumped me after my diagnosis – will just outright reject you. I’m here to tell you that those people are literal human garbage, and you are better off without them.
It’s a good idea to prepare yourself for the worst possible reaction, so that you have a plan for how you will recover emotionally from a shitty, unnecessary rejection. Arm yourself with these phrases, and repeat them to yourself like mantras:
“I deserve a partner who understands that I am not my disease.”
“Anyone who would reject me over my diagnosis is not worth my time, and I will have dodged a bullet by getting rid of them early.”
“It’s possible this person will have a major freak-out in response to this information, and if they do, I will recover and move on to partners who are better for my heart.”
If a new partner negatively judges your worth or value over an STI diagnosis, that says something about them – not you.
Alternatively, if your potential partner decides for themselves they’d rather not have a partner with an existing STI, and they communicate that with kindness and respect, then cool. Let them go. They might not be a total waste of life, but you are still better off without them.
Whatever the reaction, prepare yourself in advance to accept a rejection with grace and strong sense of your own worth.
Speaking of which…
Step #7 – Know your worth.
This concept is woven throughout most of these guidelines, but it’s so important that it deserves its own moment. When I got my herpes diagnosis, then immediately got my heart broken over it by a toxic partner, I discovered a priceless silver lining:
Disclosing my STI status is a filter that instantly weeds out assholes who don’t really care about me. And I deserve to only be with people who care about me. I owe that to myself.
So do you.
You will be best served by knowing your own incredible worth. You have inherent value that can never be diminished by any medical condition. You are worthy of love and respect. You deserve partners who care about you and see the beauty in you. Never settle for less than that, even from a casual partner or friend with benefits.
By choosing to be honest and transparent, you are showing respect and care for the people you choose to be intimate with, and that is a truly beautiful quality. So many people keep their status a secret, which is a big part of the reason STIs are so common in the first place. If your honesty is met with fear and hostility, that’s not a reflection of you or your worth. You fucking rock for disclosing in advance of physical intimacy, and anyone who judges you for that is a jerkwad with a lot of self-work to do. You can sit back and let them go, knowing that you are so much better off without them.
This bears repeating: Anyone who is willing to reject you over an STI diagnosis is not worth your time, and you’ve dodged a bullet by ditching them now rather than later.
Disclosing your STI status can be a terror-inducing prospect, but it doesn’t have to be. By respecting yourself and others enough to disclose, you’ve already proven that you are in the upper echelons of human decency. So be proud of yourself, and learn to be confident and self-assured in the way you disclose.
The people who are right for you will thank you for it, and they will appreciate you even more than they already did.
And the people who aren’t? Good fucking riddance. You, my love, deserve so much better.
If you’d like to get checked in the comfort and privacy of your own home, Openlove101 has partnered with Lets Get Checked, who offers testing kits sent directly to you. Check them out!