Talking about STIs with a partner

Many people find it very difficult to talk about their sexual health. But discomfort and shame can keep people from taking good care of themselves and their partners. Remember that protecting yourself against STIs can reduce anxiety and make sex a lot more enjoyable.

What do I do before talking to my partner about getting tested for STIs?

If you or your partner(s) have had unprotected sex, it's smart to be tested. Some people have a difficult time bringing up the subject of testing, so read the following suggestions before you talk about tests with your partner(s).

Understand what puts you at risk for STIs.
STIs are transmitted through body fluids: vaginal secretion, semen, blood, breast milk, and saliva. A common misconception is that the only way to get an STI is by having intercourse. This is not true! STIs can be transmitted without having intercourse. For example, skin-to-skin contact or genital rubbing can transmit HPV and the herpes virus.

Assess your own risk for STIs.
There are many reasons people get tested for STIs. Ask yourself what has caused you to want to get tested -- are you entering a new relationship? Have you had an unprotected sexual experience? Did you find out that a current or former sex partner has an STI? Your answers to these questions may help you and your medical provider decide whether or not you need to be tested.

Talk with your medical provider.
If you can, choose a medical provider that you are comfortable discussing these issues with. At Health Services you can request a male or female medical provider. You can also request a specific provider by name. It's important to provide them with specific information about your sexual activity so that you can get accurate medical help. Bring a list of questions with you to make sure that all of your questions are answered.

Find a place to get tested.
Any student at Brown can get tested for STIs at Health Services. Call 401.863-3953 to make an appointment. Or you can click here to find out about STI testing options in RI.

Because many STIs don't always have symptoms, it can be difficult to recognize an infection at an early and easily treatable stage. So, if you think you may have been exposed to an STI talk with your medical provider about getting tested. To begin the conversation you might say something like:

  • I'm really embarrassed, but I'm also worried I may have an STI.
  • I had unprotected sex in the last 3 months and am concerned because I don't know if my partner has been tested.
  • I had sex with someone I don't know very well and I'm worried.

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How do I talk with my partner about getting tested for STIs?

So you've done your research, you've made an appointment to get tested, and now you want to encourage your partner to do the same. What do you say and how do you bring it up?

First off, you need to think about your own comfort level talking about STIs. Do you want to talk about getting tested right at the beginning of your relationship or do you want to wait until you become sexually active? Do you want to ask your partner(s) if they have ever been tested or do you want to suggest you both get tested regardless? This is an awkward topic no matter how much research you've done. And it's that opening question that's always the hard one. To break the ice, you might say something like:

  • I really care about you, so there's something I want both of us to do.
  • We've been dating for a while and I think we're ready to take the next step together.
  • Before we have sex, we need to talk about some things, like STIs and contraception.

You don't have to talk in depth about former partners or sexual experiences. Instead you should focus on your current relationship and how getting tested can increase trust. You and your partner(s) can choose to get tested at the same time or you can make your own appointments and agree to talk about the results later on. Choose the option that is comfortable for the both of you.

If I get an STI, do I have to tell my partner?

There are several reasons why you should tell your partner that you have an STI. Here are a few reasons:

  • Telling your partner allows them to make an informed choice. When you tell them, you are showing respect and concern for their well being. Your honesty can build intimacy and trust.
  • Telling your partner helps prevent transmitting STIs. And, you give your partner a shared stake in making decisions together about how to reduce risk. If you keep your infection a secret, you might invent lies and half-truths to postpone or avoid sex.
  • Telling your partner can begin an important discussion about sexual health. There are over 20 STIs with a range of health consequences. Your honesty encourages your partner to share sexual history and health information with you.
  • Telling your partner can prevent future misunderstandings.

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If I test negative for an STI, am I off the hook?

Just because you test negative for STIs doesn't mean you should stop practicing safer sex. If you are in a mutually monogamous relationship, and you've both been tested, you and your partner need to decide what's right for you. If you are not in a mutually monogamous relationship, it's safer to assume there's a risk of STI exposure and to practice safer sex. The most effective way to prevent STIs is to always use a condom or latex barriers.

Another concern is that STI tests like HIV can give false negative results if you are tested too close to your exposure and your body has not developed detectable levels of yet. During your test appointment, your medical provider will be able to determine whether you will need to re-test.

If I test positive for an STI, how do I tell my partner?

It's completely normal to be afraid to tell a partner about having an STI. It will be hard, but you've got to be as open and honest as you can possibly be. Remind yourself that you'd want your partner to tell you if s/he had an STI. Don't let fear keep you from being responsible.

First, have you come to terms yourself with having an STI? If you haven't, then it's unrealistic to expect another person to understand. How well informed are you? Do you know how to reduce the risk to your partner? Do you know the facts about your infection? You want to feel confident and knowledgeable before you can explain the infection to someone else.

The more you know about your STI, the more you can relieve your partner's fears. You'll be able to tell your partner the facts, dispel any myths, and correct any misinformation they may have about STIs. If s/he has questions, you'll be prepared to answer most of them. You might want to have a book or pamphlets with information about your particular STI on hand. There are many pamphlets available at Health Services or you can print information from this web site.

Here are some suggestions that you could use when you decide to tell your partner about your infection:

  • Pick a time when both of you will be in reasonably good moods and relaxed for this conversation. Choose a place with few, if any, distractions.
  • Your delivery can influence their acceptance of, and reaction to, what you say. If you're calm and collected talking about your STI, they may be, too. If you act like it's the end of the world, they might agree that it is.
  • Allow a conversation to take place, rather than doing all of the talking yourself.
  • If you can, direct the conversation to include not only your particular STI, but general STIs, STI prevention, and birth control. Encourage them to ask questions, and to let you know what they're thinking and feeling. Let them know you're concerned about them, and that you're willing to find a way to make your relationship work, if they are. Also, realize that you'll probably need to talk about this more than once before things are resolved.
  • After you've said what you need, be aware that you will not be able to control their reaction. They might need time alone at first; they might want to break up right then and there; or, they might take the news fairly well. Whatever their reaction, know that they have a right to their feelings and to the time needed to sort them out.

It takes a great deal of courage to be able to tell others about your STI, especially a new partner. In general, people with STIs find that with time and a better understanding of the infection, telling new partners becomes easier. They often discover that STIs don't affect their intimate relationships and sex lives as much as they originally feared. If you find yourself overwhelmed with negative thoughts about having an STI, you may find it helpful to use the links below to find a support group or a counselor to help you work through your feelings.

Links you can use

For more information about STIs, you can visit:

The Centers for Disease Control

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Disclaimer: Health Education is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Education maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Education offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.