Make talking to your partner about STDs a little less awkward
This is one uncomfortable conversation you need to have
There’s nothing sexier than turning the lights down with a gorgeous fellow and then popping the question – have you recently been tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
No matter how long you put off defining the relationship, there are some important conversations that couples have to tackle. Some are more standard, like where they grew up and their ambitions (or lack thereof). Others can get a bit more uncomfortable, even controversial, like what’s better — hot or cold jalebis?
Talking to your partner about STDs is rarely on anyone’s to-do list when getting into a new relationship. Bringing up sexual health with a prospective partner can get awkward — but considering STDs are spread through sexual contact involving bodily fluids like semen, vaginal fluids, sometimes even saliva and blood, it’s crucial.
The difference between an STD and sexually transmitted infection (STI), according to Dr Teena Chopra of the Detroit Medical Centre, is that an STI can be asymptomatic, and exist in the body long before it develops into a full-blown disease. ““It is likely that STI came into usage to incorporate certain infections—such as herpes virus or human papilloma virus (HPV)” where you may not develop “symptoms for many months to years, or do not develop symptoms at all”.
The sex taboo has resulted in around 6% of the country’s adult population dealing with one or more STDs. That’s around 30-35 million cases every year according to some studies.
“It’s related to the stigma around sex, and female sexuality,” says Dr Rukhsana Hashim, OBGYN. The fear of being tattled on for seeking a gynaecologist for reasons other than pregnancy also keeps young women away from the clinics.
All genders “are equally at risk of acquiring STIs,” explains Dr Niveditha Manokaran, reproductive and sexual health consultant.
Chlamydia is the most common, but it’s worth testing for gonorrhoea, trichomonas, syphilis and HIV when doing an STI check. She adds, “The most common cause of infertility in women is Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), which can be a complication of longstanding untreated STIs.”
“Detection and treatment/management of such illnesses, especially HPV, is very important for women because they can grow into something more devastating to their bodies,” adds Hashim. Untreated STDs can cause PID, infertility and in dire cases, cervical cancer.
Even if you test positive for an STI, most of them are completely treatable. If incurable, they can be managed with the correct treatment and people can lead happy lives full of safe sex.
So, how exactly do you talk to your partner about sexual health and getting tested? The first rule is with empathy and honesty — but if you’re looking for some helpful openers and conversation starters, coping strategies and more, read on.
How do I speak to my partner about getting tested?
Look, whichever way you approach it, for Indian society it’s still a delicate matter, so talking to your partner about STDs is going to be a bit weird. There’s no indirect or subtle way to do it.
“You should address this earlier in the relationship, so it definitely is a ‘break the ice’ moment,” says therapist Nishita Khanna.
The ideal time to bring it up is before you meet, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Drinks lead to dinner, and that can lead to a night-cap at their place and more. In between the kisses, you are going to have to pause and just ask.
“From my experience people just get offended,” says 32-year-old Ragini S. Growing up in a fairly liberal household where sex was spoken about openly, her mother made sure both her son and daughter had the right knowledge to practice safe sex.
“Whether it’s a dating app or in-person, I’ve always asked the person about the last time they got screened, especially if it’s a stranger. They react as if I just insulted their grandmother,” she laughs. “‘What are you trying to say? I’m a slut? Maybe you are the diseased one.’ The angry responses are always the same.”
Who wants to talk about their last STD test, or that one time you got yeast infection four years ago after a dinner date?
“We need to change the thought that talking to your partner about STDs is somehow an accusation or judgement,” says Khanna.
She proposes a delicate way to word it: “If we’re going to get more intimate, I want to let you know that I was screened for STD/STI X number of weeks/days/years ago and it came clear. How about you?”
This shows responsibility on your part for both of you, by sharing your history right off the bat. You opening up first makes it easier, and more likely for them to share the same.
“If someone tries to brush it off and say it doesn’t matter, that’s a red flag. Maybe you get a gut feeling that there aren’t being fully honest about their history — then step on the breaks. Your intuition may be right more often than you think,” Khanna insists.
Bringing it up in a new or committed relationship
If you find yourself slowly falling for someone and are ready to take the next step, then have this conversation in a neutral, private, non-sexual setting. Sometimes it’s easier to plan what you’re going to say beforehand and admitting you’re nervous to your new partner is not a bad thing.
Everywell has made great printables which can help new couples kickstart these essential conversations about sexual history and STDs/STIs. You can download them from their website, print them out and make it a fun exercise to do together. They’ve got a version of the game ‘Never Have I Ever’ for sexual health, easy conversation starters and more.
For a couple that has already had sex, talking to your partner about STDs can seem like you’re accusing someone of infidelity or promiscuity. There are some ailments like Human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted virus, which can get passed on with no symptoms for months. You may not even realise you have it until much later.
“You could also get your tests done and share the results as the opening of the conversation,” says Khanna. This shows your focus on your health and respect for each other.
What if they’re not open to it?
So you’ve gotten over one hump and reach a wall — a defensive, negative response for your partner. Don’t be disheartened. Let the idea simmer for a bit. Considering how tight-lipped we are about all things sex, talking to your partner about STDs may have caught them off-guard.
Giving them the facts, dispelling myths around STIs and STDs and using a kind tone will go a long way according to Khanna. A person who is committed to you will also be committed to your wellbeing, open to taking this small step towards ensuring safety for you both.
If it’s someone you’re still getting to know, then a hard no may have you reassessing your situation. A good question to ask them would be, “Why do you disagree with getting tested?” Give them a chance to present their side.
In moments of not getting through, after persistent trying, you need to decide whether you want to risk it or drop them.
“In a sexually active world, if an open conversation about sexual wellness or STIs is looked down upon, or if someone judges you based on your sex positivity and openness, then I am not quite sure they are the right person for you. Everyone has a right to react how they want to, and we cannot change that. But what we can change is how we want to accept or tolerate that reaction and continue relationships,” says Manokaran.
What if one of us tests positive for something?
Don’t panic. More people in your friend’s group have had some kind of STD/STI at some point than those that claim they have read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “Testing positive for an STD or STI should be treated like any other health condition,” says Hashim.
First consult a doctor. The treatment will likely include antibiotics and ointments. If you’re in a sexual relationship with someone, inform them to be tested for the same. Once you’re both clear, you can have all the celebratory sex you want. Some diseases like HIV or herpes require life-long management, but with a few precautions and safety measures in terms of intimacy, you are going to be fine.
“The stigma and shame is just so strong. I had a patient who was so depressed because they tested positive for herpes, they completely isolated themselves,” comments Khanna.
Vikram* can relate, having tested positive for the same after a few hook-ups with someone they met on a dating app. “He said he was clear and I took him at his word. I should have been more diligent and careful, there’s definitely a shame that came with it,” he says.
With time and the support of understanding friends, he has put himself back out there. He keeps flare-ups in control with medication and lifestyle changes with the help of a professional, and has vowed to be upfront about his sexual health with all prospective partners.
Some have ghosted him after he shares his history but others have shrugged it off as a reality for many people. “One person just responded saying ‘thank you for sharing, I’m sorry that happened to you’. That was such a relief to hear, I got very emotional,” he laughs.
Talking to your partner about STDs and sexual health is tricky terrain. But it’s one of those hills that are important to climb to get to the beautiful, pleasurable peak for you both.
*Names changed upon contributor’s request