Having 'The Talk': Talking to your Partner about STIs

by Julia Barr

Question: How do I ask my partner whether he/she/they has been tested recently for STIs?

Answer: You say to him/her/them, ‘When did you last get an STI test?’

Yes, it really can be that simple. 

But, as many of our own experiences will attest, trying to talk to a current or prospective partner about STIs or testing can come across as a loaded question--or, more likely, it remains a question simply unasked. But it is something we should be asking about--and preferably before having sex.

Sex-pos·i·tive (adjective): having or promoting an open, tolerant, or progressive attitude towards sex and sexuality.

In the 21st century, the sex-positive movement has challenged us all to talk more openly about sex. It encourages us to abandon shame and judgement, to express our preferences and explore our sexuality--all while ensuring and maintaining consent. In a sex-positive environment, communication and respect are central. But why doesn’t sex positivity extend to a willingness to talk openly about sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? We’re embracing our sexuality, we’re expanding and augmenting our access to pleasurable sex, but we still haven’t embraced sexually transmitted infections as a necessary part of speaking honestly about sex.

Writing for the New York Times, obstetrician and gynecologist Jen Gunter called STIs ‘one of the last taboos’--something we are consistently ashamed to speak about, even in a relationship as private and intimate as the one we have with our doctor (or partner). STI stigmatisation runs deep and, even in the age of sex positivity, it impedes efforts to expand testing and treatment, it negatively affects the quality of life of those living with an infection, and it diminishes our willingness to speak candidly about STIs, whether that is to disclose our own status or enquire about that of our partner’s. 

Our functioning definition of sex-positivity is too narrow to fulfill the needs of our modern day sex lives. We need to harness the transparency and lack of shame we’re learning to use when discussing our sexual curiosities and apply the same spirit to the way we discuss STIs. We need to promote not only an open exchange about our likes and dislikes but also an honest conversation about our sexual history. 

You might find recommendations floating around the internet and in health and wellness magazines that suggest a variety of ways to approach the conversation (make it sexy, make it casual). But in providing an assortment of manoeuvers and techniques, we make the conversation even more challenging to approach. We need to normalise talking about STIs, not over-complicate it. Speaking to your partner about STIs does not have to be ‘the talk’. It does not have to be threatening, awkward or embarrassing. It can, in the absence of shame or judgement, be a very simple question.

Challenge yourself: try asking your current or next partner when they last got STI testing. No fancy manoeuvring or dancing around the subject. Just a simple, straightforward question. You just might be shocked at the ease of it. 

But if this is your first time broaching this conversation, you might have to process one of a few different responses--none of which are cause for panic, but all for which you can prepare.

Question: When did you last get an STI test?

  • ‘I had a scare once and got some testing but not since then.’

When we think about STI testing, many may tend to view it as an emergency response. But if you’re sexually active with one or many partners, testing should be a part of your regular routine--just like you might regularly get a haircut or see the dentist. Think of it as basic maintenance, and suggest your partner see it the same way.

  • ‘Never had one.’

Unfortunately, you’ll probably encounter this response quite frequently. In 2019, only an estimated 20% of young adults (29% of young women and 11% of young men) were tested for chlamydia. But just by opening up the conversation about STI testing, we can maybe begin to move towards greater coverage. For those who have never received any type of testing, maybe it’s time to change that.

  • ‘Actually, I never knew how to say this but I have…’

The same taboos that prevent us from talking openly about STIs also sometimes prevent partners from sharing their status. Various studies, including this one on HIV-positive men in the United States, demonstrate the various reservations people experience, from denial to fear of rejection. Hopefully your partner will have disclosed their status to you beforehand, but if the first you’re hearing about it is after you’ve already been sexually active together, the first thing you should do is not panic. The second thing you should do is get a test. Although STI testing shouldn’t only be considered an emergency response, it does serve that purpose when you have potentially been exposed. 

  • 'I get tested regularly, my last one was earlier this year.'

Good answer. Once a year is the minimum recommendation for sexually active individuals. And just like talking about STIs doesn’t need to be embarrassing or uncomfortable, neither does getting tested. Yoxly’s STI test kits are discreet, reliable and easy to use. Because at Yoxly, we’re on a mission to make STI testing part of your standard routine and part of your regular vocabulary.

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Julia Barr is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge where she studied postcolonial British history. She currently serves as grant writer with Kar Geno, a Kenyan-based non-profit that assists HIV/AIDS-affected women and provides sexual health education to school-aged children.

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Yoxly's Awesome Contributors (YACs) are a diverse group of individuals who are passionate about public health, and committed to furthering our mission. Yoxly provides a platform where a variety of sexual health topics (some more awkward than others!) can be explored, in an informative and non-judgmental way. If you'd like to become one of Yoxly's Awesome Contributors, contact us!

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