One hour you’re swiping idly through the sea of Vineyard Vines-clad Brads (or in my case, any muscle-tank queers who don’t flag they’re a Gemini), and the next you’re exchanging naughty notes.
From sweet DMs (“I can’t wait to kiss you”) to graphic ones (“*****, I want to **** *****s like a ******”), dating apps make it easy to slide right into a cloud of sexed-up energy.
And if sex is definitively on the table, you should also be sharing your STI status and talking about the nitty-gritty of safer sex practices — which, in my experience, is super dread-inducing.
Seriously: Last time I was planning to romp, I made not one, not two, but three friends copy edit my “Let’s talk about safer sex” speech.
Luckily, when I confessed how cringy this felt, the experts let me in on a little secret: While they say that convo does have to happen (!!), having it ahead of time — like over text — is fair game.
“If… the reason you’re meeting up at all is to have sex, it’s normal and even responsible to want to talk to them about their STI status before you meet in person,” says clinical sexologist Megan Stubbs, EdD.
Let’s start with a truth bomb: STI transmission rates are higher than ever before. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, a record 2,457,118 cases of STIs were reported among folks of all genders and ethnicities in 2018 (yes, this is the most recent data available).
Why are the rates so high? Experts have a few hypotheses, but according to a 2019 survey by the condom company SKYN, there’s one glaring reason: Folks are using barrier methods at an alarmingly low rate.
So, dear reader who’s thinking about hooking up with the hottie, have The Safer-Sex Talk and help reduce transmission. You don’t even have to know their last name!
You don’t need to sacrifice your sex life to reduce the risk of an STI — learn how to find a balance here.
Whether you’re STI-positive or not, sexologist and STI educator Emily Depasse says the following template can be effective: “My last STI screening was [insert date], and I am [positive/negative] for [insert STIs]. How about you?”
Not sure how to phrase it, exactly? If you’re STI+, try these expert-recommended phrases:
- If you have human papillomavirus (HPV), Ross suggests: “A doctor found that I carry the HPV virus during a routine gynecological exam. But HPV transmits through direct contact, so if we use a condom or other barrier method during sexual intercourse, the risk of transmission is a lot lower. I haven’t had an infection for [x months/years], and I don’t have an infection now.”
- If you’ve had exposure to herpes, Ross suggests: “I have been exposed to HSV in the past, but I do not have any active lesions, so there is no risk of transmission. To make sure it can’t transmit between us, I take antiviral medication to prevent future outbreaks. As long as we use a condom or dental dam, the chance of you acquiring the HSV virus is unlikely. The virus has not transmitted between me and any of my sexual partners in the past, but I wanted to share this information with you so you are not misled.”
- Depasse offers an alternative: “I have herpes, and I know you might need time to think about what that means. Here are some resources that helped me with my diagnosis and might be helpful to you, too. Please feel free to ask me any questions.”
- If you have a treatable STI like gonorrhea or chlamydia, Stubbs recommends sharing what medicine you’re on, when you’re undergoing testing again, and where you are in your treatment plan.
Here’s a little more info on HPV, an STI that one in four people carry.
What resources can I share?
If you have an STI — whether you’re initiating the safer-sex talk or responding to a potential partner’s inquiry — Depasse recommends using the following “resource recipe” when disclosing that you have an STI:
- Start with a link to an organization such as the American Sexual Health Association or the CDC.
- Follow up with a link to a source that you found especially helpful when learning about your STI and/or one that includes info you hope this person will read.
- Conclude with a multimedia resource, like Ella Dawson’s TED Talk, a podcast episode like this one, or another resource you’ve found helpful (like this article).
If you need a full breakdown on how to make sex as safe as possible (while hanging on to the fun), we’ve got your back.
Depasse notes that most folks are not equipped to fully engage in safer-sex chitchat with potential partners because they’ve never been taught how to talk about sex without shame.
“Movies, television shows, and pornography rarely depict couples asking for consent or asking about sexual history,” says Depasse. And most sex education programs do not discuss exactly how to talk to partners about their sexual health.
Instead, they give a firm suggestion that people should have the discussion.
(Another thing they won’t teach is how to have anal sex safely — look no further.)
1. Stay and cum from a comfortable place
The “discussion” can be as comfortable as travel-induced constipation (not at all), so having it via text allows you to take it at your own pace — and to avoid getting carried away in the heat of the moment. Hey, I get it, there’s something about the back of a car… but alas.
“You really don’t want to get swept up in things and ‘forget’ to talk about STI status,” says Stubbs. “You need to communicate what safer sex means to you both so you can both make the decision that’s right for your bodies.”
It also gives you the opportunity to edit yourself and choose your words carefully. “You never want to ask someone if they’re clean,” says Stubbs.
PSA: Folks who carry STIs aren’t “dirty,” and you don’t want to imply that they are. Instead, “ask them what their STI status is and when the last time they got tested was,” suggests Stubbs.
There’s no need to imply anything about their personality or morals. Break up with your preconceived notions about STIs, because this is about safer sex, not stereotyped sex.
Conversations about sex aren’t just vital for discussing any potential STIs —they can add color to your sex life too.
2. Weed out folks who might increase your risk of STIs
People who don’t want to chat about potentially transmissible diseases are signaling that they don’t care about your health. I hate to break it to you, but when it comes to safer sex, indifference isn’t edgy or cute.
For instance, if they shut down the conversation by saying they just knowww they don’t have one or get aggressively defensive when you bring it up, Block. That. Number.
“It’s up to you how off-putting someone’s unwillingness to have this conversation is,” Stubbs says. “But for me, it’s a major red flag if we can’t talk about STI status.” In the case of STIs, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss.
Talking about sex can simply be awkward for some people. Here’s how to make it less so.
3. Start thinking more holistically about sex
Don’t gloss over the nitty-gritty details. You probably want to know about your potential partner’s recent sexual history, which is entirely different from when they were last tested.
“If someone says the last time they were tested was last July, that may seem like a really long time ago, but maybe the only sex they’ve had since was with themselves (aka masturbation),” says Stubbs. That’s all good.
But if someone was tested last month but has had sex since, Stubbs encourages getting into the details. “You may want to [ask] if they’re fluid-bonded with the person they boned, if spit was swapped, if and which protective methods were used, and more.”
For folks with STIs, Depasse adds, the main benefit of this conversation is being able to share information. “Text disclosures provide you the opportunity to share articles and online resources your partners can utilize for education and awareness purposes.” #KnowledgeIsPower
But Depasse offers one potential side effect of disclosing via text. “There’s no real way to predict how the person is going to respond to a positive disclosure. There is always a risk that someone could screenshot and share an STI disclosure with others.”
While in-person disclosures come with their own set of risks — such as the encounter turning physically and emotionally dangerous — Depasse says the potential downfall of a text convo is worth keeping in mind.
Well, it’s up to you whether to move forward or not. If they aren’t willing to find out, again, you need to ask yourself, “Is this a risk I’m comfortable accepting?”
If they don’t know but are willing to receive testing, Depasse suggests: “Offer space for their discomfort or uncertainty. Lean into it. You might even volunteer to accompany them to a testing clinic. This is an opportunity to educate and normalize testing along with safer sex.”
Yes, we love a supportive sex partner.
Or simply reiterate that, as a health-minded person, you won’t feel comfortable engaging sexually until they know their results and you’re able to put a plan in place for safer sex.
If you bring it up and the person does have an STI, you can say, “Thank you so much for telling me and being willing to have this conversation,” says Stubbs.
Or ask the person questions. If they didn’t use DePasse’s handy “resource recipe” guide, you might ask them what resources they found especially helpful for learning more about the STI they have.
Then, “once you’re informed, you might suggest what activities are OK with you and how you’d like to protect yourself,” says Stubbs.
Yes, but you still should discuss and put in place safer-sex boundaries. Why? Because even if pregnancy isn’t a risk, there may be a chance the person wasn’t tested for all STIs. Yes, really. And it’s likely not that person’s fault.
“Many doctors don’t run complete STI checks — they often leave out trichomonas, or mycoplasma unless you ask for them explicitly,” says LA-based celebrity physician and sexual health expert Dr. Rob Huizenga (which is why he recommends asking exactly what they’re testing you for and making sure these are on their list). Ugh.
There’s also potential for false negatives. “Some can still be transmitted,” says Ross. That’s probably not a risk you want to take.
Reminder: Most STIs are asymptomatic
“The most common symptom in 8 of the 10 most common STIs is no symptoms at all,” Huizenga says. So, taking a peek at your own, your partner’s, or your friend-with-benefits’s genitals in the heat of the moment isn’t sufficient to determine STI status.
To help prevent the spread of STIs, Ross recommends folks be on top of their own STI testing and diligently practice safer sex.
Being on top (*wink*) of your testing likely means getting tested more often than the CDC recommendations, which vary by sex and sexuality. Huizenga says the CDC’s recommendation of once a year should be seen as the bare minimum.
That means getting tested after every partner, or once every 3 to 6 months if multiple partners are involved.
It goes without saying that if you’re experiencing symptoms, you should get tested because the only way to be 100 percent sure — and to reassure your partners and FWBs — is to have a complete STI panel.
The conversation might be uncomfortable, especially with a thirst trap you want to impress, but practice helps. Having these conversations with your friends can help destigmatize STIs and create safer spaces for sex.
You don’t want to dampen the mood while their genitals are in your mouth. And let’s face it, feeling safe to be completely uninhibited is sexy in itself.
Although using a barrier is worlds better than using no barrier, Huizenga says, “The sobering truth is that STIs passed by contact are only about 50 percent prevented by condoms.”
That means that even if you use condoms or other barrier methods 100 percent of the time, you may have an STI. The only way to know for sure? Get tested, ask about testing, and confirm it.
We’re partial to texting because receipts. Plus, the benefits of increased comfort, time to do your research, and the ability to share links is prime foreplay for sex — on the table or off it.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.