When someone gets an sexually transmitted infection, or STI, one of the things they may have to consider is whether or not to tell their partner about it. There’s no wrong way to feel about this! Most people who are sexually active will get at least one STI in their lifetime. While having or getting an STI can be scary, it’s important to know that many STIs can be cured, and incurable STIs can be treated. There are also lots of ways to lower your risk of passing an STI on to a partner and to have safe(r) sex!
Learning about your STI
Before talking with a partner, it can help to learn the latest information on STI treatments and risks. This can give you some reassurance, and help you reassure your partner during the conversation. You might learn that STIs don’t always negatively affect sex and relationships as much as you might have feared. Lots of people with STIs have healthy, happy, and active sex lives with their partners! With adequate healthcare, you can learn to manage symptoms and minimize the impact it has on your life.
Making a plan and getting support
Telling your partner when neither of you feels prepared for the conversation can be scary. Making a plan can help you feel more at ease. Planning out what you want to say before you talk with them and having emotional support can also make it a much easier experience and less stressful. Think about who can support you before, during, and after:
- help lines like tel-jeunes
- a friend or family member
- support worker or support group at a drop in centre or youth centre, or HIV/AIDS organization like ACCM!
Having support available may help your partner feel more at ease, too. They might have questions you don’t feel comfortable answering. Or they might have feelings about your STI status that come from their own experiences, fears, or misinformation they’ve heard. Telling your partner you have an STI doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert, or that their feelings are all your responsibility. They can reach out for support and education, too!
Do I have to tell my partner?
It’s up to you if, when, and how you want to tell someone you have an STI. Some people expect their partners to tell them if they have an STI, but that’s something that needs to be talked about and agreed on by everyone in the relationship! Everyone is different.
There are many ways for you to have a healthy and fulfilling romantic and/or sex life living with or without an STI! And for some, there may be good reasons to tell their partner — more on those later. But it’s also possible for someone with an STI to practice safer sex and not risk giving their partner an STI even if they don’t tell their partner about their status.
The important thing is that you prioritize your and your partners’ safety and health. It’s also important to think about your partners boundaries and feelings! But whether or not that means disclosing your STI status is your call. It depends on you, your partner, and the relationship you have.
What are the benefits of telling my partner?
When you talk to a partner about your sexual health, you can also ask about theirs. This gives you and your partner(s) the chance to make an informed decision about what types of sex you want to have. This can also be a time to talk about which safer sex options you want to try together. Talking with each other about sexual health can bring people closer and build trust. You may even find your partner has been wanting to talk about it too!
It’s common to have anxiety or worry about talking about STI status with a partner. But for many people, talking about these things is an important part of setting boundaries and making everyone involved feel safe. For more on talking about safer sex with a partner or potential partner, you can check out our FAQ!
I’m HIV-positive. What are my legal obligations to my partner when it comes to my status?
People living with HIV are legally required to disclose their status to sexual partners only if there is a realistic risk for transmission. That means if someone’s viral load is very low and they use a condom, or if their viral load is undetectable, they’re not legally required to disclose their status to sexual partners if they don’t want to.
In Quebec, the Institut national de la santé publique du Québec (public health institute) defines “no realistic risk” as being when:
- The person living with HIV has a low viral load, which they confirm with testing every six months
- The person living with HIV is receiving antiretroviral therapy
There may be a legal obligation to disclose HIV status if the HIV-positive partner isn’t on medication, has a high viral load, and doesn’t want to use barrier protection like a condom or dental dam. But it’s important to know that these situations are considered on a case-by-case basis.
While stigma against HIV has contributed to these policies, attitudes have changed over time. Legal help is available for people living with HIV who are facing accusations of assault for choosing to not disclose. For more on HIV rights and disclosure in other situations, go here!
I’m afraid to tell my partner about my STI status. What should I do?
It’s common for people to worry about telling their partner about their STI status. Part of why some might worry is that STIs can be stigmatized. This means some people project negative attitudes and beliefs onto people who have STIs. When they find out that someone has an STI, they might assume that the person got it because they did something “wrong”. This can make STI status hard to talk about!
It may help to know that there’s also a lot of people who don’t feel this way about people who have STIs! Just because discrimination exists doesn’t mean it’s “natural” or that people can’t learn and be respectful. Everyone can challenge this kind of discrimination by learning more about STIs and correcting misinformation when they see it. When people are informed about STIs, not only are they less likely to discriminate against people who have them, but they may also practice safer sex themselves!
It’s up to you if, when, and how you tell your partner about your STI status. If you want to tell them but you’re having hard time, you can try setting aside some time for the conversation, and picking a spot to have it in where you feel safe. It can also help to write down some of the things you want to tell them ahead of time!
If you’re afraid to tell your partner because you’re experiencing violence in your relationship, it may help to reach out to a trusted friend or loved one for support. You can also talk to a doctor, nurse, counsellor, therapist, or social services worker for guidance. Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected in their relationships, regardless of their STI status.