What I Wish More People Knew About STIs

A woman with red fingernails holds up a condom.

1. Most people in your life have an STI, they just don’t talk about it in casual conversation. If you’ve never heard about STIs outside of sex ed and the occasional herpes joke, that’s because people are afraid to bring it up. I guarantee someone in your family has had an STI.

2. You have absolutely dated or slept with someone who has an STI. You just didn’t know. They may not have known! The most common symptom of an STI is having no symptoms at all.

3. For the most part, people don’t get STIs because they were “irresponsible” or “promiscuous.” Some STIs, like herpes, aren’t only transmitted through sexual activity. But no matter how a person gets an STI, it isn’t a punishment. It’s just an infection.

4. It is never your business how someone got an STI. If someone discloses their STI status to you, do not ask them how they contracted it. It shouldn’t impact your opinion of them at all.

5. No one “deserves” an STI, just like no one “deserves” the flu.

6. If someone you’re dating discloses their STI status to you and you don’t know what to say, just say thank you! You don’t have to decide in the moment if you’re comfortable having sex with them. You can go home and do your research. But you do have to be kind.

7. You owe your sexual partners the same opportunity to make an informed decision. Tell them what you know about your STI status. Go get tested to make sure you actually know your status, instead of just assuming you’re fine.

8. Please, please, do not use the term “clean” to describe testing negative for STIs. This implies that people who have STIs are dirty.

9. No sex is entirely safe sex. All sex poses some risk of transmitting an STI unless you know for a fact that you and your partner do not have an STI – which most people don’t, because herpes isn’t on the standard STI test panel. And condoms don’t prevent herpes transmission.

10. All STIs are manageable! Having an STI doesn’t mean someone can never have sex, or that they’re always putting their sexual partners at risk of transmission. If someone knows their status and discloses their STI to you, they’re likely informed, proactive and conscientious.

11. People with HIV who have an undetectable viral load — the amount of HIV in the blood — are not at any risk of transmitting HIV to their sexual partners. Undetectable = Untransmittable.

12. If you date someone who has an STI, they are not “lucky” that you “chose to accept” their STI. They’re a human being with plenty to offer. Their STI does not lessen their value or make you a saint for being willing to date them.

13. I wish more people spoke publicly about living with STIs, but a powerful social stigma prevents them from feeling safe doing so. It’s common for people who have just been diagnosed with an STI to experience depression, hopelessness and low self-esteem.

14. If you feel comfortable sharing your STI status publicly, or even sharing it in conversation among friends, it can make a huge difference to those who are struggling with feelings of isolation and shame. It also teaches people that STIs are normal and impact everyone.

Photo credit Deon Black, Letstalksex.net

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In 2020 I self-published my micro-memoir, LIFE RUINER, about my experience getting diagnosed with herpes. You can read it exclusively on my Patreon, along with other essays about intimacy, mental health and relationships.

Read a free excerpt here.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

5 thoughts on “What I Wish More People Knew About STIs

  1. For two weeks I thought I had hepatitis B because the bloodwork came back that I was positive for it. They now think that it was likely a false positive due to being vaccinated for hep B the day before I had the bloodwork done. I’ve since tested negative and retest in a couple of months to be sure.

    I did tell people when I thought I had it and some handled it better than others. Opened my eyes about a few people. I felt like my life (at least my sex life) was over. I had to do a lot of writing about it to process all of my feelings. Hepatitis B can be serious so I had to be concerned about my health on top of all the stigma.

  2. I may be older than most people reading this. Back in my day, when I first started dating my wife of almost 30 years, the big question of the day was HIV status. We both made a conscious choice to go to the Louisville, KY, (Jefferson County) public health service to be tested for HIV. The nurses there were thrilled that we were there to learn our HIV status, without shame or guilt, so that we could start our long-term relationship with the knowledge of what was really going on. Seems to me to be the same for HSV. Regardless of the answer of positive or negative, just know it, talk about it, acknowledge it, and work around it!

    Specific to HSV, I’ve tested positive with NO symptoms, my wife has tested positive WITH symptoms. This status has only made our intimate life MORE open, as it has expanded what we define as quote-unquote “sex.” We just adapt. You can, too.

    1. A very good article and something everyone should follow. You made a statement that condoms don’t prevent the spread of herpes. I understand the point you were trying to make, but that is not accurate. They can prevent some transmission, just not as effectively as other forms of STU because people can shed outside the coverage of the condom.

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