Cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are taking a toll. A simple talk can help protect yourself and your partner. Here’s how to initiate the conversation.
The one thing less sexy than talking about safe sex is finding out that you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that could threaten your life or your fertility.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of people have chlamydia or any of a number of other STDs, such as herpes, syphilis, HIV, genital warts, or gonorrhea. And the numbers are on the rise — especially among baby boomers.
Yet, a lot of us are shy about having the talk and discussing STDs — even with someone with whom we might soon be sexually intimate. “A lot of people are more comfortable ‘doing it’ than talking about it,” says licensed sex therapist and sexuality educator Sandra L. Caron, PhD, professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development in Orono.
Mindless of how well informed you think you are about sex or sexually transmitted diseases, you and your potential partner must talk about safe sex. “People need correct information,” says Caron. “That conversation needs to happen long before we end up in the bedroom. Maybe in the kitchen.”
What is keeping you from having this kind of sex talk? Here are a few common deterrents:
- Politeness. At some level, says Caron, people are afraid of insulting a partner by asking about past sexual history or insisting on a condom.
- Poor risk assessment. “We tend to say, she’s so cute or he’s so attractive,” says Caron. But outside appearances have very little to do with STD status. Age isn’t a factor either: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of reported cases of syphilis and chlamydia among those 55 and older increased by 43 percent between 2005 and 2009.
- Fear of a break-up. “If the relationship is going to break up over this [conversation], do you really want to be with this person?” she points out. Sex is a lot more intimate than talking about infection.
- Myth of spontaneity. People tend to believe that sex should just happen, mysteriously and romantically. But sex is better and safer if you plan ahead — at least enough to avoid dangers and regrets over disease and pregnancy.
Overcome your fear by focusing on the positive aspects of this necessary conversation, advises Caron. “Talking about sex can be very sexy,” she says. “And the best sex is with someone you trust and feel comfortable with.”
How to Bring Up Sexual History
The right time to talk about STDs and a partner’s sexual history is when it comes to light that the relationship might be heading toward intimacy, but before you actually get there. Here are some ideas for getting the conversation started:
- Just ask. Don’t beat around the bush. Just ask the question: “Have you ever had an STD?” and see what happens. Data show us that lot of people lie, particularly to casual sex partners, but others will be quite honest with you. Additionally, the reality of an STD is that some people might be unaware that they have one, so you could get an honest answer and still be exposed to infection if you don’t take precautions.
- Get tested. Since it’s just as possible that you have an STD you aren’t aware of, get tested. That way, you can share your information and hopefully get an honest response in return. If you both need to be tested, you could plan to go together.
- Share your own history. Not everyone has a clean bill of health. Let your partner know about your status and how you handle it, especially if you have an STD like herpes that can never be fully cured.
- Discuss prevention. There are some steps you can take on your own, such as getting vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus) and being prepared with your own condoms, but safe sex usually takes two. Make sure you and your intended partner are in agreement about contraception and preventing the transmission of STDs. “A condom is a way of saying I really do care about you,” notes Caron. It’s best to use condoms until you are both thoroughly sure of each other and your STD status.
- Don’t place blame. If, later on, you find out that you have an STD, there’s no point blaming the person you got it from. “Most people wouldn’t knowingly infect someone,” says Caron. Get treatment and be more careful next time.
Know Your Limits
No matter how beautiful your partner or how much you enjoy sex, you have to stick to your personal principles when safe sex is concerned, says licensed sex therapist Isadora Alman, MFT, in private practice in Alameda, Calif. No one wants to get an STD and, in the cold light of day (when you are not so caught up in sexual passion that you aren’t thinking rationally), you’d agree. So heed Ms. Alman’s advice: “If there is no condom, then there’s no sex (oral, anal, or vaginal) as long as you still have concerns about your partner’s STD status.”