Chances are you’ve been there: hot and steamy in a near-enough stranger’s bed after a first date or in the throes of a one-night stand. Things are heating up when a sudden moment of rationality implores you to interrupt your dirty talk with the question: “Wait, have you been STI-tested?”
Asking someone about their sexual health history carries a notorious risk of killing the mood. After all, nothing takes you out of the moment like the memory of swabbing your vagina to check for STIs. This situation is even more difficult for people with sexual health conditions such as vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, and vulvodynia, as well as victims of sexual abuse and people with psychosexual issues. These conditions often necessitate discussions about sexual health with a new partner, which can mean revealing vulnerable details early on in the relationship.
Katherine Baldwin, a dating and relationship coach, explains that it’s not unusual to feel awkward in these scenarios. “We don’t talk about sexual health enough, which makes us feel shame,” says Baldwin. “We think having a sexual health issue is embarrassing and [that] it means there’s something wrong with us, but this obviously isn’t the case.”
The reality is that talking about your sexual health with someone you’re planning on having sex with is crucial—not only to keep yourself safe but others, too. The question is: how can we conduct these conversations while making both parties involved feel comfortable (and sexy)?
Keeping an open mind
Gynecologist Sarah Welsh believes that STIs in particular have been given an unfair reputation. “Remember that absolutely anyone who has sexual contact can contract an STI,” says Welsh, who is the co-founder of sexual wellness brand HANX. “Despite long-held beliefs that STIs are the result of promiscuity or being ‘dirty,’ it’s purely a medical condition—and has absolutely no bearing on who you or your partner/s are as people.”
It’s therefore a good idea to do some work with yourself before you’re ready to have sex safely with new people and enter these discussions. Start by educating yourself on STIs to better understand how they are transmitted, find out what you can do to prevent them, and learn the implications of different sexually transmitted illnesses.
“Be careful around the language you use,” advises Welsh. “People often call STIs ‘dirty’ and use the term ‘clean’ to suggest you are STI-free. However, this creates unnecessary negative connotations around STIs and further perpetuates stigma, including a toxic culture around blame.”
Respecting others’ privacy matters, too. “It’s important not to point the finger at anyone who has unknowingly passed on an STI,” continues Welsh. “Instead of saying ‘X gave it to me,’ you could say you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for an STI.”
Sharing your sexual health history with your partner
When dealing with a sexual health condition, it’s vital that you find your comfort zone with the issue and address any lingering feelings of shame or embarrassment. “Make sure you’re in a good place to have these types of conversations,” suggests Baldwin. “Speak with a friend, [write in your] journal, or seek professional help beforehand to help you come to terms with it. That way, if the person you’re planning on having sex with does respond badly, you’ll be less likely to take that personally.”
Abi, 24, has suffered from vaginismus for three years, meaning she is unable to have penetrative sex. “I’ve found it’s almost impossible not to bring up vaginismus if you’re having sex with a guy,” she says. Abi says that all of her partners have reacted well to her sharing details about her condition, but she thinks this is because of how careful she is with choosing her sexual partners: “I have to ask myself, ‘Does this person seem open-minded enough to consider sex without penetration enjoyable and valid?’”
Abi, who is bisexual, adds that she finds it much easier to speak about her condition in queer spaces. “Whereas a straight guy I meet in a bar might roll his eyes if I suggest sex doesn’t always mean thrusting your penis in a vagina, a queer person would likely be like, ‘Yeah, duh’,” Abi says.
Although it might be uncomfortable, it’s not always a bad thing if a potential sexual partner reacts badly to a conversation about sexual health as it might be a sign that they’re not a worthy sex partner for you. “If they don’t respond in kind to the question, ask yourself: ‘Do I really want to be having sex with this person?’” says Welsh.
Conducting the conversation
But even armed with all of this information, it can still be hard to find the words for these discussions. The first step to making these conversations work is to choose your timing carefully. “Have this conversation before things heat up,” advises Welsh. “Make sure you’re in a private place and that you feel good in yourself.”
Whatever you want to discuss with your potential partner is probably highly personal, so it’s important to phrase it in a way that feels true to you. If you are struggling to find a way to bring this topic up, Baldwin suggests saying something along the lines of:
“I’m looking forward to getting intimate with you, but before we do this, I’d like to share something with you. It’s personal and I feel a bit vulnerable, so please bear with me. I need to give you this information, and I’d like you to take your time so you can think about what’s right for you.”
Making the other person feel secure is important when having these conversations, so Baldwin suggests letting them take some space to process what you’ve said. “Ideally, you’ve chosen someone who isn’t going to reject you as a result of what you’ve said or project their own feelings onto you—and if that does happen, this person isn’t right for you,” she says.
At its best, talking about sexual health is a simple exchange of information, and anyone with good communication skills and emotional maturity should have no problem with this kind of discussion. This subject matter will reveal just as much about a person as other common first-date topics that help you make decisions about whether this person is a good match (like hobbies, political views, and horoscopes).
And although talking about STIs and other sexual health issues is important at the start of a relationship, these are topics that you should continue to discuss with your partner(s) long-term. “Remember, these conversations are not a one-off, nor are they one-way,” says Welsh. “They’re an opportunity for you to check in with each other on an intimate level and should be a regular part of your sex life.”