Finding out that you have an STI, or a Sexually Transmitted Infection, can be daunting—particularly when it comes to dating. If you’re in a relationship and have just learned that you have an STI, you might be worried about how to broach the topic with your partner—and if you’re on the dating scene, you might be unsure about when to let potential partners know that you have an STI.
In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most common STIs and look at how many Australians have them. We’ll also explore how you can talk about STIs with your partner, why they need to know, and some steps you can take together to be proactive about your sexual health.
While a lot of infections can be passed between partners during sexual contact—like, say, influenza, COVID-19, or mpox—when we talk about STIs, we’re generally referring to the following eight pathogens. The World Health Organisation says these are the most common STIs:
- Hepatitis B
- Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), often simply called herpes
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV), otherwise known as warts
We want to be clear that there’s absolutely nothing gross, embarrassing, or yuck about having an STI. Having an STI doesn’t mean that you’re dirty, unhygienic, or that you’ve done something wrong—it just means that you’re human and that you’ve had sex, which is something a huge portion of us do.
Many of us grow up with feelings of shame or embarrassment around sex, and although we’re pretty good at undoing those feelings and embracing our sexual selves, STIs are still something that a lot of people feel a bit embarrassed about.
We’re going to encourage you to let those feelings of embarrassment and shame go. STIs are common—in fact, they’re so common that you might be surprised and even a bit reassured to know how many Australians have had an STI at some point in their lives.
According to the Department of Health, one in six Aussies have been diagnosed with an STI, and the gender balance is pretty equal—only slightly more men than women have been diagnosed with STIs (the Department didn’t offer any statistics focusing on trans or non-binary people). In fact, the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales estimates that 1 in 25 people between the ages of 15–29 had chlamydia during 2021, but only a third of those people received a diagnosis—meaning that although STIs are super common in Australia, they’re also under-diagnosed and under-treated.
So, what does all of this mean? Basically, a lot of us have STIs and don’t know it, and because we don’t know it we’re not receiving proper treatment, and we could be passing STIs to our partners.
Although there is nothing wrong with having an STI, we believe it’s really important to tell your partner about your sexual health status. Here are a few reasons why:
- Telling your partner gives them the chance to get tested and have a sexual health check-up
- If you’re casually dating or in a non-monogamous relationship, your partner may want to avoid contracting an STI and passing it on to their partner/s
- Some people may choose to change their usage of contraceptives to avoid STIs
- Some STIs can cause painful and uncomfortable symptoms
- Some STIs can cause no symptoms, but can have lifelong effects if left untreated
- Some immunocompromised people can become quite ill if they contract an STI
- …and, quite simply, everyone deserves to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
Talking about STIs with your partner may also give them the opportunity to discuss their own sexual health with you. Given how common STIs are, your partner may have had their own experience with receiving a diagnosis, and possibly treatment depending on the STI they were diagnosed with. Talking about this together, as a team, might even bring you closer!
So, we know that ‘the STI chat’ is a necessary one to have. But how do we actually have it? We’ll take you through it, step by step.
Choose the right time and place
Ideally, you want to speak to your partner when you’re both alone and free from distractions. They might feel shocked or upset when you tell them, so give them a little space and privacy to have their own response. If you’re concerned or worried about how they’ll react, it may work to have the conversation somewhere in public, like in a park or a cafe, or even tell them over the phone or by text.
Sit with your feelings about it
Before starting the conversation, check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling about it. You might feel nervous, embarrassed, worried—or all three, or some other emotion. You might feel confused or even angry if you think you may have contracted the STI from your partner. We suggest working through your feelings prior to the conversation by chatting with a friend, journaling, speaking with your GP, or even calling a hotline like Health Direct or Lifeline. There’s no wrong way to feel, but being aware of your emotions can be really helpful. You might even try telling your partner about how you feel, like:
- “I’ve been nervous and a bit worried to tell you this, but…”
- “I’m feeling upset about this, but I want to let you know that…”
Be honest and direct
Tell your partner, clearly, what you want them to know. Although you might be tempted to try to ‘soften’ your language by hinting at what you need to talk to them about, it’s best to be upfront. “I’ve been diagnosed with something…” might actually make your partner a lot more worried than simply saying something like:
- “I have an STI.”
- “I’ve just found out that I have an STI.”
Tell your partner what the STI is…
…so they have an opportunity to learn about your health, and consider how it might affect their own health status.
- “I’ve got herpes.”
- “The doctor says it’s chlamydia.”
Offer some more information, if you’re comfortable sharing it
Depending on how well you know your partner and what you want to share with them, you might feel comfortable discussing how you received your diagnosis and what led you to get tested.
- “I was diagnosed two years ago during a routine check-up.”
- “I noticed some unusual symptoms last week, so I went to my GP and asked for a test.”
Explain why you want your partner to know
Giving your partner insight into why you’re sharing this information with them can be really important, because it can help your partner understand what their next step might be.
- “We’ve been getting to know each other for a while now, and I really like you, so I wanted to let you know before we had sex for the first time.”
- “The last STI test I had was negative, and you’re my only sexual partner. I wanted to let you know so you can get a test too.”
Give your partner the space to respond
As we know, people can sometimes have negative feelings around STIs. Keep in mind that you’ve had the chance to work through your feelings about this conversation and prepare what you want to say, but your partner is finding everything out on the spot–so they might react with confusion, embarrassment, or even frustration. You can make space for these feelings, but keep in mind that no matter what, a caring partner would never put you down or make you feel bad for wanting to have this conversation with them. If it feels right, you could ask your partner:
- “Have you dated someone with an STI before?”
- “Have you ever had a sexual health check-up?”
Talk about what’s next
People can have so many different experiences with STIs that it’s really difficult to predict how your partner might respond. They might be completely open to talking more about your diagnosis, or they might ask for some time alone to process. They might even say, “Me too!”. We recommend having a think about your next step, so you can make a suggestion to your partner about how to move forward. You might get a check-up together, research some methods of having safer sex, or invite them to share their own experiences with STIs. However you choose to move forward, you can do it knowing that you’ve been open and honest with your partner about something that, really, is a pretty normal and common part of life.