What’s the etiquette, or, how do you go about asking a new partner to get tested?
Thank you for recognizing the importance of this conversation, and your willingness to initiate it. I recognize that talking about sex in any way can be hella awkward. So many of us grew up without positive models for talking about sex. Add in the stigma surrounding STIs, and this conversation can feel even trickier.
With 20 million new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed each year, the likelihood of connecting with someone living with an STI is fairly high. Being educated about STIs and having this conversation allows you and your partner(s) to make a fully informed decision about whether or not to have sex and which sex acts to engage in.
Before the conversation
Like most Big Scary Talks, step one happens before the conversation. It’s about doing your own learning and reflecting.
Educate yourself. Not all STIs are created equal. For example, someone with HIV whose viral load (the amount of virus in their blood) is close to zero has a minimal chance of passing that to a sexual partner. Meanwhile, gonorrhea is getting harder to treat as the bacteria keeps mutating and becoming antibiotic-resistant. Learn how different STIs are transmitted, their symptoms, how to treat them, and how they might impact your life.
Decide on your risk level. Different sex acts carry different risks. Anal play, especially penetration, is typically the sex act considered the highest risk for STIs. That’s because the tissue lining in the booty is pretty fragile. Vaginal intercourse is next, followed by oral, and then any external sort of skin to skin contact (e.g. grinding, hand play, etc). Consider what risks you are and aren’t willing to take, as well as if there’s a point when you’d be willing to do higher-risk sexual activities (e.g. being in a monogamous relationship).
Get the Conversation Started
According to my friend and colleague Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice, “There is no universal way to ask, but best practices for making a request include being clear in what you want, direct about the magnitude, and making it a communal process where possible.”
She says it can be as simple as, “I’d like for us both to get tested for STIs.”
Two of our readers take this approach. Cyn says, “I point-blank asked my now-husband: when did you get tested and can I see the results.” Meanwhile, L notes, “I’m usually very straightforward about asking and I always have my results in a paper copy to show a new partner so there isn’t just my word.”
Alternatively, you can take a more conversational approach by asking questions about the other person’s experiences and feelings about testing. Francis notes, “Asking questions may be a more gentle lead-in to negotiation (if one is needed) or coming to an agreement. And sharing your emotions about the topic can help diffuse tensions and build empathy (which doesn’t hurt your sex life either!).”
Unsure what to ask? She shared a few questions to get you started:
- Have they ever been tested?
- How do they feel about testing?
- What would get in the way of getting tested?
- Do they get tested regularly? When was their last test?
Acknowledge the awkward. Don’t be afraid to note that this is an awkward conversation! Most of us don’t have a lot of models or practice doing this. Speaking of practice, Francis notes that it is key to making this conversation less awkward in the long run. She says, “While it will be a new conversation with each new partner, making sexual requests is a skill that you can absolutely build confidence in as you do it more often. Try coming up with your basic ask and saying it in the mirror to get the awkwardness out. You could even try your request out on friends until it feels more natural. Testing can be as routine a question as ‘where do you want to go eat?’ or ‘what’s your favorite lube?’”
Once you get started, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Avoid using words like “dirty” or “clean.” Such language stigmatizes people living with STIs.
Be clear about your boundaries—and communicate them. Consider lower risk sex acts, using a barrier like a condom or dental dam, or abstaining altogether.
How can you trust what they say? Francis notes that trust is an important part of any relationship. “It is usually built over time and through increasing intimacy, but not all sexual relationships have these components and that is OK. It is always easier to trust what you can see. If it feels safe and comfortable for you both, consider attending appointments together or requesting written records of your visit and results to share with one another.”
What happens if they get mad at you for asking? Francis notes to first check your safety. “People who get angry at requests for information (especially safety-related information) may not be partners that will be easy to negotiate with, and may not be good at maintaining your boundaries. If you are with someone whose anger keeps the two of you from talking about testing, they are likely not a person you should consider as a sexual partner.” She goes on to note, “On the other hand, some people feel accused when they are asked to get tested, and their anger arises defensively to protect against whatever assumptions they feel are being made.” What to do? “Get curious, address their concerns, and clarify your intent for pursuing testing.”
How to Respond if They Disclose an STI
Start with gratitude. While sharing this information may not be a big deal for everyone, it’s an act of trust. Honor their honesty and openness.
Ask if you can ask questions. This doesn’t mean grill them about their experience. Instead, explore ideas for how the rest of the night can go down.
Take care of your emotions. It’s OK to feel how you feel, but it’s not OK to blame or shame the other person. There are so many reasons that people don’t disclose right away, and stigma is at the top of that list.
Share your boundaries with them. Again, this is where having done your research really comes in handy.
STIs aren’t the end of the world—or your sex life
Many people live full, thriving, and sex-filled lives with STIs. While they add another layer to sex, try to look at it as an opportunity to deepen the connection and help create a more open, sex-positive world.