Often, the only advice we ever receive about sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) is don’t get them. How are we meant to plan around STIs, either our own or a partner’s, if we’re barely allowed to ask about them? STIs are still treated with tons of shame in our culture despite the fact that many of them are completely curable and almost all of them are treatable.

Yun Heng Lin

Yun Heng Lin

STIs are Incredibly Common

50% of sexually active people will have had at least one STI by age 25. Because it’s really likely that if you are sexually active you will run into an STI at some point, it’s important to know where to get reliable information about STIs so that you can plan around them with partners.  

 When we know how to get our questions answered, we can respond to STIs from a place of knowledge, not a place of fear.

Here are some steps that you can take to build a better action plan around STIs.

Get Tested

Unfortunately, you can’t tell if you or someone else has an STI just by looking at them. Getting tested and understanding your STI status is the first step to being able to make informed decisions about your health. Knowing your status also prepares you for conversations about safer sex with partners.

 Often just finding somewhere to get tested is the most difficult step to take if you’ve never been tested before. Check out these free and low cost STI testing sites in Sacramento. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can help you find low-cost STI testing at a community health clinic based on your zip code. You can also get tested at your gynecologist’s office or at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Get Reliable Information

Discovering that you (or a partner) have an STI can initially feel overwhelming. Give yourself time to adjust to the information. Understand that, because of how STIs are treated in our culture, it is normal if you find yourself experiencing feelings of distress, loss, shame, or fear. It can help to connect yourself to those who publically share their experience of having a certain STI on YouTube or Instagram or some other blog or social media (for example, Laureen HD, who uses social media to destigmatize living with herpes). This can help remind you that STIs are both normal and can really impact how you feel about yourself and your sex life.

 If a partner has shared that they have an STI, find an appropriate place to process feelings you might have about this without shaming or blaming your partner for having an STI. This might mean you need to do some research on your own or talk to a trusted friend about your initial reaction to their disclosure before discussing it further with your partner.

 When you feel ready,  educating yourself about the STI can help to reduce your anxiety and can remind you that there are so many options for having awesome, fulfilling sex while simultaneously planning around STIs between partners.

Next you need to know where to get trustworthy information, which is not always easy when you set sail on the ocean that is the modern day internet. You can find all types of untrue, alarmist information about STIs on the web. So how do you find information that you can trust?

 A few online resources that have reliable, fact-based information about STIs are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, Planned Parenthood, and the American Sexual Health Association. These resources will give you straightforward facts about STIs, how to prevent them, and options for treating them.

Sometimes the internet will not have the answer to your specific concern about an STI. If you need to talk to someone in person, try using San Francisco Sex Information. They will answer any question have about sex via phone or email for free. You can also talk to your gynecologist, primary care physician, or call a local community health clinic.

Discuss What Safer Sex Means for You and Your Partners

Once you have the information you need about a certain STIs, you’ll want to understand what this means for how you want to have sex and how your partners want to have sex. There is no one right way to make sex safer because people have different levels of risk tolerance. Understanding yours and your partners’ boundaries will guide how you make choices about sex.  Need help imagining what this conversation might look like? Check out Reid Mihalko’s video for some guidance.

 There is no form of sex that is completely safe. However there are lots of ways to make sex safer. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use barriers like condoms, dental dams, or gloves

  • Choose sex acts that have a lower risk of transmitting infections

  • Get tested regularly with your partner to stay up to date on your status

  • Make a safe sex agreement that you and your partner commit to using with all partners

  • Take preventative medications (like PrEP for HIV prevention) to target certain STIs

  • Have sex with partners who share the same STI as you

You can also use this chart to better understand which sex acts are associated with which types of STI transmission.

Once you’ve identified your boundaries, communicate them to your partners with compassion, ask them to share their own boundaries, and begin to build a vision for what types of sex acts you can enjoy together.

 And finally...

Remember, if this type of communication feels challenging, it’s because it is! We live in a culture that does not often teach us to communicate openly about sexual health and boundaries. Rather, our culture tends to treat discussing sex explicitly as embarrassing and awkward. However, communicating about STIs is an important part of consent and an important part of respecting your own body and your partners’ bodies. Commit to experimenting with which ways of communicating work best for you.

Louise Head is an queer-identified associate marriage and family therapist in Sacramento. She blogs at The Spot every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. For more evidence-based, intersectional sex-educational fun, follow her on Instagram @swoon.sex.ed