The most feared topic of conversation on a date has been revealed – and it's one of the most important there is. Some 44% of UK adults say that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is the subject they feel least comfortable talking about, new research by Superdrug finds.
This beats topics of sex and sexual compatibility (28%), talking about ex's (26%), money (21%), and annoying family members (16%).
One in two people would even avoid talking about their experience with STIs to their long-term partner, while 15% would never bring up a diagnosis with a partner.
However, as many as 91% of Brits feel that having one would negatively impact their mental health, relationships, social life, love life, general confidence, or even career.
The most trusted group of people to speak to about an STI is a doctor, with 75% saying they would feel comfortable to chat to a medical professional.
But most don't feel able to open with anyone else, with 63% saying they wouldn't discuss it with their friends, and 90% would avoid the topic with parents or siblings.
This could be partly down to the fact that 72% feel their sex education at school was very basic or poor, and just 4% say it was excellent.
How to talk about STIs with a partner
With the study of 2,000 sexually active adults aimed at breaking the stigma around STIs and sexual health, Superdrug Online Doctor has provided expertise to help people speak more openly about them, especially while dating. Julia Kotziamani, love, sex and relationship expert and educator, and sexologist, Jess O’Reilly (PhD), share their top tips.
1. Start the conversation early
Talk about STIs early on in the relationship (ideally before you are intimate) and normalise it being a topic you discuss openly. If it’s too late for that, then start asap. We are all grown ups and know that sex can cause infections so jumping in and being up front is the best option. To help with this you can chat openly with friends and get more used to it yourself before chatting to a partner.
2. Get knowledgeable about STIs
On that, get knowledgeable! It’s so much easier to talk about things you know about, and being aware of your own status is really important when getting comfortable with the topic. Following sex positive Instagram and TikTok accounts, reading the NHS website and other education platforms such as Superdrug Online Doctor can help you learn and make the conversation feel less alien for you.
3. Be open and accepting
Being able to create a judgement free environment is a really positive place to start. Unless neither of you had any sexual contact prior, you both need to take responsibility for being tested, be honest about your pasts, and be able to hear things that may be a little challenging. A safe space without judgement can make the whole conversation a lot more comfortable.
4. Remove the shame
Stigma can only exist where there is shame. And STI stigma is potentially very dangerous! You don’t have to treat STIs like a death sentence. They’re simply a risk associated with sexual activity. Especially since STIs can be either cured or treated — there is no shame in testing positive for one. But if you let shame hold you back from testing, you’re putting yourself at greater risk of transmitting an STI or dealing with the long term effects of leaving it untreated (e.g. infertility, pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy). Realising that we can all get STIs even if we take precautions is a good place to start your own process of acceptance.
5. Stay up to date with testing
Make sure you are up to date with your own tests and vaccinations. This means you can be totally honest about where you are. You could even use your own testing history to start the conversation.
6. Remember the first time is the hardest
Once these conversations just become part of your dating life they become second nature. It will get easier and is such an important part of healthy dynamics and wellness. Discussions don’t have to be super heavy and serious… or even face to face. As long as you are communicating, that’s fine. Some people prefer to text if it’s a new or casual partner. It can be very chilled.
7. Consider your partner’s discomfort in the topic
If a partner doesn’t want to talk about STIs and testing, don’t assume that it’s a red flag. Shame and stigma around sex make talking about sex challenging, so their discomfort talking about STIs isn't necessarily an indication that they don’t want to practice safer sex. They may simply be uncomfortable with the conversation itself, so ask them what you can do to put them at ease — it may be a matter of timing, language or location.
8. Be prepared for their reaction
If you disclose a positive status, remember that their reaction is more about their own level of comfort and knowledge — it’s not about you. If they’re judgmental, it’s likely a matter of their own discomfort. It obviously isn’t your job to educate others, but you may find it helpful to provide information about transmission, management and treatment.
For more information on symptoms and STI myths busted, collated earlier this year after STI rates were predicted to soar with a 'summer of sex' post-pandemic, see our useful guide.
Visit a sexual health clinic if you or a partner has signs of an STI, you're worried about having sex without a condom, or you're pregnant with symptoms. Many have no symptoms at all, so it's still important to get regularly tested. You can find a sexual health clinic on the NHS website, or see if free-home test kits delivered to you are available in your area.
Watch: 'Age is not a condom': Why STIs are on the rise for people over age 55