Imagine that you’re in the park, sitting next to a cute guy. One thing leads to another and you return home to have amazing sex. This might seem like an encounter just like any other but it’s not how Tricia Wise envisioned her future back in 2020. Tricia is a sex advocate from New York who contracted genital herpes after a one-night stand on Halloween, which was more of a jump scare than she ever signed up for. Initially Tricia thought she had to go celibate but now she discloses her status on dating apps and receives mainly positive responses. Her Instagram account, Safe Slut, currently has over 54k followers.
Unfortunately, STI-positive content creators based in the UK are difficult to find and the lack of information means that coming to terms with your diagnosis is challenging. What’s worse is that society tends to believe that having an STI makes you dirty; that not only shouldn’t you have casual sex but that your condition is a punishment for being ‘promiscuous’ in the first place. These kinds of assumptions fuel the fear of contracting an STI and perpetuate the stigma, which isn’t doing us any favours. After all, some STIs never clear up and they’re more common than people think. According to the World Health Organization, about 67% of the global population under the age of 50 has herpes type 1. It might feel like the end of the world at first but having an STI is nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t mean that your sex life is over.
Like many others who have contracted an STI, 29-year-old Cara* felt devastated when she found out that she has genital herpes. “I felt like damaged goods, less worthy and less desirable,” she says. Despite fears for her future and facing potential rejection, Cara decided to treat her diagnosis the way it should be treated: like it wasn’t a big deal at all. She soon realised that people were more willing to learn about it than she initially thought. “On dating apps I was very upfront and honest [when] disclosing. Most guys were very accepting and some stated that their ex had it and it wasn’t an issue,” she continues. “Others had a lot of questions about safety and risk but all of them decided to meet with me and go on a date!” Announcing that you have an STI on dating apps can be daunting but it’s a good way to own your diagnosis.
While not everyone will react well, a lot of people are open to learning about it. Lara*, 22, whose ex-boyfriend’s reaction wasn’t positive, recalls that her casual partners were more understanding. “One friend with benefits took it really well, asked some questions and took some time to research it for himself and decided the risk was worth it,” she says.
When I tested positive for HPV, a group of viruses that aren’t classified as STIs but are commonly passed on through sex, I was more afraid of people’s reactions than the impact it might have on my health. I received negative comments from matches on dating apps who claimed that they were ‘clean’, even though there’s no test to rule out HPV in men. When I matched with my current partner, the sense of shame had grown so much that instead of explaining my situation, I told him I couldn’t have sex.
Cara hasn’t always been upfront with her partners either and once didn’t disclose her herpes diagnosis until after intercourse. “I expected him to be angry and resentful. He was really understanding and accepting, and took on responsibility for the situation too,” she says. “At the end of the day, neither of us thought to discuss STI status and safer sex practices in the heat of the moment.”
Even though many people are terrified at the thought of contracting an STI, not everyone discusses sexual health before becoming intimate. That’s one of the reasons why I felt a deep sense of injustice upon my diagnosis: no one I’ve ever slept with asked me about my history or got tested regularly yet I was ostracised when I decided to disclose my HPV, despite being told it wasn’t necessary. “Generally, we don’t advise that it is essential to inform all partners of an HPV diagnosis as it is so common and symptoms can take a long time to show,” says Jodie Crossman, a sexual health specialist nurse. “There are around 100 different ‘strains’ of the HPV virus and about eight out of 10 people will contract it at some point in their lives. For most people, HPV is harmless and will go away without treatment within about two years.” It’s important to note that more research is needed in this field. The fact that currently only women can be tested for HPV perpetuates the incorrect idea that it is a female infection. However, talking about your sexual health is a good habit to develop. As Tricia points out, people should be able to have agency over their sexual health.
When I eventually confided in my partner, he reassured me that it wasn’t a big deal. This encouraged me to stop treating my HPV like some terrible secret I had to confess. “We need to talk” isn’t the best way to start the conversation, I’ve discovered. Instead I think it’s important to be more laid-back and straightforward, and say something like: “I have an STI/HPV. Do you have any questions?”
Seeking professional advice is a good idea, too. “Coming to a sexual health clinic with your partner can help you both get the facts that you need,” says Crossman. It isn’t easy but it has its positives. Lia*, who is 26 and used to have HPV that caused genital warts, struggled with disclosure but now believes that it’s a “good test to judge someone’s character”, while Cara says that her sex life has improved post-diagnosis because she can tell who truly cares about her. Crossman agrees with this point of view. “Although disclosing something so personal is very vulnerable, if your partner is understanding then that is a good sign that they see you as a whole person, with all the complexities that we all have as human beings.” When you share your condition, you might come across judgemental people but it speaks volumes about them, not you, and often comes from a lack of education.
As society is busy developing the narrative that those who have STIs and HPV are unclean and irresponsible, it forgets that there isn’t such a thing as safe sex. Condoms can lower transmission rates but they aren’t 100% effective and some conditions such as herpes are often asymptomatic. I don’t know if I got HPV through sexual contact or not, but it doesn’t matter.
“One thing I have learned working in sexual health is that there is no one ‘type’ of person who contracts an STI,” Crossman tells R29. “You can have sex just once and pick up an STI, or 100 times and not. Although there are things you can do to protect against some STIs, often it’s just down to bad luck.” The risk of contracting an STI is something we should accept as part of leading a sexually active life. Having safer sex means discussing our sexual history, consent and using protection.
*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity
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