Four laboratory tubes on a pink background, the tubes filled with stars.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Telling an Ex You Have an STI - Without the Shame

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
1/27/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
1/27/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TL;DR

  • We may feel there is stigma attached to having an STI or STD but there shouldn't be. They are in fact very common.
  • If you suspect you have an STI, make sure you get tested and avoid unprotected sex until you understand the situation.
  • When you receive your diagnosis, find out everything you can about treatment options, the impact to you and also the impact to anyone you’ve slept with recently.
  • Telling a current partner or ex-partner that you have an STD will of course be uncomfortable but there are ways to make the conversation easier.
  • There is no shame in having an STI. The best thing you can do is take responsibility for the situation and deal with it with maturity.

Whether you’re 17 or 47, finding out you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can be an anxious time. Especially once you realize it has ramifications for any recent sexual partners. There’s no getting away from the fact that sharing the news will require a difficult conversation, but there are ways to make things a little easier on yourself.

Here we give you, if not a complete script, at least a template to help you approach this kind of conversation should the need arise.

Do not feel ashamed

Unfortunately, we often believe there is a stigma attached to STIs, perhaps fearing it reflects badly on us or our previous sexual activities. If you suspect you have symptoms, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and remind yourself STIs are common. In fact, data published in 2020 by the CDC suggested that 1 in 5 people in the US have an STI, with 26 million new infections in 2018. The good news is they’re usually really easy to treat, particularly if caught early.  

The problem for STIs is that, for years, they’ve not been spoken about, instead being hidden for fear of embarrassment. But with this kind of prevalence in the population, if you contract an STI through sexual contact you should not punish yourself with feelings of shame. Yes, there are certain steps you’ll need to take to ensure your own sexual health and that of anyone you’ve may have slept with. But assuming you had no idea and didn’t knowingly pass on the infection, you have no reason to feel you have done anything wrong.  

Arm yourself with the facts

If you suspect you have an STI, your first step should be to take charge of the situation by making an appointment at a sexual health clinic. The healthcare providers there will ask about your sexual health history and any symptoms you've been experiencing, as well as providing any tests you might need and giving you a diagnosis and plenty of advice.

Find out all you can, ask about anything you don’t understand and get to grips with the treatment options that are available. Find out exactly what it means for you and what it means for anyone you may have inadvertently passed it on to. That way, when it comes to a later conversation, you’ll be able to approach it from a place of education rather than one of fear.

Approaching the conversation

Once you have a diagnosis and understand the facts, it’s important you tell anyone who may be impacted as soon as possible. After all, you want them to be able to seek treatment as quickly as they can. And you want to reduce the chance of them passing it on to someone else. While it may be a difficult situation, the best thing you can do is take responsibility and handle everything in the best way possible.  

If you feel the message is better delivered in person, try to do that, otherwise it’s important you call rather than text. Your bed partner may be concerned and will likely have lots of questions - it’s important you are in a position to offer any support you can.  

Make sure that in your own mind you have separated who you are as a person from your diagnosis. Repeat after us: ‘An STI does not make me a bad person’. Perceived STD-related stigma may lead you to feel you should start with an apology. In fact, beginning with “I’m sorry but…” can set the scene and create shame even before you’ve begun your message. Instead, we recommend you stick to the facts.

“I have something I need to tell you,” “I have found out that I have an STI,” “I’m telling you this because we slept together last week” “It’s important you go and get yourself checked out.” Of course, you can offer an apology for the situation if you wish, so that they understand you are not taking this lightly, but also offer any support you can and ask if there are any questions. By approaching the conversation in this way, you will be doing as much as you can to lessen the fear and impact.

Dealing with the reaction

Remember, when it comes to a conversation like this you are in control of what you say, but you can never be in control of how the other person reacts. You can only do your best to deliver the message in a way that you would like it delivered to you.

Of course, if you’re telling a current partner it will feel tricky, but you may at least feel you’re in a position to offer empathy and help put your partner at ease. This may depend on how long you have been in the relationship and where you believe the STD came from.

However, when it comes to talking to a previous partner, how you left things with them may at least partly determine their reaction to you. First, consider whether you think a face-to-face meeting or a phone call is the more appropriate approach. Texting or emailing is rarely the right option, not matter what went on.

Expect a slightly frosty reception if things were not amicable when you parted ways, but that doesn’t mean you can’t approach the conversation in the same way you had planned. Try to avoid accusations – instead make it clear you’re not suggesting it is their fault, merely providing them with information. And if you feel your ex-partner is becoming defensive, try not to rise to it. It can be easy to play the blame game, but ultimately that is unlikely to help either of you.

Try not to place too much emphasis on how you feel after the conversation. Give yourself a break. If you find yourself feeling ashamed, ask yourself what is at the core of that? Is it a valid feeling or is that how the other person has made you feel because of their reaction to the situation?

And afterwards

Once you’ve made contact with your previous partners and shared everything you know, be reassured you have done everything you can do. Use barrier protection or a condom during sex with any sexual partner until you’re confident the STI has passed. And schedule in routine screenings to monitor your STI status and help allay any further health concerns.

Rest assured, this experience is unlikely to impact any potential partners and sexual relationships in the future. You should be able to resume a normal sex life in no time.

Shake Off the Shame
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