Having The Sexual Partner Talk
Talking honestly about our sexual histories can be awkward, at best, and downright terrifying, at worst. Maybe you’re worried your boyfriend or girlfriend will freak out about how high your number of past partners is or about some of your choices that were a little on the wild side. Or maybe you feel sick with anxiety when you think about knowing any information about your partner’s past sexual encounters. Or maybe it’s just super weird because there’s so much secrecy and shame around sex and we aren’t used to talking honestly and openly about it.
So if it’s so awkward and scary, why bother? If we can easily skate around it or ignore it, why go there?
Why? Because your sexual health is important. Talking honestly about your sexual history is important in making sure both of you are physically safe and healthy. And the vulnerability it takes to talk honestly about your sexual history also builds intimacy and trust.
Ok. So what sorts of things should you talk about?
- Any history of STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). It’s important to talk about any bacterial infections that have been cured by antibiotics – because this promotes honesty and forthrightness. And it’s vitally important to talk about any viral infections – even the ones that are asymptomatic because they can still be transmitted. Keep in mind that STDs are very common. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) estimates there are about 20 million new cases of STDs in the US each year. And half of those are in young people ages 15 – 24. If you have an STD or have had one in your life, you definitely aren’t alone, so you don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed.
- When you had your last STD test and what it tested for. In order to be sure that both of you are STD-free, you need to account for any incubation periods, any sexual behavior since the last test (including any skin-to-skin contact with anybody), and what STDs the test was checking for. Not every STD test checks for every possible STD.
- Any abnormal pap smear. Abnormal pap smears can indicate HPV (human papillomavirus), the most common sexually transmitted infection. And even though HPV is really common and often the body gets rid of the virus on its own, it’s still important that you tell your partner about any abnormal pap smear and possibility of HPV.
- Number of sexual partners. This is tricky. A lot of people feel like it’s OK to keep the actual number of sexual partners a secret, that it isn’t anybody else’s business. If you don’t want to disclose the number of sexual partners you’ve had, it’s probably a good idea to think about why you don’t want to have that conversation. Are you afraid your partner will reject you? Judge you? Feel intimidated? Feel too much pressure? Do you feel a lot of shame about having too many partners or not enough partners? If you don’t feel safe and loved enough to have that conversation, it may be healthy to pause and think about that before moving forward into a physical relationship. Undoubtedly, some couples have happy relationships with a Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell policy about the number of past sexual partners. But the healthiest relationships are based on honest and open communication and the safety and security of being able to talk about anything. No matter how many people your partner has been with, it’s important that both of you have up-to-date STD tests and that you know that you’re both free from all infections and only ever have any kind of sex with each other – if you’re going to have sex, that’s the only way to cut down the risk of an STD.
Ok, so you’ve decided to have this conversation, but how do you even start that talk?
- Find a time that isn’t rushed. So you’re not going to want to bring it up in the last five minutes of a date or during the commercial break of the basketball game.
- Talk about it before things get physical. You don’t want to wait until you’re in the middle of a make-out session and things are getting heated.
- Have the conversation in person. This isn’t the sort of talk you can have in text messages. Sit down and talk about this face-to-face.
- Agree that you will both be judgment-free. That means neither of you will shout, “WHAT? You’ve been with HOW MANY people? OMGosh! That’s a lot!” Nor will either of you shake your head in disbelief and say, “WHAT?? You’re a virgin!!! No way!” Agree that you both will respect each other and not judge the other as a person on the information shared.
- Allow space for each person to move forward at their own level of comfort. This means that if your partner has slept with 50 people, you have the freedom to say, “That makes me uncomfortable. I need some time to think about this.” And then you decide whether that’s OK with you or not. In the same way, your partner has the freedom to hear about your past and decide that it’s too much outside their comfort zone. Yes, this is crazy scary. Because this conversation could mean the end of your relationship. But it also means that each of you gets to make the decision that is healthiest and best for you based on 100% solid information. No guess-work. No secrets.
Your sexual history doesn’t define who you are as a person. That’s important for you to remember. Even if your partner decides they’re not comfortable with your history, you aren’t any less-than. It just means that isn’t the right person for you right now.
You have such value. And you deserve a relationship that is physically and emotionally healthy and rooted in honesty and open communication. Having this awkward, scary conversation can help you get there.