Treating sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia, gonorrhea or herpes can be as simple as taking a pill or two. Telling current and past sexual partners that they might be infected is often much harder.
The number of STI cases in San Luis Obispo has been on the rise.
As an at-risk population, Cal Poly students can be carriers for undiagnosed STIs especially because sharing STI statuses is a difficult conversation for most partners.
“It’s interesting because it’s easier to have sex with a stranger than it is to tell the stranger, ‘We maybe shouldn’t be having sex without a condom because I have herpes,’” Pamela Parker, a gynecologist at Cal Poly’s Health Center, said.
STIs can be spread despite the use of contraceptives like condoms or dental dams, and carriers can be asymptomatic, making it easy to unknowingly get an STI from an infected partner.
Having the conversation
After being diagnosed with either a chronic or treatable STI, it is up to the individual to share with their past or future partners, since many STIs do not present visible symptoms, according to Planned Parenthood. As a licensed marriage-family therapist, Cal Poly psychology and child development lecturer Elizabeth Barrett believes an infected individual must first be comfortable with the diagnosis before having the difficult conversation with a partner.
Knowing all the facts about a diagnosis prior to sharing STI information will help make the conversation easier, Barrett said.
“The very first thing is being able to work through any shame, embarrassment or guilt that you feel, or anger about getting the diagnosis and finding out you actually have an STI,” Barrett said. “Find out as much as you can about it, get really educated about how to stay safe being sexual from this point forward.”
Barrett also suggested incorporating sentences starting with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ when talking to a partner.
“If you approach it from a place with confidence and say, ‘Hey, I just need you to know I have herpes and I really value your safety and want to make sure you’re comfortable and I want to share this with you.’ Coming from a place of concern or care for the other person, it sets up an avenue for dialogue,” Barrett said.
Language choice is not the only important factor in communicating your STI status with your partner. An anonymous psychology senior was diagnosed with a high-risk strain of human papillomavirus (HPV) despite taking precautions.
“I was basically a poster child for safe sex,” the student said. “I always used condoms and regularly got tested … but I still got something.”
When it came to telling her partner she had contracted HPV, she made sure her body language reflected her comfort with the diagnosis.
“I think if you come at [the conversation] hysterically because you’re not sure about [the STI], they’re probably going to freak out,” she said. “Because I came at it being calm and in-the-know, like, ‘I can tell you all the science behind it,’ he was very receptive to that and we were able to get past it.”
Researching information about STIs on the web can lead to even more questions, which is why the student said it is best to ask a health professional about a specific diagnosis.
STI testing is available at Cal Poly’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood and The Center for Health and Prevention.
Standard STI tests through Cal Poly’s Health Center appear as general health center charges on the student portal. An HIV blood test is about $10 and a herpes lesion swab is $12, while the price jumps to $40 for a combined gonorrhea and chlamydia swab.
Cal Poly senior Lauren* contracted oral herpes in elementary school after sharing a water bottle with an infected peer.
“I think we just put the trust in someone that it’s something they would tell,” Lauren said. “But maybe they might just not even know, which is why getting tested is so important.”
While having the initial conversation might feel uncomfortable, Lauren said most of the people she has shared her diagnosis with said they wish they had known sooner.
“It’s so hard [to bring up the conversation],” Lauren said. “I still don’t know how to bring it up just because it’s just such a casual thing that doesn’t bother me daily. I feel sometimes when you sit them down and tell them, ‘Look, this is what’s going on,’ it makes it seem like it’s a really huge deal. I’m still trying to find the right way to be open and talk to people, but also knowing how early to bring it up is hard because it does matter from the beginning.”
Planned Parenthood reportsthat having an open and honest conversation about an STI diagnosis is one of the few ways to ensure partners are fully aware of potential risks.
“We can’t ever change another person’s beliefs or feelings about anything, only they can,” Barrett said. “All we can do is offer as much honesty and sincerity as we can for our story and our truth.”
*The student’s last name and major have been excluded for anonymity.