Normalizing “The Talk”: How To Break The Ice Around STIs
Women's Health

Normalizing “The Talk”: How To Break The Ice Around STIs

April is STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) Awareness Month, and let’s be honest: bringing up the STI talk with our potential (or existing) sexual partner can be… well, awkward.

According to the WHO, over 1 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are collected every day, and the CDC’s 2021 STD surveillance data revealed that STIs are continuing to rise across the nation. Although STIs are highly common among adults over 25, the topic of safe sex and prevention still remains stigmatized.

Sharing your sexual history with a new partner can sometimes bring up an array of uncomfortable feelings. You may be worried that your partner will see you as “damaged goods,” fear being judged, shamed, or concerned that they may find you uptight for encouraging them to get tested. But according to Dr. Kameelah Phillips, board-certified OB/GYN and founder of Calla Women's Health, STIs don’t discriminate, nor should we.

“Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) happen to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic, religious or political lifestyle, she tells xoNecole. “There are many misconceptions and stigmas around contracting an STI, but it really only takes one partner to get infected, and STIs don’t care who you are, where you come from, or what your background is.”

Since most sexually transmitted infections are asymptomatic and can solely be detected through passive screening methods, undergoing testing is vital in determining your status and reducing the risk of developing serious health consequences in the long run.

Transparency, openness, and proper education are all keys to helping destigmatize the STI talk and normalizing the conversation. Creating a safe and non-judgmental space where individuals can discuss their sexual health without fear of criticism can help to dispel misconceptions that fuel the stigma surrounding STIs and allow both parties to feel safe during intimacy.

But maybe you still don’t know where to start. To help you get your STI talk moving in the right direction, we’ve tapped Dr. Kameelah Phillips to share how to break the ice when having “the talk” and get you on the way to safer and more secure sex.

What are some effective prevention methods for not contracting STIs that you feel may be overlooked?

"There are plenty of ways you can ensure you’re practicing safer sex — from condom use to dental dams and mutual pre-relationship testing and agreed monogamy. Now, I get it, mutual monogamy cannot always be guaranteed, so even for the longest-standing relationships, I recommend routine testing. Self-pleasure is also a sure way to avoid STIs. There is still some risk involved with every sexual encounter, which is why it is so important we remove the stigma associated with STIs and encourage patients to test regularly for STIs."

How often should sexually active individuals get tested for STIs, and what types of tests are available?

"A standard STI panel will include chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomonas, syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis. Providers follow CDC guidelines, which vary depending on the STI. For chlamydia and gonorrhea, for example, we should be testing women 15-24 years old annually for these STIs regardless of the patient’s reported sexual behavior. Because these two common STIs are often asymptomatic, and there’s a lot of stigma around having an infection, automatically screening these young women for chlamydia and gonorrhea can help identify more cases and help protect patients’ reproductive health.

"A good rule of thumb is to ensure you’re getting tested for STIs annually or with every new partner. If you don’t get tested, you may never know. Many STIs don’t have symptoms, so the only way to know for sure is to get tested."

What populations are at highest risk for STIs, and what are some targeted strategies for prevention and education?

"The CDC just released new data that found some racial and ethnic minority groups, gay and bisexual men, and our nation’s youth are disproportionately impacted and continue to experience high rates of STIs. In 2021, the highest rate of reported chlamydia and gonorrhea cases was among non-Hispanic Black or African American persons.

"Diversity in our healthcare providers is one way that we can foster a safe space for patients to feel comfortable talking about STIs and voicing any symptoms or concerns.

"Another important strategy specific to chlamydia and gonorrhea is an opt-out screening approach. Unless they decline, young women 15-24 years old are tested annually for STIs regardless of their reported sexual behavior. The CDC acknowledges this screening approach in its latest CDC guidelines as a way to improve patient acceptance, substantially increase screening, especially among patients who do not disclose sexual behavior, and be cost-saving."

How can individuals communicate with their partners about STI testing and prevention?

"Anyone who is sexually active should feel empowered to discuss their sexual health with their partner. Communication about sexual health is a normal and healthy part of a sexual relationship.

Some conversation starters include:

  • “I like to talk with every new partner about STI testing for peace of mind.”
  • “When were you last tested for STIs?”
  • “I’ve started seeing someone new and want to make sure we both get tested to start fresh together.”
  • “I’m worried someone I had sex with might have exposed me to something.”

What advice do you have for individuals who are nervous or embarrassed about getting tested for STIs?

"Getting an STI can happen to anyone. It's very common, and in fact, half of sexually active people will contract an STI by the time they're 25. Getting tested for STIs is easy and can be free, fast, and confidential. It is usually painless and just a quick swab or pee in a cup.

"If you do test positive, it's just the first step toward treating it. And with common STIs, like chlamydia or gonorrhea, antibiotics will treat your infection. The real problem is when STIs go undiagnosed. Take chlamydia, for instance, it can lead to serious health issues like infertility."

If you’d like to find a clinic near you, you can use the CDC clinic locator at https://yesmeanstest.org/.

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Featured image by Rowan Jordan/Getty Images



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