Use protection; get tested; and make sure your partner’s been tested, too—we all know the cardinal rules of safe sex. The issue is, steps one and two are way easier to come by than step three.
If you’ve ever gone home with someone you met at a bar, you know popping the question—“When was the last time you were tested for STIs?”—is incredibly daunting. Nothing kills a mood like a quick discussion of sexually transmitted infections (or the myriad other ways your spontaneous tryst could go wrong). It’s little wonder many of us are apt to avoid the conversation altogether, instead crossing our fingers and hoping our one-night stands are as responsible with their nether bits as we are.
This strategy isn’t a good one. Let’s be real—it sucks. We live in a world where 1 in 2 sexually active people will contract an STI by the age of 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association. It makes sense for us to care about practicing safe sex. So why is it so hard for us to find a way to just talk about it? Surely the physical stuff we’re down to do with that person is way more intimate, awkward or vulnerable than a purely clinical chat about sexual health—right?
Because we know stuff like this is easier said than done, we went ahead and consulted the experts. Here, two licensed sex therapists walk us through exactly how someone might instigate The Talk with their partner. (For ease of use, we’ve separated the advice by kind of relationship. Because asking your partner of several years about STIs is distinctly different from talking to a one-night stand about it.)
Talking to strangers at a bar is awkward. Talking to strangers about STIs at a bar is probably even more awkward (albeit incredibly productive).
If you can casually work some STI talk into the conversation, good on you. If you can’t, Deb Laino, DHS (Doctor of Health Science), suggests bringing sexual history up when the condoms come out. “You can be playful about it and say something like, ‘Hey, when was the last time you used one of those?’” Dr. Laino tells StyleCaster.
Jess O’Reilly, PhD, licensed sex and relationships expert and host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast, recommends the same. “You might combine the testing question with the discussion about safer sex,” Dr. Jess tells StyleCaster. “For example: ‘Do you have a condom or lube preference? I have these, but if you prefer another, let me know. And when were you last tested?’”
Pairing the question with a conversation you were going to have anyway might make it easier to get the words out. (Oh, and if you don’t already carry condoms, Dr. Laino says you should start, stat.)
If you’d rather be straightforward than coy, you can always just, you know, ask. “I really come from a school that’s like, ‘Look, I want to have sex with you. And it could be great. But when was the last time you were tested?’” Dr. Laino says.
But regardless of tactic, you need to get the question out there.
“The reality is: It’s a serious question, and at some point during the night, things need to get serious,” Dr. Laino says. “[Otherwise], you’re taking a risk with your own health…People need to ask themselves, ‘Is sex worth the risk?’ What’s worth more—your body or the momentary embarrassment?”
Your steady hookup conversation will probably look a lot like your one-night stand conversation, except you might want to include some additional questions.
“When it comes to friends with benefits, there’s usually some level of trust there—often, a lot of trust,” Dr. Laino says. There’s also more liability. When you’re consistently hooking up with someone, concerns about STIs and pregnancy enter the picture. So having frank conversations is key—as early in the relationship as you can swing it.
Something else to consider? Monogamy. Friends with benefits arrangements tend to be consistent but non-monogamous, and if your FWB is regularly hooking up with other people, it’s worth talking about how you’ll practice safe sex together. Will you both use protection every time you sleep with other people? Will you talk to each other about other people you’ve slept with? How often will you both get tested?
According to Dr. Laino, these are things you should be discussing with each other—as well as your primary care providers. Tell your gynecologist if you have multiple partners (or if your partner does); the information will only help them keep you as safe and healthy as possible.
Dating someone and haven’t hooked up yet? You can draw on the same approach you’d use for a one-night stand: Bring up sexual history when you bring out the condoms (at the very latest). If you can pop the question earlier, good on you. If not, take advantage of the easy segue.
If you’re dating someone you’ve already hooked up with, you might feel weird bringing it up now. But it’s better late than never. Dr. Laino suggests saying something like, “I know what we did the other night, and I’m feeling a certain way about it. Can we talk about it?” This question can start a conversation about STIs, as well as pregnancy, sexual exclusivity and other things you should be thinking about.
I get it—bringing up exclusivity can be seriously unnerving, especially early on. But if your partner is sleeping with other people—or if you are—that’s important information for both of you to have. Each time you sleep with a new person, you’re increasing your risk of getting an STI, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And each time you sleep with your partner after sleeping with someone new, you’re increasing their risk of getting an STI, too.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But it does mean you need to communicate about it.
“A conversation about sexual exclusivity needs to happen, especially if you’re dating regularly and there’s some form of commitment,” Dr. Laino says. “Little code words like, ‘just talking’ and ‘hooking up’ mean different things to different people.”
Not sure how to establish monogamy (or non-monogamy)? Dr. Laino suggests saying something like: “Hey, how about we agree to have sex exclusively? And if there’s a point in time where you or I choose to have sex with someone else, we communicate about it. That way, we can feel comfortable with one another while feeling this out.” (Alter that proposition based on what makes the most sense for you, your partner and your relationship.)
Talking to a long-term partner about sex shouldn’t be too difficult. Odds are, you’ve already had The Talk. If you haven’t, and the relationship is still new, you can draw on the guidelines outlined in the “casually dating” section.
“These conversations need to happen early on—ideally before you have sex,” Dr. Laino says. “If it happens afterward, it should be very soon afterward.” Ideally within the first three dates. “It sends a message to the other person that you’re responsible with your body. And that you respect your body,” Dr. Laino adds. (Remind yourself of those wise words the next time you feel too awkward to bring it up.)
Regardless of how new (or old) your relationship is, there are plenty of ways to segue into a chat about STIs. “You can simply ask about their testing regimen as you share your own,” Dr. Jess suggests, adding that you can say something like, “I’m going to get tested next week. Do you want to join me, or were you tested more recently?”
You can also get tested together. “I’ve certainly seen people who’ve told me stories about getting tested together to make each other feel more comfortable (and honest),” Dr. Laino says. (To get tested, you can talk to your doctor, visit a clinic like Planned Parenthood or order an at-home test from a place like My Lab Box.)
And a little advice for the road:
“If you feel awkward bringing it up, remind yourself that your lips have probably touched, licked, sucked and kiss the hole through which they pee. You’ve sweat against one another’s naked bodies and let your guard down and made animalistic sounds as your bodies jerk and spasm in pleasure,” Dr. Jess says. “If you’ve enjoyed these activities, you’ve already overcome awkwardness and you’ll overcome the awkwardness of a conversation.”
And if that’s not enough to propel you forward, consider this. “Remind yourself how much you enjoy sex with this person and how much more you’ll enjoy it knowing that you’ve been tested,” Dr. Jess says. The greatest upside of all? “Once you normalize testing as a prerequisite to sex, you’ll likely find that talking about it comes more naturally,” she adds.