When Do You Have To Tell Someone You Have An STD?

You Have an STDLately, I’ve had a few conversations about when someone should tell someone else they have an STD. Namely, this refers to when a person is beginning to date and if they need to tell a partner right away or if they can wait to tell someone until after they’ve been dating a while.

This presents a huge ethical dilemma when it comes to living with an STD, dating, and entering into new relationships.

I’ve heard any number of approaches, listened to the opinions of people without STDs, and have tried almost every tactic myself. While I haven’t always told people when I should – sometimes not at all (you can read my STD Interview or find my response to telling a partner about HSV1 in the ethics section of the STD Forum) – I think, the majority of my readers aim to and the general public hopes that someone living with an STD will be as morally sound and ethical as possible.

From what I’ve come across so far, everyone approaching me with the same question seems to want to do their best to not embody the stigma that is attached to STDs. Thus, they want to be as open and honest as is expected while also having a fighting chance at beginning a new relationship.

The negative responses I’ve heard come mainly from people assuming an individual with a sexually transmitted disease or infection should tell a potential partner right away – even before beginning to date. Kind of like, ‘Hi, my name’s Jenelle, I have genital herpes, and here’s my number in case you’d like to take me out sometime.’

Quite frankly, this is an opinion based on ignorance. Remember, ignorance and stupidity are two entirely separate things. I too was once ignorant about STDs. I believed only certain kinds of people got STDs, STDs defined your life, they did zombie-like things to your body, and basically, STDs were the end of the world – a physical and mental STD apocalypse, if you will. 

However, none of the assumptions I had were true for me, nor are they true for most people.

The sexually transmitted diseases and infections that are life-long are almost always manageable, and because so many people have them from so many different walks of life, having an STD is also not an indicator of a person’s character.

Before everyone hastily gets into a fit of rage about what I’m saying here, know this: it is not ok, moral, or ethical to put a person at risk of contracting an STD without allowing them an opportunity to make a conscientious and informed decision.

Simply, I’m saying, as long as you are just getting to know someone (without the accompanying physical activities), it’s perfectly acceptable to wait to share your STD status. You can also come right out and tell them if that’s your style. If that makes you feel better and the potential rejection is easier to handle before you have also begun to invest in the other person emotionally, go right ahead!  

Either option can be perfectly moral.

I think it helps to look at this as an ethical problem from a non-STD perspective. 

A Look Outside of the STD Realm

I like to present this dilemma in a non-STD light when considering whether it’s ethical to wait to tell someone until after you have established trust and have developed the relationship a little….

For instance, when two people start dating, do both parties generally tell their life stories, every embarrassing thing they’ve ever done, their complete health histories, or past indiscretions? The most common answer is no.

People do not share absolutely everything with everyone upon first meeting. Were that the case, can you imagine how much of a verbal vomit would ensue on all first dates?

No relationship would ever last past the appetizer. 

To further illustrate this, let’s say you have: a misdemeanor, felony, or a juvenile record; a father/mother whose bi-polar, a hoarder, is in prison, killed themselves, who you support financially; a brother who is handicapped that you take care of; a foot fetish, an interest in BDSM, an aversion to cunnilingus or fellatio, never had an orgasm; a fear of the dark, post-traumatic stress disorder; diabetes, toenail fungus, a small penis or a large labia…..would you tell your date any of this upon first going out? Would you tell the person you’re dating within the first few weeks/months/etc.? Sure, some of this would naturally come up in conversation….but most things potentially embarrassing or highly personal would be reserved for those people you were really feeling a connection to and whom you were considering investing in a long-term relationship with.

I should emphasize that if any of the above awkward things about you ( insert any other personal information in replace of those items above – including STDs) were putting the person you were dating at risk, you would be morally and ethically obligated to tell that person.

In fact, if that were the case, you should tell that person before the act which puts them at risk occurs and while they are not in a compromised position (ie. clothes off and ready to do the deed).

Until then, it is entirely up to you what you would like to disclose. 

When Do You Have To Tell Someone You Have An STD?

To summarize and to make sure I’m making my point as crystal clear as possible before the hate mail comes piling in ( :-) ): as long as you are not putting the other person at risk by engaging in any of these activities, it is perfectly ethical to wait to tell a person you have an STD.

Should you like to tell them earlier, that is also entirely up to you and that’s an ok approach as well.

I’ve found, the people who take the approach of letting someone know as soon as they start dating tend to feel less frustrated when a rejection occurs as a result of disclosing their STD status. Whereas, the people who choose to wait until they’ve developed some trust and can foresee the relationship going to the next level emotionally and (especially) physically tend to have better results maintaining the relationship. By then, their partner is more likely to be willing to take a calculated (protected) risk. However, those same people are liable to be more hurt when the person they are dating chooses not to take a risk and ends the relationship. This is generally because the person with the STD has also begun to invest their emotions into the relationship.

Overall, choosing when you are going to tell someone you have an STD involves imagining what you would do in the other person’s shoes. If that other person is upset by your timing, do you believe their opinion to be fair/logical? 

Only you can decide which approach is best.

There are positive and negative aspects to both methods, of course, and both can be considered ethical.

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Did this help ease your worry? When do you like to tell someone you have an STD? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Comments

  1. Sarah says

    ****I have been a victim of someone who did not believe they were morally obligated to share their STD status and was extremely surprised after I was diagnosed. There is nothing worse than realizing someone you loved just gave you HPV Genital Warts without believing or trusting that you would’ve given them the chance had they given you the choice. This is a FOR SURE end of a relationship EVEN if it continues on, you can almost guarantee this persons deceit and denial will constantly be seething from their soul. I am having a VERY hard time coping and hope that people realize NOT disclosing that information BEFORE you put someone at risk is WRONG. Thank you for this article.

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi Sarah -

      Thank you for your comment. Your feelings are not at all uncommon and are quite understandable. Have you come across this post yet – http://www.thestdproject.com/anger-genital-herpes-scabies/ – it might give you some additional perspective to consider?

      I think, when dealing with those initial anger feelings, it’s important to take an introspective look back at oneself as well. It’s so very easy to want to place the blame on the other individual entirely, yet, we had a part in the activity which ultimately brought us the STD too. What I mean is, most people do not develop a relationship before engaging in sexual activities, they do not establish trust (you said you were in love – I’m assuming you had been seeing each other for quite some time, so that part, likely, does not apply to you), most people do not talk about the number of previous partners they’ve had, do not talk about the number of previous partners they’ve had without using protection, do not talk about whether or not they have ever been tested (and which tests they’ve taken specifically), nor do they get tested together before choosing not to use protection. ALL of those things are necessary for safer and healthier sex. And, even then, when engaging in any kind of sexual activity, the risk is still not reduced to zero. Simply, when choosing to share your body with someone else, there is always a risk. Even having done all of the things I’ve mentioned, you and your partner would be at risk for the STDs they don’t test for. Your partner was putting themselves at risk for additional STDs too, interestingly enough – despite already having genital warts – there are 19 or so additional things they could have contracted by not having those conversations and being responsible prior to engaging in sexual activities.

      Please understand, I am not at all admonishing your partner’s unethical behavior. If they were aware they had genital warts and did not tell you in advance of putting you at risk, they were in the wrong. Period. There’s no way around that and nothing that exonerates that person from taking away your right to make an informed and conscientious decision. Thank goodness the HPV you have is generally considered low-risk (albeit, temporarily unsightly) and will eventually go away (yes, it may be some time before this happens and it is very hard to tell when it has completely cleared your body, so, you may transmit the virus even after the visual symptoms have cleared – shitty, I know). It sucks, plain and simple. No ifs ands or buts about it. :)

      However, moving forward, you can grow and become a stronger and more informed person as a result of this experience. When people say STDs are the gift that keeps on giving, I like to view the phrase in an entirely different light than they intend it to be taken! :) Genital herpes has made me more ope-minded, more educated, and more aware of my choices – past and present. Because I’m sure you don’t want an additional STD (I’ve been there – that also sucks), you’ll likely be much choosier and more careful with your body – ie. having those conversations before engaging in sexual activities, having a full panel of tests done before engaging in sexual activities which are unprotected, and then choosing what level of risk you are willing to accept for that individual. It’s all a very eye-opening and enlightening experience once you get past the frustration and shear anger you’re feeling right now. The anger is healthy, normal, and I encourage you to explore it beyond just placing all of your frustration on that one person. Do that too, of course, that’s completely natural, and then expand on it! :)

      For instance: Are you also upset this will come between you and new partners?!?! (In my experience, it has had more to do with how well I’ve developed the relationship than the STD itself.) Are you angry because you don’t know when the genital warts will be cleared and for how long you have to disclose this information going forward? Are you angry because you don’t want to be associated with an STD and the stigma surrounding STDs? Maybe you’ve answered yes to all of the above? I certainly did. :)

      I hope this doesn’t feel like a lecture; this was a great opportunity to address some of the other facets of the anger you and so many others have felt/are feeling.

      And most importantly, all people deserve the right to make conscientious and informed decisions!!

      Thanks again for your comment, Sarah – it’s incredibly valid and so many others are feeling exactly as you are right now. Just knowing their frustration isn’t in vain is so very helpful.

  2. Anonymous says

    Wow what an awesome article! My ex-boyfriend brought Herpes into my life about 2 years ago. I don’t blame him because it was my choice as much as him to engage in intercourse, plus he never had any signs or symptoms which made it even harder to tell. (I know I know we should have both been tested prior to engaging in intercourse). Now that I have been single for about 11 mos an old friend has resurfaced and we are going on a date. I am super nervous about the information I will have to give him if we do decide to continue a relationship. It literally makes me queasy to think about it, but at least I feel comfortable knowing that I don’t have to spill that pot of beans on the first date!

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi there -

      Thanks so much for your message! It’s so nice to hear you’ve taken a positive approach to what can often be a very trying experience. Cheers to you!

      I’m excited to hear about this old friend – you’ll have to keep us updated how the conversation goes once you get to that stage. You’ve already got your attitude working in your favor – confidence and self-image are huge to prospective significant others and they respond much better when someone has finally found a way to love and accept themselves again – it comes through in your dialogue. Anyhow, I wish you all the best – definitely let us know how it goes!
      :)

  3. Michelle says

    Hi Janelle,
    What a blessing to come across your website on the first day of this new year. The last day of last year came with news that I had been exposed to genital herpes. I have felt anguish all morning, uncertain of my emotions… Reading your article and your response to the comments has helped tremendously and I am extremely grateful that I researched STD’s before talking with my partner. I am still sorting through the frustration, hurt, fear and resentment I feel that he did not offer me the opportunity to decide the fate of my health. We are both in our 50′s, and staying in good health is a priority. I am upset by my own ignorance, and realize now that it was also my responsibility to ask some questions before engaging in unprotected sex. Thank you again for your time and compassion.

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi Michelle -

      Thank YOU, kindly, for your comment. What a way to say ‘Happy New Year,’ huh – I have to marvel at his lack of tact; better late than never, but on New Year’s Eve? Maybe he knew he’d be putting you in a precarious position later that evening should he still not have told you? Anyhow, I am so happy to hear you’ve found some solace in my posts.

      Your due diligence will serve you well throughout your decision-making process, albeit, a bit in hindsight (as you mentioned), of course – that’s how we learn best though. It just goes to show, you can find yourself in rather challenging situations no matter your age/wisdom. (Samantha from ‘Sex and the City,’ anyone?) :) Really though, you have all the right to be taken aback entirely – to say the very least.

      On the bright side, there’s a good chance you’re still entirely in the clear. Despite having had unprotected sex, if he did not have an active break-out, your risk of contracting genital herpes from him was reduced by quite a bit. If you have any strain of the virus (HSV1 – cold sores, for example), your risk is even further reduced.

      Interestingly, I had almost the same conversation with a reader privately via email a few days back. As the conversation is relevant to the position your guy has put you in and the subsequent decision(s) you’ll have to make, I’m going to include my email response to the reader below – pertinent details adjusted for the sake of anonymity.

      Feel free to reach out privately via the contact form or respond here and let us know what decision you went with, and thank you so much for letting me know this was helpful!

      It’s definitely unethical and immoral to withhold your status (any STD) from someone else IF you are putting them at risk (engaging in any kind of sexual activities). That being said, I’ve been in both shoes (I’m still uncertain how I contracted herpes – someone may have or may not have known they had it, and I’ve also failed to tell a couple of people before I put them at risk – I have to live with knowing I could have greatly impacted their lives forever).

      It helps when in your position to examine the intricacies of why someone actually chooses to withhold such potentially harmful/life altering information…. When someone gets diagnosed with an STD, they go through a number of stages. The first stage being shock, disbelief, disgust, embarrassment, shame, etc.

      The second stage, once the initial stage has dissipated some (via information gathering – similar to what you’re doing now) is rationalization and simplification. This stage is where a lot of people get stuck for a long time. When someone is in this stage, they have begun to do research, they now understand the incredible number of people who contract STDs, they know their STD is manageable, and then they start to rationalize behavior by acknowledging everyone’s responsibility to themselves in terms of their sexual health (kinda like you mentioned having some responsibility for putting yourself at risk as well) – asking questions, getting tested, using barriers, etc..

      At that point, people are also still very much struggling with internal and external stigma, fear, and are not yet to the more productive and advanced stages of living with an STD. Basically, in simple terms, those people are still hurting and tackling the feelings elicited in the first stage (as evidenced by him waiting to tell you until New Year’s Eve and after having put you at risk).

      Mind you, understanding where he is at certainly does not justify his poor behavior or is an adequate excuse for potentially compromising your health…it’s just what happens. However, I think it helps to have some empathy for the people who are potentially doing harmful things (to themselves and others), because they are still suffering internally as well.

      Those individuals are not only compromising someone else’s health, they are also being risky with their own health (but are usually not considering that component), because they haven’t yet progressed to some of the more mindful and conscientious stages of living with an STD – I only recently got there myself. People with an STD are inherently at a higher risk of contracting additional STDs – and while they may have found this in their research, they are discounting the information, simplifying it, or rationalizing their behavior toward others and themselves because they are not yet to the final stages.

      The next stage is where one really learns to accept their condition/infection, where they realize their contracting an STD does not have to define them nor does it have to be a reflection of their character forever (if ever), they learn to choose partners wisely, and they work to treat others as they believe they deserve to be treated too – which includes practicing comprehensive safer sex (talking about safer sex and getting tested together before engaging in activities, etc). Some people never go beyond this 3rd stage either, and that’s ok. The 3rd stage is a much better place to be, of course, and means the individual has worked through the healing process to get to that much better place. Your guy is not quite to this stage quite yet. He’s also not ‘damaged’ (not that you said he was, I just want to be sure to point that out), he’s simply in the process of working through his diagnosis. It’s actually quite common to get stuck in stage 2 and all sorts of people handle dating as he did with you – most people won’t admit to doing it, but I’ve been there, he’s there, and countless people have anonymously shared the same perspective… That a lot of people do it also does not make those actions acceptable, of course – lest I get a barrage of angry commenters. Anyhow. :)

      The final stage is advocacy – whether that be in small or large form. Often, those who’ve progressed through the whole process then want to help others who are somewhere in the middle or even at the very beginning to work through the stages, and they hope to help those individuals progress faster, so they don’t have to get stuck anywhere in between as they might have (like I have).

      That’s a lot of what my goal is with The STD Project – to help people work through that process successfully and without a lot of regrets.

      So, long story short, understanding the cycle people undergo doesn’t excuse bad behavior (just to re-emphasize my point), but I think it helps you (and me) not to be mad, or as frustrated at those who are stuck somewhere in there, because, really….they’re suffering. They’re risking themselves as well as others.

      Changing Gears

      Ok, so despite understanding where he’s at, there’s still the HUGE question about what you should do, right? Although, I can’t tell you whether to continue dating him or not, I can provide some aid in your decision process. First of all, he betrayed your trust. Everyone will see that differently (as more or less of an issue), and actually, when I’ve done the same thing to others, I’ve not had anyone decide to stop dating me. Contrastingly, I’ve known some who have been so greatly hurt by the omission and betrayal (where they were much less concerned about the infection itself), they felt they needed to end the relationship. For me, I had already established a really close bond with the aforementioned individuals and, I think, they understood my behavior was not reflective of who I ultimately was, thus, they chose to continue dating me. The point here is, you have to decide what you feel about him betraying your trust separately from the infection at hand.

      In terms of analyzing whether you’re comfortable with him having herpes, you have 4 choices I see here, so, I’m going to share my opinion about them individually:

      Keep dating and having sex unprotected
      Keep dating and having sex protected
      Keep dating and abstain from sex for a little while
      Stop dating altogether

      Keep dating and having sex unprotected – personally, I’m guessing your relationship isn’t to this point yet. It might never be, because, there is a very real risk of contracting herpes, and unless you’re prepared for that, making this choice is a bad idea.

      Keep dating and having sex protected – you could do this if you’re comfortable with some risk. Knowing where his active breakouts appear, whether or not he is taking reactive or suppressive antivirals (reactive means he only takes them when he gets a breakout, suppressive means he takes them all the time), and getting type-specific tested together could also help you to understand what risk you’d be taking specifically. Overall, if you use barriers your risk is reduced (as long as the barriers cover the location where he normally breaks out), if he is on suppressive antivirals, the risk is even further reduced as antivirals reduce asymptomatic shedding (when he doesn’t have an outbreak) as well as they reduce the duration and severity of his outbreaks, and if you are positive for either HSV1 or HSV2 (whether you get cold sores, or you are an asymptomatic carrier and just unaware you have the virus) your risk is even further reduced. You can see where a lot of different factors can play in here. Whether it’s worth contemplating any of this will be negated by how you perceive him breaking your trust.

      Keep dating and abstain from sex for a little while – this might be a good solution and could allow you some time to invest in a strain-specific herpes blood test (both of you will want to know what strain(s) you do or do not carry), and this will allow you to ask the questions you need to ask of him (where his active outbreaks appear, which strain he carries (if he knows), if he’s ever been tested for other STDs – if so, when and which ones). This will also help you to develop your relationship further, basically, so you can determine ‘if the juice is worth the squeeze’ (my bf’s favorite way to explain these things). This option will also give you time to make sure you’re seeking out reputable resources. The STD Project is a good place to start, but even I don’t know everything about STDs, so I link to a lot of reputable sites in both the external references section and the blogs and forums section. :)

      Stop dating altogether – if you feel like his betrayal of your trust will not be forgettable and you cannot move forward, because he essentially lied by omission, this might be your only choice. Also, if the potential of contracting herpes is far too great for you to fathom, this also might be your only solution. Should you decide to move on and stop seeing him, I have to also advise you to get a full STD panel before and after each new partner. I’m saying this not to sound like a school marm….I promise. I’m saying this because there are soooo many people living with an incurable STD and millions contract them every year – some curable, some not. I’m not at all judging your actions, lest I become a HUGE bigot – I’ve contracted not one, but (at least) two STDs in the course of my sexual forays, so, I’ve obviously not always followed my own advice! lol. That, and, I’m a big fan of a healthy sex life – so, doing this will be part and parcel to your continued sexual happiness.

      Longest reply ever! ;) Really though, I wish you all the very best, Michelle. Thanks so much for your message!

  4. Andrew says

    Ive been living with genital warts for 5+ yrs now. Ive had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Ive felt completely filthy and undesirable since contracting HPV from my first sexual encounter. So much so that I havent even bothered dating or forming relationships with females out of fear and my lack of self esteem. Thank You for this site and giving me some info on how to maybe move forward.

    • Alisha says

      Andrew,
      It is super hard and frustrating sometimes to deal with an STD. Everything that you listed it exactly how I feel after being diagnosed on 2010 will genital herpes. You are definitely not alone. It changes the complete out look on life and how you approach relationships, but it does get easier!!! Hang in there! :)

    • Jenelle Marie says

      You’re welcome, Andrew. I’m glad to know it’s been helpful, even if only just skimming the surface so far.

      Alisha’s right; it will get better, and being your own advocate will help… What I mean by that is doing as much research as possible. You made it to our site, so that tells me you’ve been doing some digging. Keep researching. Cliche’ as it may be, in the case of an STD diagnosis – especially something that can be stubborn like genital warts – education is power. Educating yourself, being as healthy as you can in the meantime, and using that education to reduce internal stigma – characterizing yourself as undesirable, filthy, etc. (all not true, but I get why you feel that way) – will definitely help.

      And, of course, you’re welcome here any time.