Having an STD is challenging on two levels: there is thephysical challenge and there is an emotional challenge.
The physical challenge includes dealing with the symptoms of the disease and learning how to manage outbreaks. It also includes learning how to handle yourself so that you don’t spread the disease. Your OB/GYN is a great resource to help you strategize, manage and understand the bodily facets of an STD. If you don’t have an OB/GYN, call a local women’s clinic (like Planned Parenthood) to find a doctor who is a good fit.
Once you’ve done this, it is time to address the emotional challenges.
Having an STD is, for many people, a deeply shaming experience. But if you can’t move through the shame of having an STD, you won’t be able to successfully navigate the conversation of telling people about it. Shame keeps us feeling disconnected. It makes us feel unworthy of love and keeps us from opening to intimacy. Because our culture often treats even “plain vanilla” sex as shameful, we have been conditioned to feel shame when we step outside the tightly constrained box of acceptable sexual behavior.
That feeling of shame is tricky. It will be triggered every time you have an outbreak or symptom of the STD, and it will be triggered whenever you begin to get intimate with a new partner.
Here are a few ways to lessen the shame you might feel about having an STD.
First, we have statistics that show you are most definitely not alone. According to the CDC, the prevalence of the HPV virus is 35-50% in women ages 20-24, and between 28-33% in women ages 25-49. In other words, approximately one third of women have, or have had, the HPV virus. The herpes virus (simplex 2, the sexually transmitted version) is present in nearly 25% of women ages 24-49.
Second, recognize that the only morals involved around catching an STD are self-imposed. Think about reframing your perspective. Do you shame yourself when you catch a cold? There are practices you can set in place to prevent yourself from catching a cold, and sometimes you forget. It’s really no different than understanding how to prevent an STD and forgetting to put those practices in place. Full disclosure: I caught HPV in college. It nearly resulted in cervical cancer; I was lucky to catch it in the stage just before cancer.
But feeling shame because you have an STD is no excuse to keep it a secret from your sexual partner. While it might feel like it’s easier to keep it a secret, there are many reasons why you should tell your truth before having sex with a new partner. Last week, Dr. Sheri Meyers, a family and marriage therapist, discussed with me why it is so important for people with STDs to tell the truth to their partner early on. Dr Meyer raises these six points.
- As women we hope that if we wait to talk about an STD until after sex, he won’t care because the sex is so good. But instead, often men will take it as a betrayal. He’ll think that if you really cared about him you would’ve told him in advance.
- It’s important to give your partner the choice. Help him feel empowered to make an intelligent decision. Have him do the work to decide if he cares enough to become intimate; it takes both the onus and the responsibility off you.
- If you tell him early, you’ll know he’s in the relationship because he wants to be, not because you tricked him by luring him with your irresistible sexual prowess. That will make for a more solid foundation in your relationship.
- If you don’t tell him early, your relationship may never get over that initial betrayal. Even if you talk through it and think the situation is resolved, there will always be that nagging doubt in his mind about whether he can trust you to be completely honest. And a relationship without honesty and trust isn’t much of a relationship.
- As embarrassing as it may be to tell a new partner you have an STD, it will be more embarrassing if you wait until after you’ve been intimate. Then you’d have to deal with the embarrassment of the disease along with the guilt and shame of not telling the truth up front.
- The more honesty and integrity you can bring to the early stages of a relationship, the stronger that relationship will be. And then even if he’s not your forever man, you’re likely to maintain a friendship with him after the romance is over if you’re both honest.
Stay tuned for suggestions on how to have this sensitive conversation.