How Do I Ethically Report My STI Status?

QUESTION

As someone who gets regularly tested for STIs, how should I tell people if I come back positive with something? Is there an ethical code or practice for reporting STIs?

Received via Telegram (name withheld)

ANSWER

When it comes to reporting a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) to a partner, whether current or former, there really is no script or canned response that you can use. Sexual health, both yours and that of your partner(s), is incredibly personal and subjective and can be a touchy subject. We at Feral Attraction can offer some best practices when it comes to informing others of your status, but with everything use your personal judgment and discretion.

Before getting into the how, we do want to touch on the whys of informing a partner of your status. Of note, in the United States, it is considered a crime to knowingly transmit an STI to a partner without their knowledge or consent (in some jurisdictions it is a crime regardless of knowledge or consent but is often not prosecuted as long as both parties are aware and made a conscious decision together). This can carry jail time, fines, penalties, and in some jurisdictions can require you to sign up for the sex offender registry. This does not apply if you are unaware of your status, however you will have to spend time and money potentially defending yourself in court, so while ignorance might be bliss it does not present an ethical decision. You should check with your local (and national) laws as well to inform yourself of your rights and responsibilities as a sexually active individual.

Ethically speaking, you should never rob someone of their right to consent, nor should you take away someone’s agency to make informed decisions about their sexual health. Part of the ethical choice does require that you subject yourself to STI testing once sexually active. As we mentioned in Episode 014 of the podcast, Safer Sex Practices and STIs, there are a multitude of testing practices that you should engage in, depending on your sex habits (oral, anal, vaginal testing). For more information on testing and the different ways you can prevent transmission, please refer to that episode.

However, this is not about why to get tested, but what to do when you learn you have contracted an STI. First, take a deep breath. STIs are treatable, and those that are chronic are manageable (yes, even HIV), so it is no longer a death sentence. Talk with a doctor about your treatment options and keep your head up high. There is always a next day after the worst day of your life, and with the current advances in medical science this does not have to be the worst day for you.

Once you have taken care of yourself, though, it becomes important for you to take stock and inform previous partners of your status. You want to ensure, first and foremost, that you use the proper terminology. If you test negative for an STI, you are not “clean”. If you test positive for an STI, you are not “dirty”. If you contract an STI you are positive, and if your results come back negative then you are just that: negative. Using terms like clean and dirty enforce a viewpoint that anyone who has contracted an STI at some point in their life is filthy and can be viewed as a form of slut-shaming (or just shaming in general). People who are positive for an STI still bathe and take care of themselves, so do not call them dirty or unclean; be generous to yourself and to others who are sexually active.

If you are getting tested regularly (we recommend every three months, especially if you are engaging in “high risk” sexual activity such as anal sex, sex with multiple partners, or if one of your partners has sex with multiple partners) then you have an idea of what your window of contraction is. Again, please refer to our Safer Sex Practices and STIs episode for more information on how STI contraction works or, better yet, talk with your doctor and be open about your sexual activities. This way you have an idea of how long you have contracted the particular STI for and can then begin to inform previous (or current) partners of your status.

If you have multiple partners it is essential that you keep a record of their information. In this day and age of digital hookups it can often be difficult to know someone’s real name. In the furry fandom many people keep that closely guarded as they do not want their real world information leaking into the fandom (or vice versa). Nevertheless, we recommend sharing that information with your partners and getting that same information in kind from them. Keep a black book, one that contains names, dates, sexual activities, and ways to contact them in case of STI reporting. If you need to, refer to that information and inform your partners of your status and advise them to seek testing and treatment as required.

When you inform a partner of your status do not take the opportunity to shame yourself or talk down about yourself. Sex is, in itself, risky business and STIs are one of the potential risks that we all consent to. Inform them that you tested positive for an STI, let them know that they should get tested, and offer to be available for them to talk to. Contracting an STI, especially the first time, can be an incredibly scary experience and the more support the better. Obviously, use your judgment on this if it is with an ex or someone who you are no longer on good terms with. At the very least you need to inform; not liking someone is not a reason to withhold information.

If the shoe is on the other foot, and you are being contacted by a partner about an STI they contracted and being told to seek treatment, treat them how you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Do not take that opportunity to slut-shame them or accuse them of cheating (if in a closed relationship). STIs occur in faithful, monogamous relationships, and falsely accusing someone of infidelity can needlessly end a relationship. As long as you agreed to have sex with this partner, under the terms that you engaged in, no one is “at fault” for this and you should treat each other with respect and care.

Another step you should take, once informed that a partner of yours has contracted an STI, is inform any other partners that you have to seek testing. When doing so we recommend withholding the name and other information of the partner who informed you of their status. Not only does this promote positive reporting habits, but it allows everyone to maintain their agency in who they inform and limits the spread of drama. This practice best applies to casual relationships you have where your partners have no sexual contact and, as such, have no need to know of each other’s status. Ethical reporting requires you to report your status to sexual partners and does not include reporting other partner’s statuses to others. Let’s promote reporting as a positive instead of this dark, scary time that most people perpetuate.

Overall, the ethics of STI reporting are fairly straightforward and, when followed, promote healthy reporting habits and a state of sex-positivity. Know your rights, know your responsibilities, and most importantly know your status.

Hope that helps! If you have any follow up questions or comments for us, please use the comments below or get in touch with us via our contact page.

Thanks and, as always-

Be Well

Metriko Oni

Metriko Oni is a former government environmental disaster mitigations expert with a focus on outreach, education, and policy writing. He now works with computers. He has been active in the fandom since 2013 and has been an advocate for transparent lines of communication. His interests include philosophy, media, futurism, and speculative fiction.