By Cady Drell
Just because we all know we’re supposed to have the safe sex talk with a new partner doesn’t mean that everyone’s comfortable with it—or even knows how to bring up it up on a first date. If the idea of talking about safe sex fills you with anxiety, don’t fret: there are ways to talk about sexual health with a new partner without too much awkwardness. We asked the experts how to seamlessly bring up protection, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and getting tested.
Talk about your expectations early, so the fun part can feel more organic
Don’t make how you practice safe sex a heat-of-the-moment decision. The experts recommend talking about how you plan to protect each other well before getting physical. “The safest way to have sexual contact and avoid risking STIs is to talk first, contact later,” says sex therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson, host of the podcast The Trouble With Sex. Having this conversation in a neutral space, like after dinner at a restaurant or while on a walk, can also help cooler heads prevail and make sure that you and your partner stay safe during actual intimacy.
Don’t be scared to bring up protection
Protection is key in safe sex, and in a healthy connection, your partner will respect the contraception that you need to feel comfortable. Bringing up condoms (which, as a reminder, are the only form of contraception that prevent STIs) can be as simple as asking “Do you have a condom?” or “I’m going to grab a condom, is that alright with you?” says sex columnist and activist Zachary Zane. He points out that these questions serve a double purpose as “they’re essentially asking for consent because it gives your partner the opportunity to say, ‘I actually don’t want to have sex.’ So you’re asking for consent while protecting yourself.”
If you’re having sex that could result in a pregnancy and aren’t using condoms, whether external or internal, check in with your partner about their birth control to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Zane suggests saying something breezy like, “I just want to make sure you’re on birth control.” If they say no, you can follow up with, “Let’s grab a condom then.” Keeping the condom conversation straightforward and easy minimizes any awkwardness. And if you really want to keep things seamless, carry your preferred method of contraception to help avoid having to stop the action for a run to the corner store.
You want to make sure you and your date are on the same page when it comes to things like STIs, so why not just bring it up first? “You can easily ask, ‘Hey, before we get to the good stuff, I just want to share that my STI status is negative and I was last tested on [a certain date],’” says Zane. “Then, most likely, they’ll freely offer up their status as well, even without you asking!” And if they don’t, you can just follow up by asking them, ‘How about you?’
By putting yourself out there and disclosing your own sexual history first, you’re showing the other person that it’s okay for them to be honest and straightforward, too. Plus, according to Dr. Paul Gittens from the Centers for Sexual Medicine and Wellness New York, “It can even bring a relationship closer if you talk about these hard topics early.”
And If you’re unsure of your status, Dr. Gittens recommends suggesting you get tested at the same time. “You can say, ‘Listen, we’re starting this new relationship, and I’m going to get tested and I think you should get tested too so we can be comfortable together,’” he says. “If you volunteer to get tested, for the most part the other person is going to follow right behind you.”
Bring the facts, not the stigma
One reason the safe sex talk might seem awkward involves some remaining stigma around STIs, which can lead to avoiding the conversation altogether. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated one in five people in the U.S. has dealt with some kind of STI—a percentage big enough to remind us that we shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on their sexual health history. There are plenty of reasons someone may have contracted a sexually-transmitted infection, and none of them are reflections of someone’s values or worth.
Dr. Nelson adds that there are a variety of approaches to bringing up your history, but that the most direct one could also be the most comfortable. “You might say something like, ‘I’ve been tested, and I’m negative for all STIs,’ or, ‘I have tested positive for [an STI], but I take [medication] when I have an outbreak,’ or whatever your status is,” she suggests. Talk about how you’re protecting yourself and others to reduce or eliminate the possibility of transmission.
And remember that the words you use to describe sexually-transmitted infections can help minimize stigma, too. Using a phrase like “I’m clean” implies that someone with an STI is “dirty,” which isn’t true and can be hurtful. (More pointers about dating with an STI.)
Don’t feel the need to have the conversation in person
If you have—or have had—an STI and are nervous to bring it up, remember to center the other person’s comfort. Dr. Nelson suggests bringing it up over video chat before meeting, which can help the other person to feel less pressure about how to react. Sometimes a match may actually save you time by deciding not to move forward with an IRL date, but they may well appreciate your caution and honesty when it comes to keeping them safe, she says. She also recommends that leading with the medication you’re using to treat long-term STIs like herpes and HIV can be an easier way to start the conversation. However you go about it, make sure that you give them time to process the information, and that they know you’re prioritizing their safety.
Taking the initiative to protect your own sexual health can make the other person feel better doing so, too. And remember that safe sex should always be consensual sex, so check in with your partner to make sure they’re also happy to engage in intimacy. Once everyone is comfortable, honest, and taking steps to protect each other, then the real fun can start.