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Real Talk: Having the Difficult Conversation

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Brinton Millsap

Ladies, when do you talk to your partner(s) about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)?

I’m asking because a man in Durham, North Carolina is suspected of killing three women, then himself, after an alleged rumor began that one of the women had given him herpes. Relatives of the 23-year-old gunman, Brinton Millsap, say he was “outraged” when he heard the story.

If true, clearly he had some other “issues” that needed to be addressed. Killing someone over contracting an STI might be what you initially want to do, but no one in his or her right mind actually does it. (Do they?)

It remains unclear if one of the women gave Millsap an STI, or if he really had one at all. But, if the gunman were otherwise reasonable, all this speculation about who gave who what (or not) could have been avoided with a conversation or some dual testing between the sexually active parties.

Let’s be clear: exchanges that start off something like, “Do you have any sexually transmitted infections?” or “I would like us to get tested for diseases BEFORE we have sex,” don’t happen all that often. If so, Black women wouldn’t account for half of all new HIV infections, and 48% of Black women would not have herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

I get why so few people want to speak about diseases and testing with their partners. There’s nothing that kills the romance more than thinking about your partner possibly “having something,” and sensitive men can easily take an inquiry about their health as an accusation about their character. But isn’t an awkward moment worth your long-run health, or even his bruised ego?

You must ask your partner about his sexual health, but the talk isn’t enough. You have to go to the doctor (together) and review each other’s results.

One of the first stories I edited for ESSENCE was about a man with herpes. Attractive, charming and well-to-do, in about a ten-year period, he’d bedded 20-plus women. He had two long-term relationships, didn’t use condoms even when he had an outbreak, and he’d told just one of his partners about his disease. In an “I-will-never-forget-this moment” minute, he confessed that he has sex with his boxers on when having an outbreak and pulls his penis “through the hole” so that his partner won’t suspect anything is amiss. (I tell you that not to gross you out, but so that you understand the mindset of some of the men you may encounter.)

Asking your partner, “So, um…” can be a difficult conversation, but your health is at stake, so it just has to happen. There’s no right or wrong time to bring it up, as long as it takes place before you hop in the bed (or the sofa, or counter, or wherever you like it). If you’re already having sex, ask your partner about his health and about testing -- before the next time it all goes down. And if you’re so uncomfortable having the conversation that you can’t bring it up, you’ve got to frankly ask yourself, “Then how am I comfortable having him inside me?”

Do you ask your partner about their sexual health? No judgments…

Demetria L. Lucas is the Relationships Editor at ESSENCE and the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: Your Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter: @abelleinbk

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