As an STD advocate, and an STD-positive individual, I know how important STD testing is. But the bigger concern is what individuals do with those test results. If their test results come back negative, congratulations. If they test positive, however, that’s where the real challenges arise.
When someone contracts an infection, we also need supporting information around how to treat or manage the infection, how or if an infection might affect a sexual relationship, and how to discuss sexual health goals and concerns with a new partner. Pushing testing without pushing disclosure is similar to abstinence-only education; it doesn’t stop people from contracting and spreading STDs.
It’s worth noting that Tinder added the clinic locator after the AIDS Healthcare Foundation put up billboards all over Los Angeles in the fall, blaming Tinder and other dating apps for increasing STD rates. The locator Tinder chose is run by Healthvana — and one of Healthvana’s advisers is a senior director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Beyond the cozy connections, Healthvana — formerly known as Hula, and before that, Qpid.me — has historically focused on developing a platform so that users can verify a negative STD status to a new partner. But both the Healthvana application and the sexual health page within the Tinder application provide little to no additional information about the number of infections beyond those verified within the app.
There are more than 30 STDs, yet clinics commonly test for only five to six of those. Not all clinics carry tests for all infections, and there are not tests for all infections. And even if someone displayed a negative test to you last week, that does not mean they haven’t engaged in activities with a new partner since testing. Neither Tinder nor Healthvana provides advice on how to disclose positive results to your partner or how to continue to have sex in the safest way possible. Those conversations are necessary.
If we continue to perpetuate the idea that the only way it’s acceptable to engage in partnered activities is if your partners can prove a negative status, we’re doing a huge disservice to the majority of the population. More than half of all people have or will contract an STD at some point in their life, so a focus on negative results above all else can encourage people to be dishonest about their status and put partners in danger. That result is the exact opposite of the intended outcome of user safety and sexual health.
When I contracted genital herpes, HSV2, at age 16, the abstinence-focused education I received didn’t provide information about how common STDs were. I didn’t know that about half of young adults contracts an STD; I didn’t know which infections and diseases are commonly tested for and which aren’t. And I certainly didn’t know that all partnered sexual activities carry some risk for infection, even when people are practicing safer sex. I also had very little information about my risk of infection if I chose to become sexually active, and abstinence-based education certainly did not provide practical examples of how to discuss my sexual health and that of my partner(s).
Consequently, after getting diagnosed, I failed to disclose my status to a couple of new partners, despite knowing that I was putting their health at risk. I was terrified of the conversation. However, when I did start disclosing, I was pleasantly surprised: I never had a partner decide not to continue a relationship with me because I had an STD. (There are plenty more deal-breakers out there.)
And while I take full responsibility for my unethical behavior early on, my hesitancy to disclose is very common.
At the STD Project — an advocacy group I run, which aims to reduce stigma around STDs — most of the people with whom we’ve worked admit that they have withheld a positive status from a new partner at least once. Others who have disclosed their positive status say they have waited longer than they should have to get STD testing done, because they were scared of getting a positive result.
Why are so many people putting the health of their partners at risk by hiding their status or waiting to get tested? I think it’s because the general public has been taught that the worst thing a person could be is STD-positive. Verifying your negative status has become more important than educating one another. As a result, people falsely believe that being STD-positive means they can no longer enjoy an active dating or sex life.
Surprising to some, it’s still possible to be sexually responsible after you’ve contracted an STD, and responsibility toward one’s sexual health doesn’t necessarily guarantee a negative STD status. In fact, a person’s status is relevant only as part of the larger conversation about sexual desires, expectations, risk reduction and relationship goals. Partners should talk to one another about which safer-sex activities are right for them.
It’s important to get tested. But after that, we should be empowering people to make conscientious decisions about their health, rather than stigmatizing them.
Dating apps and organizations promoting prevention need practical, inclusive resources that educate people about the risks associated with all partnered sexual activities, how to reduce those risks, how to navigate sexual health conversations with new partners, and what to do when you are diagnosed with an STD. Until we encourage educated, responsible communication, STD rates will continue to rise.