Deciding whether to tell sexual partners that you are living with HIV

Image: Domizia Salusest | www.domiziasalusest.com

Key points

  • This can be a complex decision.
  • Your sexual partner may not yet know that people who have an undetectable viral load can’t pass HIV on, but knowing this could make them feel more at ease.
  • In England, there is no legal obligation to tell your sexual partners that you have HIV.

The decision to tell (or not to tell) a sexual partner that you have HIV is complex. Many people living with HIV have faced rejection from sexual partners, so don’t find disclosing to new partners easy. And there may be strong feelings and emotions between the two of you.

Your partner may have concerns about the risk of HIV transmission, but may not be aware that effective HIV treatment makes this incredibly unlikely. Discussing what an ‘undetectable’ viral load means with an HIV-negative partner may help them feel less anxious about sex. It has helped many couples feel that one of them having HIV is not ‘a big deal’.

Unfortunately, not many people who don’t have HIV (or don’t know their HIV status) have an accurate understanding of HIV treatment and prevention. In a 2019 survey of the UK general public, just one in five people knew that people living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load can’t pass the virus on to a sexual partner.

So when you talk about treatment and infectiousness with a sexual partner, it may take some time for them to understand and trust what you are saying. It may help to ask your HIV doctor to talk to you and your partner about this. Your doctor will be able to answer any questions your partner may have. 

In the UK, there is no legal obligation to tell your sexual partners that you have HIV. But it's important to know that there can be legal implications to not telling someone, if the sex you have puts the other person at risk of HIV infection.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a person can be sent to prison if they do not tell a sexual partner that they are HIV positive before having sex without a condom – and the sex results in HIV transmission.

In Scotland, the law is different. A person with HIV may be sent to prison if they do not tell a sexual partner that they are HIV positive before having sex without a condom. They may be convicted even if there is no HIV transmission.

In order to get more detailed information about the law or to talk through the issue of telling a sexual partner, it may be helpful to contact a confidential telephone helpline such as THT Direct (0808 802 1221). Talking to other people with HIV about how they deal with these things might also be helpful.

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