Telling people you have sex with that you have HIV

Image: Domizia Salusest | www.domiziasalusest.com

Key points

  • Your HIV status is your information to share.
  • Deciding if, when, and how to disclose your HIV status depends on many things.
  • Telling a casual partner you have HIV is likely to be different from telling a long-term partner.
  • It is important to understand the legal considerations regarding disclosure where you live.
  • Disclosure can be hard, and help is available.

Sharing your HIV status with anyone can be difficult, but telling a sexual partner may be particularly daunting. This is sometimes called disclosure. Considerations regarding whether or not to disclose, when to do it and how will depend on various factors. The nature of your relationship will influence this process: telling a casual partner you have HIV is likely to be different from telling a long-term partner.

Talking to sexual partners about your HIV status is often a source of anxiety for people living with HIV. This could impact upon your ability to have a healthy sex life. Your thoughts and feelings about HIV and sex are likely to be deeply affected by reactions from sexual partners, be they positive or negative. This means that you need to think about all the pros and cons of disclosure and how best to go about it.

Many people living with HIV have been subjected to rejection and hurtful reactions, even when they take necessary precautions to prevent transmission. There may be times when you are met with shock, anger, disappointment or disgust. If you feel forced to disclose when you are not ready, it can have a negative impact.  Disclosure needs to be on your terms. It is your information to share.

It is important to remember that there may be legal considerations regarding telling your sexual partners that you have HIV. Beyond these considerations, disclosure needs to be navigated in a manner that makes you feel safe, confident and sexually empowered.

Telling a long-term partner

If you are in an ongoing relationship, telling your partner might open up a crucial source of support. If you are undetectable, letting them know about U=U 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’.

On the other hand, it could be a difficult situation for both you and your partner to deal with. There could be questions about how you acquired HIV. It may take some time for you and your partner to work through the issues that come up. There may be concerns about whether you could have passed HIV on to your partner, or whether you could in the future.

Equally, there’s also the possibility that it was your partner who passed HIV on to you. It’s important that your partner gets tested for HIV – staff at your HIV clinic can help with this.

Some people face particularly difficult situations. You may rely on your partner for money or be worried about violence.

If you need help or support to think these issues through, reach out to find out what is available through your clinic, a local support group or contact THT Direct (0808 802 1221).

Telling a new partner

Telling new sexual partners, or potential partners, can be intimidating. You might be worried about being rejected if you tell someone you have HIV. Your partner may have concerns about the risk of HIV being passed on but not be aware that effective HIV treatment prevents this.

Glossary

disclosure

In HIV, refers to the act of telling another person that you have HIV. Many people find this term stigmatising as it suggests information which is normally kept secret. The terms ‘telling’ or ‘sharing’ are more neutral.

Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U)

U=U stands for Undetectable = Untransmittable. It means that when a person living with HIV is on regular treatment that lowers the amount of virus in their body to undetectable levels, there is zero risk of passing on HIV to their partners. The low level of virus is described as an undetectable viral load. 

effectiveness

How well something works (in real life conditions). See also 'efficacy'.

anxiety

A feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, which can be mild or severe. Anxiety disorders are conditions in which anxiety dominates a person’s life or is experienced in particular situations.

undetectable viral load

A level of viral load that is too low to be picked up by the particular viral load test being used or below an agreed threshold (such as 50 copies/ml or 200 copies/ml). An undetectable viral load is the first goal of antiretroviral therapy.

Talking about prevention, even with casual sexual partners, opens up a space where you can mention the benefits of U=U and you can also ask about which prevention methods they’ve used. While sharing your status with an HIV-negative sexual partner can be very difficult, it gives you the opportunity to speak about ways in which your partner’s health can be protected.

Timing can be important. It can be difficult to talk about HIV when you have only just met someone but putting it off may cause problems later on. Upfront disclosure may be helpful: some gay dating apps have the option to show your HIV status to everybody who views your profile. Some people find that this upfront form of disclosure filters out people with discriminatory beliefs and means that they don’t need to mention HIV with everyone they chat to.

While upfront disclosure on dating apps works for some, there are also many HIV-positive people who find that it is inherently stigmatising and that it does not give a potential partner the chance to know you without the label of ‘HIV positive’. You need to think about the safest and most empowering way for you to share your status.

Often, sex happens in the heat of the moment. There may not be an opportunity to mention that you have HIV, or your partner might not want to discuss it. You may also find that your partner initiates sex without using a condom. Think in advance about how you would respond to these situations. Don’t assume, just because your partner doesn’t want to talk about HIV or is willing or even eager to have sex without a condom, that they are also living with HIV or taking PrEP.

You can get advice from your clinic, a local support group or THT Direct (0808 802 1221). It may be helpful to talk to other people living with HIV about how they deal with these kinds of situations.

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