Pratt, "Break it to him gently," Chatelaine, 1998

Break it to him gently -
Talking about STDs—past, present or future

It's not the easiest topic to broach. But if you're sexually active—or plan to be—you may have to discuss a sexually transmitted disease with a new partner. The legacy of the sexual revolution means that a large number of people have had an STD. In the U.S., they have affected about one out of four people.

Just the same, sharing this unsettling news is among the less pleasant tasks of a relationship's honeymoon period. To help you slide into this most throat-clearing of conversations, we've covered the what, why, when and—most important—how of tackling the topic and overcoming some of the shame.

What You don't need to dredge up your entire history, but you should come clean about any conditions that are present or recurring. If you've had an STD that has been treated and is no longer transmittable, like gonorrhea or chlamydia, that's your business, says Wendy Williams, a counselor at the Morgentaler Clinic in St John's. But you do need to talk about herpes, the human papillomavirus (HPV, which can cause genital warts) and AIDS.

Camps divide when it comes to HIV, the most serious of all STDs. The Canadian AIDS Society believes that people are responsible for their own protection and safety. "We don't necessarily feel that you have to tell your partner [you have HIV] as long as you are acting responsibly and using the right protection," says the society's Sharon Baxter. This doesn't convince Toronto sex educator Sue Johanson, who asks, "What about moral responsibility?"

Why Even if it makes you squeamish, you should always, always tell because, as Williams says, "the consequences can be serious." For example, if HPV is not diagnosed, it may cause a precancerous condition in women. And herpes and HPV can be transmitted even when there are no physical symptoms.

The health of your relationship is at stake, says Linda Lathrop, assistant director of sexual and reproductive health at the Calgary Regional Health Authority. "How would you feel if, two months into a relationship, your lover says, 'By the way, I've got herpes.' You have to tell to increase the long-term intimacy." In the end, a relationship that doesn't survive this probably wasn't worth having.

When "This is not," says Sue McGarvie, an Ottawa clinical sex therapist, "something you talk about on your first date." Bring it up during a comfortable unhurried time—not in public, or at a romantic candlelight dinner. "Do it when you feel safe," stresses Baxter. "And don't bring it up in the throes of passion, because bad decisions are made in those situations."

How Figure out how you are going to introduce the conversation. Sex educator Johanson recommends starting by saying you care about the person and want to share something important "Tell them you were involved in another relationship and you picked up an infection—don't say a sexually transmitted disease, because that will scare the hell out of them."

And prepare for a reaction. Many people wrinkle their noses at sexually transmitted diseases, despite the fact that they're so common. "There is going to be shock on his face," says Lathrop. "Anticipate it Be calm. Be matter-of-fact"

But don't worry, the shock can dissipate faster than you think. Six months after 25-year-old Sarah Davis* found out she had herpes, she met someone she "really, really" liked. A few weeks later, when she and her boyfriend were about to slip into intimacy, she resolved to share her news. "I have something to tell you," she began one night, perched on his bed. His reaction? "Shock. Horror. Because it was this awful word." But Davis, who had thoroughly researched her condition, plodded on and addressed each question that spilled from her spooked partner's lips. The next day, she was rewarded for her honesty with a phone call from her boyfriend who acknowledged her courage.

The conversation will be easier if you've educated yourself, says McGarvie. But she feels people shouldn't sweat it so much. "Everyone has something— stretch marks, hysterectomies, there's all kinds of baggage people carry into the bedroom." An STD is just baggage that requires special handling. LAURA PRATT *a pseudonym