Telling sexual partners about HIV status

Telling partners when you are in a relationship

Many people find it hard to tell a partner about their HIV status. While some people do react badly to news that their partner is HIV positive, others offer support. The views expressed here are of gay and Black African communities that we interviewed in 2005. 

There is not always enough trust and openness in relationships for people to feel they can tell their partner: 'I had to sort of worm it (his HIV status) out of him initially,' said one man about his partner. When people do try to tell sexual partners about their HIV status, many fear rejection: 'That was incredibly hard when I started dating him, because I had to tell him,' said one person. 'I would tell them on the second… or if I was a coward, the third date,' said another. Many people said they need to find the right time to tell a partner, while ensuring that they have safe sex in the meantime.

Others, particularly those within African communities where HIV is greatly feared, felt they had to find ways to have safe sex rather than tell their partners. But this can be difficult. As one African woman said' 'You have to hide the medication. It's a bit stressing.' Some people tried to educate their partners about HIV so that they could tell them in time.

A few people - particularly the women - felt fearful when they revealed their HIV status to partners: 'You don't know whether they will turn it against you.' And even when people do tell, their partners may not believe they actually have HIV. And partners may not believe that they themselves could be positive: 'African men they don't believe that… they will just say no. When they are working and fit they just think they are well.'

Telling new and casual partners

People also had different views about telling new or casual partners about their HIV. Many felt they did not have to tell new or casual partners their HIV status provided they had safe sex: 'If I pick up somebody for casual sex I don't tell them I'm HIV positive. But I mean I practice safe sex with them.' Some others felt the same way, but they recognised risk could never be completely eliminated: 'I wouldn't tell them. Then I wouldn't put them at risk either… obviously there is some risk [with safe sex].'

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Some people were very clear that sex is not one-sided, so each partner had a responsibility to avoid HIV transmission: 'People say that it is my duty to tell them. No, it's their duty to treat their own body with respect. And to treat everybody as if they are positive [and always have safe sex].' Another man said 'it is a shared responsibility.' In practice, many people said they took on much of the responsibility to protect their partners.

We were told that people who reacted badly to being told about HIV sometimes were not even sure that they were HIV negative. One man had said to some partners: 'I know my antibody status, do you know yours?' Another said, 'I don't even want to have sex with that person if they don't want to know [about their status], then I don't want to know them either.'

Others found it difficult to have casual sex and keep their HIV secret. Some people worried about the risk involved, even for safe sex. For instance, one man said he could not have sex with casual partners because 'I might pass it on to them.' Others said they would rather find HIV positive partners.

Still others were prepared to be upfront with new partners about their HIV. Some people said they would always tell a new partner of their HIV status because if that person was the right person for them, they would be OK with it. Others wanted to challenge ignorance by being upfront, or just get HIV out of the way before they had sex. But some people said that telling partners is always emotionally difficult: 'If I am going to sleep with somebody then they need to know I have HIV, and that leaves you automatically open and vulnerable.'

Many feared rejection if they told partners about their HIV: 'Sometimes it's easier to become celibate,' said one man. But such fears are not always justified. Some people who had fears were not rejected by their partners' HIV clearly did not put off some people.

On the other hand, most people who had told partners had been rejected at one time or another because of their HIV. People felt there was still ignorance and fear about HIV even in the community most informed about HIV: the gay community. One man said: 'There's still the odd people who are gay that say “we don't do it with positive people.” And I want to say, "How do you know that"?'; '[Some gay] people still think HIV is a terminal condition… If you have any form of sex you'll put yourself at risk.'

But rejection because of HIV could be indirect. For instance, a few people thought that potential partners found ways not to go through with sex' 'The conversation ends and they walk off, or they excuse themselves very politely,' said one man. And people thought people could be fearful of having sex with someone with HIV, even if they did not admit it at the time.

Some people we talked to admitted their fears of rejection ran deeper than telling people about their HIV: 'I wasn't very comfortable with myself. I never approached anybody… I was horrified at the thought of being rejected.' Some people who worked through their fears of rejection found they were better able to cope with rejection. One man became philosophical: 'If they want to know me that's all good and well, if they don't, then that is their loss is the way I look at it 20 years on.'

Because of the potential for rejection, people developed their own ways of telling potential partners (see also 'Sex and relationships'). For instance, some people put their HIV status on their profile on Internet dating sites. Others used a strategy of allowing potential partners time to get to know them before revealing their HIV status: 'I give them 10 minutes to like me. And when I start getting them laughing and joking, that's when I tell them,' said one man. But people were not always in the mood to be upfront about their HIV. One man said, 'Sometimes I would feel confident, and sometimes I wasn't confident.'

Last reviewed May 2017.

Last updated January 2013.


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