A Hostage Negotiator Explains How to Tell Someone You Gave Them an STI
Stay calm, don’t sugar-coat it, and remember: They have a right to be annoyed.
Photo by Lumina via Stocksy
In all honesty my sexual career has been inglorious at best. But if there's one thing I am proud of it's that I've never given anyone an STI. Sadly, this means I have no first-hand knowledge to draw on—literally, none—when it comes to how to tell someone you've infected them. And I wouldn't want to give advice on something I have absolutely zero experience of myself.
Not wanting to make a limp-wristed hand job of today's Ask Hole on account of my ignorance, I reached out to Ben Lopez, professional hostage negotiator and author of The Negotiator: My life at the heart of the hostage trade. Lopez has spent his decades-long career flying across the world, acting for distraught families whose loved ones have been taken hostage by terrorists and criminals. I figure if there's one person who knows how to break bad news, it's Lopez.
First off, you need to remember who's at fault: you. This is your entire fault, as Lopez reminds me more than once in our phone call. Hold the certain recognition of your own culpability at the front and center of your mind. If you remain contrite in heart and spirit, you may come through this okay.
"This is about them, not about you," Lopez says matter-of-factly. "It's not about making you feel more comfortable or less guilty or whatever. So you need to think about how you're going to tell them."
Anticipate how the person will react when it comes to deciding how to tell them. But what if you can barely remember what your one-night stand looks like, let alone gauge their emotional responses? Lopez is unforgiving. "Well, presumably you knew them well enough to give them an STI, so take your best shot."
Lopez recommends always telling someone in person ("it shows respect"), but if you can't meet physically, call them—never text. I ask about suitable locations. "One rule of thumb to use is, 'Where would I like to be told?'" Ruthlessly, Lopez suggests visiting their house. "That way, you can leave when you want. If you tell them at your place, you'd have to kick them out. That's much harder to do." But if you're worried they'll react badly, or even get aggressive, tell them in a public place like a café. "
Unexpectedly, Lopez suggests not overly preparing for what you're going to say. Fly by the seat of your (infected) pants. "Don't psychologically prepare for it too much," he advises. "It's just going to make it harder on yourself." Like ripping off a plaster, Lopez says you should go all in.
"Open with, 'I've got some bad news,' and then just deliver it," Lopez says. "Try not to have any distance of time between saying, 'I have bad news,' and delivering the news. That just increases the amount of anxiety in the situation."
Don't use evasive or unclear language—this isn't a White House press briefing. "Make it as clear and concise as possible," Lopez advises. "Don't use euphemisms." Now is not the time for alternative facts. "In my experience, people can usually take the truth," Lopez argues. "The biggest crime is the cover up. Don't try to hide or dissemble."
Should you let the person know in advance that you're going to be delivering bad news? "Remember when you were a kid and you knew you were going to have an injection? It was horrible," Lopez says. "The best thing is not to tell the kid until it's time for the injection, otherwise you're torturing them."
I press Lopez for a cut-out-and-keep primer on exactly what to say. "Say, 'I'm sorry I gave you an STI,'" he responds. "I didn't mean to—I didn't know I had one. If you want my help to deal with this, I'm happy to." He goes on: "The idea is to fix what you broke"—namely, the other person's genitalia.
And if you take all this advice and it goes horribly—the other person crying inconsolably while you shift uncomfortably from one itchy ass-cheek to the other?
"The bottom line is that they're entitled to feel angry," says Lopez. "You gave them an STI, for Pete's sake. You probably earned this one."