When it comes to having sex, the majority of us do it. We’re all relatively aware of the risks that come with having sex and that we should get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) regularly too, so why is it that talking about these risks, which include contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), chlamydia, and herpes, is almost taboo? A new study has found that there is a big disconnect between what people are hearing and what they’re saying to their sexual partners.

“Talking to partners about STIs is an important conversation to have,” lead researcher Margo Mullinax, of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, said in a statement. “However, findings from this study suggest public health campaigns need to promote specific messages, concrete tips and tools around sexual health conversations stratified by relationship status. Campaigns should also address STI stigma and promote messages of normalcy with regard to talking about STIs.”

That’s the conclusion the researchers came to after assessing the answers to an online questionnaire submitted by 181 sexually active men and women whose average age was 26. The questionnaire asked about the participants’ approaches to talking about STIs and how these conversations influenced their behavior when it came to sex.

There has been a growing emphasis on getting tested for STIs, since going without diagnosis can lead to delayed treatment, and a range of serious health problems, Mullinax said. The reason for the study was to determine how much this emphasis translated into real-life conversations, especially among the college-aged crowd, who account for a disproportionate amount of new STI cases around the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teens and young adults, ages 15 to 29, made up 21 percent of all HIV cases in the U.S. in 2010. When it came to chlamydia, which is most common in young people, prevalence in teens and young adults, ages 14 to 24, was nearly three times as much as prevalence among adults, ages 25 to 39. In total, young people, ages 15 to 24, accounted for 50 percent of all new STIs during 2008.

The Difference Between Knowing the Risk and Doing Something About It

Mullinax and her colleagues found that about the same number of respondents engaged in sexual activity without a condom, regardless of whether they spoke about STIs, as those who reported talking to their partners. “Participants who reported talking to their partners about STIs say it affected their decision to engage in certain behaviors in that it made them feel more comfortable and led them to stop using condoms,” Mullinax said in the statement. “But this finding concerns me given that many participants did not also report routinely getting tested nor having detailed conversations with partners about STIs.”

Other findings include: 50.3 percent of respondents reported occasionally, rarely, or never being tested before having casual sex, compared to 38.7 percent of people who reported the same with a long-term partner; few people reported that they spoke about other partners that they might have had at the same time and whether that partner had been tested, or if their other partners had any STIs; and about a third of respondents told their partner that they didn’t have an STI even though they hadn’t been tested since their last partner.

The study participants were described as highly educated, in monogamous relationships, and interestingly, participants in sexual health education. While just about half of them reported feeling “very comfortable” talking about STIs with their partner, the researchers found that comfort levels improved when participants were more knowledgeable of STIs and had practice talking about them.

For people who may be nervous about an STI conversation, she offered some advice: “Take time to get informed,” Mullinax said. “It will only make your conversation more comfortable and ensure that you are really protecting your health.”