Discussing Sexual Health with Your Patients

Key points

  • Discuss your patients' sexual history as part of evaluating their HIV prevention and sexual health needs.
  • Help patients learn how to avoid getting or transmitting HIV and other STIs.

Discuss sexual health with your patients

Sexual health is an essential element of overall health and well-being that providers and patients often do not discuss. Many patients have sexual health questions and want your insight but are hesitant about initiating the conversation. By asking all your adult and adolescent patients a few essential questions, you help remove the stigma around discussing sex and normalize these conversations.

A sexual history should be taken as part of routine health care, as well as when there are symptoms or physical exam findings suggestive of STIs. Discussing a patient's sexual health offers opportunities to:

  • Screen for and treat STIs and address other sexual health concerns.
  • Counsel and share information about STI risk factors.
  • Gain an overall picture of your patients' health.

You may need to modify questions based on a person's clinical situation, sexual and gender identities, race and ethnicity, culture, or other important considerations.

Talk to patients about their sexual history

You don’t have to start from scratch when having a conversation about sexual history. Apply these strategies to effectively take a patient’s sexual history.

Start the conversation

  • Assess your own comfort and identify any biases that you may have. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality, your patient will be too.
  • Avoid making assumptions about your patient based on age, appearance, marital status, or any other factor.
  • Gather your patient's basic information during the initial clinic assessment. This includes their name, pronouns, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
  • For gender identity, incorporate a two-step method into the assessment. Ask for their sex assigned at birth and then current gender identity.
  • Ask for correct pronouns. Use the pronouns they share and support that patient's current gender identity, even if their anatomy does not match that identity. Use neutral and inclusive terms such as "partner."
  • Make your patient feel comfortable by establishing a rapport before asking sensitive questions.
  • Ask other people to step into the waiting room while you talk to your patient. These people may include partners, relatives, or caregivers. They can be invited back after the examination.

Keep the conversation about sexual history going

  • Let your patient know that you ask everyone these questions.
  • Transition into asking sensitive questions.
  • Pose your questions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Try not to react overtly, even if you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Pay attention to your body language and posture.
  • Rephrase your questions or briefly explain why you are asking a question if a patient seems offended or reluctant to answer.
  • Ensure that you and your patient share an understanding of the terms being used, to avoid confusion. If you are not familiar with a term your patient used, ask for an explanation.

Try to put patients at ease and be prepared to link patients to the resources they need. Let them know that taking a sexual history is an important part of regular medical care.

Adopt the 5P’s approach to taking a sexual history

Some of your patients may not be comfortable talking about their sexual history, sex partners, or sexual practices. They may have experienced abuse or trauma in their lives or while in a medical setting. Getting trained on a trauma-informed care approach can help all clinicians provide patient-centered, sensitive care in all interactions.

The following questions correspond with CDC's 5P's approach to taking a sexual history: Partners, Practices, Protection from STIs, Past History of STIs, and Pregnancy Intention. Asking these questions facilitates your understanding of a patient's HIV risk factors, identifies any screenings or vaccinations they may need, and helps you offer appropriate counseling to your patients.


  • Are you currently having sex of any kind—oral, vaginal, or anal—with anyone?
  • If no, have you ever had sex of any kind with another person?
  • In recent months, how many sex partners have you had?
  • What is/are the gender(s) of your sex partner(s)?
  • Do you or your partner(s) currently have other sex partners?


  • I need to ask some more specific questions about the kinds of sex you have had over the last 12 months to better understand if you have risk factors for sexually transmitted infections or STIs. Would that be OK?
  • We have different tests that are used for the different body parts people use to have sex. What kinds of sexual contact do you have, or have you had? What parts of your body are involved when you have sex?
  • Do you have genital sex (penis in the vagina)? Anal sex (penis in the anus)? Oral sex (mouth on penis, vagina, or anus)?
  • Are you a top and/or bottom?
  • Have you or any of your partners used drugs?
  • Have you exchanged sex for your needs (money, housing, drugs, etc.)?

Protection from STIs

  • Do you and your partner(s) discuss STI prevention?
  • If you use prevention tools, what methods do you use? (For example, external or internal condoms—also known as male or female condoms—dental dams, etc.)
  • How often do you use this/these method(s)? More prompting could include specifics about:
    • Frequencies: sometimes, almost all the time, all the time, never.
    • If “sometimes,” in which situations, or with whom, do you use each method? 
  • Have you received human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis A, and/or hepatitis B shots?
  • Are you aware of pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a medicine that can prevent HIV? Have you ever used it or considered using it?

Past history of STIs 

  • Have you ever been tested for STIs and HIV? Would you like to be tested?
  • Have you been diagnosed with an STI in the past? When? Did you get treatment?
  • Have you had any symptoms that keep coming back?
  • Has your current partner or any former partners ever been diagnosed or treated for an STI? Were you tested for the same STI(s)? Do you know your partner's (or partners') HIV status?

Pregnancy intention 

  • Do you think you would like to have (more) children at some point?
  • When do you think that might be?
  • How important is it to you to prevent pregnancy (until then)?
  • Are you or your partner using contraception or practicing any form of birth control? Would you like to talk about ways to prevent pregnancy? Do you need any information on birth control?