09/15/2011 06:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Time to Start Talking

How many negative statistics do we have to read before we get the message? When it comes to practicing safer sex, much work still needs to be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 19 million new sexually transmitted infections occur in the U.S. each year. While STIs cross all racial lines, African Americans are disproportionately at risk for such common infections as chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis. African Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet in 2009 we accounted for approximately half of all new cases of chlamydia and syphilis (48 percent and 52 percent respectively), and some 71 percent of gonorrhea cases. We also experienced more than half of newly diagnosed HIV infections; in fact a report last month from the CDC found a significant increase in the number of new infections of gay and bisexual African-American men between the ages of 13-29.

African-American women must take the first step to protect our health: Talk about sex. I know that can be difficult. Many of us live in communities that consider explicit discussions about sex embarrassing or shameful. Or we may be too worried about what our partners will think or do. Will he think I'm promiscuous? Will he get sex from another woman? Some women have been led to falsely believe there's a shortage of good men out here and feel pressured to please their partners, even when they refuse to use condoms. Some women falsely think they're not at risk.

Think again. The truth is all of us are at risk. The misconception that you have to be promiscuous to get a sexually transmitted infection just isn't true. We have to be just as honest with ourselves about our risks -- and the reasons why. For a number of reasons -- including a lack of affordable health care, men who have multiple sex partners, bisexual men, and the high incarceration rate of African-American men, who are exposed to STIs, including HIV, while in prison -- these infections are much more prevalent in African American communities. If you live in an area where an infection is widespread, your risk of meeting an infected partner is automatically higher -- and protecting yourself takes even more diligence. Untreated infections can not only lead to HIV/AIDS but to infertility, chronic pelvic pain, cervical cancer and other serious conditions.

Remember, you only know your own sexual behaviors and sexual history. And you trust that what your partner tells you about his or hers is true. But until you are feeling supremely trustful, or are in a serious, monogamous relationship, do whatever it takes to protect your health and wellness. When it comes to sex, that means honest discussions about sex, since dialogue and observation of his or her behaviors are the only way to determine trustworthiness. That doesn't mean you have to give up sex to stay safe. But you do have to use protection; there simply is no reason for anyone not to.

These things may not be easy to talk about, but the conversation has to happen. Start by asking your partner if he or she has ever been tested for a STI. Then explain that it's important to you to use protection -- to not only prevent an infection but an unintended pregnancy. Talk about the different kinds of protection, what will work best for the two of you, and then find ways to make using it fun.

You also need to get yourself tested every year. So does your partner. Don't let cost or embarrassment keep you from getting tested. Nowadays, the urine tests are quick, painless and readily available at Planned Parenthood health centers and other community clinics. And don't let fear hold you back. Any sexually transmitted infection can be controlled with medication, and many can be cured completely. Even testing positive is more an opportunity than a curse, both for you and your partner, because if you don't know you're infected, you can't get treated and stay healthy.

You can only protect your health -- and that of your partner -- by taking the first step. Talk.