The study included 181 sexually active men and women with an average age of 26, who completed an anonymous online questionnaire.
Just more than half of participants said they felt "very comfortable" talking to their partners about how to prevent STDs. Less than half felt "very comfortable" talking with a partner about sexual histories.
Comfort levels rose and conversations grew easier when people felt better informed about STDs and had practice talking about them with their partners.
"Take time to get informed. It will only make your conversation more comfortable and ensure that you are really protecting your health," study lead researcher Margo Mullinax, of Indiana University, said in a university news release.
Mullinax said she was surprised to discover, however, that about the same percentage of study participants had sex without a condom regardless of whether they talked with their partners about STDs.
"Participants who reported talking to their partners about [STDs] 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. "But this finding concerns me, given that many participants did not also report routinely getting tested nor having detailed conversations with partners about [STDs]."
Among the other findings were the following:
- Many people said they occasionally, rarely or never got tested before having sex with casual partners (50 percent) or long-term partners (39 percent).
- Of the people who did discuss STD testing, very few discussed concurrent sexual partners or when partners' testing occurred in relation to their last sex act. Only half explained what types of STDs their partner had been tested for. These issues are important components of assessing STD risk, the researchers said.
- About one-third of participants reported telling a partner they didn't have an STD even though they hadn't been tested since their last sexual partner.
The study was scheduled for presentation Wednesday at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Boston. The data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"Talking to partners about [STDs] is an important conversation to have," Mullinax said. "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 [STD] stigma and promote messages of normalcy with regard to talking about [STDs]."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about sexually transmitted diseases.