Hello Captain and Company!
About a year and a half ago I had my primary outbreak of genital herpes. It was excruciating, both physically and emotionally, but I’m finally starting to pick up the pieces and feel like myself again. I’m starting to feel like I maybe want to date again, finally (yay), but I’d like to be prepared for the inevitable awkwardness of telling a hypothetical partner about the herpes. It’s an awkward enough conversation to have when you don’t have anything communicable. Herpes isn’t the biggest deal as far as STIs go, but it isn’t kittens and rainbows, either. Being honest has always been important to me, but it’s even more important to me now since the person I got it from wasn’t– between telling me he’d been tested, that he’d tested negative over six months after my outbreak, and that he’d show me his test results, there was certainly a lie. Herpes doesn’t happen spontaneously, and his test results never materialized. So I really, REALLY want to be open and honest about it.
I’m not really super into PIV sex, but I really like to cuddle, and sloppy, sexy makeouts are fun! And low-risk, if pants stay on, which I kind of want them to until I’m sure that the person I’m making out with is someone I can really trust and connect with. I’d really like to be able to bring up the conversation waaaay ahead of time, and to maybe talk about the kinds of things I do and don’t want to do, and how to manage the herpes and be safe and really, to give the other person a chance to really decide about whether they want to have fun sexy times with me. I know this sort of thing probably just takes practice and will always probably be awkward, but do you have any ideas about how to have that conversation? Any advice for minimizing stammering and embarrassment during it?
Dental Dams Are Your Friends
Hi Dental Dams. This is Elodie Under Glass here. I am so sorry that this happened to you, and so happy that you are getting better.
I am really glad that you wrote in. You sound like you’ve already got your feelings well in order, which I admire. And you’ve opened up a great new topic to tackle: STDs.
When the good Captain offered me the chance to answer your question, I was initially super-excited because it’s a really, really good question – but also pretty nervous, because immediately I was like “I am unqualified to answer this question, for I have rarely negotiated sexytimes/STDs with strange men!” followed by realizing that this question, like all questions, runs far deeper than that.
Dental Dams, I’m going to assume that you have already sorted through your immediate legal, medical and psychological implications. If not, there is useful and possibly helpful information out there. I am so glad to hear that you are putting yourself back together; you are strong and amazing and brave and wonderful, and I hope that you know you don’t have to do it entirely alone.
So I’d like to answer your question by talking about the many problems with how we, as members of our societies and our cultures, talk about STDs. Being aware of them, and how they are making you feel, may “minimize stammering and embarrassment” when you talk about them. The first thing to realize is that “stammering and embarrassment” are not inherently terrible things! They are your feelings and reactions. You’re allowed to have them and use them – you don’t lose points for stammering/blushing/feeling awkward during awkward situations. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or immature. It just means that you blush when under stress. We will try to minimize the stress for you, but we do not need to change your speech or your skin to make you better. You’re already doing pretty well.
Anyway: you have a herpes infection! Most people do in one form or another, but this one is yours. The STD conversation with your sex partners will be ongoing – and it will get easier. After you disclose your STD, if you and your partner choose to proceed sexually, you’ll talk about it a lot! After all, both STDs and your partner[s] are parts of your life. Think about how you talk about your sexual needs outside of the STD – for example, a person might not like to have sex while they’re menstruating. If you menstruate, in this example, you probably feel quite comfortable communicating it to your partner. You may smooth this communication by marking dates on a calendar, or by mentioning that you’ve scheduled a pill break for next week, or by shouting “GUESS WHO ISN’T PREGNANT” through the house, or by hanging a special series of semaphore flags over the bed – I don’t know; I don’t know your life. But you will probably manage to communicate times when you won’t be wanting sex in a way that feels comfortable to you. Just because you are in a sexual relationship doesn’t mean that you and your partner[s] have unlimited access to everybody’s body parts at every hour of the day. And this doesn’t change when you have a headache, when you are sick, or when you are having an outbreak. It will become a normal (and hopefully infrequent) part of your life to say things like “Sweetie, I noticed a bit of a tingle – could be nothing – but to be safe, can we cuddle and touch tonight?” and “Babes, can you pick up some dental dams and milk?” Within your committed relationships, your STD will be something that you will navigate AROUND, not the iceberg that sinks your ship.
This is normal. Despite what television, magazines and other advice columnists would have you think, this is part of the normal, ongoing communication of couples. We all have times when our bodies are closed for maintenance and repairs. This is because we all have bodies! We all live in our bodies, and our bodies are flawed, and if we aren’t push-button sexdolls, then so what? Whenever we date other people, we are navigating around the needs and wants that come from our heads, hearts, brains, souls, sexyparts and bodies. And these bodies have problems that aren’t always obvious, and which mean that our sexytimes will not be push-button scenarios from the manual, so we talk about them.
We talk about how our knees don’t bend this way or that, how we feel bad with our clothes off, how we need to be touched, how you must never close your fingers around our necks; we talk sheepishly or confidently about genital configurations and mobility aids, we inform our partners about allergies, precautions and protections, about medical histories and abuses and exes and fantasies. We, the people who have sex while owning bodies and histories, have sex while having Crohn’s and Asperger’s and Klinefelter’s, while having celiac and lupus, while being fat, with our survival stories, with our cancer, with our scars. We have sex even if societies don’t think we’re sexy – fat, old, gay, disabled, dirty, sick, poor, unbeautiful, radical, revolutionary, STD-having – we have sex. Years ago my oldest dearest friend and I were discussing her girlfriend, and the dark line of hair that runs down from her navel – called a “Happy Trail” in boys. We called it her Pleasure Highway. Some of us have Pleasure Highways that will frighten off the weak. Our Pleasure Highways take up space. We take up space. Your genital herpes is upsetting and painful, but by God, Dental Dams, we are vast – we contain multitudes – we will find room.
There is space here for a young lady-type with genital herpes who likes sloppy makeouts and cuddling and safe, comfortable PIV. There is room. If you feel that your stress about having this future conversation is coming from shame that you are not the perfect sexual partner that you were raised to be – well, it is time to drop that burden and stand a little taller.
Next, I want to tackle an underlying problem that runs through advice columns when people ask for certain types of scripts. If you read a lot of them (like I do) you begin to notice a pattern. The problem looks like this:
Letter Writer: I need a way to tell my boyfriend that I’m pregnant!
Columnist: Go forth and tell him.
Letter Writer: Yes, but I need him to be really happy about it, can you tell me how to make him do that?
Letter Writer: I need to ask out this girl that I like.
Columnist: Go forth and ask her out.
Letter Writer: No, but I need a way to ask her out that eliminates the possibility of her saying “no” to me.
And we have a whole culture in place that supports the underlying problems here. The Fictional Pregnant Letter Writer is operating in a system whereby men need to be tricked or manipulated into caring for their children. The Fictional Dating Letter Writer operates in a system whereby women need to be tricked or manipulated into having sex. The majority is raised to expect and perpetuate these behaviors, and they’re looking for the cheat codes to make other people behave in the way they want.
You and I, Dental Dams, operate in a system where STDs are perceived as being incredibly shameful. Got chickenpox? That is a cute disease invented so that children can stay home from school and watch Disney movies! Got genital herpes? THAT IS A DISGUSTING WHORE DISEASE INVENTED TO PUNISH WHORES. Chickenpox and genital herpes are caused by the same family of viruses, the Herpesviridae. The only reason that we think of them differently is because we pass judgement on how people get these diseases, and what they “mean” about the person.
Despite this fact, whenever STDs come up in advice columns, they always follow the pattern! The STD Letter Writers generally operate from a position where STDs are so BAD and SINFUL and SHAMEFUL and LIFE-DEFINING that they must manipulate all future sexual partners into having sex with them ANYWAY – and if they are lady-types with STDs, only saintly partners will ever be able to forgive them for the dreaded taint of being sick while having a sexual history. That’s it, that’s the shame and guilt and embarrassment of having an STD: you’re being sick while having a sexual history. And this, of course, is perceived as the Worst Crime in the World.
Letter Writer: I need a way to tell my partner that I have an STD.
Columnist: Go forth and tell him.
Letter Writer: No, but I need a way to do it where he doesn’t dump me for being sick while having a sexual history.
That’s why I’m so glad that you wrote to Captain Awkward with this question, Dental Dams! Because more mainstream advice writers tend to say things like this:
(Content Warning for links: Contains Dear Prudence.)
Of course it’s embarrassing to reveal you have herpes. And letting a prospective partner know this runs the risk of that partner deciding to run in the opposite direction.
NO PRUDIE, THAT IS NOT HOW YOU INFORMED CONSENT AND MATURE RELATIONSHIP. GO BACK IN YOUR CORNER.
and this :
You are not a person to him—you are a vector for the herpes virus[...] But your having herpes is probably great news for your boyfriend because it gives him a built-in excuse to never have sex with you.
PRUDIE, YOU ARE DOING SEX WRONG, I CAN TELL FROM HERE.
Yup, we’ve got a big problem when we talk about STDs. Even our conversations about having The Conversation contain the idea that people – particularly women – with herpes are less attractive/reformable dating prospects than criminals and abusers, and that the herp-er should humble themselves accordingly and pitch the herpes in the sneakiest possible light, lest their potential partner sensibly flee.
Dental Dams, you are too wise to fall for this kind of advice; please try to ignore it when it comes your way, and if your potential sexual partners show signs of riding this train of thought, be careful. Future readers: do not follow Prudie’s small, rather sad and hurtful ideas of how humans work. But be aware that many of your potential sexual partners are raised with the same narratives – that herpes can be a “dealbreaker,” that people who are nervous or fearful of sex need to be dumped, and that you don’t want to “run the risk” of your partner making their own decisions. If you find yourself having conversations with those sorts of people, you should remember that they are not from our planet, and exit those conversations immediately, perhaps by means of a jet-powered seat, a smoke bomb, a bear, or a strategic use of bees.
So we know that there is no way to disclose a genital herpes infection that will magically make your partner consent to having sex with you, and nor should there be. Because that would be abusive.
And I know that you know this, Dental Dams. You are good and sweet and honorable. You are going to take something awful that happened to you (a painful infection without your consent) and turn it around so that good things happen to you (safe, fun, low-stress sex for you and your partner.) What are some ways to do this?
For me, when I’m facing a potentially stressful social interaction, it helps to figure out the outcomes of the other person’s behavior. For example, when you are disclosing a sexually transmitted infection to a potential sexual partner, they will probably have one of three reactions:
- deciding not to continue the relationship. Well, that would suck! But it is their choice and they have their reasons. Perhaps they don’t want to be with you because they think you are sex-tainted and they do not want to touch you with their perfect, pure sex-parts. (In which case they are BUTTMUNCHES OF THE FIRST ORDER AND GOOD RIDDANCE.) Perhaps they don’t want to be with you because they have compromised immune systems and must take very good care of themselves. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know anything about your STD and are afraid of it on an emotive level, where things like sexual protection won’t be able to help with the stress. They will have their personal reasons, which we cannot change, and of which we will probably know nothing.
- deciding to continue the relationship, with caveats. Maybe they’re freaked out because we’ve all been raised to believe that people contaminated with herpes viruses are radioactive, and they need to take some time and space, and to do some research, and then they’ll feel comfortable about it. Perhaps they are pregnant and don’t want to put the baby at risk but will be totally up to smooch you after it’s born. Maybe they’ll react badly but will just need to take some time? Who knows! They will have their reasons, of which we will probably know nothing.
- deciding that it’s totally cool. Maybe they also have an STD, or a herpes virus – lots of people are infected with one kind of herpes or another, whether it manifests as cold sores, shingles, or the beloved mono/glandular fever/kissing disease. Maybe they’re well-educated and well-researched and have good senses of perspective and humor. Some people are like this. They all have reasons.
So the Worst Case Scenario of the Herpes Talk is somebody being slightly upset and deciding they don’t want to have PIV with you! For me, it would personally be quite pleasant to go into a social interaction knowing that the Worst Thing That Can Possibly Happen is that someone decides not to have sex with me. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not actually the Worst Thing In The World. It is, in fact, an idea that I can get pretty comfortable with. Knowing that the Worst Outcome is not-too-bad may minimize stammering and embarrassment, or at least make you feel more comfortable with the situation.
Finally, remember that you are a nice good person, and the person you like is probably also nice and good. You will both want what is best for each other, and you will probably make good decisions.
So what are some good ways to crack open that first awkward conversation? Well, if I was in your position, I would absolutely give the object of my future affections a cuddly plush Herpes Simplex Virus-2 and a pack of dental dams. Then I would say “This is the only time I want to give you herpes.” Then obviously there would be KISSING because of my GREAT WIT.
Alternatively, a hand-knitted or crocheted version of the virus; a cake iced with a picture of the herpes virus; or if I was feeling broke or not that emotionally invested, a cute card. If I was feeling particularly vulnerable, I might figure out what I wanted to say and write it inside the card. In my teenage years, I would have done it with an agonizingly well-composed letter, so that my partner’s bad reaction would happen at a safe distance, and would be tempered by their admiration for my beautiful grammar, but that’s a little FEELINGSBOMB-y for an adult relationship. If I was feeling saucy, I might do it with a gift basket of prophylactics to share and a smile.
Sadly, I am not in a position to spring these terriblawesome ideas on people, so it’s all you, Dental Dams. If you don’t feel like these would work for you, write your own scripts. If you like, we can talk them through in this space. Start with what you have (“I have genital herpes”) and where you are coming from (“I would like you to know this because I would like to have sex with you”). Add in your heart and your needs and what you can offer.
“I have genital herpes, which I manage with medication. There is a very low chance of you contracting it, especially since I will always use protection for PIV. We can do lots of other fun things with no risk at all. Since I would like to have sex with you, I want you to be completely informed. Do you have any questions?”
But a rather good writer/person had another good idea about how to start and when to do it, which was:
“I’d really like to be able to bring up the conversation waaaay ahead of time, and to maybe talk about the kinds of things I do and don’t want to do, and how to manage the herpes and be safe and really, to give the other person a chance to really decide about whether they want to have fun sexy times with me.”
Honestly, Dental Dams, thank you for opening this conversation. It was such a good opportunity to discuss how we talk about sexual health, and it’s really good to add STD communication to the Awkward Army’s knowledge-pool. (I am sure that some amazing advice will come out of the comments, so do check back.) But I also think that you already have this down; you’re coming at this from a good place, from the best place, and you already know what you’ve got to do. You don’t need us to feed words into your mouth.
You need to go forth, with our blessing.
And have good sex.