#484: “How do I minimize embarrassment when telling a partner that I have a body and a past?”

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?

In herpitude,
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.


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.


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.

This is my trademark party-leaving move.

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:

  1.  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.
  2.  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.
  3. 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.

I would dare anyone not to love me for this.

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.

Be brave.

Be true.

And have good sex.

xx elodie

164 thoughts on “#484: “How do I minimize embarrassment when telling a partner that I have a body and a past?”

  1. I wish I had something more insightful to say, but no – bravo, this was so well-done. Letters and replies like this are why I love this site so much. LW, all the best to you!

  2. we are vast – we contain multitudes – we will find room.

    OH ELODIE. ❤ ❤ ❤

        1. I got E.Coli and a flesh eating virus from my aunt. They live on my bookshelf and watch over my room like they’re ready to pounce on and lovingly infect my visitors.

          1. My friend is a microbiologist and has loads of them. When she had to go into hospital I asked if there was anything she wanted from home and she included one of them in the list. This ended with me crawling around under her bed shrieking “I can’t find Luke the White Blood Cell!!!” (I believe he is a Lucosite or something like that…)

    1. I bought my family rabies, influenza, the common cold and yogurt. They make the best stocking stuffers. Nothing sweetens an xmas morning like your mother holding a giant stuffed microbe and gazing at it as though you’d handed her a spider made out of grenades.

      1. The best gift idea I have ever had was giving my dad a plushie neuron; he’s a neurobiologist and I have never heard him laugh so hard. I am now pondering hayfever for my allergy-prone mother.

        For myself have a plushie white blood cell and a plushie common cold where I keep expecting to wake up one day to see only bits of stuffing where the latter used to be. The plushie white blood cell is for cuddling when I’m ill; it’s cute and huggable *and* placebo effect says it’ll actually make me feel better. 😉

        I also have a plushie amoeba and keep meaning to knit it a tiny ace flag scarf for great asexual pride \o/ bow before our microbe mascot!

        1. A friend gave me a plushie penicillin when I had glandular fever/mono. (Which was no fun, and now I know it was also a kind of herpes!) I like to think it helped. 🙂

    2. To bring cross stitch up in Awkwardtown once again:I am currently embroidering a dress with Diseases of the World (done a few already: common cold, ebola, rabies, TB… just finishing cholera). Should you ever wish to do this yourself etsy seller Alicia Watkins has about a million microbe cross stitch patterns. Combine the patterns with waste canvas or soluble canvas, and you’re all set to start the conversation with “Well, it’s actually all about this little guy I have over here on my left sleeve.”

      No, you probably shouldn’t start the conversation like that.

  3. This:
    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.
    almost made me cry at work. Because it is so true, and because my out of order sign is tattered and it’s so frustrating, but it’s also normal, and it is okay. And because it is so hard to accept that it is okay.

    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.
    almost made me fall out of my chair at work. Because hilarious and awesome.

    LW, people have all kinds of things they have to tell new folks when they’re getting to know them, that might be relevant to romance or sex. Things that aren’t obvious. Their STD status is only one — but other things might be that they’re married and poly, or that they’re bisexual, or that they’re in a cult WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN, or that they’re in grad school, or moving across the country in three weeks, or they’re ex-cons or divorced or can’t read or homeless or rich or have a mental illness or are trans or exceptionally hairy or survivors or veterans so never wake them up the wrong way or they might harm you because PTSD or they have kids or they can’t have kids or they just lost their job or they think your taste in music is spectacularly awful or they have epic debt or they lied about something to look good and now they feel bad or they just broke up with their true love or their cat just died or they have this really important kink. Everybody feels awkward and weird with their own stuff, but everybody’s got some stuff they have to kind of deal with and figure out how to share. It sucks.

    Some people will, in fact, freak the fuck out. But a lot of people will take their cue from you, and will react in the way you present it. So if you calmly present this fact in such a way that it doesn’t pressure them and keep yourself open and offer more information, they’re more likely to accept it calmly and feel unpressured and ask their questions.

    But the good people, the ones you want to keep around your life, are the ones who accept it as yet another fact about you. Okay, so you have a population of viruses in your nerve clusters. Good to know. What’s for lunch?

    The internet has got to have places where people with your exact problem have discussed this exact thing, and you should probably google that shit. Because one of the best things you can have is the Elevator Speech for what herpes is and isn’t and what you do about it, and where to go for more information.

    You can practice on your best friend, and you might want to. I mean, you can keep it private if it you want, that is okay. It’s your body! I’m just thinking it might be a good thing for you to be able to tell someone what’s going on, and have them be all “okay, that is really hard and it sucks you have to deal with that. I still love you.” Because you deserve that.

    1. The Elevator speech for what herpes is and isn’t is a fantastic idea. Even with pretty decent sex ed in high school, I still managed to graduate with the idea that herpes was this terrifying dangerous thing that could seriously hurt or kill you. Learning that it was just sort of a skin infection that could be a bit painful but definitely wouldn’t dissolve your skull and destroy your immune system? That was a relief. Be prepared to give people the information they need to make the decision that’s right for them, don’t assume that they have that information already.

      1. Also that it is completely the opposite of rare. A huge percentage of people have it.

        1. Okay, per goldenpeanut’s comment below I think maybe /I/ don’t have the information already, either, haha, because I think I am conflating two different things?
          Me being awkward on captainawkward.com, thank you, thank you. *takes a bow*

          1. I don’t think you’re entirely wrong. It’s not a case that *everyone* has HSV1/HSV-2 (which are the ones most people care about), but 1/5 people have HSV-2 (that’s the “genital” one) *that know about it* and the majority of the population has HSV-1.

            I don’t consider my brain a reliable source these days, but it recalls that the HSV-1 (the “oral cold sore” one) rate is on the order of 75%.

    2. Gosh, I like this comment – especially the ‘people have all kinds of things (…)’. It reads like poetry! (Like, “Dating for the Awkward: A poem in free verse”)

  4. Dear Prudence needs to not give advice to people. Ever. I know lots of people who get coldsores, people still kiss them! It should be a “You should know this about me but it should be fine because we will take precautions and have awesome sexytimes.” Not “I am a vile vector for this disease, shame me.” I mean holy crap.

    Still, Elodie’s advice about it all is bang on, and while I’m sure you know she’s right when she says people who dump you for it aren’t worth it anyway, it’s different to actually and *emotionally* knowing that. But you’re strong and awesome, so you will be fine.

    1. I’m not a fan of Dear Prudence generally. But after reading her entire response to that particular letter, the vibe I got was, “Your boyfriend is treating you like a vile vector for this disease instead of a person, and you deserve better than that.”

      1. that’s what I got form that particular Prudie post as well. She was being sarcastic about the boyfriend, not to the LW

      2. and if I, or anyone else on CA, used those words or those phrases or that tone or that attitude or that remarkable blend of slut-shaming/virgin-shaming when offering advice to anyone, there would be the most righteous of shitstorms, and deservedly so.
        Because that’s not a progressive or compassionate way to treat or speak to our people, and it’s part of the unhelpful narrative that we create around STDs. And after we have searched our hearts and our souls and reached for the absolute best, most responsible, most uplifting advice we can give to another person, it doesn’t look like that.d

        (The only correct response to that Prudie question is “If you want a sexual relationship, it is probably best to seek a partner that wants to have sex with you” – hopefully not too many advice columnists will muck that up.)

  5. I do “GUESS WHO ISN’T PREGNANT” all the time. It helps that Partner and I are mildly paranoid about my being pregnant, since a baby is very much Not A Thing We Want At This Time, so this is perpetual good news. 🙂

    1. I haven’t finished reading the advice yet, but I came flying down to the comments to find other “GUESS WHO ISN’T PREGNANT?!” exclaimers.

      Though for me it’s usually “GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! I’m not pregnant! You know the bad news.”

  6. As I was reading the letter, I had lots of ideas about how to bring up the subject with potential partners. @elodieunderglass trumped them all. As far as I know, I don’t have herpes, but now I want a plush Herpes germ. AND my own bees.

    Good job!

    LW, I am so sorry this disease happened to you, and I am mad at the partner who didn’t bother to help you stay safe. But it’s going to be okay, one way or another.

    As with any difficult conversation, rehearse ahead of time, with a friend who knows about the herpes, or with your mirror. Rehearsing helps you be a tiny bit more comfortable and less likely to stammer and blurt things out. Decide on a script, then practice hearing yourself saying it.

  7. Perfect. Perfect, perfect.

    My boyfriend has HPV, and when he told me about it there was some awkwardness, mostly because he was embarrassed and because I did, silently, freak out a little bit just because I’d never been with anyone who had (to my knowledge, which is an important disclaimer) an STD before. I realized, all of a sudden, that I knew virtually nothing about herpes, and started asking questions (my first one: “Does that mean we have to take precautions beyond condoms? Because condoms are a given anyway,”) and we were able to sort of sensibly talk about what this meant, practically, for our sex life. I’m not saying there was no blushing, because there totally was, but we handled it. I’m also not saying it didn’t take me aback, because it did, and I had to revise some of my own previously-held prejudices about STDs. I went forth and did lots of research after that, and got much less freaked out about it. Which is good!

    The nice part was that we had already started having the Safe Sex / Pertinent Sexual History conversation, and so this was a natural part of it. And that conversation should happen no matter what, so it’s not like there won’t be a time and place for the revelation. (Ours was on the third date.)

    Unfortunately, I think the letter-writer must be prepared for a partner to initially freak out a bit. I think of myself as extremely sex-positive and anti-shaming, but there was a large part of me that went, “Oh NO,” when he told me. But I knew I wanted to be with him, and that I trusted him to be honest about what this meant for us and to have educated himself about how to minimize the chances of transmission. The right people will trust you like I trust him.

    1. “My boyfriend has HPV, … I knew virtually nothing about herpes, ”

      This is a little confusing. HPV and herpes are two unrelated virus types (there are multiples of both HPV and herpes). HPV has a vaccine, causes cancer or warts, and can clear after a couple years. Herpes causes painful sores on the skin and is with you for life.

      1. Right, sorry for not making that clear. I was trying to illustrate my own level of ignorance at the time.

        Boyfriend and I are old enough that the HPV vaccine was not an option for us and so is pretty irrelevant to our story.

      2. Fair enough short summary (and good catch that HPV and HSV/herpes are not the same thing), but perhaps not wholly accurate descriptions of either, to the best of my knowledge (person who has/had HPV, and has/had partners with HSV and test-negative probable HSV(*), and has had sex with yet other partners of unknown status before and after diagnoses, and researched the heck out of these conditions in order to make educated decisions about my risks of acquisition and transmission).

        Which makes an excellent segue to: A great way to feel more confident about discussing, and making responsible decisions for yourself about, sex and all the stuff that can go with it –not just STDs, but everything else to which lovely Elodie alludes in pointing out that EVERYONE has a body and a history, and NO ONE is quite like the oversimplified dominant narrative…. anyway, a great way to feel more confident is to arm yourself with factual information from reliable sources; know what you are talking about, and be ready to answer a partner or potential-partner’s questions, and/or point them to where they can find out for themselves. Feeling like an expert is a great confidence-builder generally. In this specific case, where a lot of the stuff people THINK they know about herpes specifically, and STDs generally, is very often as incorrect as it is disheartening, finding out the ‘truth’ can be a relief.

        Sources of information I have found useful, that are backed up by relatively unbiased scientific research and intended to be readable by people who are not themselves scientists: the US Center for Disease Control website, CD.gov and its publications; information provided by Scarleteen.org, nonpartisan queer/women’s/public-health agencies and their publications (if recent and supported by documentation). I also read articles in scientific and medical journals, but I’m a nerd like that.

        Best luck on successfully navigating your own particular safer-sex conversation.

        1. OK, I know that the HPV/herpes distinction isn’t the main point of this conversation, but it’s always good to learn about STIs right? HPV and herpes aren’t related. HPV is the most common STI in the world, which about 75% of men and women will have in their lifetime. Most of the time, it’s completely astymptomatic, harmless and goes away on its own and you’ll never know you had it. In some cases, it goes on to cause genital warts (not herpes, they are different things) or cervical cancer. A Pap smear is the only way to test for HPV. When tigerprincess says “boyfriend has HPV”, she must have mistaken it for genital warts or herpes, because there is currently no HPV test for men. And like I said, HPV would be nothing to worry about because most people have had it. So how’s that for busting the myths about STIs being shameful or dirty? Most of us will actually have one in our lifetime!

          1. “A Pap smear is the only way to test for HPV.”

            That’s not right. A pap doesn’t detect HPV. A pap looks at cervical cells to find any abnormalities in the cells. There is a DNA test for HPV that women can get at the gyno, and they are specific enough to distinguish between the cancer causing strains and the wart causing strains.

          2. *headdesk*
            HPV can be something indeed to worry about. Most people yes have very benign experiences. Others develop very painful itchy warts, in great numbers. I’m not saying people with HPV (I am one!) should feel bad, nor those with HSV, but we shouldn’t be minimizing potential complications either. Nor should we be shaming people who feel these risks are “too much” for them at their personal moment.

    2. “Unfortunately, I think the letter-writer must be prepared for a partner to initially freak out a bit. I think of myself as extremely sex-positive and anti-shaming, but there was a large part of me that went, “Oh NO,” when he told me.”

      ^^^ This.
      I would freak out, then I’d work through it.

    1. Good catch! That will be because I was radiating smugness about having completed a post with no glaring mistakes or stupid problems. Fixed now, thanks.

      1. LOL – Gaudere’s Law will get you every time. (Extra points for recognizing obscure reference.)

  8. Elodie, I really needed to read a lot of this today; thank you.

    And I must find more opportunity to use the line “They will have their reasons, of which we will probably know nothing.”

  9. Hopefully, whatever scripts LW decides to use will help them feel confident enough to date freely, and meet awesome people. If they are particularly nervous though, or have particularly bad luck meeting people, there are dating websites and support networks specifically geared for people who have various STIs, from herpes dating sites to HIV dating sites, which carries the awesome bonus of meaning that any negotiation of needs/preferences will already include a basic understanding of the condition from both parties.

    Obviously, LW shouldn’t have to restrict themselves to only dating other people with herpes, but it’s at least an option they have available to them if it’ll help.

    As to scripts, I don’t have experience with STI conversations, but I do have experience at negotiating other needs. Disclosure of personal anecdote shared with permission – my other half has birth defects and post-surgery scarring that means, for various reasons, he is incapable of using condoms. I remember him being so very nervous about that conversation, but we sorted things out and have been together over a decade, now.

    You can’t guarantee that your needs won’t turn out to be a dealbreaker for the other person. But unless they’re a shitty person, someone who likes you should care enough to be willing to listen to your needs, and not make an already nerve-wracking conversation worse by acting like a shit over it, whatever the outcome. And if they do act like a shit over it, well, you’ve likely dodged a bullet by not getting involved with them in the first place. Just make sure to be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel whatever feels happen in that case. And then carry on being awesome.

    1. Your personal anecdote made me think of something. Most people have something a little awkward or embarrassing to them that will need to be negotiated in a relationship (mental, physical or otherwise). The LW discussing their herpes with a prospective partner might be an opportunity for that person to bring up things they need to negotiate too.

  10. Elodie, this is FANTASTIC and BEAUTIFUL. And, I think, applicable to many things we might want to disclose to/discuss with partners but are feeling awkward about. A+

  11. Elodie’s on the money, to everyone’s delight and nobody’s surprise.

    If you’d like more good resources about initiating this kind of conversation, though, Reid Mihalko (reidaboutsex.com) is an educator who does a really good presentation about both herpes and about having sex conversations before they become negotiations.

  12. For what it’s worth, Dental Dams, I think you’re already on the right track. For anyone else reading this, the herpes is just a fact, one that partners would appreciate knowing, probably before they make any decision regading sexytimes. Don’t assume that said partner(s) will automatically be okay with it, or automatically shun you. Neither “Oh yeah, by the way I have herpes but I haven’t had any outbreaks in a while, so it’s okay” nor “I am tainted by the plague of herpes and have probably doomed myself to a sexless existence forevermore” are particularly productive ways to approach the issue.

  13. This was lovely. I may have teared up at “we are vast – we contain multitudes – we will find room.” This is so unlike any other advice I’ve ever read on the subject, starting with the fact that it’s HELPFUL and doesn’t basically condemn the LW to a lonely, shameful, sexless existence.


  14. I have nothing to add to this except to say that I really enjoyed the comforting tone of the response.

  15. 1. SO MUCH LOVE for “buttmunches of the first order”.

    2. Say It With Plush Toys is BRILLIANT. Especially since it creates another excuse to buy plush microbes.

  16. I have herpes!

    Full blown, occurring-on-the-genitals genital herpes (I want to be clear, there are many different types). This is wonderful advice. I don’t have much to add- I just wanted to make sure you heard from someone that has herpes too. I also have a partner, who showed up after the primary outbreak. We’ve been together 2 1/2 years, are sexually active, and he remains herpes free.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Charly. I was really hoping that the LW might hear from someone with HSV and I’m very grateful to you for sharing – and modeling a happy and healthy relationship!

    2. Chiming in here as another person with HSV2.

      Side note: HSV2 is the kind which most typically occurs in the genitals (but sometimes can occur orally) as opposed to HSV1 which most typically occurs orally as “cold sores” (but sometimes does genitally). Many many people have HSV1 and don’t know it.

      I’ve had it for … well, I suppose the 13th anniversary is coming up this summer; I’ve probably had a handful of outbreaks *ever* and none in the last … eight years(?) since I got on antiviral medication.

      Ironically, I am in the small minority of people who *don’t* have HSV1 …. but my partner does. Thanks to antiviral medication, zie still doesn’t have HSV2, after 4+ years of sexual contact, including making a baby in the old fashioned way.

      I am a bit embarrassed to admit it but … the conversation about *how* we were going to make this baby was excruciatingly awkward, since I’d assumed that we’d have to do it some other way because *zie* wouldn’t want the risks … zie had come to terms with it well before then and assumed *I* wouldn’t want to take the risks …

      I do recommend researching about HSV and other STDs in reliable resources … I ended up with it because a previous partner relied on outdated information. It can be a useful thing in these conversations to have a firm and matter-of-fact grasp of the medical facts.

    3. Another person with herpes! Blood tested for HSV1 and HSV2 and have had outbreaks of both (HSV1 on my lips and HSV2 on my genitals). I am also poly.

      I’m not a fan – outbreaks are uncomfy and unfun. However, I have been with my husband for 10 years and my fiance for 5 and neither have been infected. We had open, frank discussions, I pointed them at resources and let them make the decisions that were right for them. My personal safety boundaries are actually stricter than theirs are in this regard, which I find amusing and delightful.

      Both of them have been loving and supportive. There is sex after herpes (and it can be REALLY REALLY GOOD too 🙂 )

    4. I have been married for almost 20 years. I have had herpes for 23 years.

      My husband is virus free.
      I had vaginal birth with both of my children–one induced between outbreaks; one at home. Both are virus free. And not blind.

      I remember the conversation with my dh about herpes. I really really liked this guy, and as soon as we kissed, I knew I had to tell him. I told him that I respected him too much to let him just *catch* it (as I sadly did). I told him about acyclovir and green tea compresses. I told him I would understand if it was a deal breaker for him.

      LW, my dh has, over the years, shown me more compassion than I show myself about this disease. I huddled long under the _vile, germ-laden, hussy_ umbrella. And there are still times, when that tingling starts, that I think, “Aw crap. You filthy filthy whore. You will never have sex again. No one will want you.” And then I cry and I go talk to my dh and he hugs me and makes me a cup of green tea so that I can have a warm tea bag as a compress.

      Many hugs to you, Dental Dam. And thank you for being upfront and telling your partner. I don’t think it gets recognized enough for the act of bravery that it is.

  17. Wow, Elodie, you just made me tear up SO HARD with your bit about everyone have bodies and histories and that we will find room for that, so I’m still in the middle of all those feels.

    LW, I still haven’t managed to get less awkward about having the STI conversation, so what I tend to do is agonize about it for a while and then plunge in if sexytimes seem like they’re on the horizon. I’m one of those people who’s had cold sores in the mouth area intermittently for as long as they can remember, but only found out that that’s herpes fairly recently, so I’ve had to rejigger that into something I actually need to tell people about and not a randomly occuring childhood illness thing in my own brain.

    But you seem like you are on top of things so I believe you will have awesome conversations that, awkward though they may be, will be all honest and awesome and that you can look back on with pride. ❤

    1. “Wow, Elodie, you just made me tear up SO HARD with your bit about everyone have bodies and histories and that we will find room for that, so I’m still in the middle of all those feels.” THIS. SO MUCH THIS.

      Elodie, I know you wrote this for people dealing with STDs, but it was a revelation for me to see this written down. I struggle with feeling decidedly unsexy because of my weight despite a gorgeous husband who thinks I’m totally hott and would sex me up at the snap of my fingers… I found what you wrote extremely touching, and very helpful. So, thanks.

    2. Wasn’t herpes considered a randomly occurring illness thing until they figured out how to treat it?

  18. Dental Dams,
    I think the advice here is great, and the only thing I might add that might be helpful was to have either some literature on herpes or websites bookmarked for your partner to look at when you tell them, or after you tell them when they are ready. Not that you aren’t rapidly becoming an expert, I’m sure. But it might make them feel more comfortable to read about it, rather than ask you questions – they might be afraid that certain questions they might have might hurt your feelings, so they might not ask, and that might lead to the silent awkwardness of not using words and leaving things unsaid. And if they have any of their own trust issues (for their own reasons), sharing such sources will reassure that you aren’t going to lie or feed them any misinformation regarding your condition (not that you would).

    Just a suggestion to think about, maybe? Keep awesoming!

  19. I would love it if someone could write an article about how to properly respond to being told your partner has an STI. One of my exes thought that he may have had an STI (until his test came back negative), and I had no idea what to say, do or ask. I was supportive, let him know we’d get through it, but I hadn’t the first clue of what kinds of questions I should be asking for my own safety/knowledge.

    I think we are brainwashed to think that STI’s are a dealbreaker and gross and etc., that when it comes to wanting to be supportive, we’re at a loss for a script to fall back on. I remember thinking that I felt like society had told me my whole life that this moment meant that I should walk away from my partner and think he was disgusting. Even though I didn’t feel that way, I felt lost as to how to move forward. How to treat him respectfully while also giving gravity to a possibly serious situation.

    1. Yeah. Tough. You have no idea what’s coming, and then boom.

      OTOH, it’s not that different from getting other unexpected and bad news, right? This is just a stab at it. I personally tend to swear a lot during my initial reaction to bad news.

      First, you’re going to have shock, and what you do in that moment is something that you’re not going to be very good at controlling. Because you’re in shock. You might say something rude and harmful, you might just gape. Who knows; you don’t, not until you’re there. Hopefully you do good things instead of jerk things.

      What’s next depends on you and how you react to things, but it can be emotional or information seeking. You can figure out what you feel, or you can figure out what you need to know.

      That might be taking some time to yourself and process all that shit, and what does society tell you and your fear and disappointment and all that. It’s real, your feels, and you get to have them.

      Or you could have no idea what your feels are because you know nothing and instead you react with “must know more”, and then you go do a bunch of research. It’s pretty reasonable to say “but I don’t even know what that means!!” before you can integrate the information enough to begin figuring out how you feel about it.

      And then the best you can hope for is to be compassionate and remembering that the person talking to you is a human being who is suffering and afraid and worried about what you’re going to say. They’re vulnerable. But you’re shocked and not thinking clearly. You do the best you can.

      But for a real concrete script: “Wow. That is a big thing. I’m not sure how to react to that right now, and it’s going to take me some time to get through it. But I’m glad you told me. Thank you for trusting me with this.”

      Some questions:
      “What has it been like for you?”
      “What do you need from me right now?”
      “What can you tell me about (whatever it is)?”
      “Where can I go for more information?”

    2. I can tell you a couple of great ways to not react!

      1. Don’t make a big deal about your girlfriend telling you on your birthday, because that happens to be the day she got the results. Particularly when you were the source of the STD.

      2. Don’t make loud, decisive declarations about what you will and will not do sexually without doing your research. You will probably have to walk those back later when you realize you had no fucking clue what you were talking about.

      Why, yes, I did date some jackasses in my youth. How ever could you tell?

      Based on those two experiences, my main advice would be to breathe slowly while having whatever feelings you’re having in your had, but try to avoid blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Do your best to “read the room” – if your partner is pretty matter-of-fact, start with some factual questions. If your partner seems nervous or upset, perhaps they could use some emotional validation. Etc.

  20. Coincidentally, Michael Douglas (the actor) has just been in the media talking about having throat cancer and how it can be caused by contracting HPV from oral sex. (Apparently he’s updated saying he’s not saying that’s how HE got it, just that that’s a way you can get it that people don’t think of very much.) Which means it’s out there! It’s topical! You can use that as an ice breaker if it’s too scary to just come straight out with “yeah, I have herpes.” Obviously it would be a different approach because “hey, you can get throat cancer from stds, but it’s cool, I only have herpes” isn’t a great opener either, but you could talk about all the protection available and ways to minimise risk.

  21. Good luck but don’t despair. I had to have that conversation with my then boyfriend (chlamydia) and we’ve been married for 13 years now. While you hope never to pass something on to a partner, open communication and sometimes visiting the Dr together can help a lot with making sure that everyone is on the same page.

  22. When I had that disclosure conversation with my current partner, I was a big fan of NPR’s Whad’Ya Know, so I framed it as “The Four Disclaimers”
    1. I just broke up, so I don’t know whether this might be a rebound relationship that we’re entering.
    2. I got out of a long-term relationship that left me feeling broken, so I am not sure that I am ready for any sort of commitment (ever again), so let’s just take it one day at a time. [This was before I had figured out that it had been an abusive relationship, but definitely took awhile to process things and return to a semblance of my old self]
    3. I was diagnosed with HPV and was treated with genital warts several years ago. Don’t know if I still have HPV or am contagious.
    4. [It’s been too long, I don’t even remember anymore, but there was a fourth one]

    Now HPV isn’t nearly as scary as herpes. Most people are completely symptom free and don’t even know they’re infected, and at this point, at least 80% of the adult population is/was infected. And the symptoms aren’t nearly as painful and uncomfortable.

    I don’t know who infected me, though I know who I’d like to blame. When I was diagnosed, I called up my fuckbuddy to let hir know zie might want to get tested. I can’t remember whether I notified the jerk I thought was responsible. Probably, if we were in communication at that time [another detail I can’t remember].

    Anyway, I made sure to have that conversation while taking a summer stroll after dark so that the embarrassment didn’t involve looking directly at each other while discussing such intimate vulnerabilities. And similarly, when my partner disclosed hir issues, it was another long walk with lots of questions and answers as I tried to get a handle on the situation. And look, we are still together 7 years later!

    It can be done with patience and compassion and a willingness to learn and to try. Good luck!

  23. Elodie, that was absolutely inspiringly written great advice.

    That said, I’m an ex-biologist that once worked in a herpes lab, and I’m going to vomit some herpes info here, because if people were better educated about this stuff in general, LW and others with herpes would have things a hell of a lot easier in the disclosure department.


    As Elodie mentioned in the post, “herpes” refers to a large class of viruses, including those that cause mono (EBV/HHV-4), chicken pox (VZV/HHV-3), and cold sores and genital herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2). If you reach adulthood without contracting ANY of those, you’re a rarity, and even then, you’re probably a carrier of one of the other herpes viruses that cause no visible disease in most healthy people. Having herpes pretty much comes along with being a mammal… they’ve evolved with us so long that most mammalian species have one if not several their own.

    TL;DR: we all have herpes and it shouldn’t be a scary word.

    2. The majority of adults have HSV-1 or HSV-2. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16926356?dopt=Abstract)

    ….which is why herpes testing is NOT a part of a standard STD panel. People would freak out if it was, because about 60% of adults are positive for HSV-1, and about 17% for HSV-2, even though most of them would be freaking out about an oral herpes infection that they’ve had since childhood.

    Also, HSV-1 is generally considered “oral” herpes, and HSV-2 considered “genital” herpes, but this is a false distinction. Either virus can cause sores at either location, so knowing that you have HSV-2 does not necessarily mean that you contracted it from genital contact. (Having genital sores, on the other hand, does mean that the virus came into contact with your junk).

    (If you’ve asked for an STD screening but not SPECIFICALLY for a herpes test, you may have come out “clean” but that just means you don’t have anything they tested for.)

    3. Medically, herpes is not a big deal for most people.

    I’m not here to tell you that herpes viruses are harmless or that your personal tale of horrifically painful infection is not important. They aren’t harmless, and everyone’s experience counts. But when we look at overall risk factors, you have to take into account all the possible outcomes, not just the worst ones.

    So here are the possibilities for herpes infection (excluding the severely immune compromised):

    a) Many people contract herpes and seroconvert (start producing antibodies, which are what we test for) for that strain without having ANY signs or symptoms. So you could contract the virus, and never know it unless you are tested for it.

    b) Even if you have symptoms during a primary outbreak, it is very likely that you will not have many, if any, future outbreaks. Think about cold sores–many people had them as children, but relatively few go on to have frequent outbreaks as adults.

    c) You could have outbreaks frequently (often triggered by illness or stress) for the rest of your life. This is rare, but not ridiculously so–I think most of us have probably encountered one or two people who has cold sores every time they get sick, or during every finals week / crunchtime at work. These people have the misfortune of having immune systems that are slightly less good at keeping herpes viruses down than the rest of us, so they slip up more easily, where as the rest of us would need more severe immune suppression (from certain drugs, HIV, sometimes old age) to have the same amount of reactivation events. Admittedly, this sucks, whether your outbreaks are oral or genital. But it sucks a lot less now because…


    This is so lucky you guys. We don’t have many good antivirals, but we have them for herpes. If you are one of the unlucky few who has frequent outbreaks, your doctor can put you on them continuously or give you a supply to have on hand, in order to prevent you from dealing with the worst of the symptoms. I know these aren’t a magic bullet–drugs have side effects, not everyone can take them, and not everyone who takes them becomes completely asymptomatic–but they help, and they help a lot.

    Also, if you have a partner you are trying to protect from infecting, these drugs can help you too! They reduce rates of shedding the virus, minimizing chances of passing it on. There are, as mentioned in the above post, other ways of preventing passing it on as well–namely, barrier methods. That said…

    5. Barrier methods don’t lower the risk of HPV and HSV infections as much as we’d like to think.

    HPV and HSV are viruses that infect skin cells. They get shed… in/from infected skin cells. If you have skin-to-skin contact, there is a chance for transmission. Male condoms don’t cover everything, so transmission can still happen at exposed surfaces.



    A lot of us have herpes, many of us without knowing it. Technically, if you’ve ever had a cold sore, you should be disclosing that to your sexual partners because you can give it to them orally through kissing and genitally through oral sex. You can get herpes even if you and your partner are doing everything ‘right’ (using barriers, talking about risk factors) because barriers are not foolproof, because so few people are aware that cold sores = herpes, because it isn’t tested for generally, and because some people have it without ever having symptoms.

    But so long as you have a decently functioning immune system, none of this is cause for panic. The worst part of herpes for most people is dealing with the social stigma. And I’m not saying that isn’t important–it totally is. But it’s something we can change.

    Herpes viruses have been with us for all of human history, and they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. But we have them pretty well under control, all things considered. They rarely kill us anymore, we have a vaccine for one of them, we have a decent drug. They’re still annoying as fuck sometimes, but the fear we have of them is totally out of proportion to the risk. Could we work on that please?

    1. That was a very interesting and informative read, thanks.

      One question: I recall reading in a leaflet on STDs some years ago that it was either impossible or unlikely (can’t remember which), to contract one type of HSV infection in multiple places on the same body, i.e. HSV-1 on both mouth and genitals.
      Is that accurate?

      1. My understanding is that having either type of HSV infection anywhere makes you less likely to contract either type of HSV again/in a second location, because a) if it’s the same virus, your immune system should kill it before it gets established and b) if it’s the virus you don’t already have, your antibodies to the virus you do have MIGHT provide partial protection.

        So the answer to your question would be yes–you are unlikely to have an initial infection in one location, have that clear, and then later acquire a separate infection with the same virus in another location. Not impossible, because immune systems are weird and fickle things, but relatively unlikely.

        Also, due to the [possible, but not guaranteed] cross-reactivity-of-antibodies-thing, people who already have one of the HSVs are somewhat less likely to acquire the other one. That said, people who have both aren’t THAT uncommon… I believe there was one in this thread.

        1. It is totally possible to contract one type of HSV in multiple places on the same body if both places are exposed at the same time, before your immune system develops antibodies. Which is alarming, because I got my first cold sores shortly after a fling that involved a lot of kissing and also oral sex. So now it is (to the best of my knowledge) impossible to falsify the proposition that I have asymptomatic genital herpes. About half the time I manage to convince myself that this is clearly hypochondria, and the rest of the time I feel terrible about the one former partner whom I still haven’t told about this.

          1. Right, if multiple sites are exposed at the same time, you could contract it at multiple places. Having an outbreak at one site and not at the other would be pretty weird in that case though.

            That said, if you have oral herpes and are having oral sex, the risk is about the same as if you were having any kind of sex involving genitals and had genital herpes. The main point is that you are positive for a HSV virus (most likely #1, but can’t know without testing), so you should probably disclose that if you want to be totally upfront with people.

            Of course, almost no one I know discloses oral herpes as such, because many people don’t know cold sores are caused by herpes, and many of those who do would like to conveniently ignore that icky fact. But given that you are just as capable of passing it on to a partner’s mouth (kissing) or genitals (oral sex) as someone with genital herpes, I think disclosure is appropriate in those cases. But given that almost no one does it, I suppose no one can get too angry with you if you don’t either. But no lips on any one else’s body parts during an outbreak without their informed consent–that’s just not cool, cause the risk of infection is so high then.

          2. keelyellenmarie: I don’t tend to give blowjobs except to my primary partner, who knows the full situation, so that hasn’t come up yet (I suppose having to disclose would be part of the reason I avoid it, but I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on much there). As for kissing, I avoid it if I am having an outbreak but don’t mention anything otherwise.

          3. Thanks for all the information. I found the unlikely to contract somewhere else once antibodies have kicked in on wikipedia too. Incedentally it would appear that this means that genital infections indirectly put you at less risk for encephalitis (HSV-1) and a type of viral meningitis (HSV-2) so, err, silver linings?!

    2. Thank you VERY much for writing this – you saved me a lot of work.

      I have HSV-1 and I’ve had chicken pox. I get painful outbreaks on my lips at least twice a year – and when my bf was hospitalized, the outbreak took up my entire upper lip. I got HSV-1 when I was 2 from a kid at my daycare center who liked to chew on the same blocks I chewed on. Herpes is extraordinarily common, everyone has it, and I’ve encountered stigma when I’ve had outbreaks.

      Herpes isn’t dangerous to my health, but it’s painful, disfiguring, and ever since people discovered they could sell drugs to treat it, it’s been a stigma. (No one cared if you had cold sores before the 1950s.) Because it’s painful, I don’t kiss my bf when I have one because I don’t want to share the pain, not because I’m afraid of killing him or anything. We’ve been together 12 years and he has yet to have an outbreak.

      Some STIs are truly dangerous. Cold sores aren’t. People who have them shouldn’t be treated like a public health hazard. And it would be equally nice if people stopped assuming that folks with cold sores are dirty sluts with hygiene issues, thankyouverymuch.

      1. Ouch, I’m sorry your immune system has so much trouble handling herpes. My sister and a close friend both have the same issue, so I am familiar with the massive outbreaks during stressful times and the angst that they cause.

        I can’t speak to this personally, as herpes viruses seem to be one of the few things my immune system handles pretty well (I catch every cold ever and I’ve repeatedly had bacterial infections far more severe than would be expected in someone my age, but herpes, I’ve got THAT one covered. Nice priorities there, immune system. :-/ ), but my sister finds the topical treatments for cold sores, the ones that actually have antivirals in them, to be pretty helpful–the sores clear up a bit faster. There’s also the option of oral suppressive medication–doctors don’t usually bring it up for people with ‘just’ oral herpes unless the patient specifically asks/has severe recurring issues, but it’s a valid use of the drug and [friend anecdote] can be life-changing for people who have very frequent oral outbreaks. (If you’ve already tried those things or have chosen not to for whatever reasons, feel free to ignore this.)

    3. It’s a little disingenuous to say everybody has herpes. First of all, it’s not true. People do make it to adulthood without getting HSV1/2, chicken pox, or mono. Second, in popular parlance, herpes means genital herpes, with cold sores usually being called “cold sores” or “oral herpes”. Third, having chicken pox or mono is very different from having herpes. Someone who has chicken pox might get shingles some day, but doesn’t have to worry about recurrent outbreaks of chicken pox, and they won’t pass it on to anyone (if it’s run it’s course, that is). Likewise with mono, and they don’t even have to worry about it coming back as shingles. Whereas while many people are asymptomatic for HSV1/2 their entire lives, others find out they have it when they have an outbreak, and many of those people will have recurring outbreaks. Whether they have outbreaks or not, they can pass HSV on to their partners.

      tl;dr being the same family doesn’t mean it’s the same illness. everybody does not have herpes.

      1. Hmm, popular parlance isn’t exactly accurate though. Coldsores/oral herpes are often caused by the exact same virus as many cases of genital herpes. (Generally the very common HSV-1 variety.)
        Referring to them by different names is misleading and the social stigma attached to having an outbreak on your genitals instead of your face is quite misguided.
        Also contact with shingles sores is extremely infectious to anyone who doesn’t already have herpes zoster.

      2. Statistically, very, very few people make it through life without contracting several herpes viruses. You can be exposed to, and therefore become a carrier for, many of them without ever showing symptoms. In particular, MANY people have mono without ever knowing it, because the disease is typically milder the younger you get it. There are also several herpes viruses I didn’t get into. And it’s flat out wrong to say that you can’t pass on other herpes viruses when you aren’t currently sick…. the rates of virus shedding are very low, but still present, and it is therefore entirely possible to catch mono or chicken pox from someone who is currently asymptomatic.

        I get that being in the same family is not the same as being the same illness, but the point is that we shouldn’t think of HSV that much differently than we think of any other disease.

        1. True, 99% perecent of people who didn’t get chicken pox by the age 18, will get it by the age 50. I got mine when I was 19, mild to light form (Yey for my Paris vacation, probably got it from one of the kids on the plane), but I still have a little scar on my face. I am yet to find a person who didn’t get chicken pox, the higest age of infection I personaly know of was 28.

          1. I have never had the chicken pox. They tested me for immunity – NOPE! Got the vaccine, which just means when I get it at the age of 50 or whatever it might be a more mild case.

    4. Thank you for posting such a long and useful thing about some of the science and myths. I wish to give this comment many internets and sign on wholeheartedly to the idea that the problem is not the virus, but the stigma attached to having it.

    5. Nothing to add, other than a total HIGH FIVE for providing us with references. Not only references, but actual honest-to-goodness journal references, not just vomit from some website or blog somewhere. You rock on with your bad self!

      1. D’aww, thanks. Science student, reference obsessed. Scientific evidence FTW!

  24. Good advice, but I just wanted to comment about the Prudie link. (I’m commenting on the second example of Prudie’s advice) While I agree that Prudie does often miss the mark when it comes to talking about sex, the second excerpt was taken a bit out of context. The LW wrote in to say that she had herpes and her boyfriend was using it as an excuse to shame her and never touch her. Prudie’s advice was to dump the boyfriend. She wasn’t calling the LW a vector of disease – she was saying that’s how the boyfriend sees it, and that he is a jerk for seeing it that way. And when Prudie wrote that the LW’s herpes probably made the boyfriend happy because it gave him a built-in excuse for never touching her, she wasn’t endorsing this behavior – she was condemning it.

  25. LW,

    I wanted to add my HSV-2 experience as it pertains to casual dating, in case that’s helpful depending on where in the pool of dating you plan to dip your toes. I was diagnosed with HSV2 about seven years ago. It’s not been the end of the world – far from it! (And yes, I was surprised at how not-awful it was and has been.)

    The whole ball of OshitOwhat?! that landed alongside my diagnosis(?) was a little overblown, thankfully, but I was super-intimidated by: what it was, that people don’t hesitate to tell me it’s akin to the plague in popular perception, apparently I contracted it through some sort of deception (doing the math after the fact), and that my doctor’s assistant was speaking to me as though ‘slut’ was affecting my hearing.

    For me, honesty in the form of a timely disclosure was my way to defeat the voices that would have me believe I’m gross now. So, after the sorting and grieving you described, I eventually came up with a custom-designed disclosure missile launcher. As I’ve become more comfortable over the years, it fires with more ease, more humor, more sass – and I feel like I’m still the one talking and not the medical brochure.

    I’ve had a fair amount of practice since then disclosing to people I am dating. Not in a relationship-context, and maybe or maybe not a relationship trajectory, these folks. At first I wanted to have an emotional connection before disclosure. But that was not really viable for me. It turns out that’s not how I date when I’m casually dating, and another snag is that I find it hard to judge compatibility without a sexytime experience that includes risk of HSV-2 (or as I like to call it, “the hiccups”). So, what began as a sit-down-hey-be-serious talk has become more off-the-cuff. I slow the contact to a speed that I’m comfortable with (as anyone should do at all times), one date, five dates, whathaveyou; but I disclose sooner than later if I want contact of the variety where the disclosure is pertinent and I’ve received signals that that idea is shared. The disclosure is sometimes as quick as, “Hey good-lookin’, hold up. I need to let you know I don’t have [that sort of sex] with people until we talk about that I have HSV-2. There are precautions I take and you’ll need to agree to, for me to be comfortable with that kind of contact with you.” Somehow, injecting my own comfort (in terms of what I want on my conscience or that I have preferences to negotiate) has seemed to ease the sense that the spotlight is being shined directly on other person’s YAY or NAY.
    So, I sometimes add, “You’re not required to be okay with that. That’s why I’m saying it. [SMILE].” And then sometimes (when it’s true), this: “I want you to know I wasn’t rejecting you by refusing that contact. I called a pause because you need info for this to be mutual. That’s the info. Ta-DA!” And then I sit back and prop my feet up on a pile of confidence and adult-y behavior that I never knew I would be able to call my own.

    Best luck.

    1. Thank you for this, especially your last paragraph. It’s really nice to read about people talking about it like it’s not the worst thing in the world. I’ve read a lot of doctor literature about the herpes, and most of the advice I can find about talking about it is very serious. And it is serious business, but I would much rather have a conversation that begins the way you start it than by Sitting Down to have a Talk. You know?

      1. So glad! And definitely. The info must get relayed, but the bookends are up to us, and can make it easy or hard. Some phrasing I rely on as it fits the flow:

        – “Oh shoot, that blow your hair back a little? Well, the deal is about 1 in 4 women have it. Some people don’t know; clearly, some people don’t tell. My doctor said that if someone has had 7 partners, they’ve likely been exposed.”

        – “A doctor recommended that I have my partner take a suppressant [Valtrex] after contact and that has worked so far, though of course, that’s my experience and it’s anecdotal.”

        Once, I became really uncomfortable mid-stream; in hindsight, I felt as though person was prompting me to *pitch* having sex with me. So, for those misinterpreting the disclosure as an invitation to dissect my sexual history (only mine) or pose convoluted what-if’s, I shut it down. Just because I start a conversation, that does not mean I have no say in when it ends, I think.

        – I understand there’s a difference in assuming the risk of something you don’t know (ostrich), and assuming the risk when you definitely DO know (because I just told you). I can’t answer every question, but I’m definitely cool with talking about it. I’d like to pick this up again after you’ve had time to look at information from sources you choose/trust.

  26. Thank you so much LW for voicing a thought in my head. Now if I could just figure out how to get to a point where I could even feel comfortable getting close to someone sexually again this will definitely come in handy. Like you, it was given to me by an ex. Unlike you, hopefully, (because y’know getting an STI isn’t damaging enough) I also got it through being raped (or coerced into sex when I didn’t want it which in my mind are pretty much the same thing because consent was not given) so I (unluckily) get to deal with all the feelings I have about myself. I’m hopefully getting insurance soon and then getting a referral to a psychiatrist (that will hopefully not just try and drug me up) to try and work through my own issues and mental roadblocks.

    But minus a fluke in October, since finding out I have the STI (which I found out last January for my birthday lucky me), I’ve been very non sexually active and insecure about my body (luckily it was with someone that the topic of STIs came up and we talked about it then). But STI conversations are very hard to start. Especially when it is the genital version of a very common STI that most people have and don’t realise they have. Good luck LW and I applaud your courage for putting into words my needs for STI conversations if it ever comes up again. I’ve found it’s easier to talk to my friends about it than it is people that I would potentially have sexual relations with in the future given the opportunity.

    But seriously, this also made me start tearing up seeing stuff going on in my head written by someone else(who is also more articulate than I or can at least organise words better from brain to computer) and seriously addressed. A million times. Thank you.

  27. Thank you so much LW for voicing a thought in my head. Now if I could just figure out how to get to a point where I could even feel comfortable getting close to someone sexually again this will definitely come in handy. Like you, it was given to me by an ex. Unlike you, hopefully, (because y’know getting an STI isn’t damaging enough) I also got it through being raped (or coerced into sex when I didn’t want it which in my mind are pretty much the same thing because consent was not given) so I (unluckily) get to deal with all the feelings I have about myself. I’m hopefully getting insurance soon and then getting a referral to a psychiatrist (that will hopefully not just try and drug me up) to try and work through my own issues and mental roadblocks.

    But minus a fluke in October, since finding out I have the STI (which I found out last January for my birthday lucky me), I’ve been very non sexually active and insecure about my body (luckily it was with someone that the topic of STIs came up and we talked about it then). But STI conversations are very hard to start. Especially when it is the genital version of a very common STI that most people have and don’t realise they have. Good luck LW and I applaud your courage for putting into words my needs for STI conversations if it ever comes up again. I’ve found it’s easier to talk to my friends about it than it is people that I would potentially have sexual relations with in the future given the opportunity.

    But seriously, this also made me start tearing up seeing stuff going on in my head written by someone else(who is also more articulate than I or can at least organise words better from brain to computer) and seriously addressed. A million times. Thank you.

    1. and of course cause my computer screwed up in conjunction with the net it posted twice *grumbles*

    2. I’m so sorry that happened to you. That’s awful, and I have a million jedi hugs for you if you want them. I’m also going through a lot of fear and insecurity and not being sexually active. I wasn’t raped or coerced, but I did get the herpes (I got herpified?) because the lying liar who gave it to me decided to go down on me without asking and without a barrier, when we had talked previously and agreed to use barriers. He stopped immediately when I was like, “Um, hey, no, I really need you to use a dental dam,” but apparently that brief moment of contact was long enough. After my outbreak cleared up, my sex drive went wandering, which has sucked also because I’m poly, and I have a long-term partner (who is wonderful and loving and supportive no matter what, and in case anyone asks, I’m dead certain about who I got the herpes from), and I really want to have fun sexy times with him! But I also don’t want anything to do with my genitals! And being emotionally vulnerable in the way that I need to to feel sexy, the way I was with the lying liar, has been too scary, even though I’ve been with Wonderful Partner for much longer. My sex drive is starting to come back, but I’m afraid if I get too close to it it’ll go away again. So writing in here was really me trying to reassure it that if it returns it’ll be safe.

      (content note: possibly way too much personal information about my infection):

      Also, re: birthday herpes: DUDE I totally got my herpes for Christmas! On Christmas eve I knew something was wrong, and the next morning I called the on-call doctor because I couldn’t pee without winding up in a fetal sobbing ball on the floor. It was awful. The doctor was like, “Welp, I hate to phone diagnose you, but I’m 90% sure it’s herpes and you need to get on antivirals right away.” And then I had to call around and find a pharmacy that was open on Christmas. And Wonderful Partner was on a plane and I couldn’t call him. And I was too mortified to tell my family, who were really confused about why I was crying in my room all day on Christmas. And then when I went to the pharmacy, the pharmacist said, “This is a really high dose. Is it your first outbreak?” And I was like, “THANK YOU FOR THE DRUGS I HAVE TO GO BYE”.

      Happily, a year and a half later, I’m starting to find this story hilarious.

    3. I also got hsv2 from being coercively raped. I’m seeing a psychologist currently but I haven’t brought the rapes(two different guys, within a few months of each other) or that I have hsv2 up to her because frankly I’m scared.

      The one guy I’ve been sexual with since then was cool about it, didnt make a fuss and also wasn’t fussed I refused PIV sex because I was (still am) uncomfortable with it myself, which I am so grateful for because if it had been with somebody treating me like I was going to melt his bones it would have thoroughly traumatised me

      ANYWAY I just wanted to let you know that somebody else is in this situation and Jedi hug/bro fist you because I’m sorry this also happened to you

      1. Oh Poppy. I want to give you all the hugs that you are comfortable with. Jedi hugs. I am so, so sorry that happened to you.

        I hope you can get to talking about this stuff with your psychologist. It can be big stuff to carry and hopefully she is one of the good ones who wants to help and who has a good rapport with you.

        If you want you can sort of ease into it by saying you have things you haven’t talked about that are too scary and you’re not ready to really get into them. She is supposed to make the space safe for that and not pressure you.

        You don’t have to, of course. Your stuff is yours, and you get to decide. You are brave and strong, but even if you weren’t, it’s still your life and your heart and your choice.

        1. Thank you, so much.

          I’ve mentioned to her that there are some really awful things that have happened to me that I’m not ready to talk about yet and I’ve mentioned in passing that I was forced into sex by a couple of guys and that I wasn’t comfortable talking about it yet, so she agreed to wait until I bring it up to talk about it with me.

          It’s definitely not that I don’t feel safe with her, it’s my own fear of saying it out loud that is holding me back, I think. It’s only been the last month that I’ve been able to say to myself that it was rape and that I have been raped, especially since i’ve had a few people tell me that it wasn’t rape because i wasn’t fighting back or frightened for my life and even the men themselves who did it did not seem aware that what they had done was wrong so it all really damaged my view of myself to the point where I buried it because it was too confronting

          I’m starting to get emotionally stable so I am going to wait until I’ve been stable for a while to bring it up and work through it.

          Thank you, again.

          1. I am glad you are safe with her! You are doing what is right for you in your own time, and that is great.

            Those people who said it wasn’t rape? Those people are wrong, and they are jerks. You were there and they were not, and you know that you were raped. You don’t have to be afraid for your life for crying out loud. As for the men who raped you, well, rapists are not really going to have good sense of what is right and wrong, are they? If they thought they did something wrong, they wouldn’t have done it; and because they consider themselves good people, whatever *they* did couldn’t have been wrong. So obviously you’re overreacting or making it up or whatever bullshit they need to say about you to keep their bullshit egos intact.

            A bunch of assholes, the lot of them, for the way they treated you.

            You are strong and smart and brave. You came on here and told us some of your story, so other survivors who got STIs would not feel so alone, that is a hard thing to do. Thank you.

      2. One suggestion re: bringing these topics up to your therapist, of course only if (HUGE IF) this would make it more comfortable. You could call her patient voicemail and leave her a message. Just tell her at the beginning that it’s not an emergency call and you just wanted her to know for your next session, but were too [feelings] to tell her in session. And, bonus, she can help you with the feelings around the incident and around talking about the incident.

      3. I’m so sorry — that ‘s a lot of hurt to be carrying around.

        I wanted to suggest that if you’re anxious about telling your therapist, but you do want her to know so she can eventually help you with it, one way to ease into it might be to preface it by telling her that there are a couple of things you need her to know, but that you’re not ready to discuss yet. So the ground rules for you telling her could be that you would do it toward the end of a session, and she’s not allowed to interrupt ’til you’re done, and that at that moment she’s allowed to say something absurdly understated and inadequate like “that sucks, I’m sorry that happened to you” but that’s all. And that in future sessions, she doesn’t get to bring that stuff into a discussion; only you get to do that. And if you do raise the subject, and you become uncomfortable with the discussion, you are allowed to say “STOP! That’s enough of that for today.” And it will be dropped.

        I would think that a good therapist would be willing to go along with that — because it still helps her understand you better, and she should understand that it’s part of creating a safe space for you to let that monster out of the closet. (Kind of like the chalk pentagram people use when summoning a demon (which I swear I am thinking of in a fictional context!!)). Hopefully, once you’ve found that the space is safe, you will feel more comfortable letting your therapist address the issue directly.

        If she’s not willing, or if you don’t feel comfortable telling her even with those boundaries negotiated ahead of time, you may want to consider whether the issue is your fit with this particular therapist. I know — it is easy when you are feeling fragile to assume it is all on you, that you have issues with trust and safety, and that your inability to open up to her is just one more manifestation of your problems. But it may not be. Not because she’s a horrible therapist or bad person, but because for whatever indefinable reason she does not feel as non-judgmental and supportive as you need her to feel. In which case, you may want to contact a rape crisis center and ask for a referral to therapists who are trained specifically to help people who have been through this particular version of hell.

        Good luck with that.

        1. Thank you so much, thank you for taking the time to write this out to me.
          I am going to bookmark this and use it when I am ready to talk about it.

          She’s usually very good about letting me bring up stuff when I want to and listening when I say I don’t want to discuss something yet. Mostly it’s me, it’s only been the last month or so I’ve been able to say to myself “that was rape and it happened to you. you were raped.” and it’s such a huge confronting thing I haven’t felt emotionally stable enough to speak about out loud.
          I have thought about calling a rape crisis centre but for a very long time I wasn’t sure if it counted or if i would be laughed off the phone (since I have had multiple people tell me it wasn’t it totally traumatised me further) but I will definitely keep that in mind if it doesn’t work out with my psychologist.

          thank you

          1. So I am a wee bit late coming into this topic, but I saw your comment about crisis centers and had to pop in. Rape crisis centers are there to help… I don’t work for one, I don’t think I could handle it [although I would like to be able to assist people like that], but every time I have called or emailed one or whatever, they have been explicitly clear that they don’t classify anything, and the only definition of “rape” that they go by is yours. Any crisis responder who laughs you off the phone is a horrible, terrible person, and they are so much in the minority I don’t have the words to explain how.

            And those people who said it didn’t count or wasn’t rape… I… literally don’t have words. They are wrong. They are so very, very wrong, and I am hurt on your behalf that they were/are actively discouraging you from seeking healing and help. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, and I sincerely hope that they either shape up or are people you don’t need to interact with much, if at all.

            That said! One thing that helped me immensely was the ability to “call” a crisis line via chat — RAINN has a very good one, and I’ve used it multiple times. For me, being able to do those discussions through text was the only way it was going to happen, and so to get the help I needed in the format I needed was solely incredible. There are others, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head at the moment.

            but remember this… help exists. there are people out there who devote their lives to helping us victims and survivors work through these terrible portions of our histories simply so that we can live better lives and be as happy as possible. They care. We care. I care. And I am wishing you all the peace and healing you need and desire.

  28. Hi DD, another herpes-haver here. I’ve got HSV 1 & 2, and except for one person, I’ve had the conversation with every partner I’ve had since I found out. At some point I started realizing that I didn’t have to act as though I was disclosing something shameful/wrong about myself, when telling partners – I didn’t have to give the stigma any more traction by acting it out myself. At the same time, I started telling people a bit differently – instead of heart-to-hearts with people I had been dating for a while, I began telling people sooner and more casually. For me personally, I found it was better to have told them before sex was on the table, both to weed out the people who couldn’t handle it and to give people time to assimilate it as part of me-as-a-package rather than disease-as-impediment-to-sex.

    Also, I don’t take medication to manage my asymptomatic herpes, and if that is a choice you decide to make as well, please be aware that it’s ok. I have been shamed by people who say I should be taking medication to manage the presence of the virus, and while it’s a fine choice for some people, it’s not the right choice for me. I am sure that for people with outbreaks would be shamed still more for making the choice I did.

    Good luck, and you’ve already walked the hardest part of this road, to some extent. You sound like you’re doing great.

    1. Ugh, down with the shamers, for they know nothing.

      If your body is doing well controlling the virus, then you are no different than the many people who have the virus but don’t know it because they’ve never had an outbreak! I’m very glad the meds exist for those who need them, but if you’re asymptomatic, drugs just take you from pretty-low-risk-of-transmission (for any given encounter) to slightly-lower-risk-of-transmission, and I can easily see how that slight change may not be worth the effort/side-effects/$ costs of drugs.

      1. Yes, this.

        I take them, not because I had rampant outbreaks (I did not), but because my partner is poly and it’s important to some of the other people zie is involved with. If it were just the two of us, things might be different.

        1. Yeah, medication is something I’m certainly willing to do for the right person and situation. Right now I’m managing just fine without meds, I don’t seem inclined to frequent outbreaks. But seriously, down with the shamers. They suck.

    2. I can’t tell you the relief I felt reading that you have asymptomatic herpes, I have also got asymptomatic herpes. I haven’t ever spoken to anyone else without symptoms, my doctor who diagnosed me treated me with total condescension when I said I’ve never had symptoms because I “must not have noticed” (?!!)

      Uh anyway, thank you for writing about it.

      1. Oh man, that sucks! I’m so sorry to hear about that asshole doctor. I suspect I had a cold sore around my mouth once, but I’ve never had anything appear in the genital region. I found out a few years ago when I got a complete battery of STI tests, including a blood test for herpes. Sometimes I totally wish I hadn’t had the test done, but it has also changed my awareness of my own sexual health and my choice of partners in really positive ways.

        But yeah, asymptomatic herpes is TOTALLY a thing – I believe we’re actually more common than symptomatic herpes-havers.

        1. Yeah, that’s how I found out! I wish I didn’t know sometimes too(mostly when i totally want to do sexy things with somebody but i’m not comfortable enough to let them know, which then always feels like a probably good indication i shouldn’t do sexy things with this person), but most of the time I’m glad i know.

      2. Your doctor is an ignorant asshole, and I’m so sorry about that. If he were in my microbiology/virology class, I would fail him, gleefully.

        1. He totally is and that makes me feel better, haha. I went straight up to the receptionist afterwards and asked them to make a note on my file that i was never to see that doctor again

  29. I have genital herpes! Many others here carry the genital herpes virus, but have never had symptoms and never will. Contagious diseases exist because we are social animals, and everything from cold to the plague are a product of our compulsion to be close to one another. I’m very sorry that the person you got close with was such an arsehole about all this.

    I’ve not had to negotiate disclosure all that much (except you know, blurting it out in a public forum). My ex-husband had had it for many years, told his girlfriends and it had never put anyone off. I understood that over a period of years, I’d probably get it and I did. Between us, my now husband and I have only had sex with three other people, but we both carried the virus by the time we got together. I sometimes have symptoms, but he never does. It’s *really* common.

    But as someone with a much bigger deal chronic illness, I have given this advice to folk wondering how to disclose *any* health problem to a new partner or potential partner:

    1). As a general rule, the news is going to seem as big a deal as you make it sound. If you sit them down like you’re going to tell them you once killed a man, they will take it that way. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a small uncomfortable part of your life’s experience, along with your naturist uncle and that Mariah Carey album you once bought.

    2). Concentrate on pertinent information; how this effects you, what it means for any sexual relationship you might have. Our culture often obliges folks to elaborate at length on personal medical information, but you can go through that stuff in the Q & A to follow.

    3). Express your feelings about it as simple as possible: “This is a bit embarrassing, but it’s something you need to know.” You have been through an emotional rollercoaster with this, but that’s also separate from the issue at hand (although again, hopefully, you will be able to share all that later on).

    4). Use simple non-scary language. In this case, you have a virus that caused coldsores on your private parts. The coldsores may return and there’s a risk that any partner of yours might get coldsores on their private parts.

    5). Remember that, in the early stages of any relationship, all manner of information comes up that could be a deal-breaker. You could be looking for different things. You could find you have non-compatible ideas about sex for some other reason entirely. One of you might be a cat person while the other is allergic. This is just another line of data in that mix.

    Good luck! You are completely right to want to wait for the right time with the right person, because apart from anything else, the last person really let you down in a dreadful way. I hope your romantic and sexual life only improves from here on in.

  30. Great post, Elodie. Just one more thing to add to the part about everyone having a history, and about BUTTMUNCHES.

    A friend of mine is in a long-term relationship with a Vile Man. We hates him, precious! One of the many reasons why we hates him is because, when they first began dating, she informed him that she has herpes. She contracted it years ago, uses protection, takes medication, and is very responsible with her body and about being honest, and manages everything very well IMO.

    He responded with this whole hem-hawing and whipsawing about how she “had baggage” and he JUST DIDN’T KNOW and basically made her feel like crap about herself and then she was (depressingly) overwhelmed with gratitude when he condescended to date her after all.

    Then she discovered that he oops-accidentally forgot to mention the fact that he was the father of a toddler – oh – and also lived with the toddler’s ill, wheelchair-bound mother but “we are just friends, she tricked me into having this child so she could get a free meal ticket from me to pay all her bills and buy all her food.” YES this is a wonderful man.

    I think the moral of the story here is everyone has a past, and that the people who try to make you feel bad about yours are assholes best left undated.
    Good luck to you, letter writer!

  31. Hi! I have genital HSV-1. Woo!

    I haven’t had to negotiate with any new partners about it yet, since presumably I got it from my current partner. (No foul play involved there as far as I can tell, and he probably has it as well by now.) I’m lucky because it’s been relatively painless for me since my first outbreak. One of the cool things that happened after I got it was I found out about ALL THESE PEOPLE in my life who had it, too! (Family members, etc.) I’d had no idea. Apparently it’s pretty “normal.”

    It’s great to read the advice here, because future conversations are something that I sometimes worry about. So thanks everyone. 🙂

  32. I looooooved loved loved the advice, with one caveat….the use of the term STD needs to die a fiery death. The term STI will take down the stigma just a notch, hopefully, as “disease” carries quite a bit more loaded baggage than “infection”. (It was something that I had reinforced when I worked at a well woman gynecological and abortion clinic for a few years.)

    But wordy mcword to everyone who said that herpes is common. But I know that at the clinic where I worked, it was standard operating procedure that unless there was a sore present, a herpes test was not part of the STI screen we would run, unless the client really, really pushed for it, because the virus is just that prevalent in the population. My standard answer to people who asked over the phone if it was possible that they could have it (because they were concerned they might have been exposed) was that if they had ever had a cold sore anywhere on their body at any time in their life, they already had a herpes virus. I’ve had a cold sore a couple of times, so I have it, I’ve just never had a genital outbreak or exposure that I’ve been informed of.

    This isn’t to say that someone with genital herpes, or who is concerned about contracting it isn’t entitled to their fears, an individual gets to feel what they feel about their body and their health. But, the more people who are able to take a deep breath and really understand that there is no more shame in the misfortune of getting an STI as, say, bronchitis, (subbing for chlamydia as an antibiotic-treatable infection) or recurring cold sores or warts that aren’t on the genitals, then that is so much better for destigmatization of STI’s. And without the stigmas, then maybe the people who are unlucky enough to pick them up wouldn’t be worried about the whole WHORE thing, but the actual physical risks to having the infections, whatever they may be.

    1. I’ve heard (and used) reasonable biomedical arguments for making a distinction between “disease” and “infection;” that a disease causes symptoms and is often noncurable, while an infection may not cause symptoms (latent HSV) or are curable (chlamydia.) There is definitely a lack of clarity when communicating this, and the decades-long association of “STD” with “DREADED HO DISEASE” is absolutely awful and full of baggage. I am going to keep the nomenclature in this post, since I chose it for good reasons, but I hope others will read your post and understand it. And thank you very much for bringing it up.

      Of course, there’s no particular reason why we call these diseases “sexually transmitted” at all, when one can get HSV-1 from sharing snacks in kindergarten and UTIs from poorly-ventilated underwear. You can get these things without ever having had “sex”, so why are they even “sexually transmitted” diseases that you have to feel bad about? But then, the usefulness of the nomenclature would be lessened. Lots of problems, lots of stigmas to dismantle, lots of work to do – thank you for the work you’ve done.

      1. We use STD because we used to call it venereal disease, and that was all kinds of problematic.

        I suspect the STI vs STD won’t change stigma ever as long as everyone cares about the S part.

  33. When I found out I had genital herpes the boyfriend I was dating at the time dealt with it terribly. Then dumped me. I was convinced that no one would ever love me or want me again. I felt alone and ashamed. A friend talked me into online dating, I started slowly… with an online sight for positive singles where “the talk” wouldn’t be a huge surprise and then moved on to okcupid. I’ve been pretty open and upfront about it and it’s definitely awkward, but Elodie is completely right… it gets easier with practice. Some people will bolt, others won’t. The last person I told was incredibly sweet. He told me he was sorry that this is something I have to deal with but that it didn’t change the way he thought about me. A little while later he gave me the best head of my life. I agree with everything Elodie wrote and I just hope you realize that you aren’t alone!!! There’s also a great online community on tumblr where you can find support and encouragement. Best of luck and be good to yourself.

  34. I have herpes! Roughly every 1 in 5 women (aged 14-49) in the U.S. have genital herpes.

    Thank you Elodie for this insightful post.

  35. Hi LW,

    Despite what everybody says always, STDs really aren’t a huge deal. Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis can all be cured. HPV is mostly symptomless; symptoms can be managed when they aren’t. HSV is the same, but without the chance of developing cancer. HIV can be suppressed for longer and longer periods of time (for most part and at a price.)

    I know people freak out about it sometimes, but people give each other diseases all. the. time. Parents with HSV can accidentally transfer it to their children – and sometimes while changing diapers! I got mono in high school and I still have no idea where, as I wasn’t kissing anybody.

    And for the most part, the diseases we transfer are simply unpleasant for a short period of time. We should try to respect others’ wishes to not catch diseases, but telling a potential sex partner should be like staying home from work because of strep or the flu – the decent, if not always pleasant (it’s just a sore throat and you COULD work and it’s the busy season!), thing to do.

    Society shouldn’t make it a horror inducing moment.

    1. I am really uncomfortable about HIV being lumped in with the other STIs mentioned above as not “a huge deal.” I’m a queer man who’s been involved in queer communities for years, and if you talk to just about any queer man of a certain age, he will tell you about all of the lovers and friends he lost to AIDS back in the 80’s and early 90’s. It utterly devastated queer communities–we lost almost an entire generation of queer men to this disease, and it most certainly WAS “a huge deal” to us.

      It’s true that treatments today are better and that people are living longer and healthier with HIV infections. Absolutely. But it’s still a deadly disease, with a deadly legacy. This shouldn’t be used to shame anyone living with HIV/AIDS–no, no, no, no!–but merely to respect the fact that many, many people have died from it and are still dying from it.

  36. If I ever get herpes, I am totally going to give prospective partners the GiantMicrobes Herpes. Those things are great, and that is one of the best suggestions ever.

    Actually, funny (but mostly unrelated) story. When I was in college, I lived in a suite, and we wanted a way to signal “sexytime, don’t come in” before somebody tried the door and found it locked. Especially if that someone was our roommate.

    So we had the bright idea of getting GiantMicrobe STDs, putting them on strings, and hanging them on the doorknob. We all agreed it was way better than a sock or some nonsense like that, and went about the difficult task of deciding which STD we wanted.

    I called syphilis straight off, and another room called chlamydia, but one of my suitemates took awhile to decide. When she finally did, she was in the quad with her boyfriend, and she informed one of our suitemates very loudly that she wanted herpes. Apparently, people looked at her a bit strangely.

    (When the microbes finally arrived, I texted my boyfriend saying, “Syphilis is here!!” He nearly had a heart attack, despite knowing that I was ordering the syphilis microbe. Did not intend for the text to come out quite the way it apparently sounded… whoops.)

    I am not sure why I thought this was relevant? Other than oh, cute, giantmicrobe! Anyway, great great response, and I have nothing on-topic to add.

  37. Oh wow. Such a good post. So many good comments. I wish I had a community like this when I first got HPV and was crushed (and it wasn’t even one of the scary ones, I just didn’t know anything about it).

    But LW, let me tell you about the second time I got HPV–after being vaccinated, after being in a monogamous relationship for a long time. The second time it was one of the ones that is linked to cancer, so it was scarier and involved painful biopsies. I broke up with the monogamous relationship (for other reasons) and almost immediately was presented with the opportunity to make out with the hot yoga instructor I’d had a crush on for months.

    LW, we started making out like crazy and as soon as the clothes started to come off, I blurted out that I had two unpleasant things to announce. (One was the HPV, the other was my post-breakup emotional baggage.) It was extremely awkward. But he was kind.

    In the end, we had a torrid affair and awesome sex for about eight or nine months. Just. . . no cunnilingus (a low but suddenly well-known risk factor, courtesy of Michael Douglas) and no PIV. Nothing that would create a risk that his next girlfriend would have to have little samples snipped out of her cervix, because that is seriously the worst. But LW, we had so much fun. I regret nothing.

    You deserve to feel desirable. Giving your partner the opportunity to give informed consent is about the sexiest thing you can do. Even if it doesn’t work out this time, you’ll be doing great. Rock on.

  38. Hey all, it’s the Letter Writer. Elodie, thank you so, so much for such a beautiful response. I read it on my lunch break at work and had to go be sniffley in the bathroom for a few minutes. But, uh, in a good way. Also, stuffed plushie herpes virus? BEST IDEA EVER. You had some really good advice, but I’m definitely going to use that one. Sadly, it doesn’t look like they have HSV-1, which is what I have all up in my bits. I think probably HSV-2 is close enough, though.

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I’m going to go do that and respond to some of them now. Thanks again. You’re all wonderful.

    1. So glad to hear from you!

      I have HSV-1 too! It occasionally lives way-up-inside inside my right nostril, and is called Herbert. I hereby declare that it is 100% scientifically ok to use the cuddly microbe and relabel it HSV-1 (or Herbert.) They look pretty much alike under a microscope anyway, and it would give you a chance to make your own label/information package.

      Best of luck to you and your path.

      1. May I ask how you figured out you have it way up inside your right nostril? I would never have thought of that.

        1. When I first got Herbert, after a nuzzle from an asymptomatic partner, he performed his initial outbreak as a very flamboyant song-and-dance at the edge of my nose, and then he presumably decided to go somewhere darker? I cannot really fathom his motives. He hates air travel, though.

          Ironically, I did not get Herbert from the partner who had very frequent and obvious outbreaks of mouth sores (and who didn’t know that they were herpes – I had to tell him, and we had an oddly inverted version of the Conversation, wherein I told him something like “Er, you have herpes! Don’t worry! There are precautions we can take.”) I elected for blood tests at the end of that relationship to be safe, as my immune system isn’t great, and I am fairly confident that I didn’t get Herbert from that partner.

          No, I got Herbert from an asymptomatic partner who never has outbreaks. C’est la me.

  39. I want to bronze everything Elodie said, and second what all the commentariat said. It’s all pretty much true, at least in my case.

    My veryvery first relationship was with a person who had HSV2, and I entered into that emotional and sexual relationship willingly/enthusiastically. He was very open and upfront about his diagnosis. It was very matter of fact, the talk we had, which soothed my initial fears. Sure, it was weird and uncomfortable, but it opened up the way we related to each other. About 2 years later, I contracted the virus from him. Since I was young, I didn’t take the diagnosis well. He was supportive of me and my reaction (though hurt, understandably, since I was a shitheel about it at the time), but we were together for another couple of years before things fell apart. (He and I are still friends, 20 years later. The break-up happened as many first relationships do, and it wasn’t due to the break-outs of HSV.)

    The first few disclosure conversations I had once I was single again and dating were very, very, very, *very* awkward. For the most part, my partners handled those disclosures with grace (and then really *awesome* sexytimes!) Some of them even beat me to the punch, stating they had herpes before I could say that I had it too!

    But I did have some not so very nice rejections. The not nice interactions left me feeling dirty, ashamed, never-to-be-loved and alone. During one such disclosure conversation, the dude physically push me away by my shoulders. Needless to say, my ego and self-worth were left bruised. Of course, these icky reactions were the ones I focused on, completely forgetting the 97% positive reactions I had. Those rejections were few and far between, but those were the ones I focused on. LW, please don’t let those interactions colour your views.

    After a while, I married. He accepted me, sores and all. He and I are no longer married (partially because he gave me HPV. The HPV wasn’t the issue, it was the cheating, lying, and abuse), but I am now with a partner who is so frakkin’ awesome that when I disclosed my medical (HSV / HPV) and emotional history, he just looked at me, shrugged, and said, “And? I like *you*. Those diagnoses are part and parcel of who you are.”

    Though it did get easier, in a way, to disclose my herpes diagnosis (and then subsequent HPV), it was still … uncomfortable. And awkward. Those who stated above were right–that being matter of fact about it made it easier speak truth (at least, in my experience). For me, combining some sarcastic and humourous mixture with the medical truth worked. Find your own rhythm and way to speak about your HSV, and your own boundaries surrounding it/yourself. Depending on their reaction, you’ll have a good yardstick to measure your own comfort regarding their reaction to the proposed sloppy make-out sessions.

    (God, I hope the above made sense. I’m going on a handful of hours of sleep and I’m not sure it made sense.)

  40. Hi, LW!

    I don’t have any advice for how to tell people. But I do have a hopefully encouraging anecdote for you!

    My partner and I both have HSV1, in different places. Neither of us habitually take drugs for it, and we just abstain from sex when someone’s having an outbreak. But we have a completely full and happy sex life, and don’t have to take unusual precautions. Now, we both have HSV, so we don’t have to be as careful about re-infecting as other people might. But you can definitely (though you should of course disclose) have a normal sex life without passing HSV on to everyone, and you don’t have to give up any of your favorites.

    P.S. Saran wrap = dental dam. 😉 Just use a really big piece.

  41. Elodie, I did not think I could admire or appreciate you more, and I was wrong. This is amazing. Also this comment space. I have HSV-1 (which, like some commenters above, I got from a kiss that was forced on me), and I usually avoid reading anything on this subject because, while I am pretty ok with things in my own mind and in the relationship with my partner, reading people’s comments on this subject nearly always fills me with shame and misery.
    What you say about the different reactions is absolutely true. I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone who loves science (it’s a sexy love triangle), and when I disclosed it to her, she shrugged and said that it was “a friendly little virus.” Reader, I married her (for this and many other reasons besides).

    1. OMG! “Friendly little virus!” That is the best description. I would have married her too!

  42. I like the point that pretty much everyone has times when their body is closed for maintenance and/or repairs. I was reading about how people navigate sexytimes when HSV is present, and then went “wait… that sounds a lot like how my partner and I manage hir couple-times-a-year outbreaks of jock itch.” I recognize that they’re not equivalent – jock itch is pretty easily cured and doesn’t have the same social stigma – but it was amusing to me to be glad that I don’t have to take extra precautions around an STI, and then realize, “Wait. I already am. And have been for a while. Oh.”

  43. Eloooodieeee, we love you!

    I think a lot of this advice is really for other things, too – I have depression and was institutionalized during a particularly bad episode, and it’s something that I feel is important for anyone who wants to be in a relationship with me to know, and it’s helpful to remind myself that it’s not “I’m horribly broken, here is your out to run,” but more, “this is something important about me that you should know about, and if you can’t deal, fine.”

  44. OK. So, back when I was in college, I had some intimate times with a girl who did not disclose her herpes status. I found out about it afterwards from a friend to whom she DID disclose, and I was pretty angry with her for not telling me. I probably would still have fooled around with her, but I don’t know for sure. It was upsetting to me that apparently I mattered so little to her that she didn’t bother with basic care, rather than specifically ZOMG STD.

    I talked it over with a friend who was infected with herpes by a boyfriend who did basically what your ex did, LW — lied, promised he’d had clean tests, promised to show test results, vanished. He said that his policy with partners now was to have a fairly serious conversation that started off pretty much: “One of my exes lied to me about his STD status, and he gave me herpes. I need to tell you, because it is important to me that you be able to decide how you feel about that, and because it is very important to me that there be trust in a relationship. I never want to do to someone what he did to me. Do you have questions, or is there anything you need to tell me?”

    He thought that worked because it let potential partners know that he was being upfront and trustful, and that he needed upfront-ness and trustfulness in return, and that he’d been hurt — he felt like he was asking for compassion by phrasing it that way, but not asking for pity.

    It’s not a conversation I’ve ever needed to have, fortunately, but I thought that was a sensible way to approach it.

  45. I hope this advice was helpful to the LW, but for me, reading along, it wasn’t so great. It’s not my experience that I “feel quite comfortable” communicating times when I don’t want sex. When I was menstruating I had a hard time saying that, and now that I’m post menopausal, it’s been hard to talk about changes in my body that make PIV sex unbearable. I mean, it’s taken a couple of years for me to stop saying “not tonight, how about a blow job instead” and move on to “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have PIV sex again; how are you with that?” And I was sorry I waited because the answer was more positive than I expected.

    Anyway, my point is that not all of us are comfortable talking about ANY aspect of this, so it’s not like we have a template to apply to more troublesome situations.

    1. I read that more as “society expects us to find these things uncomfortable, but many of us circumvent that and go right ahead”, rather than “everyone is comfortable doing those things”.

  46. I wish this post had gone up a couple days ago (I thought I had genital herpes, though the tests came back negative (for all STIs). Now I’m back to not knowing what’s up with my ladybits, sigh). Having this kind of support would have helped, I think. So I’m really glad this is out there now. And if my as of yet undiagnosed infection comes back, I will probably be back here reassuring myself that if it does turn out to be some kind of STI it’s not the end of the world.

    I, too, was thinking I would probably present my secondary partner with the herpes plush!

  47. I’m not a Dear Prudence fan, but after reading her entire response to the two questions you quoted, I think you seriously distorted what she said to a level of dishonesty. There are plenty of examples of slut shaming in the media, I don’t think it’s necessary to twist someone’s words to create one.

    1. I agree. Although I am a Dear Prudence fan, because she typically deals with life as it is, not as we wish it would be. Most people are probably embarrassed to tell someone about an STD, because a lot of people are really uninformed and sex in America is often a taboo subject. I think that’s Prudie’s point, not that the writers were horrible sluts who *should* be embarrassed.

  48. Lots of people have cold sores, and lots of people have oral sex – so why don’t more of us get genital herpes?

    1. I believe it’s a slightly different strain of the virus that typically causes cold sores, although there is still a risk of genital transmission.

    2. Zooey is correct about the fundamentals. HSV-1 is the strain that is typically involved in oral “cold sores”; it’s a strain that strongly prefers to take up residence in the mouth, but can sometimes attach itself to the genitals. HSV-2 is the strain that is typically involved in genital herpes (I adore the earlier comment suggesting calling it “genital cold sores”); it’s a strain that strongly prefers to take up residence in the genitals (or anus, which sounds even more unpleasant), but can sometimes attach itself to the mouth.

      One or the other strain can also attach itself to the eyes (“ocular herpes”, obvs), which sounds excruciatingly unpleasant. So, handwashing, it’s a thing.

    3. From what I was told by the nurse who diagnosed me, in lots of people HSV-1 (which is typically associated with oral herpes) is asymptomatic. My partner almost certainly has genital HSV-1 by now but he’s never had an outbreak, and I only had a painful outbreak the first time.

      Also, it’s just harder to transfer oral HSV-1 to genitals, just like it’s harder to transfer genital HSV-2 to someone’s mouth.

  49. They will have their personal reasons, which we cannot change, and of which we will probably know nothing.

    I don’t feel I have anything to add to the post or the great comments here, but I definitely wanted to highlight this excellent and wise piece of information.

    When it comes to relationships, I run. I run at the slightest provocation. Because I don’t want to hurt people, I tend to abstain from dating as much as possible, however there have been times in the past when I have felt like I could take it on.

    One of those times, I met a seemingly nice guy (who will now be referred to as SNG). SNG and I were getting to know each other when he told me that he had a substance use problem with marijuana; he was no longer using and was attending 12-step meetings for this issue. He told me that I was welcome to ask him anything I wanted about it, and that he understood if it was a deal-breaker. I’ve never smoked pot before, and told him so, but I also told him that I didn’t think it made him any less of a person and that I was glad he was getting help.

    What I did not tell him is that one of my parents had a substance abuse problem too and also attended 12-step meetings; in fact, given that they lived close to each other there was a chance that they may have even attend some of the same ones. This definitely gave me pause. There is a lot of painful history tied to my parent’s use of substances and I was nervous about getting involved in that.

    When it was time to put our cards on the table, I bailed and I am pretty sure that he thought his problem was part of it. Did it cross my mind when I decided to bail? Of course. Was that the driving force behind what I did? Nope. I couldn’t be in that situation because I was me and I have my own baggage. One of those bags is my family history with substances; the other eight bags in the set have nothing to do with that. If I had my shit together, it would have been hard, but I would have dealt. But I did not have my shit together, which meant I had to leave no matter what. I even thought it was probably better for someone adjusting to some changes in his life not to deal with the crap I was bound to do if I stuck around.

    And that is what I hope the LW will remember. Yes, there will be people who will handle this news badly. And there will be people who view it as a deal-breaker, probably based on a lot of misinformation. But I think the majority of people make these decisions based on Reasons. And Reasons are all about them, not about you.

    I know if I was in your shoes, I would be worried about how I caused this situation to occur (and, of course, that I am awful because it occurred). In case you are like me and you drift into that mindset, I wanted to emphasize that some of us out here are just a mess and will be a mess no matter what, and nothing you can do can cause it, change it, or explain it. So don’t be too hard on yourself if that happens!

    I’ll be sending you my good thoughts and wishes that good things come your way!

    PS- I am sorry your ex was a jerky jerk. You are awesome to be working past that horribleness!

  50. I’m not seeing many posters who themselves have/know they have genital herpes. So posting this. My husband of many years cheated on me and during the bad time he came to me and said he’d never had sex with the OW, then he pretty much coerced sex, I didn’t want it but he begged, he kept doing things I didn’t want and it had been so long I gave in. Yay, first sex in years and I win the lottery. Later I came to know he went directly from sex with her to sex with me, within hours, so emotionally that screws me up all the more because he gave me herpes 1&2 that day, I got very sick, not just the blisters. I have the viruses in the “wrong” places, as the poster above said, genital and oral can switch places, the joy of a huge raw hole in my gums and the burning piss at the same time, while I run a fever and ache like hell. I then had back to back outbreaks for over a year and had to go on anti-virals. 3 years later I still have to take the antivirals too often for my health, I have a rare disease that compromises my liver so I have to weigh the cost to keep outbreaks down vs screwing up my liver. So, saying it’s so common and it usually isn’t a big deal so any one could deal with it are meaningless to me.

    I don’t think this post helps so much when the stigma is so great and rational thought of why would anyone knowingly expose themselves to this STI? I wouldn’t have risked this infection knowingly and I don’t know that everyone saying how they would so be cool with this, here in this thread, is believable. Unless you are in love how do you decide it’s ok to risk a incurable virus that may really screw with your health? And if you have that virus you are ethically required to disclose long before someone falls in love with you, catch 22. My choice was taken, I cannot bear the thought of screwing someone else up with this crap. It is highly likely I will never have satisfying sex again because I have this, because I can never expose anyone to it without their knowledge and consent. What I noticed here is that only a couple of posters actually have genital herpes, I’d like to hear from others that have it. And I don’t mean oral herpes, this is not something most people disclose, in fact most people don’t even realize that’s what a cold sore is… I’ve been on this sites forum (http://www.herpes-coldsores.com/) and there is always someone debating not telling because they are so forlorn and unable to find a person that won’t run when they tell them they have genital herpes. It’s not a thing like having a menstrual cycle or whatever. And you don’t know if you will be a person that doesn’t notice you have it or someone who gets badly sick from it until you get it. So what rational person wants to risk that? I do not think I’m dirty because I have this, I think I’m sick with something that any normal rational person would not sign up for knowingly. I know I did not.

    1. I’m sorry you had such a horrible experience, Anon. It sounds emotionally and physically devastating.

      I hope some people who have herpes see your comment and have some useful thoughts to add. But I just wanted to say don’t give up hope – some people will run when they hear your status, but some will understand that with safe sexual practices the risk can be drastically minimised. Knowledge and consent in a relationship gives you the opportunity to practice those so that the other person is knowingly protecting themselves from the STI.

      Maybe this will not sound very convincing coming from a person who hasn’t had your lived experience. But your comment sounds so despairing, I wanted to reach out.

    2. I’m kinda scratching my head here, since there’s at least a half-dozen (probably closer to dozen) people commenting here who explicitly said that they have HSV and have posted about their experiences.

      You make a good point that, while HSV often is not a serious medical problem (the mental issues are usually more serious for many), it *can* have significant medical impact. You have a lot of sympathy from me on how badly this has impacted you.

      You ask how some of us could willingly take those risks? Because we love the person, hate the virus. Because the overall risk of passing it on, if precautions are taken, is actually pretty low (less than the failure rate of condoms, for example). Because for many people, the medical impact is minimal. Because we like the sex. Because 1/5 of the population is too many people for us to write off.

      Everyone should have the right to make their own risk assessments. I’m sorry some asshat didn’t give you the chance to do so.

      1. Hi,

        First off I’m so sorry you have had this totally shitty experience.

        Secondly in the hope it makes you or anyone else feel better here’s a list of friends of mine that definitely have herpes:
        me (in case it wasn’t obvious in my earlier comment) HSV-1 genitally, my lovely boyfriend HSV-1 orally (we have no idea who gave it to who and don’t much care); the couple I live with – HSV-1 genitally both of them (they don’t know either and similarly don’t care); my other housemate tested positive for HSV-1 but appears to be asypmtomatic so doesn’t know where she has it; my boyfriends ex-housemate and his girlfriend – genitally and orally again, I don’t know which strain; and finally, my boyfriends best friend and his ex-girlfriend – oral and asymptomatic, unknown strain.

        Keeping in mind that that is just among the people that I know well enough to discuss these things with. Among these people several including myself had severe and unpleasant initial out-breaks, however we have all been fortunate in that we have either had infrequent and mild or no reoccurences.
        I actually had the worst reoccurences out of this group and I currently haven’t had an outbreak in 2 years which my doctor told me means I’m unlikely to have it again. In fact I was informed that after that period of time with no outbreaks the risk level was sufficiently low that it wasn’t necessary to inform future partners, although I will still be doing this just in case.
        My aim here is not to rub salt in the wound of your misfortune, but to make the point that if you were unlucky enough to give the virus to a sexual partner they would be unlikely to have anywhere near as awful an experience as you have had.

        Sadly some of us react particularly badly to various diseases, I am incredibly vulnerable to flu for instance, to the extent of hospitalisation, and would prefer to have non-barrier protected sexual contact with the HSV I don’t have to being exposed to someone with a bad cough! The important thing to remember is that this doesn’t make us bad people! (Apologies if I’m coming over ridiculously cheesy and enthused, I may have overdone the sugar.)

        I also think it’s interesting that among the group mentioned above no-one seems to feel particluarly differently about people who have it orally or genitally, however this might be because a large number of them are medical students. (See your doctor probably has it too!)

  51. I’m really glad to read all of this. I just got tested for herpes & I’m waiting for the results. My doctor told me that she thinks I just have reoccurring cysts that happen to be on my thigh, but I wanted to be tested & she agreed. I’m really glad to know that even if I do get a positive result, my sex life isn’t over & the info here has relieved my mind a lot. Thanks so much.

  52. Does anyone want to hear my funny story about STI’s? Gather round children!

    I was working as a sexual health outreach worker, going into schools and universities and encouraging people to get tested for Chlamydia. Fairly frequently, I’d get told by a nervous teen “I’ll do it if you do it”, and I would gamely proceed to pee in a pot.

    Because I did this so often, I would always choose a different phone number (which was the only identifier in the kit) from a family or friend, so that it didn’t look suspicious that the same number was getting tested over and over again.

    The results took about two weeks, and were delivered by text. One day, I got a call from my mother, telling me that a text message had informed her that she had Chlamydia. Turns out, my long-distance boyfriend had been cheating on me, contracted Chlamydia and passed it on to me. The best part was all of my friends and family being informed by text as the results came in.

    The lessons we have learnt from this are ‘some people suck’ and ’embarrassment is rarely fatal’. I really hope that this conversation goes well for you LW, and that you get more and more comfortable talking about your body and taking up space. Thank you Elodie for such a kind and thoughtful response.

    1. Ohhh wow. That’s the kind of experience I kind of live through by telling myself, “It will take a LONG time before anything trumps THIS as my Worst Experience Ever!” Go you.

    2. I am massively impressed that you did not spontaneously explode from embarrassment, as I fear I might have done in your situation. Also, I am sorry about the cheatin’ boyfriend–that sucks.

  53. I have HSV1 and HSV2, both genitally. This means that kissing is zero risk for my potential suitors.

    Some context: I am 35, I am now at a point in my life where only monogamous, within-the-context-of-a-relationship sex is the kind I prefer. So for me, it’s about breaking it to someone I am interested in having a relationship.

    The difficult point for me has been when to do it. I don’t want to do it upon meeting them – I don’t even know at that point if I WANT sexytimes with them. So saying “Oh hi! I’m HerpDerp and I have The Herpes” is presumptuous and sincerely oversharing. Just like – a first date is not when you reveal that you own 47 cats or velocicraptors.

    Yet, I don’t want to wait too late – like if I’m in the heat of the moment and their pants will do all the thinking for them. But I want to wait until that sweet spot that a) you know there’s a potential for the relationship b) they can evaluate it and have the awesomeness that is YOU to weigh against the annoyance of herpes.

    I think there are two parts that are important to figure out:
    a) the conversation itself
    b) the timing


    I no longer approach it as THIS IS A HEAVY TOPIC AND I AM FOREVER WITH THIS VIRUS. But I look at it as me educating them. Even if they decide that Herpes is a dealbreaker (which I totally and completely understand), they will leave knowing all the facts. So I use a neutral voice. I approach it like this:

    After you hit your 30s, everyone has some baggage or potential dealbreakers. I have two – the first is that I will never have children. The second is that I have HSV 1 & 2.

    By introducing it that way, I preliminarily find out what they know. If they look puzzled by the terms, I use the term Herpes.

    So here’s the thing – it’s important to talk about and to know about. It’s something I will live with forever. However, on some level, I really really really want to downplay it – not because I fear rejection, but because THIS POINT is literally the only time it really sucks having it – THIS CONVERSATION. That is how it has impacted me the most. In my daily life – not at all. I’ve had X amount of outbreaks in the Y amount of years since contracting it. When I get it, Z happens. It literally has zero affect on my day to day life.

    I will then ask what they know about herpes. I elicit to find out a) if they already know what I’m about to say b) if they have any misinformation. I use what they say as a jumping off point. I also tell them that they are free to ask me anything. I also let them know that I can put them in touch with a friend who has had oodles of unprotected sex with his wife and he’s pos and she’s not. I also tell them they should not simply take my word on it, an I give them credible websites to read more about it.

    In general we do not take it any further until they’ve got some knowledge under their belt.


    Once I told a partner because we were getting hot and heavy and I really wanted to Make the Sex with him and needed to share before things proceeded.

    However, my newest and favorite strategy:

    I do nothing that involves needing to take my underpants off. This is The Boundary that Must Not Be Crossed Without a Conversation, period. So if I’m making out with a guy, I just reinforce that boundary. Once I realize I’m okay moving beyond that boundary I tell him:

    In order to go further, we need to have an uncomfortable conversation. You can choose when to have it, but it must meet two requirements. It must be face to face, and it cannot be in the heat of the moment.

    I do this because I hate feeling like I have all the cards, I must decide when to drop this bomb. I must be the God of this conversation. Screw that. I’m an adult who wants to enter into a mutually satisfying relationship, so I give them part of that control. They know the parameters and they decide when to have it. I drop the bomb, but they tell me when and where. I’m cool with that.

    And with the last partner, it was totally awesome. I said “We’ll have to have an uncomfortable conversation before anything more happens.” He said “Okay – definitely not tonight” and we kept it at the level it was at without escalating it.


    I’ve had various responses. In general, I will emotionally plan for them to come back as that being a dealbreaker. One guy said it was too much for him. Another guy said “I don’t give a crap.”

    The Too Much Guy really annoyed me in his reasoning. Why – because he worried what his parents would think if he caught it. o_O Ummm okay. And the other reason he gave is that he would feel uncomfortable giving me oral sex and that that wouldn’t be “fair” to me. Yes, I called BS on that and said “I get to decide what’s fair to me, not you. That’s YOU feeling uncomfortable with your restriction, NOT me.” (he concurred).

    Rejection sucks. Intellectually I know it’s a deal breaker, and that’s okay. You get to decide what you’re comfortable with, and you should be able to choose your risk level. That’s awesome. Emotionally, it totally sucks, but then again, it does for everyone.

    Different conversation tactics work for different people. I’m thankful I found one that works for me. The idea of me handing a stuffed animal to a potential partner would feel inauthentic and fake, but that’s because it’s not my style. But I’m also a teacher, and educating the person feels Very Important to me, because like I said – if they decide “no thanks” then they at least have left armed with the facts.

  54. This isn’t directed at the LW, but for the general conversation on the topic I want to bring up the fact that while there is a huge social conditioning to condemn those with STIs which we need to overturn, there is also a huge social conditioning for women to be ok with everything and maybe that’s something we need to accommodate in these sorts of conversations in the same way we would for other types of consent.

    An example: I once dated a guy who, when we were dating but before we were sexually intimate, told me that he had previously had genital warts. In the same conversation he also told me that he wanted us to have sex without condoms and asked if that was ok.

    As regards sentence 1, I was really impressed with his honesty and thought it was really awesome of him to tell me, and to tell me during a non-sexy times scenario. As regards 2, I felt massively pressured to say that everything was OK and to come up with a response and decision in his favour on the spot (without any information on the STI in question beyond his say so that it wasn’t likely to be contagious) that I later felt I couldn’t deviate from.

    I think anyone coming up with scripts for this sort of announcement should consider adding in something like, ‘I know that maybe this is a lot to take in right now, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to come up with a response or make a decision about what you want to do straight away. Take some time to think about it and do some research and we can talk about it again when you’re ready.’

    1. That you. I’m really super uncomfortable with how it’s marketed that anyone NOT okay with having sexy times with people who have STIs is somehow undereducated or stupid or “whatever” and not simply that it’s just a risk they aren’t interested in taking. I’m really tired honestly (and this hits smack with the “women making stuff okay” thing you bring up) of being pressured to be perfectly fine with having sex with people who have herpes, and worse, made to feel like I’m some asshole if I don’t. I’m not an asshole. I do however know how my pussy works and I know how much I hate dealing with recurring BV, and I know how much I hate hate hate having HPV, so no I don’t really have any desire to add herpes to that salad. It’s nothing personal, it’s not a lack of education, it’s not that I think I am pure (hello…………) it’s that I’m just not interested in taking that risk. That’s all.

  55. On the chance it might be helpful, I have a story that might be relevant. Not long after the first time I slept with the person who is now my spouse, I got a rash of red bumps in the area where sexy bits had rubbed up against one another. We’d already had discussions about sex, so we knew the outlines of one another’s sexual histories and other relevant info, and based on this I thought it was probably likely that (if this was actually an STI) I had contracted it from the New Sexy Person In My Life (NSP) rather than it having been asymptomatic and contracted from a previous partner.

    It was a a bit of a bummer! Not gonna lie! I didn’t want to have an STI, for the various reasons people don’t, and I did not relish having a potentially awkward conversation with New Sexy Person. “I cherish the memories of our very first time making sweet love together! Also, maybe I have an STI?” It never even occurred to me to break up, I’ll add–I trusted NSP and did not think NSP had lied to me, merely that it might have been asymptomatic, if contraction happened how I thought it might have. It also occurred to me that NSP might be upset, too, and reasonably think that this was something I’d had for a while and which NSP could contract in the future from ME.

    I’d thought of waiting to talk to NSP until I actually got to see a doctor and get results, but I was kinda upset and nervous so I just blurted out that evening, “Um, hey, this is awkward, but I noticed these red bumps and I’m gonna go to the doctor to get them checked out?” And the conversation was a bit awkward! But NSP basically responded with, “Okay, cool, let me know how it goes?”

    I think it helped reduced the awkwardness a bit that we’d talked about sexytimes stuff before sexytimes happened. Not just STI statuses but also stuff like “How and where do you like to be touched?” and “How do you NOT like to be touched?” This was especially important as I’m a sexual assault survivor, and there are certain sexytimes situations that will trigger me like whoa, but I think having that conversation as groundwork helped make the “Maybe I have an STI?” conversation a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. So I can attest that your ideas for starting the sexytimes conversations way before pants come off has worked out really well as a strategy for at least one person.

    Good luck with your future sexytimes, LW! I hope nothing but cool, awesome, understanding partners for you!

  56. “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.”

    Oh, godddddddddd, I came down with chickenpox in the middle of my last college final (this was before there was a vaccine). It’s much worse when you’re an adult. So in my case it was a disgusting nerd disease invented to punish nerds.

    My point is, if you’ve never had chicken pox or the vaccine, go get shot up and save yourself the potential body horror.

  57. I’m glad this LW wrote in. Talking about things like this is important. I get the impression that LW is planning to be very discerning about who she decides she trusts enough to tell/have sex with, and I’m glad about that — not because I think having sex with people you don’t know well/strangers is bad (I don’t), but because some people can be assholes, and sometimes it takes a while to figure that out.

    What I mean is this: I have a friend who has herpes. She’s one of my sorority sisters, She’s 25 years old and has been living with herpes for years. We didn’t talk much about the man who infected her, but while I was in school, my friend dated a new boy. He was a member of a friendly fraternity and I considered him a good guy. They dated for over six months, and being young and infatuated with each other, they had sex. She was upfront with him about her herpes, of course, and they navigated around it. But as soon as she dumped him, he told his entire fraternity, who, in turn, told basically the whole rest of the Greek community in our city.

    I get the impression that the LW is older, and so isn’t likely to have to deal with spiteful, immature frat boys. I sincerely hope she doesn’t have to deal with this sort of thing. I know it’s kind of a horror story, and I don’t mean to be a downer, because this letter and reply are wonderful and well-formulated. I just thought it was worth pointing out in case the LW someday decides to have a relationship with a coworker or something of that sort.

  58. This is absolutely beautiful. Jedi hugs to all the commenters who want one, because you are amazing. (Jedi high-fives are also available.)

    I’ve never really thought about how I would react to a potential partner disclosing an STI, but reading these comments has been super useful, and I think if (when?) it happens, I will be way, way more prepared to deal with it than I was before.

    Best of luck, LW. I wish you many sexytimes!

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