This essay was originally published on August 4, 2015.
Recently, I started talking online with a new guy who made me feel all of the tingles and energy that signal the beginning of an exciting new relationship. I wasn’t prepared when he suddenly dropped a bomb on me: He had genital herpes.
When we met offline, we became intimate very quickly, but we abstained from having intercourse. He told me I could take as much time as I needed to feel comfortable having sex with him. He had been infected as a teenager and was used to managing outbreaks and mixed reactions from partners, which explains why he was so patient with me. The fact that he'd been honest about this pretty major thing before we'd even met was a testament to how trustworthy he was, and maybe because of that, I continued to pursue him.
A week went by, and we continued to abstain from sex, although we were seeing each other almost daily at this point. As a woman with a deep-seated fear of HIV and plenty of education on the subject, I realized that I hadn’t spent much time studying the ramifications of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). I decided to brush up on the facts of this STI. Turns out, there was a lot I didn't know.
I already knew I had HSV I — typically expressed orally as cold sores on the mouth — but my partner wasn't sure if he had HSV I or HSV II. A common misconception is that HSV I is exclusive to the mouth and HSV II is exclusive to the genitals. It’s true that the majority of the time, genital outbreaks are symptomatic of HSV II, but you can be infected by either type in either location, or even have both types in a given location — which makes me think that, functionally speaking, distinguishing between oral and genital infections is pointless. If you can asymptomatically shed the virus from any point of your body and it can infect any point of another person’s body, isn’t any type or location of herpes just…herpes?
It’s also important to remember that HSV lives in your central nervous system, where it hibernates until it sees a good opportunity, such as when your immune system is weakened, to come out and multiply (causing an outbreak). The outbreaks are merely expressions of an internal virus — the virus does not live on the skin itself. Not everyone has symptoms, but this doesn't mean you can't pass the virus to others. In fact, the majority of Americans have at least one form of the herpes virus, and you can get it from kissing, fucking, sharing a drink, or basically any form of close contact with a mucous membrane.
After brushing up on my herpes facts, I felt incredibly vulnerable. If one in six American adults have genital herpes, then based on the number of sexual partners I'd had before my new love interest, surely I’d come into contact with someone with this virus. I asked myself: Would it be ridiculous to not be physically intimate with someone I have strong feelings for when I've most likely been exposed to the STI in the past and have a form of it myself?
The more I spoke to my partner about herpes, the more I saw that the biggest issue surrounding herpes is not the STI itself but society’s stigma. My newfound herpes education led me to make a choice: I was going to have sex with this guy. At that point, I had real feelings for him and didn't want to walk away.
I took immune-boosting supplements (even though research on supplements to prevent herpes is inconclusive) and made sure he was taking his herpes medication, which decreases chances of transmission as well as his frequency of outbreaks — and then we just kind of went about our sex lives without fretting too much. Condoms were key. We decided to be mostly monogamous, agreeing that when we were in the same city, we would only see each other.
After the relationship ended (for non-STI reasons), I wanted to get tested for HSV II, but my doctor said that because it takes so long to build up antibodies, results would be inconclusive. I was better off waiting several months. I began to worry. Should I then disclose to my new partners that I might have genital herpes? After a long discussion over the ethics of herpes, my doctor and I decided that it was unnecessary to tell future partners that I’d come into contact with it — because, after all, most sexual adults likely have, too. It would be like telling everyone that I might have the flu, but hadn’t shown any symptoms, so it was only a possibility.
Instead, I got out ye olde hand mirror every few days and checked out my genital area for any abnormalities or bumps. (Mostly it was just nice to get acquainted with myself at such a direct angle!) I haven't noticed anything suspect yet.
Before I had sex with someone with genital herpes, I needed to accept the very real possibility that I would become infected — and I needed to decide that it would be okay. We don’t make a big deal about cold sores, so why is the same type of sore such a big deal once it hits below the belt? Recently, someone told me that they had HPV, but nothing “weird like herpes” — to which I responded “If you’ve had sex with more than five people, chances are you’ve come into contact with herpes.”
When we look past the stigma of herpes and see how common it really is, we slow down the shame train that runs over folks who have it. If and when you meet people who further stigmatize herpes, consider shutting down the shame and spreading some education instead.