Help me have sex!
January 9, 2012 1:09 PM   Subscribe

How do I navigate being young, sexually active, and having hsv1?

I'm a 24 year old female, I live in new york city, I work, I have many friends, I date, I'm pretty normal. I've slept with 5 men in my life, I am definitely the most careful of all my friends about safe sex and std protection, I am not and have never been by any means promiscuous.
About a year ago, after questioning someone I had gone out on a few dates with about his std history and being tested and getting the answer that he had been checked recently and he was all clear, I let him go down on me. It turned out he unknowingly had oral hsv1(which I know is ridiculously common something like 80% + of adult Americans have it and I assume most don't know) and by him going down on me, I contracted genital hsv1. After weeks of freaking out and crying and thinking my life was over, I read more, saw lots of doctors and learned how unlikely it is for me to give this specific type of hsv to someone else. Because it's hsv1 and it's genital, it significantly lowers the chance that I will ever get a breakout again after my first and also the shedding time is significantly reduced due to the fact that hsv1's primary location is oral. With the exception of a small dot which may or may not have been something, I have not had a second breakout since my first a little over a year ago. I eat healthfully, I exercise, I take care of myself. Additionally, I also take an anti-viral and would never have sex without a condom. With all of these factors, the chances of me passing this on to a partner are less than 0.5%. While I would never EVER do this, both of my doctors have said that there is such a low risk of me spreading this, if I use protection(which I always, ALWAYS would), I don't even necessarily need to tell future partners. But, there is still a chance and because of that, I will always tell someone first, plus I would never want dishonesty to be part of a potential future relationship.

Now, I am not dating anyone seriously and while I'd like to date someone seriously, it takes a while for something like that to happen. I'm not interested in casual sex with strangers, but unfortunately as a young person living in new york city, sex often comes before two people know for sure that they want to spend time with each other long term. After going on 4 or 5 dates with someone I think I could really like, I think it's part of the normal development of a potential relationship for us to have sex. In the past year, I have just stopped seeing people because I know I can't go further sexually with them unless I tell them, and I don't know how to approach this subject with a man that I'm not yet seriously dating.
I would feel more comfortable asking, "would you be willing to take this risk?" if I knew that we both had a serious emotional investment in a relationship, but since that won't be the case, how do I do this? How do I tell someone I've only really known for maybe 2 or 3 weeks that I have this std and that I'd like them to consider sleeping with me anyway. It seems like too much to ask. While I know this is not a huge threat to either of us(it's not something that is a real medical danger or really affects ones life in anyway other than this way, the fact that you have to tell future partners) and whoever I sleep with is more likely to already have it (hsv1, not necessarily genital hsv1) than not have it, people hear herpes and that seems to be the end of the conversation. How do I navigate being sexually active with this virus? Please tell me this is not a death sentence for my sex life. I'm still young and I love sex!

Throwaway email =
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Watch yourself closely. If you have anything resembling a rash, don't have sex. You're (for all intents and purposes) not contagious when you don't have a rash, though. Always use protection. You'll be fine.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 1:18 PM on January 9, 2012

If I were you I would not bother telling. I would not take the anti-viral either unless I felt an outbreak starting. I would use condoms, but I would use them anyway - they actually don't offer much herpes protection because it is spread by skin-to-skin contact not by bodily fluids. I would just do what outlandishmarxist suggests unless I started having regular outbreaks and it became a real issue.

Maybe I'm just a bad person, but from my point of view, many, many people have one form of HSV or the other, and it's basically a combination of bad luck and unusual diligence that means you even know you have this. I'm generally a huge believer in full-disclosure and self determination, but this is a damn cold sore, and there's a great chance the young guy who'll turn you down because of this already has HSV2 without knowing it, and is really just coming from a place of ignorance and squeamishness.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:41 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Read up on the CDC's page about HSV1, risks of infection, what types of exposure are risky, what types of precautions can limit the risk of infection. Do not assume that lack of breakout means your partner is safe, educate them on the facts so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not they believe the risk is worth it.

I know a girl who has HPV and her girlfriend has genital Herpes. They take every possible precaution from dental dams to saran wrap, using separate toys, sanitizing everything that comes into contact with sexual fluids immediately after they finish. They went together to talk to someone who counsels people with std's to get the most accurate info on how to protect each other from the risks of infection. So far neither has caught what the other has, but their counselor was very blunt about the fact that no amount of precaution is guaranteed protection and they need to be aware that every moment of intimate contact carries a degree of risk (even if its only .oooo1%, it still exists).

Granted, I think the counselor stressed these risks as heavily as he did because the girls were in an open relationship and attending swinger parties... I think he wanted to scare them into realizing they needed to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and be aware of the risks they were taking not only with themselves but with any additional partners they had.

I also suspect he may have tried to put a scare in the girls because both caught it from partners who they found out *knew* they were infected but didn't bother to disclose until it was too late. Apparently in situations like that, the person is more likely to follow the same behavior?

I'd talk to your doctor about medication, precautions, and specifically educate yourself on any risks that your partners might be taking, so that you can be prepared for any questions that your next potential partner might have when you disclose the information to them.

As long as you disclose the information prior to any intimate contact, giving your potential partners the ability to make an informed decision on whether they want continue... you're in the clear. Yes, some will say no and that will suck, but you have to do the right thing for both your peace of mind and their sexual health.
posted by myShanon at 1:47 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Let's keep in mind, she didn't ask for your opinion about whether or not to inform people about what's going on- she said she would always inform people. She asked for advice on how to go about informing people given her situation.

I think the shortest, least threatening explanation is best.

"I have this thing, hsv1, it's no big deal, I just wanted to tell you."

Let him ask more questions if he has them.
posted by at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2012

Mod note: Folks, question is not about informing. Please direct answers towards the OP and do not make this question into something that it is not. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:17 PM on January 9, 2012

I think the right to do here is tell any partner who you're going to be sexually active with. Perhaps what might help is waiting a little longer to have sex with a guy and then when the time is right you'll feel more comfortable about telling him. I'm not saying to wait 6 months but give it a little bit more then 4 or 5 dates. Maybe 8 to 10 dates? I know that seems like a while but perhaps by then you'll have been dating at least a month. You can develop more trust and increase your chances of not scaring the guy away. And who knows, he may have it to. Be straight forward but try to not make things dramatic. Simply say "hey, things are going great with us. I feel good about taking this to the next level. But I wanted you to know, I have hsv1. Just being honest because I'd want you to be honest with me." And from there you see what happens. Just know that some guys are unfortunately going to decline having sex and end the relationship. But others won't. Your sex life is not over. Maybe a little bit more challenging, but not over. Hope this helps.
posted by ljs30 at 2:23 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say its no big deal, because even if some people do experience minimal symptoms.. there are still risks and complications that may come with it.

As far as how to say it, I'd simply state "I have this, I'm on valtrex*, I'm not having an outbreak, I've done research into what precautions will make it as safe as possible." and as I said in my other response, do the research and such so that you can answer questions.

(* or whatever medication the doctor has recommended to prevent outbreaks)

I'll admit it, I'm a bit paranoid of these things. When I found out that my ex was posting ads looking to hook up with people on craigslist I immediately got tested, and intend to get tested again at 90 days, 6 months, etc. I stopped having sex with him even though I believed when he said he hadn't actually followed through in hooking up with someone else, I just wasn't willing to take the risk that he was lying.

I don't take risks with my sexual health. I have a mental list of people that I won't touch because I know they either have something, or have been with someone that I know has something (my local community is very incestuous, and not all of them are responsible enough to disclose... as I mentioned in another response, the 2 girls I know who have HPV and HSV both got it from who chose not to disclose the information until afterward).

The only way I can foresee myself intentionally taking the risk by being with someone I know to be infected... is if I was in love and had reason to believe that this was going to be a very long term, possibly even lifetime commitment. It would have to be a serious relationship in order for me to take the risk and know that if I were infected I would have to face exposing any future partner I might have if the relationship doesn't work out.

Granted, I also take precautions even with those who have tested clean. Just like I walk on the sidewalk, even though a bus could hit me anyway :)

I've known too many people who either through their own reckless behaviors or the actions of unscrupulous individuals, or sheer bad luck have had their lives changed by a diagnosis.
posted by myShanon at 2:25 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate to think that you've stopped seeing people just because you've been unsure how to have this conversation! I bet all of them would rather have the chance to choose how to go forward rather than have the option taken off the table for them regardless of how well you get along (or whether they have it as well!).

It may be empowering to have some specific sites handy for new partners to reference (like the CDC or ASHA) when they want to educate themselves, vs. just hoping they'll know how to filter their google results in the wild. Both organizations both have hotlines you (or they) can call with anonymous questions, as well.

Be confident that you're absolutely as entitled to fun dating, great sex, and great relationships as everyone else. It is not "too much to ask" a new partner to weigh this among the 1,000 other considerations they're making in their dating lives. You have the opportunity to be a positive part of the force to de-stigmatize STIs and therefore encourage much more open communication about them among sexually active people. Best of luck.
posted by argonauta at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's fine to introduce this discussion simply during the part of the date/evening/hang-out/long walk-with-smoothies where you have that first communication about sexy times. The little convo all of us should have when we want to do it with someone and we figure out they want to do it with us and all those little dear, sexxoring things are gently negotiated. So somewhere between "I like you," "No, I like YOU," "Well I like you somuch Iwanna take you back to my place and make out ALL THE WAY," you say "Friend, a year ago I contracted oral herpes simplex genitally. I've only had one outbreak, a year ago, take daily anti-viral, and because it's oral HSV and not genital my doctor said that the chances of a partner contracting it from protected sex is less than 0.5%. I would understand if you'd like to learn a little more or ask questions, but like I said, I'd love to take these smoothies back to my place and naked snuggle."
posted by rumposinc at 2:37 PM on January 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Remind yourself that you're thinking of telling this person because you're giving serious thought to getting naked and sweaty with them, so why should honest disclosure give you pause?

So much about good sex is about being comfortable saying things to people, just do it. It'll get easier with practice.
posted by phearlez at 2:54 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

rumposinc's script is an awesome way to handle it, I would also get a copy of this for future partners to peruse if they'd like more information.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:59 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you might be a little caught up on the idea that there is a strict NYC-approved sexytimes script that must be followed. Maybe the alternative for you is to put off PIV sex by an extra date or so to work up the trust you need to make this disclosure.

For instance, my current girlfriend wanted to take a babystep instead of a leap in the beginning and at the end of an awesome date she asked, "can you sleep over with me without sleeping with me?" I had another girlfriend who set the sexytime boundary: "I want to take my time... Can we not do anything below the waist at first?" Verbal boundaries are really helpful for a male suitor because it clears up a lot of confusion.

That is all to say, maybe you plan to have a no-PIV sexytime on one date and on the next date during a lull say, "that was so hot last night, I really want to go further and I also believe in safe sex and talking openly about it. What do you think?"
posted by Skwirl at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2012

Usually immediately before I have sex with someone for the first time, ie we're about to take clothes off, one of us usually calls a slowdown in the proceedings to check/confirm the following things:

* Contraceptive methods being used, and whether they are adequate to both parties (Condoms mandatory etc, what backup is being used)
* Whether we are compatible in our decisions about 'what happens if contraceptives fail?' (eg babiez)
* Whether and when we last had clean STD checks
* Whether we are actually both fully single, or basically whether everything is 'above board'.
* Any actual 'need-to-know' sexual quirks (e.g. I explain something like 'I usually don't have a 'defined orgasm' as such, it just goes up, and up, and you'll know whether I'm enjoying myself, but don't expect a sudden, 'ok, I'm good!' etc.' Leads to way less confusion or crossed wires later on).

And seriously, when a guy initiates this conversation first, I get the warm fuzzies, because yo, they are being responsible and caring! Partners who leave it all up to you, are not being good partners.
It's usually just a quick, question/answer exchange, that's over in a minute or two, and not a big drawn out procedure.

So anyway, I think that's where you throw in something like Rumposincs script, also. Make it clear that if they've ever been exposed to oral coldsores, it's unlikely they'd ever catch it. You can only get it in one place.
posted by Elysum at 3:10 PM on January 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

To add to Skwirl,
the conversation then sets the boundary for where we're willing to go that time. PIV is not required.
posted by Elysum at 3:12 PM on January 9, 2012

I'm also going to back up Skwirl. I'm a sexually-active, highly social guy in my late 20s; it's not unusual or weird at all for me, or the girl I'm dating, to say something like "Hey, I really like you, but I don't want to rush into this, so tonight I don't want to go beyond LIMIT but Mmmm, I really can't wait to THING WELL WITHIN BOUNDARIES." You don't even have to explain exactly why - the furious makeouts (or whatever) help drive home the point that you're certainly not prudish and you don't find him unattractive, but it's totally legit to just... put off sex a little bit. I understand the desire to not take an early-stage dating scenario and scare someone off by turning it into a biology less on - because you will have to explain to an awful lot of people that HSV1 is annoying but not the end of the world - but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and dive in to the awkward. And, frankly, while I know you might prefer the early-stage stuff to be all fun and leave the seriousness till a little later, it does also make a good filter for general maturity - "Is this guy enough of an adult to not bolt out the door just because he hears the word 'herpes?'"
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:44 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it's the end of the conversation, you've lucked out, in my opinion. Being able to talk seriously and rationally about things like STDs, pregnancy, and emotional complications probably ought to be a qualification for having sexual contact with you - don't you think?

One thing you might want to consider is to slow down your dating speed. That is, instead of doing four or five "dates" in two or three weeks, do four or five dates in four or five weeks. It sounds like a part of your problem is that you don't feel you've known people long enough to decide whether it's safe/feels OK to share sort of (potentially off-putting) medical stuff with them. And it's OK to not want to go disclosing stuff to virtual strangers! So make a point of trying to do more generic "getting to know this person" stuff and less "likely to end up wanting to strip everything off already" stuff in the first month or two you know someone - just because you're reasonably sure you're going to want to have sex with someone sooner rather than later, doesn't mean there's an official deadline for it.

Plus, as a practical matter, the slower you take things, the more likely you are to weed out the types who will be impatient or freak out on you when you do disclose. Immaturity is your biggest enemy here.

(I speak from the perspective of someone who can't imagine kissing a person she's only known for a month, so that may color my advice here a bit.)
posted by SMPA at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2012

To the OP, it just occurred to me... You said that the guy you got it from told you he was clean... so you've had the conversation before... Its the same now, except in addition to "have you been recently tested" and discussing condoms/birth control... you also mention "Just to be up front..." and explain both about your diagnosis and what your doctors said.
posted by myShanon at 5:14 PM on January 9, 2012

Like myShanon said - you have the conversation when you feel like you're interested in having sex with someone. I have oral HSV-1, so if I'm going to have the conversation, it's typically late in the first date, when I have a sense of how things are going and whether I'd like kissing to happen. The conversation generally goes something like what rumposinc suggests.

So I would suggest: have the conversation early. Not first date early, but at the point where you're pretty sure you'd like to have sex with someone, but you haven't yet started getting hot and heavy. Have it at a point where you're clear-headed and so is your potential partner, and you can be matter-of-fact about the conversation. Tell them you want to talk about this because you find them attractive, and that full disclosure and safer sex are very important to you. Your opener is not "I have herpes." It's "You're really cool, and I would like to get to know you better." You can then go on with "since that usually involves sex, and honesty and safe sex are both really important to me, here's what I know about risks associated in having sex with me."

I really respect your commitment to full disclosure. It's unlucky that this happened to you, and I sympathize. Yes, there are people who will say no, but it's not about you or your desirability, it's about their aversion to risk, and probably the weird human thing where we'll blithely take all kinds of unknown risks every day, but then tense up about a known one, however small. BUT there are people who will be into you, and rational in their risk assessment, and willing to have lots of sex with you, and you're not going to find them unless you're out looking for them. So be optimistic, be honest, and give yourself a chance to find/be found by one of those people.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:00 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometime before taking your pants off, you say it. Along with "What kind of birth control and STI-prevention, screening and risk tolerance can we agree on?" (a conversation you are definitely going to be having anyways with new partners) you say this: "Hey, I'm an HSV1 carrier. You've probably already been exposed to if you kissed someone who has had a cold sore, 80% of the population has, but you need to know and be ok with it. You can go read a bit on it if you prefer and I'll respect your choice, but it's not generally a big deal for me. I just need to be honest."

You might lose a lover or two. You might also lose a lover over saying you want them to use a condom. It might be annoying, or it might be surprisingly character-revealing. But it's what you have to do in the year 2012.

Funny story: I have met nurses won't even run the tests because they are tired of their patients freaking out and acquiring new life-ruining anxiety disorders over being carriers for a virus with higher social stigma and actual medical implications.
posted by ead at 7:50 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

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