She said she has herpes - and I don't know what to do
September 13, 2012 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm torn... I went out with a girl who was very sweet, and we seemed to hit it off really well. Things started to get a little heated and she suddenly stopped and started to cry - she informed me that she has herpes and wanted to let me know before we got intimate... Now I don't know what to do... and I feel like a jerk

After she told me this - I praised her for her honesty and spent the night holding her (no sex).

This was 3 nights ago and I have wrestled with every scenario possible...

I am scared out of my mind that if we are intimate and I get herpes as well - and the relationship does not last... That now I will have to be the one telling this to every potential girl I might consider getting serious with.

Am I being shallow and a jerk? is there anyone that has been in this situation that can offer insight?

Thanks metahive
posted by strongdad to Human Relations (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You're not being a jerk at all. It sounds like you handled it about as well as it could have been handled.

You are completely, totally and one hundred percent within the bounds of decent behavior to decide that the risk of herpes is not something you are comfortable with. It doesn't make you a cad or a jerk or anything else.

My advice to you is to find reliable sources of information about the transmissible nature and risks of herpes and make an informed decision.

Good luck to you.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:10 AM on September 13, 2012 [11 favorites]

It is okay to not pursue a relationship because of this. It doesn't make you shallow, or a jerk, or whatever. At the end of the day, you're either willing to contract a (rather common but unfortunately incurable) virus or you're not. Put aside all feelings and emotions and make your decision. Because if you do contract herpes, it will more likely than not outlast the relationship.

I mean, it sucks for the both of you, but if any aspect of the relationship makes you "scared out of [your] mind" (and not in the fun way, but in the "oh god the consequences of this will destroy me" way) then it's bad news bears, regardless of what that aspect is.
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 11:10 AM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hey, just a suggestion... maybe get tested for it yourself. A very significant percent of the population carries herpes but has no symptoms so they never know it. So maybe you have it and then you wouldn't have to worry about it with her.

Your other option, apart from not persuing anything, is to continue seeing her but just take things a lot more slowly. Keep everything fairly PG for a while just to see if you think she is worth the risk.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:13 AM on September 13, 2012 [23 favorites]

But to answer your question, no you absolutely aren't a bad person for being freaked out by this and for not being sure if you want to pursue a relationship with her because of it. If you don't already have it just about any sexual act would carry a risk, and being infected with herpes is a life time thing (as you know). It is absolutely reasonable to give this serious serious thought.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:16 AM on September 13, 2012

You're not a jerk. Do keep in mind, though, that if you're sexually active you have almost certainly been exposed to herpes already. Your previous partners either didn't know or didn't tell you. Get yourself tested and get yourself informed about the actual risks versus the perceived risks.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:18 AM on September 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

There's no reason you have to make this decision based on one date. Plenty of people date for a significant length of time without having genital to genital contact. As long as you aren't immunocompromised and there's no broken skin on your hands, you can safely touch her genitals -- just wash your hands before you touch yours afterwards.

PuppetMcSockerson is totally right, tons of people are carriers of the herpes virus but don't realize it. Moreover, being a carrier of HSV-1 (the virus that more commonly infects the mouth and causes cold sores, but is increasingly common in the genital area too... figure that one out) gives you very strong immunity against contracting HSV-2, or HSV-1 in another part of the body. If you've ever had a cold sore, congratulations, you already have herpes, and it's very unlikely that you'll develop it on your genitals.

When you go to be tested, make sure you specify that you want to be tested for both type 1 and 2, and that you want a blood test. Otherwise you'll probably be told that you can't be tested without an active outbreak (true for the skin test) and turned away.

It's reasonable to put thought into this and you're certainly not being a jerk, but in my opinion the thought you should be putting into it is "Herpes is way more common and less serious than I thought, so why don't I continue seeing this lovely honest person and decide in a few weeks if I like her enough to take this surprisingly small risk."
posted by telegraph at 11:20 AM on September 13, 2012 [12 favorites]

You are not a jerk and can do what you like. But, I think you should make an informed decision. Herpes is very common and there are a ton to strategies to avoid transmission. You should go to Planned Parenthood to discuss this with a professional. Both individually and as a couple if you decide she is worth the risk.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:22 AM on September 13, 2012

Sounds like you both handled it well. You were supportive to her while looking after yourself. You're still allowed to call yourself a Good Guy.

A note about her: she probably deals with a lot of vulnerability around this, knowing that every time she starts to get close to someone, it could go off the rails in an instant because of something she has no control over (at this point anyway). Obviously that's not something you're responsible for. But if continuing to see her is still on the table, she'd probably be grateful if you keep lines of communication open while you're sorting yourself out (unless she asks you not to).

Good luck.
posted by dry white toast at 11:26 AM on September 13, 2012

Shallow would be worrying if she had like... sexually transmitted back-fat, or uni-brow.

It's herpes. It's for life. Look to reliable sources of information regarding transmission. You have to make the decision for yourself if a physical relationship with this person is worth the risk (however high or low that my be)

I've been in this situation 3 times. I passed on all 3. I don't regret it even a little. Ever.
posted by French Fry at 11:33 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have HSV-1 on my girly bits, thanks to a total lack of understanding how these things are transmitted (TMI: Cold sore + facial stubble causing little abrasions). I've had it for over 20 years and in that time, I've had maybe six outbreaks, and only one in the last ten years. I do not take, and it has never been recommended that I take daily antivirals. I mention this because you don't know how active her HSV is. If she needs daily antivirals to keep it at bay, that might give you more pause than someone who is asymptomatic.
If you like her, take it slow, and educate yourself on HSV in general, and how it affects her, as you get to know her.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:35 AM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

You are handling this very well so far.

The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to give yourself information, because by giving yourself information you will be able to best decide what you are yourself personally most comfortable with. Talk to your doctor about this -- tell them what you have and have not done sexually with this girl, and ask them to explain in detail what the risks are. At length. Find out what things would be more risky, and what would be less risky. Find out how herpes works. Ask about whether risk increases or decreases at certain times. Find out how you can reduce your risk if you do decide to have sex with her. Ask what the risk would be if you do those things to reduce your risk.

Then, when you have gotten all the facts, you can decide whether "oh, okay, this is just a matter of doing X and Y, and then not having sex when Z is happening. Okay, I can deal with that," or "y'know, I'm still really uneasy about this because I have [foo baz schmeh] and my doctor said that that elevates my risk and makes me more susceptible", or whatever. But getting as much information in as much detail as you can get, from someone that knows your own medical makeup, will help clarify things for you a hell of a lot.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:35 AM on September 13, 2012

(Some info about getting tested, false positives can happen with the blood test. -link)

If you are young (you sound young), let this be a learning experience about one of the joys of casual sex, the one that tends to get left out of Maxim articles and television shows. There are a lot of people who are STD positive, know they are positive, and won't tell you. There are also a lot of people who have no idea, or are in heavy denial (you can easily ignore the first herpes outbreak and then pretend nothing happened if you don't get them regularly).

If you are engaging in casual sex, always go into it being prepared to take the standard safety precautions (always wear a condom, always, even if they are on hormonal BC. Condoms don't protect against all STDs, but they definitely help!) and understanding and accepting the risks. You should know what the risks are, educate yourself.

If you end this relationship because she has an STD, there is no guarantee the next woman you date won't have one, or will tell you. Life has a lot of built in risks.
posted by Dynex at 11:58 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've linked to this before, on a very similar question, and I still think it's (while not 100% scientifically sound), good advice:
Well, I think it's pretty damn considerate (and rather) brave of her to let you know that she's got the herps. Estimates say 40% of New Yorkers have herpes. At this point, it's less a disease than a cool genital accessory (oooh look! Spots!). She's right about it not being that big a deal. If you use a rubber and never hook up during outbreaks, you should be fine. But you should ALWAYS wear a rubber, because the truth is that herpes can indeed spread even when she is not breaking out if you aren't using protection. CRIMINY! Sly little virus, that herpes.

So careful with the oral. You're almost certainly fine after your little session the other day. But in the future, I suggest you use a tongue condom. Ever use a lambskin tongue condom? Like licking velvet.*

The real issue is down the road. If you end up getting married and wanting to have kids with this girl or something, at some point you'll have to risk riding bareback. Is it worth the occasional breakout of dick spots to have a happy relationship with a woman you find extremely attractive? I say yes. Getting a hot girl with herpes is like getting a Corvette at government auction. THAT'S GOOD VALUE FOR YOUR PENIS!
*Only use latex to protect from infection transmission.
posted by General Malaise at 12:21 PM on September 13, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback and comments - pretty awesome stuff so far!!

Just to add some extra info... she was very upfront and said that she does not have outbreaks that much now and it has been really long since she has had one.

She also said she really enjoys sex but does not enjoy when her partner uses a condom (not sure what to think about that).

I have been tested recently during my full physical and was completely clean and healthy...

A downside for me is that I really really enjoy oral sex (giving) and am kind of concerned that this will really be something that would hamper that positive act for me (kind of embarrassing but trying to be honest).
posted by strongdad at 12:53 PM on September 13, 2012

does not enjoy when her partner uses a condom

This^ would be more of an issue for me than the Herpes. Together they are an exponential problem. IE you will get herpes.
posted by French Fry at 1:04 PM on September 13, 2012 [14 favorites]

She also said she really enjoys sex but does not enjoy when her partner uses a condom (not sure what to think about that).

THIS is a bigger problem. There are many reasons why using a condom is safer for you AND her, especially if you know she tests positive for herpes. And if she is the person who has herpes, she should respect that.

If she can't respect that, then that, and not the herpes, is a big problem.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:08 PM on September 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Yahhhh, not using a condom is how you end up sobbing halfway into a make-out fest that you have an STD. If she's flat out telling you she doesn't want to use protection AND she has an STD, I'd take a pass on this one.

It's not just about sexual health at this point, she's straight up telling you she values her physical pleasure over your health. That's a deal breaker in my books.
posted by Dynex at 1:09 PM on September 13, 2012 [21 favorites]

Yeah, no. "I have an incurable disease" can be a workable issue. "I have an incurable disease AND I still prefer to have unsafe sex" is not, IMO.
posted by elizardbits at 1:15 PM on September 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

Jesus h. Christ. I firmly believe that most of the squick around STDs is a squick around sex.

You know what else is a herpes virus? Chicken Pox.
You know what else is a herpes virus too? Shingles.

I got the Herp from a guy going down on me when I was 18. It has been less of issue than the Flu. For example, I've had Herp outbreaks HALF AS OFTEN as I've had the flu in my life. And I don't get the flu very often.

But, ya know, the FLU you contract from the subway, or the office, or regular contact with noticeably sick people, so I guess no one feels weird about not dating someone because they've had/will have the flu.

Herp on the other hand, gah! Freak out!

I used to be married. My husband and I had unprotected sex (no condom) for five years and he never contracted the virus from me. When an outbreak was coming on--no touchy. That's it.

I know there are more virulent strains and what not, but seriously, Herp is more of a stigma than a health risk. And freaking out about it just keeps it a stigma.

You are totally within your rights to reject her over this, but just to let you know, I kick anyone out of my bed who doesn't think I'm more valuable than a dumb, non-lethal disease that most people already have and frankly I think more women should do the same.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:26 PM on September 13, 2012 [29 favorites]

Condoms only protect against herpes if the infected area is a region that would be blocked by the condom. Wearing a condom would protect your penis but not the rest of your genital region.

I personally think the fact that she was upfront about this is a very good sign that she takes her own and her partners' health seriously. Not liking condoms does not mean sure doesn't care about sexual health.

Personally I would pursue the relationship and avoid sex (any kind of sex) if she has an outbreak. But I don't find exposure to herpes particularly scary, so you may decide otherwise.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:37 PM on September 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Herpes can be transmitted even if the infected party is not experiencing a breakout. Sad but true.
posted by citygirl at 2:11 PM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wiki (check the epidemiology section) tells us that more than half of the American population is infected with HSV-1; about every 7th person carries HSV-2, and only every 6th person out of those knows it. You are not a jerk for being concerned about your health. But we tend to be scared of what we don't know much about, so if you have not done that yet, spend some time researching the topic thoroughly.
posted by Okapi at 2:17 PM on September 13, 2012

Just to reiterate what whimsicalnymph said above: I dated a man who's ex-wife (of ten years) had the herp. They never used protection, and avoided contact during outbreaks. He didn't even know it was possible to get herpes during the dormant periods (he discovered this while we were dating). He got tested and was negative. I also have quite a few friends with herpes who have never infected a partner, while also rarely using condoms with said (monogamous) partners and with plenty of oral action in the mix.

So what I'm saying is this--it's not a huge risk. It can be avoided with not a lot of stress involved. This is what I propose and what I myself would do if faced with the issue. Continue dating her if you like her. Take your time to get physical with her. If you get to the point that sex happens, insist on a condom**. Keep lines of communication open about the issue and how you are feeling. After time, if you and she continue to date, you can reassess how you feel about the possibility of going condom free and the risks you are willing to take.

If the idea squicks you out too much though, that's okay too and you shouldn't feel guilty.

**and the girl said she just doesn't ENJOY condoms, not that she refuses to use them, so I don't think she deserves to be villainized here. I would say that a majority of people would share that sentiment. I mean, really, who LIKES how condoms feel? It is a pretty common thing to discuss going condom-free after a while with an exclusive partner. Why? Because lots of people think it just feels better without.
posted by greta simone at 2:26 PM on September 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Herpes can be transmitted even if the infected party is not experiencing a breakout. Sad but true.

Yup. Definitely still a possibility. But my understanding is that it's greatly reduced. If you 100% never want to acquire herpes in your life then you shouldn't sleep with this woman. Whether that's a worthwhile goal is up to you.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 2:26 PM on September 13, 2012

If you 100% never want to acquire herpes in your life then you shouldn't sleep with this woman anyone.

I'm not going to tell you to have sex with her or to not have sex with her. But it's worth noting that a) she knows her herpes status, and b) she told you about it. I'd scientifically guess that at least 99.99 percent of people have no idea if they have the herp, and plenty of the ones who have had an outbreak don't bother to tell new partners.

Just because the next girl you date doesn't have this conversation with you doesn't mean she isn't carrying something. There is no standard and comprehensive STD screening protocol that lets you say "I'm 100 percent guaranteed clean," and mostly people don't bother to get tested for anything anyway, or they believe that because they give blood once a year that they are "clean."
posted by Forktine at 2:40 PM on September 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

AskMe questions about herpes usually get some responses that make it seem like darn near everyone has it. This is not correct. From the CDC, 16.2% of people in the US have genital herpes. It's ok to say no to this situation.

The feeling of "if you like me, you'll have sex with me" will soon become "if you like me, you'll have sex with me in the way that I like, which is without any protection from herpes." I don't see this situation getting any better. Wonder what happened to the guy who was before you.
posted by Houstonian at 4:55 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wonder what happened to the guy who was before you.

I imagine he is still alive, and he may or may not have herpes.

I'm sort of a middle of the road risk taker, and I would probably wait longer to have sex with this person than I might otherwise, and then, if you really like her, make the beast with two backs, or your euphemism of choice. STD stigma is pretty absurd, but it's okay to take some precautions to protect your genital health.

(And if you do continue dating, and you do end up having sex: Use condoms. You can try different kinds of condoms, and see if some feel better, but use condoms. It's a lot harder for a woman to coerce/force her partner into unprotected sex - can't just stick it in! - but it's not impossible).
posted by ablazingsaddle at 5:06 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She also said she really enjoys sex but does not enjoy when her partner uses a condom (not sure what to think about that).

She's letting you know what her eventual sexual preference would be. That's all. A far cry from her putting her sexual pleasure above your health, since by communicating clearly with you, you retain the power of choice over whether you're into this or not.

Anecdotal data: A friend of mine had herpes when she met the man who is now her devoted husband. He accepted her for the whole package -- her exuberant personality, her son from a previous relationship, her dashing smile, artistic talent, occasional herpes outbreaks, and all. I don't know his side of it -- whether it keeps him up at night or disgusts him (doubt it) or what. But she seems to be pretty conscientious about it (avoids skin-on-skin contact when she does have an outbreak)

My recommendation: if you become aware that you aren't going to feel that way about this girl, let her know sooner rather than later. That way she can move on to find a guy who will accept her full package deal, and you can move on to find a girl who inspires a certain level of devotion in you. It doesn't have to be much more complicated than that. Best of luck.
posted by human ecologist at 5:14 PM on September 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

P.S. You weren't a jerk. The way you handled it is a great model for how people should be open to handling this stuff in general.
posted by human ecologist at 5:19 PM on September 13, 2012

Herpes really isn't a big deal, objectively.

You have to decide if you're OK with getting herpes. You likely will, and you have to assume you will, if you have a relationship with her.

You're not being a jerk -- it's just something you're OK with or you're not.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:41 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

AskMe questions about herpes usually get some responses that make it seem like darn near everyone has it. This is not correct. From the CDC, 16.2% of people in the US have genital herpes. It's ok to say no to this situation.

The majority of American adults have the herpes virus already. It is extremely uncommon to become infected with the herpes virus on your genitals if you already have it on your mouth (or elsewhere). In fact, one of the reasons the rate of genital herpes is so [relatively] low, as you pointed out, is because so many people contract oral herpes from a relative during childhood. So when Aunt Mabel is coming at you at Christmas with a slobbery kiss when you're eight years old, guess what, you just got herpes, but the good news is you won't have to worry too much about getting it on your genitals ten years from now.
posted by telegraph at 7:28 PM on September 13, 2012

OP: you did nothing wrong and aren't a jerk. Pick a risk profile you're really ok with and stick to it, live with its consequences. There's no such thing as perfect safety and we must all choose our comfort with risks.

Everyone else: keep in mind that understanding of the virus is changing rapidly. Many beliefs about transmission and immunity, and many stats collected from outbreak observation rather than serum screening, are obsolete. And the serum screens are inaccurate. And the shedding pattern is unclear. Many health workers won't even run tests for it since the signal is so poorly understood.
posted by ead at 8:24 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An update - we are meeting tomorrow for coffee... I really admire her honesty and am going to take things slowly.

Thank you all for the valuable insight and perspective.
posted by strongdad at 8:56 AM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

The majority of American adults have the herpes virus already. It is extremely uncommon to become infected with the herpes virus on your genitals if you already have it on your mouth (or elsewhere).

I think we're clearly talking about the other kind of herpes though, aren't we? The type that makes me people stop being intimate and start crying in confession...which is what the OP said his partner did here. i think a lot of people like to throw all the types of HSV in together in this we ALL have herpes big tent, which people also do with HPV. There's a big difference between some of the strands and if this person feels the need to stop and tell him while crying about it you can wonder why he's taken pause here, surely?
posted by the foreground at 12:38 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to clear up a potentially serious misunderstanding that could follow from some of the comments above:

My reading of the medical literature indicates that a person who is infected with HSV-1 (oral herpes/cold sores) during childhood is much more likely (~3X) to be asymptomatic if s/he is infected with HSV-2 (genital herpes) in adulthood. So, if you already have HSV-1, and you contract HSV-2, you are indeed more likely to be one of those lucky people who has HSV-2 but does not experience outbreaks of genital sores/blisters as a result.

HOWEVER, if you contract HSV-2, YOU HAVE HSV-2. You are, therefore, capable of transmitting it to others EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT HAVING AN OUTBREAK (you can be shedding the virus and thus be highly contagious without any outward signs that you even have the disease) and EVEN IF YOU ARE USING A CONDOM (all that is required is skin-to-skin contact). So, asymptomatic or not, you would be obligated to inform all future sex partners that you had the disease and could potentially pass it on to them (and they could very well end up being symptomatic).

In my search through the medical literature, I did NOT come across any studies showing that being infected with HSV-1 during childhood reduces a person's risk of being infected with HSV-2 in adulthood (although I did note that several articles mentioned this as a hypothesis in need of testing). If anyone is aware of studies providing evidence that HSV-1 infection reduces risk of HSV-2 infection, please do pass this information along.
posted by NeverGrowSoOldAgain at 2:52 AM on September 17, 2012

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