Dating with herpes - how do I go about this?
December 6, 2016 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Need advice on how to feel less awkward about having herpes and disclosing it to people I am dating. More inside.

35 yo female here. A couple of years ago I contracted genital herpes from unprotected oral sex and since I had an eight-month relationship with a guy who knew all about it.

This relationship ended six months ago - since then I had sex with two guys and told them about it beforehand. The first guy was a one-night stand and the second was someone I really liked and disappeared after we spent the night together. He had lots of issues of his own and said that was the reason why he couldn't get it up but I couldn't help but think he vanished due to my herpes and the fact that he really, really likes oral sex and we couldn't have any. I was really devastated and left without any clues as to what exactly happened.

For example now I have been going out with someone else, things are going well and he wants to come for dinner at mine later in the week. We live a bit far apart, so another date won't happen before then. I want to disclose it before we take it any further, but do I wait until he comes over so I do it personally or via text? I am a bit confused.

The bottom line is that I have something I can't do anything about but I need to find a way of being comfortable with who I am without letting herpes define me. But it's tough! Especially when I have to deal with people vanishing after I disclose, although it's always a possibility whether you have an STD or not. But if it comes from people for whom this is a deal breaker, there is a serious possibility it will end up breaking my heart, as I believe I am more than just a HSV2-positive individual :( I am doing antiviral treatment, I look after myself and am an otherwise healthy person.

I'd like to know from the hive mind (especially people who have herpes and/or people who date HSV-2 positives) about ways in which I can disclose it to people I want to have sex with without sounding too awkward and also how I can process this internally. Thanks so much!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
By all accounts I've heard, a "Hey, I'm enjoying how our getting along is progressing. There's something I need to tell you, though... Thanks to a lousy ex I thought I could trust, well... I have herpes. I take medication and it is under control, and outbreaks are rare. However, this is still a fact of life for me. I can send you some info on it, and safer sex methods, if you're interested. I understand if this is a dealbreaker. But I didn't want this to go any further without putting that out there" is pretty much the desirable script, via e-mail/text or in person.

And, from what I've heard -- including the same script for folk who are HIV+ -- you will either get "Sorry, dealbreaker, I hope you understand," or, "Please send me the info about safe sex with this going on?"

The guy who liked oral sex -- did he know about dental dams? Loads of people have heard of STIs, but not so much about how to mitigate risks there.

My sympathies; I have non-contagious health issues -- most notably, hip problems -- and for the few times I've had a fling with the hip problems, I've had to put that out on the table. Not fun. I can still have fun sex, but it limits my mobility afterwards. After a certain age (35 is pushing it) a lot of people have some sort of health problem that will prevent them from being an 18yo in the sack. For all you know, he has erectile dysfunction issues, and is wondering about how to disclose that to you.
posted by kmennie at 6:20 AM on December 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

...and also how I can process this internally.

I'm sorry you're going through this; it's tough.

I don't have herpes but a few years ago I thought I did. I find data comforting, so I used to remind myself that in the U.S. about 16 percent of adults have genital herpes. I found it really soothing to count people in crowds and calculate how many likely had herpes. 23 people on my bus to work? Mostly likely 3 or 4 of us have it.

Hang in there.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:59 AM on December 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

The script kmennie gives is pretty much the same one I use to disclose HPV — which is less stigmatized than herpes in some circles, but still. It doesn't make the conversation fun (there is no way to make the conversation fun) but it at least goes smoothly and tends to get respectful responses.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:38 AM on December 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I spent some time studying disclosure of serious health issues in grad school, primarily severe, incurable mental illnesses like Schizophrenia and MDD. So take this will a bit of an academic perspective, but also one that comes from having dealt with my own feelings towards others and being rejected myself.

Ultimately there is no real strategy that will make rejection less likely. It boils down to the other person's assessment of risk and whether their desire to date you/be in a relationship with you outweighs that assessment of risk. It's IMPOSSIBLE to know who that person will be when you date, just as it is impossible to know who will continue to love you and stick with you through challenging times in your life. What if you develop uterine cancer and can't have children? What if you're paralyzed? The second you get into a relationship, even if you're not GIVING someone a virus directly, things that happen to you ultimately affect your partner in ways that can be indelible.

Even with education and honesty, if someone has already placed their being "free" of the virus (even if they've most likely been exposed to it and just haven't shown symptoms) above being romantically and sexually involved with you, there isn't really much you can do from there on out to change their mind. And that sucks, but then, this is the case with ANYTHING incurable, not just herpes: MS, cancer...Hell, it even applies to the disclosure of hardships with stigma like massive debt, criminal records, childhood abuse, queerness, kinks, or past promiscuity. If someone really cares about you and wants to be with you and you've shown that you're on top of your shit despite everything, when you disclose an incurable health issue like this (even if it is controlled) they won't hear "I am herpes and gross and defective and a challenge." They'll hopefully show compassion, a desire to learn, and an attitude of "how can we cope with this together?"

That's IT, ultimately. Either they accept you for the long haul or they don't. It's much easier to go through life when you know that this is the case and that it clicks into place with someone or it doesn't. It's easy to fall into the trap of "if I was just X or NOT X people would really love me" but that's never the case if you think about it. Because the second you become NOT X through the course of life, whether it is something you can control or not, then that person will be more likely to leave you anyway rather than work with you through it.

Hang in there. Being a human is tough.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:01 AM on December 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

I have had herpes for 10+ years and it has literally never been a deal breaker with anyone, and I've had the opportunity to disclose my status quite a few times. kmennie's script is a bit long for my tastes. I generally say "hey, by the way, I've got herpes, but it's under control" and move along. I think you're making this a bigger issue than it actually is. I'm not trying to minimize your concerns, I'm trying to reassure you. I think with all of the anti viral medications and such available out there it's just not as big of a deal to people as it once was.
posted by sacrifix at 9:07 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

From a commenter who wishes to remain anonymous:
Hello, I’m the only person responding to this post who is a woman living with genital herpes. Sorry I can’t be as inspirational and uplifting as others -- based on my lived experiences, it's a totally unwarranted fantasy. (I find that people go out of their way to gaslight women living with chronic, highly stigmatized STIs and convince us that we’re lying about our experiences or that our experiences are exceptions rather than the rule — I want to be honest with you about what this life is like.) I hope that you can’t relate to my experiences, but perhaps this will be helpful. This is not about dating, it’s specifically addressing the part of your post about internally processing and not letting the virus define you.

I contracted HSV 7 years ago, at 22. It has ruined my ability to be in intimate partnerships. It’s not quite as straightforward as just continually being rejected (although that’s a part of it) — lots of people have been willing to have sex, it’s just that either those people have no respect for their bodies or their health, or they literally believe that they have no other options in the world. At worst, they have used my health status in order to bludgeon me. None of those is conducive to a healthy relationship. This has been my experience whether I disclosed immediately before sex, weeks before, drunk, sober, apologetically, nonchalantly, whatever. The method of disclosure doesn’t really matter.

Every now and then I try to persuade myself that I’m wrong and I’m cynical and I’m coping poorly and inevitably I end up emotionally throwing myself under the bus. The last 7 years have demonstrated to me that trying to date as a woman living with a highly stigmatized and contagious disease is a self-hating and self-destructive act. Perhaps you’ll be luckier? Who knows? How much more Russian roulette are you willing to play with your spirit in order to *maybe* find the one person who can deal with your body? Ultimately I came to realize that all the therapy and self-acceptance in the world aren’t going to solve other people’s reactions to your body.

The only healthy sexual/romantic behaviour I’ve engaged in in the last 7 years is to stop dating and engaging sexually entirely, and throw all of my attention and energy into other things. It’s painful but it’s the only way not to be repeatedly humiliated and rejected after putting in MASSIVE quantities of emotional labour trying to manage my partners’ feelings around the possibility of touching my body. I wanted to avoid having this virus define me but I can't deny that it has had a hugely violent and painful effect on my life.

As women we’re taught that our only worth is from our intimate relationships. If you, like I, ultimately come to a realization that you are barred from these things, you will need to learn to sit with the pain and rage and find your value elsewhere. I STRONGLY recommend reaching out to other single (specifically) women (specifically) living with genital herpes (specifically); it’s difficult for many others who don’t share that experience to genuinely demonstrate empathy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 AM on December 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't have genital herpes but a good friend of mine does. She finds it helpful to explain herpes basics to people... especially including the fact that transmission risk is quite low especially when she's on antivirals, that most people who have it don't even know it to disclose, and that having HSV1 is somewhat protective against HSV2. She's both done it in person and via e-mail (which lends itself better to long speeches than texts). Most people really don't know anything about herpes other than that they're scared of it, so just saying "hey I have herpes is that a problem for you" isn't the best method for everyone.
posted by metasarah at 10:51 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm gonna sorta modify this answer to a related question from a long time ago.

I got the Herp from a guy going down on me when I was 18. At first I was like, OMGAWD NO ONE WILL EVER WANT ME. That lasted about....six months. Then I was like, THIS IS ANNOYING AND SCARY TO TALK ABOUT. That lasted about...a year and a half. Now, many years, an ex-husband, lotsa sex, and a bunch of life experience under my belt, I hardly think about it. When someone is flirting with me hardcore, or I can tell they are thinking about naked tango, I say (FULL OF SEXY CONFIDENCE):

"Now, [INSERT SEXY PERSON NAME], before we go any further, I want you to know that I got the herp from this dude going down on me when I was 18. At the time I didn't even know you could get it that way! Sex ed in this country blows. Anyway, I've never given it to anyone, and I'll holla at you when I think I am getting an outbreak, but I thought you should know what is up."

I've had people actually THANK ME because they're like, "I'd rather know what I might be exposed to than not know anything. Most people don't say shit." Among the many people I've had sex with, only...2? wouldn't go down on me and/or have sex because of it. And frankly, I don't want to have sex with someone who doesn't want to have sex with me, so... oh well. Their loss.

Key to a happier future for you though, is you not hating yourself for having accidentally caught a really minor disease. Processing that internally has to do with checking-in with yourself on some key questions: Do you really want to be with someone who has a problem with your HSV status? Are you still the same you? Does this feel super different than getting the flu? If so, what the fuck society?

As I said in my previous answer, I firmly believe that most of the squick around STDs is a squick around sex. Chicken Pox is a herpes virus but there's no stigma around it. The stigma around herpes is because it occurs in our sexy parts. But the fact is, herp is more of a stigma than a health risk. And freaking out about it just keeps it a stigma.

I totally understand that you're scared and shit feels awkward right now. You might be surprised to know that I've found my herp status to be a blessing. It makes it so much easier to sort out who is actually into you and who is super sex-positive. At this point, I even talk about my herp status casually with people. Almost everyone I mention it to immediately confesses the STD THEY have. Like, they talk about their HPV, or that one time they got crabs, or the clap, etc...

People are so afraid of telling the truth that when you tell the truth, it creates a safe place to be real.

As I said in my previous diatribe:

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 (in one form or another) and frankly, I think more women should do the same.

Go forth and prosper.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:24 AM on December 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

From another commenter who wishes to remain anonymous:
I (a woman) contracted HSV-2 from a fluid-bonded partner who was having unprotected sex behind my back. kmennie’s script is pretty much what I use to tell potential partners about it. For the most part, people have been willing to take the time to learn more about HSV if they aren’t already educated about it so it hasn’t limited my dating pool too much.

I occasionally run across people who bail immediately or act like I said I want to eat all their hair or something, but it’s rare. How people handle the news gives me insight into whether they’re someone I’d be interested in pursuing something with, so if there’s a benefit to be had being HSV-positive I suppose it’s that you quickly learn who’s worth your time and who’s not.

whimsicalnymph sums it up perfectly: “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 (in one form or another) and frankly, I think more women should do the same.”

I have the conversation pretty much the second I think things are heading toward sexy times. I don’t do it over text but I would do it over the phone if face to face wasn’t an option. In your case, I’d wait until the guy gets there to tell him. Texting during budding relationships can be nerve-wracking enough even when there’s not important conversations happening, ya know?

You are more than your diagnosis! I’m glad you realize that. I’ve found in talking with other HSV-positive friends that managing the emotional aspect of it just takes time. Once the shock wears off and you gain experience telling prospective partners, it just becomes your new normal. I’ve come to realize that being HSV-positive hasn’t really changed my life and I rarely even think about it anymore outside of the mechanics of practicing safe sex.

Fetlife has several groups about living with HSV, so if you don’t mind joining a fetish site I highly recommend checking them out. Though it’s not a dating site, I’ve met some potential partners thereso my profile clearly states I’m positive in the hopes that it weeds out people for whom that would be a non-starter.

When I first learned I was HSV-positive, I thought my sex life was over. It turns out that the vast majority of the people I am romantically interested in are motivated to find ways to work with it. I’ve also been surprised on more than one occasion to find out that the other person is HSV positive too and didn’t know how to bring it up.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:40 AM on December 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Be as casual, NBD as possible. Bring it up quick. Face to face, not a special convo, just drop it during dinner. Blame that lying, shitty ex! Knock on the terrible state of sex ed! "It's nearly as common as the common cold!" Never say herpes, call it "HSV2." Because the stigma is so great, most folks know nothing about it — they don't even realize it's skin to skin transmission. Much less that carriers [especially men] can have no symptoms, that standard diagnostic tests suuuuck at accuracy, or that HSV1 and HSV2 are not default included in STI panels!

Honestly, any dude you boink can wear a condom and keep his boxers on, the chance of passing it that way is practically nil. Unless you have open sores or he has cuts, it takes direct, sticky, warm, mucous-membrane-to-mucous-membrane friction. Doesn't pass through clothing. Super, super, super unlikely to pass via fingers (again, unless sores or open wounds). Your dude won't pick it up if you grind on his lower thigh and he touches the fluid.

I highly recommend foregrounding other sex besides PIV. Hands are great! Oral with barriers. Awesome kinky stuff. The only people who really need to worry about getting the herp are preggo women and folks with immune problems. Everyone else is being a jerk. Take your meds every day, stay healthy and keep the fuck away from weirdos who shame you. There will be some, and I'm sorry for that. Those assholes are not worth your time. I promise the shock will fade.

For up to date research, check out the Westover Heights clinic (great Q&A forum!), the UW Virology Research Center and this promising vaccine maker.
posted by fritillary at 3:28 PM on December 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mention it on my OkCupid profile. It's a dealbreaker for some people, and it's not for others. I did feel terrible about it after I was first diagnosed but it has not ended my ability to date nor ended my sex life. My heart goes out to you and the many others wrestling with disclosure and facing rejection. I get rejected as a potential partner for lots of reasons. Herpes is one reason. Being an Old and being poly are other reasons. I believe there's a dating site specifically for people who have herpes. I don't know if that makes you feel better or worse, but I do hope you get all the support you need to get through this emotionally intact. Hugs!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:54 AM on December 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had a hard time processing it internally when I caught herpes from a lying scumbag who was cheating on me. I thought my sex life and love life were over, that I was diseased and dirty and worthless and on and on and on. But I've been living with herpes for somewhere around 18 years now, and it's become no big deal.

I'm not currently dating because of other health issues, but when I was, here's how things went: In a normal conversation, when making out is not occurring. "Oh, hey, almost forgot - since we're heading towards having sex, I should let you know, I have herpes. I take meds, and haven't had an outbreak in years, so there's very little chance of you getting it. But I didn't want to not tell you."

Try to think of herpes as just this annoying thing you have. You have Aunt Gert and her godawful stuffing at Thanksgiving. Uncle Fred who tells the same 3 jokes over and over at every family gathering and doesn't get that he isn't funny. That window in the family room that just won't stay open. Mustard on your burger when you ordered mayo. Herpes on your ladybits.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 8:27 AM on December 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

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