Responsible, casual sex with herpes. Possible?
April 20, 2018 11:48 PM   Subscribe

I would like to have some responsible, ethical, mutually-affirming casual sex in my life. I have genital herpes. How does this work? Is it even possible?

So if it matters, I'm a mid-30s heterosexual cis male.

I am single and not interested in an actual relationship right now for Reasons, but would like to find someone to have sex with at least semi-regularly. Doesn't necessarily need to always be the same person, though an ongoing arrangement with one other person would also be fine. I'm not even really looking for a friends-with-benefits situation, just for someone who wants to meet up, have sex, and then go our separate ways. Just the "benefits," so to speak.

I have genital herpes. I've had it for several years now, and aside from the initial outbreak (which was tested and confirmed to be HSV-1) I've never had any symptoms whatsoever. I have a prescription for Valtrex which I don't take but which I would take consistently if I were having sex with people who were HSV negative. Condoms are fine too, obviously.

I have had sexual partners since contracting HSV, but always in the context of a committed relationship. The procedure has always been to disclose as soon as sex looks like it might be on the horizon, have the conversation where I answer questions about what it means for my life and what my understanding of the risks is, let her think about it for as long as she needs to, and then start having sex once she's decided she's comfortable with it. (So far nobody has decided that they're not comfortable with it, though of course that's a possibility.)

This model works fine in a committed relationship but it doesn't seem like it would translate well to more casual sexual encounters. The initial conversation is pretty unsexy, and there's always a period of days or weeks where she's ruminating on the matter, doing her own research, etc. before she gets back to me. HSV hasn't had a major impact on my life (needing to do this disclosure business is honestly the biggest impact by far) but I can see how if the tables were turned I probably would not want to just casually bang someone who might give me a lifelong, stigmatized sexual disease. Someone I was really into and wanted to have a relationship with, sure. Someone who I just wanted to have sex with a few times and then move on, no. Probably some women exist who would be fine with it, but a lot of them wouldn't be and I can understand why.

So where does this leave me in terms of wanting to find a casual sexual partner? Not disclosing and just hoping for the best is not an option, I feel like that would be pretty scummy even though my understanding is that I'm a pretty low transmission risk. Finding someone else who also has HSV sounds like it would solve a lot of problems, but I can't conceive of how I would go about doing that without asking some pretty invasive questions right off the bat.

And frankly, I don't really know how I would go about finding partners for casual sex to begin with, even if I didn't have HSV. I'm not super outgoing, I don't live in a city, and while I've had my share of partners over the years including some casual ones, that was all in a different context at a different time in my life and I don't really think I can go back to those days. I'm not sure how to approach this even on easy mode, let alone as someone with an STI. But if there's a way to do this that's responsible and ethical and reasonably likely to be successful, I'd love to know about it.

Thanks very much for your advice. If you would like to respond privately, send emails to
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Hi, I'm a nurse practitioner and I have tons of patients with HSV. First, clinically, taking valtrex for suppression (daily) can reduce asymptomatic shedding (and thus transmission risk) though you still want to make sure to have good sexual practices (as it sounds you do), I.e., avoiding contact if you feel an outbreak coming on and using condoms even though they're not 100% protective, especially depending on the location of ulcers. Second, herpes is so prevalent that lots of your potential partners may have it, too. Not sure where you're located, but there are dating sites specifically for people who have HSV, so you don't have to worry about the conversation and decision-making process of a potential partner. Also, I am aware that lots of online dating sites let you state what you're looking for (relationship, friends with benefits, friends only, etc), so perhaps you might state clearly you're looking for sex only and have HSV, so then potential partners will be able to mull that over before committing to sex.
posted by stillmoving at 3:27 AM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Be honest, do all your self care and prevention, and relax. Lots of other people wanting to have casual sex also have HSV, too.

One thing it helped me to realize when I was having a lot of casual sex she thinking about STDs is how much of the scariness of herpes and other STDs is secretly about sex negativity. For example, people by and large don't talk out the same way about cold sores, which is just ... herpes. Something having to do with sex is automatically dirty or suspect in a sex negative frame. Enjoying casual sex bucks some of that, and approaching having HSV in a low drama, no shame way is another opportunity to break out of the puritanical mindset that anything having to do with sex is sinful.
posted by spindrifter at 4:27 AM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tinder is the most convenient venue for casual sex, though men's success on there varies. If you meet people online you can bring it up via text before even meeting, if that is easier for you. It will probably reduce your chances of success (people who have met and really like you are more willing to take what they perceive as a risk for you) but if it reduces your stress it might be worth it.

If you're texting someone about it or disclosing to someone you already know and they want to do some research, consider sending them a link to info about transmission risk from a trusted source (like Planned Parenthood).

Staying on Valtrex while you're looking may be smart. I would be more likely to feel safe if a hook-up was already on it.
posted by metasarah at 5:35 AM on April 21, 2018

Simply not disclosing and hoping you don't transmit is not okay at all. Many people don't feel that herpes is a big deal but many people do, and don't want to voluntarily risk getting it, and it's not up to you to make that choice for other people (especially women who might want children and whose childbearing can be put at risk by contracting it). I'm also pretty sure that choosing not to disclose a known STD is illegal.

Just tell them right away. Put it in your profile. Tell them at your first meeting. The people who need relationship potential to be ok with the risk are simply not the people you are looking for. I imagine even in a hookup scenario you can bear ten minutes of unsexy yet vital conversation about needs, expectations, boundaries and risks. During that conversation, disclose.
posted by windykites at 6:54 AM on April 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

but I can see how if the tables were turned I probably would not want to just casually bang someone who might give me a lifelong, stigmatized sexual disease. Someone I was really into and wanted to have a relationship with, sure. Someone who I just wanted to have sex with a few times and then move on, no. Probably some women exist who would be fine with it, but a lot of them wouldn't be and I can understand why.

Honestly, I think you might be underestimating the power of honesty here. Short, short version here: my wife and I have an open relationship, I hooked up with a friend last week, I didn't ask the questions I should have asked (there was a far too much alcohol involved, which is another story for another day), and I didn't find out that he had HSV until well into the proceedings (right now I'm vacillating between at least he told me at all and what the fucking fuck).

He was fairly careful, and I think my unplanned doctor's appointment on Monday is going to be fine, but he didn't get to decide who got to be careful for whom in that situation. If he'd had one unsexy 10 minute conversation before hand, we'd probably get to have some fun a few times and move on (they're moving in a few weeks); my wife's former partner of many years had HSV and she's well aware of the risk calculations (though as far as we know, she's negative), and likely would have signed off on that. Instead, I have a doctor's appointment on Monday, I'm freaked out, and aint nobody having fun like they want to.

I tell this story not because I think you're going to go out and do something like that - you wouldn't be here asking this question if you were - but just to emphasize, if you're upfront and come correct, sure, some folks are going to say they're not down, and that is what it is. But that unsexy 10 minute conversation - which we should all be having anyhow (damn you, past self) is a much better guarantee that the happy fun times you do have will be the ones you and her want to be having.

This isn't about sex negativity, it's about letting people make an informed decision about their bodies and their health, though I agree that the more matter of fact and low-drama you are (while still being upfront), the better things should go.

Good luck! Thanks for wanting to be careful and safe.
posted by joycehealy at 8:24 AM on April 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have a female friend, so not exactly the same, who has HSV and is in your situation precisely otherwise. She just tells people, usually before they meet up, just so they don't have to make a snap decision. She has had a few people politely decline and one be kind of an asshole, but far more successes than rejections. It helps that she's very educated about it-- if you want to know the yearly transmission ratios between partners from the CDC, she can tell you. I think this helps people realize she does take it seriously and is looking out for their well being, so. Anyway it certainly doesn't seem to stop her from finding lots of fun casual partners who are very happy about their time with her!
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:21 AM on April 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I work in sexual health. These facts may help reassure you and your future partners: according to the WHO, 76% of people in the world have HSV-1. Some of them have it orally (i.e. cold sores), some have it genitally, some never have any symptoms. If you have sex with someone who has had cold sores before, they are incredibly unlikely to "catch" genital herpes from you. Having HSV-2 also offers some protection against getting HSV-1.

At the end of the day, I would recommend disclosing, but in a way that presents the facts. Herpes is very common and unnecessarily stigmatized.

I recommend the Herpes Viruses Association website , especially the section on transmitting herpes.
posted by snoogles at 9:59 AM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Take your Valtrex like clockwork, watch carefully for signs of shedding and don't have sex if you feel under the weather. Disclose on your profile if you want, in person always. You can wear boxers or a vinyl, latex, leather barrier (SexyPants!) in addition to condoms to reduce skin to skin contact. Also there are plenty of ways to have sex with no transmission risk... bring gloves, give and get handjobs, offer oral, do sensory play or weird kinky shit. The more casual and up front about it you are, the better. Some people won't care, some will get freaked but come around after they do their research, some will be assholes, some will politely say no. It's in your interest to be creative and a giver, then there's always a fun way to hang even if penetrative sex is too risky for your date or you're not in the mood for The Conversation.™
posted by fritillary at 7:46 PM on April 21, 2018

I will be the dissenting voice here:

Disclose, but do not change your sexual habits necessarily. There’s no reason to limit yourself to kinky sex or whatever if you have a consenting, informed parter. I’ve had HSV-1 since I was a child and I am not a damn leper because 75% of people already carry the virus.

I would never suggest hiding it but it is honestly honestly honestly not a big deal once all parties know. Let them decide what they’re comfortable with, but don’t go out of your own comfort zone during sex either. If you like penetrative sex, disclosure + condom + no sex during outbreaks is honestly perfectly reasonable. Valtrex is a cherry on top, I only take it - as prescribed by my doctor - when I have an actual cold sore.
posted by lydhre at 6:08 AM on April 22, 2018

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