I Got An STI From My Last Partner. How Do I Approach Dating Now?
I’m nervous about having to disclose this to new people.
Q: How do you suggest moving back into the dating world after your relationship ends and it turns out he gave you herpes — but is being defensive when you ask how you could have gotten herpes from him deep into a three-year relationship?
I feel like I’m now branded with this horribly painful disease, trying to carry it into a new connection. I worry I’ll be judged as being too sexually adventurous, when in actuality this was my first serious relationship, and I’ve never really slept around with anyone. — Erika*
A: Hi Erika! I’m really sorry to hear about your breakup. But based on your ex’s reaction to your attempts to discuss this with him, I can confidently tell you that you’re better off without him in your life.
Unfortunately, it’s maddeningly common for people to be defensive and weird about discussing STIs. (Thank you, pervasive slut-shaming and lack of comprehensive sex education!) Since your ex refuses to have this conversation, I’ll give a little research-backed primer on how herpes, aka HSV-1 or HSV-2, is contracted and spread.
About 1 in 6 people ages 14 to 49 have genital herpes, and the majority are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, meaning they might carry it for years without knowing. Many people don’t realize that herpes is not included in a standard STI panel, meaning you have to ask for it specifically — and doctors don’t generally recommend testing for it unless you have symptoms. It’s also the same virus that causes cold sores, so it can be spread orally to genitally or vice versa.
It’s totally plausible that your ex contracted the virus before you dated, was asymptomatic for years, happened to pass it on to you at some point, and then you eventually developed symptoms. It’s also possible there was infidelity involved (which I think is what you’re insinuating here). Either way, it doesn’t sound like you’re going to get answers from him, and in my opinion, your time is better spent closing that chapter and moving forward.
Now, getting to the bulk of your question: What does dating look like in this new era? I completely understand why you feel worried, but I want to assure you that herpes is not as big of a deal as many of us were taught in our mediocre-to-bad sex education classes in middle school. As I mentioned before, a *lot* of people have it, and plenty of those people are enjoying super hot and exciting sex lives, either partnered or single. The only reason this isn’t more well-known is that most HSV-positive folks don’t talk about it.
To give you some first-person perspective, I called up Erica Spera, a comedian, co-host of the Shooters Gotta Shoot and Finding Mr. Height podcasts, and an outspoken advocate for de-stigmatizing herpes. She’s the founder of a virtual herpes support group based in NYC and has been candid in talking about her dating life after her own diagnosis.
The first thing Spera recommends? Put yourself out there, even if it’s scary at first. “There's nothing like going on a date with someone, having anxiety about whether they’re going to be OK with you having herpes, then ultimately realizing you weren’t really feeling them in the first place,” she says. Though it may feel like you’re the one who has to “make up for” a perceived disadvantage, you have just as much agency as the other person to decide whether you’re interested in going out again. Sometimes giving yourself that reminder can help you take back your power.
“Everybody goes into the world with reasons that people wouldn’t want to date them,” Spera says. Some people have jobs that require them to be out of town two weeks out of the month. Some people are in recovery from addiction or have a financial situation they’re insecure about. Some people have herpes. While these things may be a dealbreaker in some cases, none of them say anything about your inherent worth or date-ability. They also don’t dictate how the next person you date will feel.
I can promise that you will have people accept you.
When you do decide to disclose your HSV status to someone — which you don’t have to do until you’re considering hooking up with them — you might be surprised at their reaction. “There are plenty of people who are educated and open about it,” Spera says.
She recommends bringing it up in a casual setting where you can talk it through (don’t spring it on them mid-makeout). Keep your disclosure short and sweet, and offer to share more information or answer their questions. You can also share that HSV is the same virus as cold sores, and that when the condition is well-managed, it’s difficult but not impossible to pass it along to a partner. (Planned Parenthood has guidance on how to prevent transmission, and your doctor can also create a plan based on your specific situation.) Give them time to think and do their own research before making a decision on how they want to proceed.
This brings me to your last point, the concern about being labeled as being “too sexually adventurous”: If someone is rude or judges you for having herpes, that tells you everything you need to know about whether you’d want to sleep with them in the first place. Problematic body-count shaming aside, they’re ignoring the obvious fact that herpes is spread through sexual contact with *one* other person. It could be a random hookup, a long-term partner, or even an encounter you didn’t consent to, and it is no one else’s right to put a value judgment on a situation they know nothing about.
Spera credits her herpes diagnosis with making her more open and vulnerable when dating. “It's like anything in life — you might have some rejections, but you're also going to have some wins,” she says. “I can’t promise you will never have anyone reject you for this, but I can promise that you will have people accept you.” And the more you practice having the conversation, the easier it will start to feel.
*Name has been changed.
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