Wednesday Words: How do I talk about herpes?

Each Wednesday, I answer one of your burning questions on the blog. This week Uncertain Uma asks:

Loving the podcast and how you talk so openly about it all. I loved your recent discussion about STIs and wonder if you could dive into it a bit more.

My question for you:

I contracted genital herpes about 3 years ago from an ex who either didn’t know or chose not to disclose that he had it (he continues to not disclose it to new partners so I don’t know if he genuinely didn’t know before). Now that I’m dating again I’m finding I’m really struggling to talk to guys in dating about it and not knowing how to talk about it is keeping me from wanting to date. Since the initial outbreak when I contracted herpes, I’ve only had one outbreak so I’m incredibly fortunate in that it doesn’t significantly affect my day to day life. But I want to open and upfront with anyone I’m dating before it gets sexual and I don’t know how what to say, how to share, what information about herpes to share, etc.

What are some ways to have that conversation, and to build up the courage to start having that conversation with people you’re dating?

Thank you!!!

Uma, I am so glad you asked this question.

Considering that pretty much all sexually active adults will eventually have some STI in their lifetime (HPV, HSV1, HSV2, etc), knowing how to disclose and talk about our status is SUPER important.

It’s so heartbreaking to me that we have such a disconnect in our society around STIs – the terrible stigma around something almost all of us have had, do have, or will have in our lives.

For anyone who has not yet seen Ella Dawson’s TEDx talk on how STIs are not a consequence, they’re an inevitability, you can watch it here.

Let’s first talk about a few stats (which will help with your question about conversations).

  • More than 62% of Americans have oral herpes, and research has found that up to 90% will have it by the time they’re in their 60’s.
  • Over 25 million Americans have genital herpes. That’s one in six Americans (16.2% of 14-49 year olds). Over 80% of people with genital herpes DON’T KNOW THEY HAVE IT.
  • Over 775,000 people acquire herpes each year, largely because so many folks don’t know their status.
  • Daily suppressive antiviral medication can reduce shedding by 50-90% and reduce the frequency of outbreaks by up to 80%.
  • Cold sores, the kind so many folks have as a kid, is oral herpes. So, herpes can be (and often is) spread through non-sexual contact. Skin-to-skin is the way the virus spreads.

(Data comes from CDC, University of Maryland, & Herpes Opportunity.)

So, basically, loads of people have herpes and this is a conversation that more of us need to be having.

Knowing the facts is important, because the more you know, the more you can confidently answer questions from potential lovers. You don’t need to have all of the numbers down by heart, but having a few of the basics at hand along with some resources that you keep bookmarked to pass along makes it a lot easier to have a conversation with someone who might be uninformed or misinformed (much more likely).

What’s the number one fear folks have around disclosing their STI status?

Rejection, and the shame that accompanies it.

Whether you’re terrified of losing someone you already love or you’re worried someone will reject you solely based on your status, rejection (and ultimately, other people’s reactions) is what most of us are actually scared of.

We aren’t scared of the bumps on our junk or in our mouth. Those are easy to treat in nearly all cases and aren’t really that uncomfortable in the grand scheme of things.

We are scared of how other people treat us. (So, don’t be a jerk if someone has the courage to disclose their status to you, mmm-k?)

The stigma of STIs is that only dirty, gross, lazy sluts and players get them. Which all of us know is not true at all. Like, AT ALL. But that’s the fear, right?

The more all of us talk about our status and openly discuss STIs without shame or judgment, the more we can eliminate this stigma in the world. Do your part, regardless of your status.

How can you talk about herpes when you’re dating folks and wanting to have sex?

The most important thing to remember about disclosing your status is it gets easier with practice.

Like any skill, we all start out pretty terrible at the thing we’re trying to learn how to do, and if we keep at it, eventually we get pretty darn good at it.

Ella Dawson (mentioned above) has a great piece on what to do if you just got a herpes diagnosis full of information, including a primer on talking about herpes that says, in part:

“Don’t apologize, because you have nothing to apologize for. Don’t tolerate anyone who is a dick about it. Be prepared to offer information about the virus, but don’t feel the need to justify why they should date you anyway—if they can’t figure out how awesome you are on their own, you shouldn’t have to explain it to them.”

She has loads of other amazing articles like this one. And this one. And this one, too.

Coming out – whether it’s because you’re queer or gay or trans or non-monogamous or kinky or you have HPV or HIV or HSV – requires courage, especially at first. The more you do it, the more confident and skilled you become.

So, practice sharing your status in super low-risk situations, first.

Practice talking with a pet (as long as rubs are happening, they give zero fucks about herpes).

Practice sharing your status in the mirror.

Practice bringing it up with a trusted friend, or join a Facebook support group for folks with herpes and practice there.

Get used to the words and how you like sharing them, so that you feel like you have a solid routine you can fall back on when the nerves kick in.

Then, decide how you want to deliver the information.

In episode 116 with Crista Anne, she mentions that she has her herpes status in her online dating profile. Right there. So folks who are ignorant or shitty can self-select right outta her life from the get-go.

Maybe instead of having it in your profile, you save it for the first date. Or the third.

My recommendation is just don’t wait so long that you’re both halfway to naked and then you spring it on them. Folks who aren’t familiar with herpes have a right to take a little time to sit with the information and to ask questions. If you’re like “Can I stroke your cock and I have herpes”, it might feel like a betrayal.

The good news is anyone who reacts badly has just proven themselves totally and absolutely unworthy of your glorious, delicious, fantastic self.

That is not me blowing smoke, either. I mean that.

Just like anyone who has something shitty to say about the way your body looks doesn’t deserve to spend another second with you, folks who are shitty about STIs just won’t get the pleasure of knowing you. And…if they immediately react with judgment and criticism or disgust, the truth is they’re more likely to acquire an STI in the long run because they’ll be silencing folks with their shit-tastic attitude.

Knowing your status makes you a really valuable person to date. The people who get naked with you have the information they need to make choices about their own body and the kind of sex they have. That is one of the most empowering and awesome things you can offer a sex partner.

Really think about that.

You have information that 80% of the folks in the world do not have. You are bringing something really informative and powerful to the table that so many other people cannot offer potential partners.

Framing it this way can help you feel more empowered.

And yeah, even for sex educators and sex professionals, it can be scary to confront these stigmas in our own lives.

I had a random bump recently and went to Planned Parenthood to get it checked out. Sitting on that table, in my paper gown, thinking about the conversations I’d have to have if it came back positive as herpes scared me.

Not because the bump was uncomfortable, but because I was terrified my partner would leave me and that past partners with whom I am still close wouldn’t want to be friends anymore.

Most of us have no experience having open sexual conversations in a way that empowers both the speaker and the listener.

But, the good news is tons of super awesome folks won’t mind one bit that you have herpes. They may have questions. They may want some barriers or ask about anti-virals. They may want more information.  And all of that is OK. Offer them some resources, and then let them do the emotional labor of deciding what works for them.

Your sex life isn’t over. You can still find amazing people to date and fall in love with. You are still super duper fucking worthy of respect and desire and admiration and adoration and joy.

Take a little time to practice talking about your status and then take it for a test drive in the real world. You might go from having 50 potential suitors to 30, but those 30 are gonna be a heck of a lot more worth your time and energy.

One last little resource: Whether you have an STI or not, I also want to make sure everyone reads this piece on how not to be a jerk about STIs when you talk about them (avoid the word “clean”, please).

Got get ’em, Uma. You’ve got this.

What do you think, dear reader? Have you had to talk about STIs with a partner or lover? How did it go for you? Comment below with your story.

Have your own question about sex, relationships, kink, or your body? Send it my way (there’s an anonymous option) and I may answer your inquiry on the podcast or in the weekly advice column, Wednesday Words.

  • Dawn
  • July 6, 2016