I recently learned that I have genital herpes. I don’t have any outward symptoms, but a blood test revealed that the virus is in my system, so there’s a possibility that someday those symptoms will surface. I can’t believe this is happening to me; I’ve had very few partners in my lifetime, and I’ve always had protected sex. My doctor told me that you can get herpes just from having skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a sore. I’m devastated by this news; I feel so dirty and can’t believe that after years of being so careful, I’m now forced to carry this disease for the rest of my life. I’m wondering when and how I should let future partners know that I have this. I don’t want to scare potential lovers off by telling them prematurely, but given that it’s pretty easy to get, I want to be fair. I hate that I have to have this conversation with anyone, but I want to do it right, so I appreciate any advice you guys can offer.—BG, Phoenix, Arizona
The gay woman’s perspective: Jody Fischer
My mom always used to ask me, “Where is it written that life is fair?” The fact that you have genital herpes is not fair, it’s just not. I can tell from your letter that you’re a kind and considerate person. But bad things can happen to good people. Many people feel like they did something bad when they get a sexually transmitted disease. Illness does not discriminate. It’s important for you to remember that you were, are, and will be a good person, even with genital herpes.
Don’t let your diagnosis dictate your self-worth. You are not dirty and bad. I suggest you speak with a counselor who can help you regain your sense of self. Once you feel like you’re a good person, you’ll be better able to share your news with a potential partner. I believe it’s more about how you have the conversation than when. If you tell someone and you come from a place of low self-esteem, that person will sense that. If you tell someone and you frame it that you’re telling that person because you care about yourself and him/her, that person will listen. I cannot guarantee that the other person will jump into your arms right away, but he or she won’t run away, either. And anyone who does is not worth your time anyway. To do what’s right, BG, start by remembering that you are worthy of love. Then when you find someone you care about, you’ll be in the best position to talk about it.
The gay man’s perspective: Darren Maddox
Let’s first address the issue of you feeling “dirty.” You did nothing wrong here, so please don’t feel like you’re the one to blame for your current situation. The shitty part is that you were the lucky “recipient” of a gift you cannot return. However, I think it’s great that you’re taking a proactive approach to this and not denying that you have an STD. Too many people don’t assume responsibility and others inherit their stupidity. (Sound familiar?) But it’s not the end of the world, there are tons of people living with herpes in all walks of life. There are even dating sites dedicated to them.
Other members of the 4-Way may differ with me on this one, but I don’t think you need to do a grand reveal to everyone you meet. Address this as you would any other topic when getting to know someone in a dating situation; there are certain things we tell people up front and certain things that we reveal as the relationship progresses. I’m just saying, don’t close yourself off to the possibility of meeting someone who will understand. There are also lots of support groups out there that can help you, so perhaps consider starting there to see how others have dealt with this.
The straight woman’s perspective: Rebecca Brown
BG, did you know that there are over 60 million other Americans carrying the herpes virus? And of those 60 million, 70 percent don’t even know they have it. If you’re dirty, then there are a lot more dirty people out there. But you’re not dirty. This is a virus, not a death sentence. You got it from doing what people do every single day—having intimate physical contact with others. That’s not dirty, BG, that’s just natural. Before you’re able to have a discussion with any partner about this, you’re going to have to come to terms with how you feel about yourself.
As I did some searching around on the Web, I found this book, Making Peace with Herpes: A Holistic Guide to Overcoming the Stigma and Freeing Yourself from Outbreaks, by Christopher Scipio. In it he says, “Stop seeing yourself as a victim. You are a human being. You have power. Use your power. Reprogram your mind. You can change your expectations. You can make a peaceful accommodation with the herpes virus and ask it to stay dormant.” You may or may not agree with what he says from a medical perspective, but I do believe in the power of positive thought and a lot of advice I found from herpes sufferers recommended that getting yourself in that frame of mind Scipio describes is key. You’re just a good person who got hit with a bad virus. You can’t change your thinking overnight, but start there … and start today. As far as telling someone, remember this: people tend to behave the way you expect them to behave. So expect that your future someone special will be understanding, supportive, and loving. Consider practicing by telling a friend first; this will give you an idea of the reaction and the types of questions you might get from your partner and you’ll have a better idea of how to say what you want to say after one time through. I think you must tell your future partners before you sleep with them, but avoid starting the conversation when you’re in the heat of the moment; instead have it over a quiet dinner or on a peaceful walk. I know this is tough, but be strong—you can do this. And you can still enjoy emotional and physical relationships the same way you have in the past. Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.
The straight man’s perspective: Chris Kennedy
First off, I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through this. All you can do now is manage your herpes with drugs like Valtrex, always use protection, and practice total abstinence when you have an outbreak.
What could make this situation even worse is if you spread this to other people. Unfortunately, the reason you got genital herpes is a partner of yours didn’t know, or worse yet, knew but didn’t tell you, and passed it on to you. Do you want to be someone who continues to perpetrate this? Now that you know, it’s your moral, and ideally legal, obligation to inform any potential partner that you have the disease. So in the interest of health and karma and all things fair, you MUST tell any future partner about this. When? Before anything gets physical. When you kiss and heavy pet with clothes on, there’s no need to tell. But when you get to the point where you start removing clothes, it’s time.
Don’t make the mistake of stalling the physical just because of your situation. The sooner you get this out there, the sooner any potential partner can decide whether or not he or she wants to risk contracting this from you. Your partner will have much more respect for you if you tell him or her right away, as opposed to waiting, or even worse, not disclosing it at all, leaving him or her to discover it from a doctor. Be prepared and okay with someone declining to get involved with you because you have the disease. The right person for you will simply have to be okay with it and then you can breathe easier and concentrate on making the relationship work.
I’ve heard that one out of every four sexually active adults has genital herpes, so you’re not alone. There are dating sites for those who have your condition, so it can’t hurt to check those out. Good luck, BG. Your situation reminds us all in the single dating world that we’re playing a sexual lottery. Choose how often you play and where you rub with caution.