Why Should I Date Someone With Herpes?

Here’s another pet peeve of my email inbox: when a man (because it’s almost always a man) asks me if he should continue seeing this woman he’s been dating who just told him she has herpes. Sometimes the question is data-based, about what transmission statistics are real. Sometimes the question is esoteric, about whether or not he truly knew this woman in the first place. And sometimes it’s the classic entitled bullshit I face on Twitter all the time: I’m not a jerk for dumping someone who poses a risk to my health, right? Why on Earth would I knowingly choose to put myself in danger like that? Is she worth it?

I don’t know, man. Does your dick get hard around her? Is she nice?

When you ask me questions about if you should date someone with herpes, I know you’re looking for an expert opinion. You’ve never given herpes any serious thought before and here I am, a woman with herpes and a blog, who has so generously spilled her guts to the Internet about what it’s like. It’s just a simple question to you: should I date this person, yes or no?

But to me, it feels like you’re asking me to justify my value. The facts on herpes are actually quite clear when you do research online: herpes transmission is not that simple, particularly when both parties make an effort to use condoms, antivirals, dental dams, and so forth. I know couples who have gone years without transmitting by being honest with each other about when they are having outbreaks. The person most likely to give you herpes is the person who doesn’t know they have it in the first place. On the other hand, herpes itself honestly isn’t that big of a deal for most of us. Although individual symptoms depend on your overall health and the strain you carry, for many folks herpes is an uncomfortable initial outbreak and mild recurrences, if any. My first outbreak was quite painful because it coincided with an infected spider bite, but now I show symptoms so rarely that I pose no credible risk to my partners 99% of the time.

In retrospect, if my ex-boyfriend had known he had herpes and told me before we started dating, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, and I would still have herpes today. That’s because when we met, he was gorgeous and charming and his status wouldn’t have put a dent in how attracted to him I was.

How did my partners after my diagnosis make the decision of whether or not to sleep with me? I’ve asked them. Sure, they did some Googling. One talked to his doctor about how it might impact an existing condition he had. But mostly they looked at me, and thought about the fun, challenging conversations we had, and remembered how gorgeous my thick hair is. They considered me as a full person, not the “side-effects” of having feelings for me. When it came down to the brass tacks of who I am, there was no decision to be made at all.

In the past I have made room for the discomfort of strangers who do not want to date someone with an STI. You need to do what’s right for you and your health, I reassured and soothed my readers, not wanting to ruffle feathers, not wanting to seem extreme. And I still do think that if you have a valid health condition that herpes would complicate, you’re a gentleman and a scholar and I wish you the best of luck. But too often my impulse to capitulate to people who just don’t feel comfortable stems from a desire to seem chill. I am afraid of being that ranting feminist with herpes who seems to think herpes is great. The harassment and mocking of “Men’s Rights Activists” and strangers on Twitter has gotten to me. Hah hah, herpes is disgusting and hilarious. How silly, this girl thinks we’re bigots for not wanting to contaminate our junk for some desperate, shitty lay. What a slutty joke. Feminists these days, am I right?

Screw that. At the end of the day, STI stigma is a form of prejudice. It perpetuates a preconceived notion of someone’s moral character and individual worth based on a skin condition that itself is not a barometer of value or happiness. To let someone’s STI status be a game changer is a form of discrimination. To you it may seem reasonable, a matter of self-preservation. But to us, it is dehumanizing. If you let someone’s herpes define who they are as a person and the role they will or won’t play in your life, you have reduced them to their STI status alone.

And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with asking yourself, or asking Google, if you should date someone with herpes. It’s human nature to think it, and to wonder, and to actively make the decision. I’m not saying you should automatically say yes. But in asking me this question, an actual person with herpes, you are shaming and insulting me in the name of needing help deciding. I don’t want to be the selfless Mother Teresa of herpes. It’s far more fun to be the loud, controversial and brilliant Kanye West of herpes.

I have little to no interest in being with someone who doesn’t think I’m worth getting herpes from. Yeah, you can read that again. If you are not willing to brave the risk of getting herpes, you are not worth my time. If my STI is a deal breaker for you, your ignorance and cowardice is a deal breaker for me.

One of the most romantic moments of my life was when an old partner told me that I had so thoroughly de-stigmatized herpes for him that he saw contracting from me as an inevitability he chose, rather than a nightmare I should have panic attacks over (and although I continued to have said panic attacks, I never did transmit to him). A true partner, a true best friend, accepts all of you. They do not barter or keep score, or make a pros and cons list when it comes to asking you on a third date. The question you should be asking is not “Why should I date someone with herpes?” It’s “Do I want to date someone for who they are?”

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

32 thoughts on “Why Should I Date Someone With Herpes?

  1. I don’t think herpes is a skin condition. I wouldn’t say no to someone who had it–it’s not like it’s a DUI or a mark of character, in my opinion–but as with anything else I do think that one has to be smart and ask themselves if they could handle the worst possible outcome. Yes I might not get it, but if I did have it as badly as one friend of mine does, when she can’t even sit comfortably during an outbreak, could I handle that? You sound like you’re judging people for being cautious. But wouldn’t you have preferred the guy who gave it to you had been more cautious? Or are you glad you have it? You have a blog about heroes because it’s a big deal. It’s not a skin condition. People should make informed decisions. That’s their right.

  2. Hi Ella, I was just diagnosed with herpes this week & I have to admit, I have been on a downhill, self-shaming, tearful spiral of fear ever since. Let’s just say it’s been a really dark couple of days for me. I haven’t risen up from the ashes yet, so I have been mourning and researching, trying to figure out what kind of effect this is going to have on my life, because right now it feels like life as I know it is over. I have come across a couple of your articles & have really found comfort & empowerment in them. I still have considerable emotional & psychological healing to do but I wanted to thank you for having the courage to be a voice of healing for others. You have given me a ray of hope.

  3. Hi Ella, thank you so much for sharing this post. It has given me a better perspective on having transmitted this STI. It’s a hard conversation to have with someone, but I do agree that I want to be with someone who likes me enough to think I’m worth the risk!

    Thanks again for sharing

  4. Thank you. Just thank you for sharing your struggle. I haven’t had herpes that long, but sometimes I just feel so alone, like I will be alone forever, but this is one of the best articles I have read. You made me feel so much better. We are not worthless, it’s an annoying condition, but most of the time I forget I even have it, until I want to date someone. And then I feel absolutely sick and horrible that I have it. But I love what you said about if they can accept this small thing, they don’t have the honor of dating you. Again, thank you for sharing, thank you for this.

  5. Thank you for posting this article. It does make me feel better knowing that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’m a man at 32 who was strictly cut off because I was honest with her about me having herpes. It’s laughable really since I’ve never had an outbreak since the day I got it. But it clearly defined that person today that she didn’t really see me. She only saw the negatives and downfalls. It made me feel like a worthless piece of shit and it Fucking ruined my day. Anyways, say it how you mean it.


  6. Thankyou, so f***ing much.
    Recently diagnosed and going through every emotion. This left me speechless and also so empowered.

  7. This moved me so much I have it bookmarked under, “Remember who you are.” I used to judge women sooo hard with herpes, and deemed them unloveable. Now, oh how the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. I’m a week into my first outbreak and after telling my fiance and being accepted without doubt I have to say this article is moving. I cried reading it. I felt like a part of me died with this diagnosis. I have to pretend to not be in constant excruciating pain. That sex will never be a thing for me anymore and my support base will shun me forever, I couldn’t even look at myself in a mirror. I have come to find out that on the contrary I have never felt more loved in my entire life. Pointless rant aside thank you for your words, you make me feel normal. And that’s saying a lot.

  8. Here’s a question/thought (take your pick). Can dating a person who is herpes+ be more than a “yes/no” choice?
    You mention medical conditions that can be made worse when HSV is introduced as a reasonable criterion for choosing not to date someone who is herpes+. What about someone who has been messed around emotionally not merely by romantic interests but family as well, and might need a “softer landing” to get to complete intimacy.

    For example, what if sexual pleasure and intimacy is explored at a level of comfort for both partners as the two people get to know each other emotionally and romantically and take the measure of their compatibility? For example, oral sex for both partners works for both partners in the early stages of a relationship, and this becomes one of the components of trust that will lead to intercourse. Or the seronegative partner wants to engage in intercourse less often at first until they come to trust their partner more fully in all areas of their relationship and increase the level of intimacy. There are many trust and intimacy issues that evolve: time to meet parents, time to hand off a second set of keys. Must it be all or nothing at the time the herpes+ discloses their status, or when the other person “returns” from their meditation on this news?

    Obviously this depends on the expectations of the two people concerned, but I am surprised that a middle ground (a temporary and ramping up middle ground) is not discussed more generally (unless I am missing it, which, of course, is possible).

    1. There’s so much room for nuance when it comes to HSV+ dating, and every couple should figure out the pace and rules that work for them. I have a partner who won’t go down on me because that’s something that makes him nervous, and that’s valid and I respect it and we have great penetrative sex using condoms. What I’m speaking to in this post is the frustration I have with people who find the idea of dating someone herpes+ totally unthinkable and demand that I justify my value to them.

  9. I really respect you and your point of view and one day I hope I can be as confident as you are and feel as unashamed as you do, but do you think guys/people in general are more willing to be with someone who has a weaker strain of herpes like you do than someone with both HSV-1 and HSV-2, like I do? I’m not saying you don’t have ~enough herpes~ to talk about this subject, because that’s bullshit. I just wonder if you think that may have also affected your experiences post herpes diagnosis.

  10. I really needed to hear this. Surprised by how many sex educators rarely/never talk about a subject that so many people deal with in secret due to social stigma. I know I have. As a single hetero female, it’s affected my relationship with men tremendously. With a one-time exception, I’ve been celibate for the past 5 or 6 years, since I was diagnosed with HSV2. I never even knew I had it until I got tested out of state after a casual encounter; there was no noticeable breakout to alert me. Still, I don’t even date any more, mainly because I don’t want to have the conversation and make myself vulnerable. This has given me a whole new perspective, as well as talking points. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you…

  11. I loved reading this. I treated my herpes like this big secret burden until I read your article in Women’s Health. But my
    current boyfriend’s reaction to my having herpes was basically,”Ok. There are so many great things about you. Why would that be a dealbreaker?” And while I never thought about being worth the risk of getting herpes, that’s exactly how he makes me feel now. Every time we have sex it’s never a problem and it’s always incredible. He had a few questions the first time. But as things have progressed it’s become a non-issue. In his eyes, it’s just another thing about me that he accepts. And he adores me as a whole! I think you’re awesome,Ella! Thanks for what you do!

      1. What you are doing for people with herpes (and STDs in general) is so necessary! The stigma is real, and for no reason! Since reading the Women’s Health article and various other posts of yours, I have felt encouraged to be more open with people about having herpes. I feel more comfortable telling people and then educating them on the subject. I am still not as upfront as I would like to be about it. I think your openness is incredible and ideal! But I am actively working towards it. Ella, you rock! Never stop doing what you’re doing, because you are fulfilling SUCH a necessary role in our culture.

  12. Thank you ella for being so strong and upfront. I just recently got g herpes and have had a hard time until reading your blog. Do you have any other way to keep contact? Id love to chat about experiences.

    Thank you again

  13. Great blog. I am a lesbian living with HIV and it’s never easy to have to tell a potential partner the deal. I am very out about my status, I don’t hide it but you’d never guess that I’ve had this shit for 25 years now. I am healthy and it’s not a visible disease. People don’t always “get” that we all live with some kind of baggage, some is worse than others. I’m very conscious of my status and keeping my partners safe. I’ve been lucky to meet women who look beyond my sero status and see ME and love me for who I am. I make darned sure that if I am interested in someone that they know right up front about my status. I personally don’t want to waste my time getting to know someone, getting attached and then telling them and having them reject me…it’s much better to be up front and forth coming about things like this. Then they can make the choice if they want to date someone with an STI, (even though I didn’t contract my hiv through sex) or not. Generally, I’ve never had an issue with out-right rejection over it. But there’s always the chance. Thanks for this blog, it’s very well written and informative on a very touchy subject. People are afraid of chronic illnesses until they understand that you CAN live with them successfully and you CAN keep your partners very safe while having a great relationship. Rock on. ~MB

  14. “but now I show symptoms so rarely that I pose no credible risk to my partners 99% of the time.”

    There’s some slight misinformation here. Herpes virii can be shed at any time, even when there is no outbreak. The chances are relatively small (recent reports suggest between 2 & 5%) but it DOES happen.

    And for cred & clarification, I am a sexually active polyamorous male with herpes.

    1. Asymptomatic viral shedding is a real thing, and I know that someone with herpes can theoretically transmit at any time. That being said, with the relatively weak strain of herpes that I have (GHSV-1), the period of time I’ve had the virus (someone with herpes is less likely to transmit the longer they have it), and the fact that it’s much harder for women to transmit to men than it is the other way around, what I said isn’t misinformation. But to be clear: I’m speaking about my own odds of transmitting to my male partners. I’m not saying the odds don’t exist for other people.

  15. Small typo, I think? I’m suspecting “I’m saying you should automatically say yes” was meant to be “I’m not saying you should automatically say yes”?

  16. “And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with asking yourself, or asking Google, if you should date someone with herpes. It’s human nature to think it, and to wonder, and to actively make the decision. ”

    YES! AND, this questioning is giving you a chance to ask yourself if you REALLY want to get into HER as much as you want to GET INTO her. If it’s the former, then yes, date her. If it’s the latter, be honest with her, tell her that you realized that while you are physically attracted to her, you actually realized that you don’t feel compatible enough to continue dating her to the point where you would get physical and she would be assuming that you had stronger feelings than the ones that are being produced in your “little head”.

    I tell people all the time: Herpes makes a GREAT Wingman…. because you will find out who is interested in who YOU are as a person…. they will understand that we ALL have flaws, and it is those flaws that make us human. This not only goes for sexual relationships, but friendships as well….

    Peace out 🙂

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