When I discovered April was STD awareness month, I immediately knew I wanted to do a series on my blog to celebrate it. After all, I am a human lady person living with genital herpes, and the fun of publicly decimating STD stigma has yet to wear off (if it ever will). But what do people really want to know about living with herpes? What would be informative but not dull, personal but not self-serving? What did I still want to know about herpes?
The first fear most people have when they get diagnosed is that having herpes will devastate their love life. I remember wondering what dating would be like from now on. Would anyone find me sexually desirable? I learned quickly that my love life would require some potentially awkward conversations, but hell yes people still wanted to bone me. But what was going through their brains? Were they scared? Were they ashamed to be sleeping with someone who had herpes? How did it change the way they saw me?
Why not ask them?
Every so often on the blog, I will interview someone who has been a part of my herpes experience, starting with sexual partners and possibly moving onto close friends, family members… basically anyone who witnessed my life changing from an interesting vantage point. This series seeks to make talking about herpes more comfortable, offer new viewpoints on the virus, provide perspective and comfort to the newly diagnosed, and yes, bust up some stigma. A friend of mine in the herpes tumblr community, unfriendlyhsvhottie, is doing a similar interview project with her ex-beaus, because everyone should forever ask their exes invasive questions in the name of social justice.
The subject of my first interview is a friend who we’ll call The Wrestler, for reasons that will become clear. The Wrestler and I dated casually this past winter, on those rare occasions that we found ourselves in the same city for a night or two. He took an hour out of his Easter Sunday to Skype with me, generously answering my questions with bravery and grace. Our conversation has been edited down for length.
Ella: I get asked a lot what it’s like to date with herpes. And I obviously know what it’s like for me, but I know very little about what it’s like on the other side. So thank you for agreeing to let me pick your brain.
The Wrestler: I’d love to help in any way I can.
How did you think of herpes before you got to know me, if you’d thought about it at all?
I first heard about herpes when I was pretty little because my bubby—my dad’s mother—had cold sores, and there were times when she couldn’t kiss me. To me it wasn’t a big deal.
But I learned more about other types of the herpes virus from wrestling. Herpes gladiatorum is a skin condition that you can get, similar to shingles. There were guys on my wrestling team who had it, and everyone made fun of them a bit for it. It wasn’t a badge of honor like ringworm or impetigo was, which was gross and just a whole other part of wrestling culture. When they had herpes it was like, “You guys didn’t take care of yourselves.” It wasn’t sexually transmitted herpes, it was the same thing as getting ringworm or something else, except it was permanent.
And then I got to college and I dated this person who was quite a wonderful person but—not but, and—she also had cold sores. She had HSV-1, and there were long periods of time that she and I couldn’t kiss or have sex or do anything because she was afraid of transmitting it.
Wow, I never knew that I wasn’t your first partner who had herpes.
Yeah. And I had told you before that I was pretty sure my bubby had given it to me at a pretty early age, but I haven’t had a cold sore in a really, really long time.
Did you think of it as herpes? I know a lot of people get cold sores around their mouth but they don’t think of it as herpes.
I didn’t, too much. I think it’s something that people should take seriously because it can be painful and it can interrupt your life, but to me there isn’t quite so much danger with herpes as there is with some other STIs. I had a volunteer when I worked in New Hampshire who referred to it as a life-long best friend who occasionally pinches you in the arm. She provided a lot of information and couched it like, yes it’s an STI but compared to something else, even things that you can treat like chlamydia or gonorrhea, it’s not nearly as serious because it can’t threaten your life.
I told you that I had herpes in such a different context than most people would—it wasn’t a conversation about us, it was a conversation about a bad relationship I was in. How do you remember me telling you that I had herpes? Do you remember how you felt, and did it change the way that you thought of me?
You and I had had limited interactions. We had known each other from various things, whether it was parties or events in the fraternity or just bumping into each other random places, but we hadn’t interacted too much? I would probably have considered us, you know, friends of friends, or acquaintances, or at least friendly with each other—
I’d made out with several of your friends.
(He laughs.) Yeah, that was what I was going for.
When you told me you had herpes, it wasn’t so much that it changed my view of you… It completed your story. The context in which you told me about herpes made me angry, not at you but at the situation that had caused you to contract the virus. How that came to be was definitely more important to me than you having the virus. Which again, at the time, hardly changed the way that I view herpes. I had been dating someone with herpes for a long time. I didn’t want to engage in anything that was risky behavior, but at the same time it didn’t scare me.
Basically it filled in what had come to be my understanding of you, and how open you were, even in that moment that was incredibly scary for you, how life changing it was, and your own misconceptions about the disease. Or at least my perceived understanding of your misconceptions about it, sorry, I’m not going to put words in your mouth.
No, that’s fair. It was still so new to me that I didn’t… you probably knew more about herpes at the time than I did.
I remember you and I had a conversation a few months ago about how that was actually… that conversation was when we both realized we were attracted to each other, even though it was kind of an inappropriate time. But… did that coexist in your brain? Like, “oh, I’m attracted to this person,” and “oh, this person has genital herpes”?
I’ve already told you that part of that attraction had to do with the openness, intensity and bravery that you demonstrated in that moment, seeking help from a stranger because you needed it. Especially knowing you now, how much that can scare you from time to time, makes it all the more impressive. And to you answer your question, did herpes play into the attraction? No. At the time, all I saw was this incredibly beautiful woman telling me something about herself that was so scary to her.
It was definitely not a deal-breaker for you.
Not a deal-breaker, no. I didn’t see you as “Ella with herpes,” I just saw you as “Ella.”
Was there any additional research you did, since I was the first person with genital herpes that you got involved with?
Well yeah, especially because I didn’t know whether you had HSV-1 or HSV-2. But it wasn’t just into the diagnosis but also how that can happen, what that experience can be like for somebody, that kind of thing.
Do you remember how you did research? Did you just Google the different strains?
I’m an incredibly lazy researcher, I live on Wikipedia and Google. I was a little lackadaisical about it.
Was there anything that you remember that scared you?
‘Cause I know when I Google herpes I’m like what the fuck, like if you look at Google Images—
I made sure to avoid the images side because when it comes to any skin disease, whether it’s herpes or anything else… you have to remember I’ve wrestled for most of my life so I’ve seen just about as gross as it can get with skin conditions. No, I’m not going say that—there’s some pretty rough stuff out there. I’ve seen at least mild to medium on that scale.
Okay. So you did not need to consult Google Images for this one.
Nor did I want to! That is a rabbit hole I am not following. I want to clarify, that doesn’t mean that the idea of looking at a herpes outbreak grosses me out, but specifically that Google Images loves to put the worst stuff at the top of the search.
That’s definitely true. I remember when I had my second outbreak recently I was like, this is nothing, this is so tame in comparison to what my first outbreak was like, and also what people think of herpes in general. It was just not a big deal.
I think you’re also just tougher now. Not only the diagnosis but everything that came with it toughened you up, at least mentally.
The first time that we did have sex, was herpes at all on your mind? Or was it just not a thing that you thought about?
(He laughs.) I don’t think I had any space in my head to think about that at the moment.
Did you think about it after?
Of course I did. Immediately following, the first thing on my mind was not, you know, the virus, but rather… the first thing on my mind was how compatible we felt and how nice it was, and then later that was an after thought. You know, “Oh, that’s a thing. She has herpes.” And then it flowed down the river of thought again because you know, I’d already tread that path and it wasn’t too big of a deal for me.
I think the fact that the thought exists and I acknowledged it is important because otherwise I’d just be an idiot who disregarded risk. But I’d already been there, and we played it safe, and I knew and trusted that you are not only hyperaware of how your body is doing, but if you weren’t feeling safe you wouldn’t have proceeded. Part of what made it such a safe feeling for me was that I trusted how much you cared and how you wouldn’t take giving herpes to someone else lightly. For anybody else who is going through that, a big part of it has to do with that trust, and knowing that the person you’re with in that moment is not only a kind person, but also a conscientious person.
Did you ever think about how you would have reacted if I had transmitted to you? At a certain point you can’t always know when the virus is active in your system, and it had been dormant in my body as far as I knew for like a year and a few months when we were seeing each other, but did you ever give it any serious thought? Or was it something that you put a wall up against and didn’t let yourself worry about?
So I’ll let you in on a little secret of my own: I every so often get ringworm. It’s not a permanent disease, but either it’s hanging out on my clothing or workout equipment somewhere… every so often I get this fungus that is the same thing as athlete’s foot. I don’t know the science of it because I never really cared about it, because again it’s just a skin disease that while contagious has never had an impact of my life. The idea of having another—while stigmatized—another skin condition, which is what it is even if it’s located on my genitals or on my face, is superfluous.
I’m sure in the moment it would have been a little jarring and I might have had a little, tiny freakout, but I don’t think it would have continued after that. Partly because of my experience, not only with people who have had the virus but also because of my own little brushes with that kind of thing. And let me tell you, if you tell a girl you’re interested in that you have ringworm, her first reaction is not “oh cool.” So I’ve been there, to a certain extent, although it’s not the same thing. But that’s also because no one really knows what ringworm is until you tell them.
I remember when you told me you had ringworm, and I had no idea what it was. I was just like oh, okay, well that’s a thing. That’s fine.
Of course! And it’s not nearly as painful as having a herpes sore, but it is itchy and you can get other things on top of it. I’ve seen gross stuff with it. Luckily I’m very adept at spotting it and treating it immediately.
I’m trying to remember, wasn’t it active for you the first time that we saw each other? I remember that you were wearing a long sleeved shirt.
Yeah, that’s why I didn’t take off my shirt. And I had a Band-aid on it but even then I didn’t feel comfortable coming close to exposing you to it. I’m really fastidious about this sort of thing, which is why it was so frustrating for me to get ringworm in the first place. I’d never want to share that with somebody. It’s not my decision. Although it’s not very stigmatized for me, like herpes, I can’t make that decision for somebody else.
I totally understand. That’s a really interesting parallel.
Yeah, I think you and I have more common than you realized.
If this question makes you at all uncomfortable you can totally dodge it, but we didn’t always use protection. Some of that might have just been us being impulsive in the moment, but what was that like for you? Was there a decision? How did you feel afterward?
Um… okay. I get tested regularly, especially after a new partner, but I didn’t always use protection when I first started having sex. As I got older obviously that changed. But when you and I made that decision, it was very much a lost in the moment occasion. I think we had been having some… to my recollection, awesome hotel sex, and there was this moment where we had been… we had been—
We were a little sex drunk.
(He laughs.) Yeah, that’s an awesome phrase that I’m totally going to steal and never give you credit for.
Well I have it on tape, so, fuck you.
Oh c’mon. Fine. I don’t know about you ‘cause I was the person who was at risk for contracting something, but in that moment I… I got lost in you, it wasn’t even in the moment. And in that point in time I just gave myself over to the possibility. That might have been a stupid decision, but I don’t regret it. And luckily I still don’t… you know, I haven’t contracted anything. Because even if I trust you, I did get tested after.
Of course, that’s the responsible thing to do.
I never had unprotected sex before I got herpes, and I was always fastidious about using condoms. It’s something I’ve become more relaxed about since getting diagnosed, because I always have to have a conversation with my partners about when we’ve been tested and what we have and what we don’t have. As a result I feel like in those moments when you do lose yourself, you can be a little more comfortable and secure in the knowledge that at least everyone knows what they’re doing and what the risks are. But I always do worry afterward that someone will feel regret or be scared or wish they had done something differently.
Let me clarify something. When I say I came away unscathed and act as though I don’t want the outcome of having herpes… I think although to me it is de-stigmatized, the type of reality that you’re talking about where you have to talk about it all the time is daunting. Even if I’m not scared of the actual reality of it. I’m scared of any opportunities that you feel looking back you might have missed out on because somebody was scared.
And for the record in terms of regret, even if you do turn out to be a massive dick, I don’t think I would regret you. That has less to do with you being special, which… you already know how I feel about you. It has more to do with the idea that when anyone makes the choice to give themselves up to somebody, when they lose themselves in somebody else for just a minute, there’s an unsaid choice to accept the consequences of that. And I think people like to forget that, in moments when it bites them in the ass.
Every relationship and every sexual encounter has its own risks. Some might be very real and health-related, but there’s always an emotional risk. And it is important to separate the fact that herpes is a very minor skin condition in its physical expression, but when I worry about the possibility of me transmitting, it’s not just because I worry about my partner’s health. I’m aware of the social stigma and how it does change your life.
Part of the reason what we had was so special was that it was the first time in a long time where I felt like I got to be kind of frivolous. I got to have this exciting fling, and I didn’t have the same worries that I used to about, “Does this person think I’m worth the risk?” There’s this annoying thing that nurses say, “Don’t worry, you’ll meet the right person and they won’t care that you have herpes.” I remember being so angry about that when I first got diagnosed because I was 20 and I was like, I don’t want the right person, I want to do whatever I want! I don’t want to have to wait for people of very strong moral character. I want to be able to fuck.
Obviously you and I have built a huge amount of respect for each other, but I also just thought you were gorgeous and wanted to bone you on an athletics field in the middle of November. That was wonderful for me because I got to reclaim some of that impulsiveness and hookup culture craziness.
I think there’s this misconception about hookup culture. A lot of us, when we’re doing that—whether we have herpes or not—are pretending there’s nothing at risk, whether it’s bodily or emotional. And that’s part of what makes it scary and fun.
That leads me to one of my other questions. How was dating me different from dating other people? Did getting involved with me change the way that you approach sexuality or sexual health?
Oh yeah. Well it had less to do with herpes and more to do with you as a person though, want me to go into that?
I mean, a lot of the way that I approach sexuality is the result of having herpes, so it all works.
Dating you was the first time in a long time that I gave the key to some part of my emotional security to somebody, and part of that also has to do with the way that I have sex with people. I don’t like to just have sex, even if it is just a fuck. So dating you was the first time that I had felt emotionally… I wouldn’t have said that I was depressed, but there was definitely a part of myself that was missing for a long time because of how little of myself I was making available to people, even if I was welcoming people with open arms. I was keeping everyone at arms length by being intimate with everybody and not intimate enough.
And with you, however fleeting us seeing each other was, there was an honesty and vulnerability that both of us showed even though we’re both very guarded people. It reminded me what it was like to be scared, giving a part of yourself to somebody and then hoping that they catch it. That can go for the emotional side of it but also with the virus. There was a trust that I had not given to somebody in a long time. When you choose to have sex with somebody without a condom, you’re really taking a risk, and it’s not just of getting an STI. I sure as hell don’t want kids right now.
When I wrote my big disclosure post in January, it was known to certain people that we had been involved. I remember being very nervous about how past partners would respond when I went public, but especially you because we had just seen each other a few weeks before and gone out to dinner with your friends. What was that like for you? Were you nervous about people making assumptions?
No, I wasn’t scared about that. The people I’m close with knew that we’d been hooking up because no, I was not in any way ashamed. I think you and I had a conversation that affirmed that at some point you might have a tell-all post, and that didn’t scare me. Maybe it’s because I love having my story told, and I don’t mind being part of that story for you.
But a friend who I’m pretty close with texted me the link to your post. He was like, “Dude, Ella has herpes.” And I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “And?” And I go, “And?” I think he expected to catch me and have me freak out in a text, partly because that’s the nature of our relationship and he likes fucking with me. But in that moment it actually clarified how little I gave a shit that you were telling that story. Not that I didn’t care that you were doing it for yourself, but rather that it didn’t affect me. I didn’t mind having you put that out there. You doing that, if anything, gave me a chance to show you off, not only as a great writer but how brave you are to talk about those things.
Are you nervous about the possibility of people reading this conversation?
I’ve put out a lot of details that make it pretty obvious who I am for anyone who knows us, and I wouldn’t have put them in there if I cared. But I don’t want this conversation to come across as too fluffy. Although you and I are perfectly candid about herpes, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t argued about other things. And I think that’s important to note, because otherwise this seems a little too perfect.
Yeah, we had our shit go down. We had our issues. I don’t think any of them were related to herpes or to the sex we were having. We had other crazy couple problems.
Because we don’t live in the same place, and because there was a certain amount of me making myself available for you. I think in those moments of emotional risk I got defensive and got angry with you. It wasn’t just the big arguments or philosophical questions that we had, but occasionally normal young relationship shit where people get scared because there’s something at risk… that isn’t herpes.
Just our feelin’s.