I learned quickly after getting diagnosed with genital herpes that no one writes about having an STI. There are no memoirs about herpes. There are no academic studies about the literature of herpetic authors. There is a gigantic gaping hole on the Internet where herpes blogging should be, other than the herpes support community on Tumblr (which, let’s be honest, most people doesn’t know exists). No one is writing about the everyday, practical experience of having herpes. And there are definitely no articles about dating with herpes that don’t position the herpes+ as wounded, terrified, unlovable freaks.
According to the media, there is only one herpes story (and some people tell it better than others). You can find it on websites like Cosmo, Rookie, and The Hairpin. Occasionally there will be a good, meaty piece about how herpes testing is bullshit, but for the most part herpes journalism is a blandly inspirational, predictable place: I got diagnosed. It sucked. I learned to love again. Now everything’s great. No one uses their real name, and no one ties it to the rest of their career. These pieces exist in a vacuum, about as motivational as packing popcorn.
When Women’s Health Magazine reached out to me to write about what it’s like to date with herpes, I found myself at a loss. How do you neatly tie up two of the most chaotic years of your life? I had no idea what that story should look like. But I knew what I didn’t want it to look like.
1. I didn’t want to start at the beginning.
Almost every piece about herpes starts in a doctor’s office, with someone getting terrible news. The patient? Horrified, disgusted, afraid, and confused. The doctor? Sometimes supportive, sometimes a total dick. The patient emerges forever changed on Day One of the rest of their life. While not talking about my diagnosis—and how much it sucked—would have been dishonest and narratively foolish, I didn’t want my story to start there. The beginning of an article sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and I wanted to begin somewhere completely unexpected: a softball field, about to bone an attractive bro. I wanted to make it clear that trauma does not define my life, and that my relationship with my body and my virus is not a painful one. Besides, that day in the doctor’s office at Wesleyan wasn’t the start of my new life—I left the health center different, maybe, but still me. I was the same flesh and bone and brain, and I get to choose my narrative.
2. I didn’t want to write about how I got herpes.
It took me a long time to piece together who transmitted to me, and that story is messy and complex and frustrating. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I have herpes, and that’s a fact. Everyone gets herpes at different times in their lives, some from partners, some from family members (herpes does not have to be sexually transmitted), some during a sexual assault, and some people have no idea where they got it at all. But at the end of the day, no one “deserves” to get an STI, and it shouldn’t be understood as a consequence of choices made. A virgin can get herpes from their serious boyfriend. A sexually empowered boss can get it from a stranger at a club. Herpes is literally a lottery, and one that is rigged against us. And besides, shaming people for having unprotected sex is bullshit. Controversial opinion, but not everyone needs to have safe sex! We should have the sex that we want to have, as long as it’s consensual and informed. My ex-boyfriend accepted the possibility that he might get herpes from me. That’s right, some people choose to accept a life with herpes. Because they realize it isn’t a huge fucking deal.
3. I didn’t want to write a love story.
This shit drives me crazy. Accepting that you have herpes shouldn’t be the result of finding that one person who loves you anyway. Having a supportive, wonderful partner can work wonders for your self-esteem and sexual confidence, I’m not going to undermine or deny that. But to frame that as the only way to make peace with having an STI is limiting, unhealthy, and not to mention heteronormative as fuck. It also privileges relationships over casual sex, feeding into the myth that people with STIs can’t have non-monogamous relationships. Could I have told a love story? Sure. My original draft followed the “and then I met this amazing guy!” arc 100%. But where’s the empowerment in that? Where’s the self-love in that? In the end I chose to frame my article with a man, yes, but with some respectful, awesome casual sex. I wanted to make it clear that herpes doesn’t limit your sexuality or the type of sex you can have. And although there are several awesome, sexy people in my life right now, I am single and I like it that way.
4. I didn’t want to tell a story that didn’t belong to me.
An article about dating with herpes by definition includes other people, and it was important to me to have the consent of the men I discuss in the article. I reached out to an ex who featured prominently in my first draft to ask if he was okay with me writing about how we met. While he didn’t want to limit my ability to tell my story, I could tell he was uncomfortable. The boundaries of my loved ones matter more than any publication ever could, so I reworked the piece, and in the end it wound up being stronger for it. I was able to submit a draft I felt proud of, without worrying about the people I might hurt. Meanwhile, “Andy” read my final draft before I sent in to my editor, consented to everything included, and even chose his fake name. Andy is a baller.
5. I didn’t want to devalue anyone’s comfort level—including my own.
Writing personal narratives, particularly about stigmatized topics, is SO HARD. Even if it isn’t painful and scary—which this piece wasn’t compared to posts I’ve written before for my blog—it’s still exhausting. It took me a full week to write and revise this piece, and submitting it felt like cutting out a chunk of my gut and attaching it to an email. Andy and I both nursed vulnerability hangovers, checking in with each other about our confidence level and doubts leading up to the piece going live. When it did hit the net, I canceled the plans I had, feeling too many feelings and not up to being around other people. There is an incredible amount of invisible, emotional labor that goes into projects like this one, and self-care is crucial to keep moving. I want to change the world, but I’m always going to put myself first.
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