I had to write an awkward email a few weeks ago. A journalist wrote a piece about me (and my genital herpes) for a very prominent, respected publication in the United Kingdom, and she included a line about how I’ve never had sex without a condom. It was a reasonable assumption; in my essay for Women’s Health, I discussed how shocked I was to get diagnosed with herpes when I had never had “unprotected” sex in my life. Had never. Past tense. I sucked it up and sent the author a short note, she made a quick correction, and no one was the wiser. But the exchange stuck with me, if for no other reason than for how self-conscious it made me feel. There was a strange shame in telling this relative stranger that I have had unprotected sex. More than once. Despite having genital herpes.
When I got diagnosed with herpes and for quite some time after, having sex without a condom was unthinkable. As much as condoms don’t 100% prevent transmission of herpes between partners—the virus is transmitted through skin contact, not fluids—condoms do bring that risk down considerably. And I wanted to do everything to prevent giving what felt at the time like a curse to another person. The idea of transmitting to someone was horrifying, revolting, and distinctly not arousing. It was nine or ten months before I even felt comfortable sleeping naked with a partner, as if the virus was suddenly going to spring into alertness and rub itself all over my boyfriend’s crotch while I was unconscious. I did not trust my body, a fracture it took a very long time to heal.
It was a long-term partner’s suggestion to forgo the Trojans for the first time. The prospect had never occurred to me before, and I looked for my past reservations about condomless sex but was surprised when I couldn’t find them. Since we both knew our status and I hadn’t had an outbreak for quite some time, we decided it was a calculated risk we wanted to take together…
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