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’s worth noting that I didn’t understand the appeal of having sex without using a condom in the first place. Despite having abstinence-only sex education in my public high school, I absorbed the message that condoms were a must from my family and from the sex education I cobbled together on my own. Having sex without a condom simply wasn’t worth the cognitive dissonance of risk, irresponsibility, and fear.
When I became sexually active, my primary fear also wasn’t of getting an STI—it was of pregnancy. STIs seemed like something that happened to other people, but volunteering at Planned Parenthood had taught me that accidental pregnancy could happen to anyone. I was vigilant about condom usage because I knew how complicated the experience of getting an abortion would be if I ever found myself in that position. I am staunchly pro-choice, and I’m passionate about protecting reproductive rights, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather avoid such a situation in the first place.
Years ago, I harangued a bro friend for being what I perceived as sexually irresponsible. He admitted to having casual sex with women at his college who he didn’t know very well without using a condom because, as he said, “They’re on the pill.” This is actually my only memory of discussing herpes before my own diagnosis. “That’s how you get herpes,” I scolded him, with more judgment than I’d like to admit. “You need to be more careful.”
Years later we bumped into each other on MetroNorth and I apologized for being such a bitch. I told him about my diagnosis and we laughed hard at the weird irony of it. But he said I’d been right, even if teenage Ella was super harsh—he’d later had an HIV scare and had been vigilant ever since.
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. While the withdrawal method is roundly mocked and discouraged, it worked for us, like it does for 96% of couples when done correctly (site-note: a guy saying “don’t worry, I’ll just pull out” does not count as “done correctly”). Although I was still concerned with pregnancy, I was oddly zen about the possibility. Getting diagnosed with herpes had put me squarely in touch with my sexual health and agency, and I had a privileged “whatever will be, will be” attitude aided by solid health insurance.
Besides, I just didn’t think of myself as the one in harm’s way. At the time I was on a daily course of Valtrex, also known as suppressive therapy, to lessen the risk of transmission. But condoms felt symbolic, and I had to decide whether or not I was comfortable playing what at first felt like Russian roulette with my partner’s health. Being herpes+ is a responsibility that I take very seriously, and the idea of transmitting to someone I care about does scare the shit out of me, even now, simply because I want to protect the people I love from a nasty cultural stigma.
But I also respect their ability to make the choices that are right for them, and eventually I came to accept that it wouldn’t be my “fault” if I transmitted herpes to a partner. Anyone who knows they have an STI and has sex with someone without disclosing is, frankly, an asshole in my book. Informed consent is not only important, it’s crucial. However, adults are not being reckless if they make these decisions together. If a partner is willing to have sex without a barrier method knowing full well that I am herpes+, and we are both sober, and he has thought the decision through, and we have a discussion about how we are going to handle birth control, the logical conclusion is, “Why not?”
And boy, does sex without a condom feel good. Fucking incredible, actually. I don’t want to say that sex with condoms sucks, because condoms are useful and important. I would never have sex without a condom with a partner I don’t trust to the bone, no pun intended, and definitely not on impulse. I am very much on team condom. But sex without condoms is physically more comfortable for me. There is less friction, less need for copious lubricant, and I don’t have to worry as much about getting UTIs or yeast infections. As a result I can have sex for a longer period of time. And sex without condoms is so transgressive and contrary to everything I know that it became a turn-on in and of itself.
It also feels close. Tender. Loving. It means something substantial about a relationship, that a partner will go to such an intimate place with me. Being close to me, worshipping me like this, means my partners have overpowered the stigma that tells them I am ruined. I mean more to them than the virus woven through my DNA. It is the ultimate act of acceptance, trust, and love. The day I began having sex without condoms was the day I stopped seeing my body as a risk, because I finally saw it through their eyes.
Eventually I found myself at a predictable place: at Rite Aid, buying Plan B at midnight on a Saturday. Although I felt self-conscious, the experience was more hilarious than it was embarrassing—weirdly enough, the cashier commended me on being responsible, and the woman behind me in line also had a little purple box in her hands. But I did not relish the extra period in the middle of my cycle, and the following four days of cramps. It was enough to help me make up my mind for good: enough of this, I want an IUD.
I am lucky to have a doctor who didn’t question my choices. She didn’t remind me I have herpes, or ask if I was in a serious relationship. I said I wanted an IUD, and she said okay. We reviewed the different models and I chose Skyla as the smallest and most highly recommended for young women who haven’t had children. My insurance cleared it, and I made an appointment to have the deed done. After hearing horror stories for months from friends who had painful insertions, I was scared shitless that I would scream or, oh god, piss in fright on the doctor’s table. Instead I felt a fierce pinch and then bam, I was baby-proofed.
I realized as a partner and I lay in a sticky heap of limbs and breathless wonder that sex would never be the same again.
At the end of the day, the fact that I (sometimes) fuck without condoms says more about my partners than it does about me. It says that they are kind, and educated, and brave in their own specific way. I never once faced the decision of whether or not I would be comfortable dating someone with an STI; I’d like to think I wouldn’t have let herpes be a deal breaker if I were in their shoes. All of my partners started off vigilant about protecting themselves and relaxed as we became closer, as they saw how little of an impact herpes had on my life. But because I do not know for sure what it must feel like to take that calculated risk, I can only admire them.
Some of my past partners would be quick to tell me to shut the fuck up, that I’m not a “risk” and sex without a condom is no selfless act on their part. To which I say, touché. Not everything is about my herpes. SHOCKING. But it’s a point that I missed for so long and is largely missing from the way we talk about sexual health: an STI does not ruin your sex life, it doesn’t need to curtail it, and it doesn’t taint you. My body is mine. It is strong and it is beautiful and it is soft and it is not disgusting. I refuse to be at war with it anymore.
I fully expect this essay to ruffle feathers. It would have ruffled mine once. What I’ve said runs counter to how we discuss sexual health, and this is part of why I have pushed back against the notion that I am a role model for other people living with herpes. I will not tell you how to live your life, because at the end of the day, you are the person who lives it. And you have the right to have all of the information necessary to make the choices that make sense for you. And let me be very clear: I am not advocating for sex without condoms, or for the careless spread of herpes (hah), or for being cavalier about birth control. What I am advocating for is owning our sexual pleasure. We should respect our bodies, not by preserving them with little purity rings but by honoring our desires and sexual health. We should be honest and open in our communication, even if it’s scary. And we should be able to make the right choices for ourselves.
I’m done viewing my sexuality as a threat. The only thing put at risk when I have sex without condoms is the stigma of herpes itself.
You might also like: How I Lost My Post-Herpes Virginity
Recommended reading: CDC to stop using “unprotected sex” for “condomless sex”