How I Lost My Post-Herpes Virginity

I was eighteen when I lost my virginity. A few weeks into my freshman year of college, I met a hipster with gorgeous blond hair and an obscure instrument slung over his shoulder. A few weeks after that, we had sex. It was not altogether a memorable experience. What stuck with me weren’t any romantic details or awkward moments; I mostly remember thinking is that it? Not because the entire affair was over in a few minutes—we were kids, who can blame us—but because I expected to feel changed afterward.

For all of my young adult life, friends and teachers and television shows told me that my virginity was one of two things: a precious gift I should save for the love of my life, or the only thing of value that I had, the loss of which would ruin me. Instead I just felt sore…. and eager to have sex again to figure out what the fuss was about. After all, it was my first time, the first of many times, and that realization was more exciting than the sex itself. This was the beginning of something.After all, I was a smart baby feminist. Reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth had taught me that virginity was a bullshit, socially constructed lie, and I hadn’t bought into either of the messages (soul mate or value-based) about what my virginity was supposed to mean. But I did expect that sweet blond hipster to matter to me in the long run, even though he wasn’t my boyfriend and I didn’t necessarily want him to be. I figured I would look back at him in a few years and feel something, some connection or warm fuzzies, to demarcate him in my heart as important.

Five years later, I have forgotten he exists on most days. He pops up every so often on my Facebook feed and it’s nice to see he’s still out there in the world, playing obscure instruments and writing statuses in languages I don’t understand. He’s a good person, but not particularly special in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad I had a partner who was kind and respectful the first time I had sex, and that the experience was as unremarkable as it was. Most people are not so lucky. But that’s about all I feel for the matter.

He sees an intelligence in you that he likes, rooted in emotional capability and self-reliance uncommon on this campus. It feels good when it clicks into place, the discovery that this attraction is mutual. He knows about your HSV, asked, “So what does that mean for your sex life?” and clearly wasn’t too perturbed by your blunt and uncensored answer. He is unapologetically himself. He likes you for unapologetically being yourself. You wonder how long you will last before the pressure builds and pops. 

Losing my post-herpes virginity was different. For one thing, I really liked the guy. Not that I hadn’t liked my freshman year hipster, but this guy was something else. We drove around the forest and bantered about campus issues and social politics and health. It was platonic in the beginning, at least for me—I was still learning how to feel comfortable in my body again, attraction to anyone new coming slowly and riddled with anxiety. In my brain, it wasn’t a given anymore that men would find me desirable, even if I was still the editor-in-chief of the campus sex magazine. But when I did become aware of how my nerves stretched and tightened in his presence, of how I grabbed my cellphone every time it lit up with a text, I was terrified. I wanted to have sex with a boy, and I had herpes. Fuck.

The bright side of developing a crush on a friend was that he already knew my status. It had come up indirectly in conversation, unrelated to the possibility of us becoming an “us”. The first time he kissed me, he had already thought the decision through. There was never a “You should know this, do you still…” and that made it easier. Instead we jumped straight to logistics: I could start taking Valtrex daily to lessen the risk of transmission, which would require visiting my OB/GYN back in my hometown. Meanwhile, we did other things, became comfortable with each other and built up remarkable anticipation. By the time I was on Valtrex, I had never wanted anyone more in my life.

But I was still terrified. Absolutely, completely terrified. I was convinced he would change his mind with all that time to think. It wasn’t like we were dating, and there were hundreds of other girls on campus he could have sex with who didn’t have a sexually transmitted infection. What was so special about me, really?

Okay, okay, I knew the answer to that. But I had my doubts.

And what if the condoms and the Valtrex weren’t enough? Could I really keep him safe? How would he react if the worst happened? Would he be as cruel as my ex? Could I handle that guilt? What if we slept together and he regretted it? What if he stopped wanting me as soon as the moment finally arrived and the reality of what he was about to do settled in?

Before I got herpes, sex was easy for me. I was an arrogant little shit, to be honest. I knew I was attractive in an unconventional, snarky way. My confidence and reputation made me glitter just a little bit, and I’d never had any trouble finding willing partners. While casual sex wasn’t necessarily amazing, I could meet someone by 11:30pm and know how his shoulder blades felt under my fingers by 2am. Sex had almost always been impulsive, fun, and simple. It wasn’t meaningless, but it didn’t have to always be meaningful.

I kept waiting for him to change his mind. I texted him as I picked up my Valtrex prescription and wasn’t reassured by the smiling emoticon he sent me in response to the news that we could finally have sex. I felt much younger than twenty-one.

He looks at you differently than anyone else. When he looks at you, it’s as if he has finally found you. You’re both equally busy, equally arrogant, equally battle-scarred. The casual nature of this gives you time to focus on your thesis and the magazine and your friends, a few hours every few days to get each other off and let down your guard. You find yourself doubling up in giggles more often in his dorm room than you do anywhere else. It’s hard to adjust to silliness after so many months of darkness.

He must have been nervous, too. When the night finally arrived, some unremarkable weeknight in October, he pulled a Ziplock bag out of his backpack full of condoms and lubricant samples from the student health center. I remember sitting on my bed and waiting for him to chicken out as he lined up the condoms on my desk with his cellphone and room keys. But he didn’t show any sign of second-guessing, and he pretended not to notice the tremors in my hands as I kissed him.

I knew that I wanted him, that I wanted him so badly, and I kept waiting to be swept up in desire. The air in my dorm room was dry because the central heating had just been turned on, and his nose started to bleed, little red droplets landing on my neck. He thought he had bitten me until we realized what was wrong. We stopped kissing to locate a box of Kleenex, and in retrospect the lack of awkwardness as we hung out in my bed and waited for the bleeding to stop, half-dressed and only a few weeks into knowing each other, was a very good sign.

The sex was good, at least objectively. I remember watching his face light up with awe and knowing I wanted to memorize it. But I couldn’t turn off the ticker tape of anxiety in my brain that told me I wasn’t allowed to have nice things anymore. I wasn’t supposed to be having sex this good with a man this kind. How could he want me? How could anyone want me anymore? All those weeks of anticipating this moment had built it up so much in my brain that I couldn’t relax and lose myself the way I so easily had in the past. I needed to get the ease of sex back. I needed to get out of my own head.

After he left that night, I had déjà vu. It was a new first time, the beginning of re-discovering my sexuality after having become disconnected from it. If I didn’t hear from him again, fine, I would get over it and pick someone new—all I had to do was look. And if I did hear from him again, we could have sex again. It would be better the next time.

And it was better the next time. The pressure was gone, and I wasn’t as afraid that he would vanish, and he kissed me until I stopped thinking. It was better the time after that, and the time after that.

You don’t know if you have ever held hands with him before. Sure you have clasped hands during sex from time to time, or while cuddling like limp, drunk ducklings in each other’s beds after dark. But he reaches out to tickle your knee when you have both fallen quiet, and then he takes your hand and weaves it through his own, rests them together on his thigh. He squeezes it. You run your thumb over the back of his hand and he does the same. You haven’t slept together in two weeks, more than that, and some part of you thought it might be over. But he is holding your hand and this is not platonic or meant to be reassuring. You are holding hands with him as you drive home to campus through the dark.

I think of him as my first, now. He matters to me in a way that no one else ever will because he was the guy who took a chance on me when my neck still tasted like sweat and shame. He would be the first to caution me not to give him too much credit, and it would have been someone else if it hadn’t been him. But it was him, and I’m glad I could go through that weird, scary experience with someone patient and smart and, well, super attracted to me. Our chemistry helped me become a sexual person again. It created a bond between us that still hasn’t gone away.

Sex is different now, post-herpes. I’d be a liar if I said my sex life hasn’t changed: now when I have sex, it’s woven through with trust and respect and honesty. It can be casual, a Tuesday afternoon hookup before my 7pm lecture with a hot fuck-buddy, and it can be impulsive, in the field behind the bar with a friend from high school I haven’t seen in years. Sex can also be quiet and tender: all of the things we don’t say to each other because no words fit quite as right as this. I haven’t had bad sex once since getting diagnosed. That might be because the quality of men in my life went up. Or it’s because I understand what I want so much more than I used to.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

15 thoughts on “How I Lost My Post-Herpes Virginity

  1. My 21 year old son was diagnosed with HSV-2 two weeks ago. He believes he will be cured. I feel so bad for him but I want to be strong and supportive.

    Reading about your journey, Ella, helps me to believe my son will be able to have a “normal” life. He’s 21 and just sobbed and said I’m not going to be able to have children. I assured him he could still have children. He now says he won’t have sex. His on again, off again girlfriend has been a rock by his side and he cared for her before but there were doubts.

    He is my youngest child and I can’t help him or tell anyone. Just needed to share.

  2. Thank you!
    I have been diagnosed this week and went straight to google to find some support and information.
    You are the only positive influence against the stigma I have found and I am so grateful to have read this and watch your ted talk.
    For me the stigma is worse than the virus and I would like you to know that you having a voice for all of us is helping me. I feel much better emotionally after seeing your ted talk and reading this.
    Thank you for being you and support such a stigmatised group.

  3. Thank you so much! I found your ted talk on youtube and had to find somewhere to say thank you. I am 22 and I just got diagnosed with genital HSV-1. I am learning that some days are going to better than others but it helps to know I am not alone. I have been also called brave for me deciding to be happy and optimistic and you just explained why it annoys me. So keep it going! Much appreciation for your zero-fuck-giving message!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I was just diagnosed with genital HSV-1 three days ago. Immediately, I was trying to remember if I ever saw one of my partners have a cold sore before engaging in oral sex. I’ve always been tested regularly, so it was frustrating because haven’t I been doing everything right? I’m a lesbian, sooooo oral is a big part of my sex life. I told my partner about my diagnosis and she’s been very supportive and chill about it, which was very relieving. She’s getting tested soon and I can’t help it, but I have this lingering fear that I gave it to her. But for all I know she could have been the one who gave it to me without even knowing. Which is fine because many people don’t even know they have it. Your article has really helped me feel normal again and empowered. Thank you so much!

  5. You are a inspiration and a much needed breath of fresh air to so many. Thank you for your voice, thank you for your confidence, thank you for being you and allowing the world to take part in all that is you.

  6. This is such a refreshing perspective that calms me as I am still waiting for my blood test result back. Three days ago, I received a FB message from someone whom I had a short fling with while I was traveling in Europe disclosing to me that he has herpes for years and he knew it from the beginning. It is already been six month since our connection faded. I can not make any meaning of his behaviors of disclosing after half year and told me that he “protected” me because he did not have sex with me at his outbreak. Anyway, I went to the doctor and got tested immediately the next day. Still waiting for the result. I was trying to educate myself about herpes as much as I can and found your Ted talk and then this article. It helped me to seek that peace in me and a sense that I will be fine.

    1. Followed up story about the test result. I have HSV -2. After talking to doctor, I realized that the most painful part is to call this one person that I care about. The thought that I could transmit to him is unbearable. I had confidence that I can find peace in my own diagonosis and find ways to cope. However, I don’t know how I am gonna find the peace within me if he is contracted because of me. I can deal with the consequence of my behaviors. However, it pains me to know that someone else’s life is impacted becasuse of that. I called him immediately and told him about the test result in the most disorganized and panic way. He responded well. He said shit happens to people and he will let me know after he is tested. Now, all I wish and pray for is that he is not contracted.

  7. I really enjoyed this article. I am 18 and am still in high school and was diagnosed 2 days ago with HPV. I contracted it because i was drunk and high at a close friends house, and was followed upstairs. I don’t remember having the sex. That’s one of the hardest things. I know I have a long journey ahead of me and I am very excited to have your blog to help me through my daily struggles. Thank you for being honest with yourself and with all of us. I am so lucky to have a supportive guy in my life. I can’t wait to rediscover myself because it does in fact feel like I am lost and will never have a good sex life like I used to. I hope that’s not the case. Best wishes xx

  8. Beautiful piece, Ella. Thank you so much for continuing to share yourself with us. I’m a half dozen years your senior and I wish I had half the talent at memoirs.

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