The (Not So) Black and White Ethics of Herpes

I’ve been thinking more and more about writing a book and the many reasons I don’t know if I can. I haven’t written a single word of what this memoir could be but I have already Googled ‘defamation of character lawsuit’ at least five times. Have you ever noticed it’s only rich, white men who sue for defamation? My friends like to say “It’s not slander if it’s true.” I think a lot about legal fees.

Truth is a slippery, emotional thing. There is no real proof of the direction of herpes, only where it is and where it isn’t. Even that isn’t always solid. Lawsuits over who gave whom an incurable STI make me feel a specific type of nauseated: if only it were that simple to determine justice about a biological thing. If only blame weren’t so sticky, and disclosing so hard, and evidence so complicated. We need to be wary of a legal system that was built against us, not for us. My inbox is full of people wondering if they can press charges, asking how they should warn their ex’s future partners, and feeling as though their life has been ruined by someone who will get off scot-free. The other half of my inbox is people terrified to tell their partner that they have herpes, and when, and how, and if they really have to. I know too well the many reasons people are afraid to disclose. And I know too well the stories of those who weren’t disclosed to. It’s a difficult vantage point on a question that I used to see as black and white.

My party line is firm: you must disclose your STI status to a partner before you have sex with them. You should call your past partners when you get diagnosed. Informed consent is everything. Disclosing is a responsibility we have to other people and there is no excuse for not taking it seriously. “Do I have to?” people ask me every day. “Yes,” I answer.

“But,” I think to myself. But that party line is so often inadequate, and the longer I do this work, the less comfortable I am with being asked to judge or absolve other people for their choices.

There are friends in my life who don’t disclose their STI to sexual partners. I love them, and I know why they do what they do even if I would not do the same. It is the result of trauma from past abuse, and of fear of further abuse. If you got herpes because you were sexually assaulted, it’s not a fun conversation to have. Someone found my blog this week by Googling, “Do I tell abusive boyfriend I have herpes?” Seeing the question tucked into my website analytics made me feel physically ill. Morality is blurry and dangerous and I wish I could tell her no, just leave. Just run. You are what matters most.

There’s a new essay on Cosmopolitan written by a woman who got genital herpes from a partner with oral herpes. He did not disclose to her, as he didn’t consider his cold sores “real herpes.” She is admittedly bitter, and her essay drips with pain and blame. It’s rare for me to read something about herpes and feel worse about myself afterward, but she makes the STI sound like the absolute fucking worst thing that can happen to someone. Her anger is valid, and the injustice of stigma should infuriate us. It’s the essay I might have written two years ago, before the inbox full of life stories and the acceptance that comes with time. I know that anger, but I very rarely write from it. It’s not the most productive approach to fighting stigma. It’s also not safe.

Few things on this Earth make me angrier than hearing from someone who got herpes from a partner who knew their status and didn’t disclose. Every single time, stories like this take me back to the same moment: sitting in the lobby of the library at Wesleyan and learning that my boyfriend was sleeping around. I wasn’t mad that he had enjoyed himself while we were on a break. I wasn’t even mad that he’d lied to me about it. I was furious because I knew—with painful, unsubstantiated clarity—that he hadn’t disclosed to these women. He couldn’t disclose to them, because he could barely say the words to himself. Preventing the world from learning he had herpes had been my largest responsibility since I (we) had been diagnosed a few months before.

The world was simultaneously silent and roaring with every adjective I could think of: reckless selfish violent disgusting awful unconscionable unconscionable unconscionable. I had never understood rage before, and I could feel it coursing through my body like adrenaline. It didn’t matter to me that I knew why he hadn’t told them, that he hated himself and he struggled with his mental health and he was so, so terrified of rejection. It didn’t matter at all. There was right and there was wrong. There was respect and there was abuse. There was consent and there was not.

There were reasons, and then there were excuses.

For the first six months that I had herpes, I thought I had given it to him. He hated me for it and I thought he should—that was justified, that was human, even if I hadn’t known my status at the time. There was no proof, just my own slick guilt and the fact that it fit a story we’d both been told growing up. I was that kind of girl. We went to that kind of college. It was that kind of relationship. Blaming me helped him feel better; it made it not his fault. He could project all those disgusting feelings onto someone else rather than process them himself. We both hated me because it seemed fair. I thought about that too, in the lobby of the library, surrounded by the detritus of my life. Suing never crossed my mind—back then I didn’t know you could sue for this, but no amount of money would make that hurt feel better anyway. I needed him out of my life.

And now I wonder every day if I will be served at work for putting words to this.

A journalist asked me a few weeks ago if I had any advice for women struggling with forgiving whoever gave them herpes. The question was really about blame, not forgiveness, and I didn’t have any advice, other than to say that for me, feeling better wasn’t about holding my ex accountable. I’m okay now because I made more of an effort to surround myself with people who care for me. Anger can keep you going but it can also hold you back—it helped me leave an unsafe relationship but did nothing to help me heal. What I needed wasn’t justice, it was to move on.

If you want to tell your partner that you have an STI, here is my advice on how. If you want to tell a partner you’ve already slept with, this video by The Sex Uneducated might be useful. And, lastly, if you want to tell someone that you have an STI but you really can’t contact them, consider using So They Can Know‘s anonymous notification service.

I cannot tell you what to do, but you know what you should do better than I ever could.

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

8 thoughts on “The (Not So) Black and White Ethics of Herpes

  1. Hmm, an NHS nurse told me that after two years outbreak free the risk was infinitesimal and there wasn’t necessarily any point in disclosing that I’d had it from a sexual health point of view, so I’ve stopped bothering. Everyone I told thought they’d already been exposed anyway. I think there’s more stigma about it in the US though.

  2. Yes. It has always been YES because I don’t want to be like the asshole who gave it to me. I had no idea he had it and he didn’t tell me. I told every guy I was involved with that I had it. No secrets. They all knew. Nobody got it. Nobody freaked out. I was careful. I was honest. Twenty three years ago I told a great guy that I had it. We’re still together and he doesn’t have it. He never will. There are some things I don’t want to share with him. Thanks for the post.

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