Here’s another pet peeve of my email inbox: when a man (because it’s almost always a man) asks me if he should continue seeing this woman he’s been dating who just told him she has herpes. Sometimes the question is data-based, about what transmission statistics are real. Sometimes the question is esoteric, about whether or not he truly knew this woman in the first place. And sometimes it’s the classic entitled bullshit I face on Twitter all the time: I’m not a jerk for dumping someone who poses a risk to my health, right? Why on Earth would I knowingly choose to put myself in danger like that? Is she worth it?
I don’t know, man. Does your dick get hard around her? Is she nice?
When you ask me questions about if you should date someone with herpes, I know you’re looking for an expert opinion. You’ve never given herpes any serious thought before and here I am, a woman with herpes and a blog, who has so generously spilled her guts to the Internet about what it’s like. It’s just a simple question to you: should I date this person, yes or no?
But to me, it feels like you’re asking me to justify my value. The facts on herpes are actually quite clear when you do research online: herpes transmission is not that simple, particularly when both parties make an effort to use condoms, antivirals, dental dams, and so forth. I know couples who have gone years without transmitting by being honest with each other about when they are having outbreaks. The person most likely to give you herpes is the person who doesn’t know they have it in the first place. On the other hand, herpes itself honestly isn’t that big of a deal for most of us. Although individual symptoms depend on your overall health and the strain you carry, for many folks herpes is an uncomfortable initial outbreak and mild recurrences, if any. My first outbreak was quite painful because it coincided with an infected spider bite, but now I show symptoms so rarely that I pose no credible risk to my partners 99% of the time.
In retrospect, if my ex-boyfriend had known he had herpes and told me before we started dating, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, and I would still have herpes today. That’s because when we met, he was gorgeous and charming and his status wouldn’t have put a dent in how attracted to him I was.
How did my partners after my diagnosis make the decision of whether or not to sleep with me? I’ve asked them. Sure, they did some Googling. One talked to his doctor about how it might impact an existing condition he had. But mostly they looked at me, and thought about the fun, challenging conversations we had, and remembered how gorgeous my thick hair is. They considered me as a full person, not the “side-effects” of having feelings for me. When it came down to the brass tacks of who I am, there was no decision to be made at all.
In the past I have made room for the discomfort of strangers who do not want to date someone with an STI. You need to do what’s right for you and your health, I reassured and soothed my readers, not wanting to ruffle feathers, not wanting to seem extreme. And I still do think that if you have a valid health condition that herpes would complicate, you’re a gentleman and a scholar and I wish you the best of luck. But too often my impulse to capitulate to people who just don’t feel comfortable stems from a desire to seem chill. I am afraid of being that ranting feminist with herpes who seems to think herpes is great. The harassment and mocking of “Men’s Rights Activists” and strangers on Twitter has gotten to me. Hah hah, herpes is disgusting and hilarious. How silly, this girl thinks we’re bigots for not wanting to contaminate our junk for some desperate, shitty lay. What a slutty joke. Feminists these days, am I right?
Screw that. At the end of the day, STI stigma is a form of prejudice. It perpetuates a preconceived notion of someone’s moral character and individual worth based on a skin condition that itself is not a barometer of value or happiness. To let someone’s STI status be a game changer is a form of discrimination. To you it may seem reasonable, a matter of self-preservation. But to us, it is dehumanizing. If you let someone’s herpes define who they are as a person and the role they will or won’t play in your life, you have reduced them to their STI status alone.
And here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with asking yourself, or asking Google, if you should date someone with herpes. It’s human nature to think it, and to wonder, and to actively make the decision. I’m not saying you should automatically say yes. But in asking me this question, an actual person with herpes, you are shaming and insulting me in the name of needing help deciding. I don’t want to be the selfless Mother Teresa of herpes. It’s far more fun to be the loud, controversial and brilliant Kanye West of herpes.
I have little to no interest in being with someone who doesn’t think I’m worth getting herpes from. Yeah, you can read that again. If you are not willing to brave the risk of getting herpes, you are not worth my time. If my STI is a deal breaker for you, your ignorance and cowardice is a deal breaker for me.
One of the most romantic moments of my life was when an old partner told me that I had so thoroughly de-stigmatized herpes for him that he saw contracting from me as an inevitability he chose, rather than a nightmare I should have panic attacks over (and although I continued to have said panic attacks, I never did transmit to him). A true partner, a true best friend, accepts all of you. They do not barter or keep score, or make a pros and cons list when it comes to asking you on a third date. The question you should be asking is not “Why should I date someone with herpes?” It’s “Do I want to date someone for who they are?”
UPDATE (6/28/20): I wrote this blog post four and a half years ago in response to the questions I received from (typically male) readers. The question felt like a personal attack, a request to justify my inherent value as a potential sexual partner, and as a person. The blog post became one of my most popular posts of all time, using page views as a metric. I stand by what I wrote at age twenty-three, but I’ve written a follow-up essay exploring how I answer the question now. You can read it here.
In 2020 I self-published my micro-memoir, LIFE RUINER, about my experience getting diagnosed with herpes. You can read it exclusively on my Patreon, along with other essays about intimacy, mental health and relationships.
Read a free excerpt here.