Ask Ella: Should I Date Someone with Herpes?

Most of the traffic to my website comes from Google. WordPress shows me the search terms that bring people to my writing each day:

“Is it stupid to date someone with an STI?”

“would you date someone with herpes?”

“dating a woman with herpes”

Seeing these search terms in my website analytics used to make me angry. In January 2016 I wrote a snide blog post called “Why Should I Date Someone With Herpes?” 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. “I don’t know, man,” I wrote frantically. “Does your dick get hard around her? Is she nice?”

The blog post became one of my most popular posts of all time, using page views as a metric. Years later, when you ask Google if you should date someone with herpes, the post is on the front page of results. The internet continues to bring conflicted paramours to my angry rant, and I stand by what I wrote at age twenty-three:

“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.”

I still believe it’s cowardly and ignorant to reject someone due to their STI status, but experience has taught me that health is complicated and personal. We shouldn’t have to justify the decisions we make about our bodies, and I understand that the choices people make about sexual health are more complicated than just knee-jerk judgments and fear. Sometimes a couple just isn’t meant to be, and that’s okay. There isn’t necessarily a villain when an STI status is a dead end. You can say no and still be kind.

When I read the Google searches in my analytics, my heart aches, but it’s not an unpleasant feeling. These questions land differently with me now. Where I used to read rejection, I now read curiosity. You wouldn’t ask “should I date a person with herpes” if you didn’t want to find the answer. When you ask a question like “should I…?” you’re usually not looking for a hard and crisp no. You’re seeking permission. You want to hear that you’re not being irresponsible for crushing on a person who society taught you is a bad bet.

There aren’t a lot of happy stories out there about people dating with herpes. Growing up we hear the horror stories, the cautionary tales, the diseased sluts and the cheating jerks. There’s little room in our culture for the cute single dad with the occasional cold sore or the clever librarian with Valtrex in her purse. There are no love stories, no romance novels, no television plot lines that show us how to desire someone with a sexually transmitted infection. The lone exception is the canon (positive and negative) of HIV stories, but HIV and HSV share little more than letters.

When you meet someone sexy and generous and kind who also happens to be herpes-positive, you have no script. You’re in uncharted territory. What do you do when you find yourself facing the unknown? You turn to Google.

Should I date someone with herpes?

I can’t tell you what you should do, but I commend you for asking. I recommend you keep doing what you’re doing right now — researching, learning, keeping an open mind. Think about your health and the types of sex you enjoy. Invest in barrier methods and talk to your doctor about underlying health conditions you have that will inform your decision. Get a blood test if you can afford one; there’s a good chance that you already have herpes and have never shown symptoms.

All of that data can help you make an informed decision rooted in what you want, rather than what society taught you to want. It should inoculate you against the STI stigma you’ve internalized through no fault of your own. But it still won’t answer yes or no for you. Google can’t tell you how you feel about this person. Google can’t tell you what you want.

There’s a story I tell about how I met my first love. Our meet-cute took place in a college dorm room and involved some furtive Google searches about herpes transmission rates on his iPhone while I wasn’t looking. The question my ex asked Google isn’t all that different from “Should I…?” When he met a stunningly beautiful and surprisingly forthright herpes-positive girl at a party, he turned to Google for guidance. Luckily for me, he found the information he needed to confirm his answer was already yes.

I did some asking around. It turns out that most of my relationships are thanks to Google. One friend-with-expired-benefits looked at pictures of herpes symptoms to familiarize himself with the virus. A fuck buddy and lifelong friend asked Google about protective measures and read up on scientific studies. In his words, “It wasn’t ‘should I date this person’ but more ‘what’s the best way to date this person.’” Some of my other partners didn’t need to research their decision to date me because they’d already dated other people with herpes and had done their research already.

Before now, I never wanted to know how my exes made the choice to get involved with me. It made me feel gross to imagine them calculating the odds, like they were reading warning signs on a pack of cigarettes at some dark bodega. It hurt to think that dating me, wanting me, loving me required research. I don’t know when my feelings about it changed. Now when I think of them curling around their iPhone at a party or settling in at their messy desk late at night to learn about my STI, I feel the love for me they already had at the very beginning of our story. They were already invested enough to take the time to really think about me. Their crush on me overrode whatever disgust or fear they felt about herpes, and they taught themselves more, and then they decided on me. They put in the work to love me.

If you came here from Google, thank you. Thank you for putting in the work. Whatever you decide, I hope you treat your “someone” with the respect and thoughtfulness you’re showing now as you learn about their virus. There are so many herpes love stories out there, quiet and normal and kind, even if they don’t turn up in your research. You’re one of them.

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

6 thoughts on “Ask Ella: Should I Date Someone with Herpes?

  1. Hello Ella and thank you so much. I just got diagnosed a few days ago and I had been losing it, thinking my life is over and that I can never be me again but reading your blog posts has really helped me a lot. I’m sending you covid-free digital hugs and kisses right now. You are God sent to me, I can’t express my gratitude. I now realize that this is not a life sentence, that I am still me and that I am worthy of happiness & love. Looking forward to living!!

  2. Hello right now I found this because I have hsv I disclosed to someone before sex after I found out. He has been harassing me online every chance he gets. Calling me horrible things threats of the cdc, saying I’m going to hell. I am struggling with self hate right now because hes found another one of my accounts I block and block make new accounts but he continues every time he sees an account. At this point I’m afraid to ever cross him in person and of telling anyone else or even dating.

    1. I’m really sorry you went through this. I’m not sure if anything I say can help you, but I will say that I just found out someone I have seen once has herpes. I intend on seeing her again, if she wishes too. She felt the need to tell me that she was always in a committed relationship, which I find sad. None of this is to congratulate myself. Anything, but. I am simply saying, I exist and I don’t see myself as some paradigm of virtue. If I exist, I imagine many more men like myself do also. Please do not allow this coward to ruin your life. That’s all he is, a coward.

  3. Thank you for this post and so many of your previous posts on the topic. As someone recently diagnosed as herpes-positive, it gives me great comfort to know I am not alone in my feelings and thoughts surrounding this new normal. Much love to you and I hope I can find someone who will put in the work to love me for all of me STI included.

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