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.

Hey there! My name is Ella and I’m a sex and culture critic. If you enjoyed this essay, you’ll be right at home in my Patreon community!

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

12 thoughts on “ASK ELLA: Should I Date Someone with Herpes?

  1. I got HSV1 about 26 years ago when my husband returned from a ‘business trip’ with a cold sore and kissed me before I had a chance to ask about his lip. I then got cold sores if I was run down mainly after me period. We divorced and eventually I started dating again but 20 years I got a genital sore from someone who didn’t tell me he was infected. He said he didn’t know and it’s true that many men never get any symptoms. I did and, as is common with an initial outbreak, was sore for three weeks but took acyclovir. I had one further outbreak six months later. This taught me to take good care of myself. I eat healthy foods to keep my immune system healthy. I took herbs known to reduce the virus like lemon balm (Melissa) and licorice which some studies show can deactivate the HSV virus completely. I also take L-lysine daily during any period of stress or being run down, along with vitamin C and zinc. There is lots of clinical evidence that shows L-lysine deactivates HSV unlike foods high in L-arginine which aggravate it. I haven’t had an outbreak or even a tingle for 19.5 years. I dated someone then for 8 years and he never contracted it from me, despite us eventually having unprotected sex – a lot. Recently I started dating again. I don’t think I will ever have an HSV outbreak again because my ‘management strategy’ has worked so well. But I told my prospective date because I believe in being honest. I explained that he was very, very unlikely to catch it from me, as I had managed it so well, and if I thought he was ever at the slightest risk I would warn him well in advance. As much as he “likes me” he now can’t bring himself to have sex with me. He says it’s “always at the back of his mind now”. His reaction has shown me he is a worrier and a pessimist, qualities I didn’t pick up on before, very different to my own outlook on life. So TBH the relationship wouldn’t have worked anyway as I am a sunny optimist!

  2. Am I the only one who’s here because they Google searched “should I date someone with genital herpes” in hopes of finding answers such as “Yes, no worries. If you like/love him/her then don’t let a little thing like that stop you. Even if you do get it, YOU WILL BE JUST FINE. It’s not that big of a deal. Etc…” and “Hey, I did and boy am I glad because she’s awesome and I love her”? Why did I do this search? Because I have genital herpes. And even after 9 months, I have no idea if I’ll ever find someone I like who’s okay with me, now that I’ve got herpes.

    Yup, I’m the one who now has it and wow was I feeling like a piece of shit with no future. Yeah, initially I got really, really sick for weeks and had several days where it was so damn uncomfy I couldn’t sleep. Felt like fire ants crawling and biting and I was losing my mind. Went to a walk-in where the clinician was very understanding and supportive but refused to give me anything to help me sleep… (Months later, my regular NP shamed me to the point I’ll never see her again. Steer clear of these small towns with small minded people. At least don’t go to small town clinics unless you are ready to be thoroughly shamed and blamed. And keep taking care of your immune system. I have some tips here, too.)

    Then, as I recovered and gained strength and perspective, my self-loathing and depression turned into sheer anger. I picked up the phone and gave that man a piece of my mind. Because he had herpes? No. Because HE DIDN’T TELL ME first. Before sex, I asked ‘the question.’ (Do I get points here? lol). He froze, smiled and asked “Are you sure you can’t get pregnant? You want me to wear a condom”? What marvelous political skills he had, among other things. As long as I ‘believed’ he was STI/STD free, it all felt so perfect. Other than what was about to happen two days later, it had been the best sex I’ve ever had in my life. (Oh, this assessment of the sexual experience was also before he walked out with no intention of ever contacting me again, which does lower the quality of the encounter considerably for me. He’d indicated he wanted to work with me on music together, hang out, etc. What a liar. And it was the holiday season during PAAANDEMIC and I had absolutely NO ONE and was really low). Yes, I was in a weak moment/year so I foolishly accepted his evasiveness as ‘No, I don’t.’ Wow. Blindsided? Hearing only what I wanted to hear? It wasn’t till a month later I had recovered enough to see the truth. Then I was livid with myself for being so weak and foolish. There it was. I had become a luscious, unsuspecting ONS target. So ripe and easy, just like a cornered little rabbit to a wolf. He lied and the conscious, reasonable part of me knew it but I folded. So lonely and desperate I was, **Pandemic Plus** I’d just moved to a new state far from my home, family and friends.

    To anyone who’s made it this far, I want you to know that after the initial horror outbreak, I’ve been just fine. Most of the time I don’t even notice or think about it, and I sleep just fine. I’m happy to share some things that have helped me whenever I do have a bit of an outbreak. And don’t settle for a doc or NP who shames and blames you. Walk out. When this damn Covid settles down (oh God, yes it will; read what an expert physician has to say about Lollapalooza), find a good doc/NP/other who will treat you with the respect and care you deserve.

    And my experience has given me perspective on the sort of behavior I will and will not accept from a future partner. And perspective on my own self worth, loving and caring for myself as well. It’s truly better to be alone with a self you love than to be with random liars who don’t give a shit about you. ❤

    Okay, so is there anyone out there who can accept and actually appreciate me now? I didn't find the answers I wanted to find today on Google but I found Ella Dawson and her site and for that I am thankful. ❤

  3. Thank you for this. My primary partner of 24 years was very quick to tell me that she had HSV2, primarily because she’d been summarily rejected by someone recently on that basis. She didn’t want to have any potential deal-breaks come up after we’d gotten interested in each other. So basically right during the first date.

    We had protected and unprotected piv for all those years, and as it happens, I’ve consistently had negative antibody tests (There’s a very deep research rabbit hole you can follow trying to figure out what that might say about anything)

    As a poly person, I inform any new partners about her and my status as part of any safer sex convo. They then can make fully informed choices about whether or how to be in sexual contact with me.

  4. Hey Ella, thank you very much for sharing your story. I got diagnosed with HSV I and HSV II some weeks ago. I’ve been married for 3 years, had unprotected sex with my wife, have 1 beautiful daughter and dont know when or how got these virus but, my wife doesnt have one of them (she got tested and results came back negative for HSVII). I’ve never knew that what it seems like ingrown hairs in my legs could be herpes, but what i know now is that high levels of stress and deppression weakened my immune system and gave me really bad symptoms which include night sweats, early satiety, fever and fatigue. Before i was diagnosed with HSVI and II, doctors were trying to rule out Leukemia, which they did so, i got some great and some bad news when learning about my diagnosis. After days of research, feeling sad, not worthy and afraid of HSV, i came to find your TED Talk and your blog after, thank you for what you do. You certainly make a difference in the life of the people who visit your blog. God bless you !

  5. Thank you for sharing your intimate life to help others. My boyfriend just told me he has herpes, after we had been intimate. I request he get tested, before we had sex. He missed understood the results. We have discussed, and I have forgiven the oversight. I just can’t seem to understand how we can be together when he HATES condoms. We have had unprotected sex for 3 months, and I don’t have herpes. It almost seems inevitable, if I continue dating him. I do love him and feel like he was the greatest love I could have found. He had other bad habits, smoking is one. I was willing to over look the smoking. Smoking causes problems, because my house is a smoke free zone. I wouldn’t mind dating him if I knew I would never be with another person. The lack of guarantees makes this seem so freaking risky, ugh! This is difficult. If we were together, and I contracted herpes,, we would be 2 people in the same boat. I wouldn’t want him to stay with me because of herpes. He has mentioned getting married, because of this. Nuts!!! He even said if I didn’t contract it, he would break up with me. He doesn’t want me to get it. He thinks it might be easier dating someone with it. I pray you live a long healthy life, and you find the love of your life. Herpes or not, life choices are difficult. Blessings to you!

  6. Thank you so much, Ella. Everything you said was 1000% facts! I’ve been doing research on this for about 2 hours now, because I just found out the guy that I’m interested in, has herpes and thank you, I realized I wasn’t scared to date him, I was scared of what other people would think, but honestly I don’t give a sh*t now. You are so right about the “what society deemed as bad” part! When you said that it really opened my eyes. Thank you for letting me realized that a virus shouldn’t effect someones value and self worth. We just met and I’m still a little nervous but I know I care about him so who cares if he has it! Again thank you!

  7. 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!!

  8. 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.

  9. 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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