ASK ELLA: How Do I Tell Someone I Have Herpes?

If there’s one question that I’m asked the most by strangers on the internet, it’s: How do I tell the person I’m dating that I have herpes?

I suppose it’s my own fault that people treat me like the guru of STI disclosure. When I was twenty-two, I wrote an essay for Women’s Health called “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes.” The headline (also written by yours truly) was effective because it plays off the assumption that no one could possibly enjoy having such an embarrassing conversation. And the assumption isn’t wrong, not really. Because while I enjoy telling people in general that I have herpes, that doesn’t mean I enjoy the conversation in a dating context. It’s fun to tell people I have herpes when their opinion of me doesn’t really matter.

Telling someone you’re interested in that you have herpes means making yourself vulnerable. It means rolling up your sleeves to show this other person the sensitive skin of your wrist. It means pointing out a vein. Here is my weak spot, my wound. Can you still want me? Will you still choose me, knowing what you know now?

When I was first diagnosed with herpes, that conversation was agonizing. I was still wading through the thick, confusing trauma of getting diagnosed with a heavily stigmatized STI. In those first few years, I struggled not to hate myself for it. If I felt this way about myself, how could someone else not? How could someone knowingly choose to have sex with me when doing so meant risking a life this virus too?

Eventually I realized that choosing to be with someone wonderful who happens to have an STI is not an insane thing to do, it’s a pretty normal choice that millions of people make because STIs are not that big of a deal. But it did take me a while to get there, and if you’re still in that place, I remember that darkness well. It took work to get out of that darkness. Rebuilding my strength and confidence required some magical mixture of supportive friends, inner strength, and positive experiences disclosing.

I’ve had herpes for over seven years now, and I won’t lie to you: disclosing still makes me nervous. My heart begins to race and I worry about how their face will ripple with confusion or surprise, or, occasionally, disgust. Even as I’ve built up years of toughened skin against knee-jerk judgment and ignorance, I still worry. The anticipation is the hardest part for me.

When I was last single, I hinted at my STI status in my bio on dating apps. I included a backstage photograph at the TEDx conference where I gave my talk about STI stigma, and I made a joke about how Infowars called me a slut during the 2016 election. Before swiping right, inquiring minds could Google me and read the worst things that strangers on the internet had written about me. This self-selected out the people who had an issue with my herpes status, or with my sex writing. While this approach didn’t save me the angst of disclosing, as I couldn’t assume that they knew my herpes status from some vague breadcrumbs on my Tinder profile, it did mean that most people I met up with had already figured it out. My boyfriend arrived at our first date after watching my TEDx talk on the subway—his opening line was about how smart I was, and then he changed the subject. He’d already gone through the entire process of realizing I was herpes+ and deciding it wasn’t a dealbreaker, all before we’d met.

Honestly, I haven’t had a normal disclosure conversation in years. Google has solved that problem for me. I disclosed to the whole world on my blog, and my past self discloses to new people over and over again.

So when folks assume I have some flawless, all-purpose script for a perfect disclosure, I’m a bit embarrassed. I did at one point, but I have to search my memory for it. In general, there is no one-size-fits-all disclosure script because everyone is different. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Your personality informs how you communicate. The only way to learn how to disclose your STI status is with practice.

That being said, there are certainly some tricks of the trade. Here are a few pointers that I’ve gathered from over time.

No seriously, practice.

Yes, it is scary to have That Conversation, especially when you’ve recently been diagnosed. At the beginning, even thinking the words “I have an STI” can feel humiliating. That feeling will lessen with time, but also with exposure. So say those words, as often as possible. Talk to yourself in the mirror. Practice your disclosure in the shower while you wash your hair. Chat with your pets about sexual health—their big, round eyes won’t judge you. Confide in your friends, whose support you’ll benefit from in the long run anyway. Every time you disclose your status, even when no one is there to listen, it gets easier.

Don’t psych yourself out.

It’s human nature to imagine all of the no good, very bad directions the conversation can take. When I was first diagnosed, the many nasty ways my date could reject me ran through my head like ticker tape. But convincing myself every disclosure would be a disaster was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’ve only ever been turned down when I entered that conversation from a place of doubt and insecurity. When you bring negative energy into your disclosure, your partner will mirror it and anticipate the worst. If you’re visibly stressing out, they will be on edge too. If you’re a confident, smiling charmer who graciously shares information, they’ll be more at ease and in a better frame of mind to process what you’ve said.

Instead of fixating on the risk of rejection, think of the character and respect you are demonstrating by being honest about your sexual health. In disclosing your status, you’re being generous and responsible and kind. They’re lucky to know you. They may even find your transparency refreshing.

Make it a conversation, not a monologue.

 A great way to freak out the person you’re dating is to say you need to talk about something serious and launch into an emotional confession. Instead of taking the “I have something important to tell you” route, treat this as an opportunity to discuss how you want to approach sex and dating. I’ve used the disclosure conversation to discuss what I want in the relationship more generally—am I looking for something exclusive, or would I prefer to keep things casual? This is also a good time to ask how recently they were last tested for STIs, and to discuss what forms of protection and birth control you want to use together. Saying “I would rather we use condoms if we have sex because I have HPV and want to keep you safe,” is much more reassuring than “I hate to tell you this, but I have HPV.”

Don’t be surprised if opening up about your STI invites them to do the same with whatever it is they struggle to tell new partners. Disclosing that you have an STI demonstrates you’re an honest, nonjudgmental soul, and that will often encourage your partner to lower some of his or her walls too. Some of my best relationships were built on that first conversation when I let my guard down and my partner followed me to that place of emotional vulnerability. These are the moments of trust and vulnerability that become the foundation of the best relationships.

Be prepared to offer information…

I totally botched one of my earliest disclosures because I had no idea how to answer my beau’s questions about herpes. The virus was still a mystery to me, and when I couldn’t explain why condoms weren’t enough to fully prevent transmission, my potential friend-with-benefits suggested we stick to platonic friendship after all.

Most people know very little about sexually transmitted infections, so it’s always a good idea to come to the conversation armed with knowledge. Offer to explain how your STI works, and have some statistics about how common it is in your back pocket. Don’t bombard your new boo with facts; too much information can be overwhelming. But be prepared to answer their questions and calmly admit when something is outside of your expertise. You don’t need to know everything, but you should know the essentials, like what forms of protection you can use. You can text them links to trusted resources like Scarleteen or Emily Depasse’s Instagram so that they can learn more on their own.

…but not too much information.

You never need to justify why you have an STI. Do not feel like you have to explain how you got it, or from whom. Asking someone how they contracted an STI is like asking how many sexual partners they’ve had—it’s invasive and a little judgmental. It is one thing to volunteer that information, particularly if it’s a story you want to share. But you’re allowed to keep your past off limits. When a date pries into that part of my story, I gently say, “That’s something I’d rather not talk about.” Your partner has the right to know information relevant to his or her safety—that’s why you’re telling them about your STI in the first place. Sharing anything more than that is entirely up to you.

Don’t apologize.

At no point should you say, “I’m so sorry, but I have something to tell you.” If you frame your STI as something you are ashamed of, it will make it a bigger deal to your partner than it necessarily has to be. And you have nothing to apologize for! You haven’t done anything wrong. It doesn’t matter how you got herpes, either—you don’t need to apologize for living a life before you met this person.

Having an STI is a part of your life, but it does not define you. You have not misled your partner by not sharing your status along with your name and phone number. It is also not an unfair burden to ask someone to date you despite your STI. Everybody brings something to a relationship, whether it’s a common skin condition or a fear of birds or overbearing parents. You happen to have a virus living in your body. Chances are it’ll impact the relationship less than someone’s inability to text you back within a reasonable window of time.

Give your partner time to think.

Some people need time to process whether or not they are comfortable getting involved with someone who has an STI. I once dated someone who disappeared after I told him over drinks that I had genital herpes. He resurfaced after a week to ask me out for dinner, and when I teased him about his vanishing act over artisanal grilled cheeses, he admitted that he’d needed time to do his research.

Having someone vanish while they make up their mind may be irritating and nerve-wracking, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some folks need space to noodle through what an STI would mean for their lives if they were to contract one. People with compromised immune systems may need to speak to their doctor. If they’re a good person, they’ll pop back up eventually to move forward or let you down nicely.

That being said, occasionally you’ll stumble across someone who Googles transmission statistics while you’re in the bathroom and is good to go as soon as you get back to the restaurant table. Those ones are my favorites.

Seriously, do not wait until the last minute.

I highly recommend not disclosing right before getting down and dirty, when the lust haze emotionally compromises our brains. It’s not fair to pressure someone into making a decision about his or her sexual health in the heat of the moment. If you can tell a situation is heading in that direction, slow things down and talk it out. Waiting until after you’ve had sex to disclose denies them the chance to give you their informed consent. Then you really will have something to apologize for.

At a dorm party, I once realized the playful flirting between a friend and I was not quite as harmless as I thought. He already knew that I had herpes—I tell most of my friends, whether or not I want to bone them—but as we left the party to go back to his place, I made sure we took the long route across campus. By the time we reached his apartment, he knew the statistics and we were both confident in what we wanted to have happen between us.

Know that you deserve a “yes,” and do not take a “no” personally.

Sadly, an STI will be a deal breaker for some people, for a lot of reasons. People with other health conditions might not want to put themselves at risk. Every so often you will meet a jerk who has internalized the cultural stigma surrounding STIs. A dude once broke up with me because he’d just gotten over chlamydia and didn’t want to gamble with his sexual health again so soon.

Yes, rejection sucks. But it doesn’t really matter how valid or bogus your partner’s reason is for turning you down—respect it and consider yourself better off. Don’t waste your time trying to convince them. You should never have to wear someone down into dating you, and if they change their mind once, they may change it again. Don’t waste time on someone who can’t be the best partner for you. Walk away with your head held high.

A “yes” doesn’t guarantee a good relationship.

It feels validating when someone says your STI is no big deal. But if accepting your STI ever becomes a bargaining chip or a “favor” your partner has done for you, this person might not be someone you want to date. They don’t get to congratulate themselves for being kind enough to have sex with you, or use your STI as an excuse to not work hard in the relationship. Keep your bar high. You should have a partner who adores you and treats you the way you deserve to be treated, regardless of your sexual health.

I’ve had several incredible relationships since I was diagnosed with genital herpes. What’s my secret? I refused to think I deserve anything less than an incredible relationship, no matter what stigma told me.


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

One thought on “ASK ELLA: How Do I Tell Someone I Have Herpes?

  1. Thanks for sharing Ella! Absolutely. Telling someone at the last minute is very dangerous. The key point here is that you can’t expect everyone to react the same way. One way to make it easier for your partner is to give them time. Suggest that they take a day or two to think about it before contacting you to see how they feel. Even if your partner is completely fine with your herpes status, it’s important to practice safe and responsible sex.

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