A few months ago I asked my Instagram followers what I should write about next. Far and away the most popular answer was rejection.
Surely I’ve already written about rejection, I thought. It’s the biggest fear of a person with herpes, at least in the beginning: that we’ll be rejected by everyone we develop feelings for simply because we have an STI.
Aside from my favorite anecdote about getting rejected by someone because he’d just gotten over chlamydia, I’ve avoided talking about rejection. In a misguided effort to not freak people out about herpes, I skipped wholesale over the moments when herpes actually does suck. Instead I’ve focused on how to live with herpes well: how to disclose your status, why you should date people with herpes, why this common STI isn’t the end of your life.
But screw it. I’m dropping my friendly neighborhood face of herpes public relations patter. Let’s talk about it.
Rejection happens. Rejection fucking hurts.
Aside from Chlamydia Guy, I’ve rarely been rejected by a crush because of my herpes status. I have, however, dealt with numerous little rejections while being a human in the world whose STI status is oddly public. My former roommate’s mother once expressed concern that her daughter would contract herpes from me if we accidentally shared a bath towel. My neighbor—a woman who watched me grow up across two decades—literally said “ew” to my mom when my herpes writing came up in conversation. And you know what’s fun? Getting ready to meet your partner’s parents for the first time when they’ve already Googled you.
I get rejected all the time, whether or not I know it. By the dream job that never reads my cover letter because my name is tethered to my STI status. By the strangers who swiped left on my profile when I had “HSV-1+” in my Tinder bio. By co-workers who studiously avoid ever acknowledging my sex writing despite following me on Instagram and knowing perfectly well what I’m up to online. Rejection always, always hurts. Even when you’ve experienced it a million times before. Even when you know it’s a risk you’re taking. Even when you choose to take that risk.
There will be people who reject you because you have herpes. Some of them will make that decision carefully based on conversations with their doctor and introspection about their comfort level with risk. Some of them will make that decision rashly based on ignorant assumptions and stigmatizing myths. Some of them will let you down kindly, and some of them will have that stammering, “Guh, uh, what?” reaction that humiliates and infuriates you in equal measure.
It’s worth remembering where that rejection comes from. Rejection is a possibility because lots of people received terrible sex education and absorbed the dangerous messages our society tells us about STIs. According to a 2014 study by the CDC, 76% of U.S. public and private high schools taught that abstinence is the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV and STIs. Our potential beaus were literally taught to say no to people like us. We shouldn’t have to educate folks on STI stigma—we should never have to teach someone why it’s not a mistake to date us!—but sometimes that’s the shit hand we’ve been dealt.
Rejection is always a risk because people are complicated and life is unfair. That rejection is unfair doesn’t make it sting any less.
Are you ready for the good news? You’re not guaranteed to get rejected. I know plenty of people with herpes who are in loving, healthy relationships. I’ve been in several wonderful long-term relationships since I was diagnosed, both pre- and post-herpes internet fame. I also know plenty of people with herpes who have rewarding casual sex with partners who know their status and want them anyway. I once sent a GIF of Chandler Bing from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. gesturing toward his bed to hot guy I met at a bar and then that guy slept with me that same weekend. Herpes won’t prevent you from being someone’s soulmate or their meme-happy one-night-stand.
I also know plenty of people with herpes who have been rejected and felt like shit about it and then moved on and found someone else who adored them. You cannot let your fear of rejection freeze you in your tracks and keep you from living your life.
Rejection sucks, but living a life that never risks rejection sucks way more.
The more power you give rejection, the more it hurts when you encounter it. If you tell yourself I’m going to get rejected I’m going to get rejected I’m going to get rejected, you will probably get rejected! Why? Because you’ll be a nervous wreck when you disclose your herpes status. That kind of palpable dread and shame is infectious. Your potential partner will pick up on your panic and mirror it back to you, convinced by your shame that herpes is a potential deal breaker. If you’re the subject expert on herpes and you frame it as this horrible, embarrassing, uncomfortable disease, your crush might believe you. And then bam, just like that, your fear of rejection makes you more likely to get rejected.
A few weeks before getting rejected by Chlamydia Guy, I had a crush on a friend from high school. Over beers on his back porch, I spilled my heart out about my shitty ex-boyfriend, my newfound insecurity, and my fear that I’d never be considered attractive again.
“I still find you fuckable,” my friend said with a roguish grin. “Herpes isn’t a deal breaker for me. But you’re not in a good place, and I’d be taking advantage of you.”
This friend’s blunt assessment of my mental state hurt even more than a straightforward herpes rejection. He was also right. My fear of rejection impaired my judgment. I radiated the desperation of the deeply wounded. I was not capable of being a good sexual or romantic partner, or a good custodian of my own wants and needs. If you live in mortal terror of rejection, the problem isn’t herpes stigma anymore. The problem is your own fear, and you need to work on it.
Overcoming your fear of rejection is possible. I got over my fear of rejection by telling literally everyone that I had herpes in a deranged form of exposure therapy. I complained during a beer pong tournament about how Valtrex had ruined my alcohol tolerance. I wrote an essay about getting diagnosed for a college trauma writing class and then listened as twelve strangers workshopped my description of my first outbreak. I told a cute guy at a party that he shouldn’t make herpes jokes and then fell madly in love with him. Somewhere along the way, the shocked faces that people made when I mentioned herpes just stopped bothering me.
You can take a less extreme approach, I promise. Start by telling someone who adores you—maybe your mom, or your best friend, or your really cool cousin who lives in New Mexico on an alpaca farm. They might blink, but they’re not going to see you any differently. Their love and support will show you that you are still you, and you have value, and you are loved.
Start with one person. Then tell another. Maybe you tell a stranger on Tinder, just to see what it’s like to type up those words and release them into the wild. Send them a little FYI message, like hey I’m part of the two-thirds of the world with herpes and I’m down to talk about how we can have safer sex because you have really nice hair and I want to pull on it. Or, you know, something less suggestive. If they’re a jerk about it, you can process that reaction in the privacy of your own home and remember that their opinion doesn’t matter anyway.
At some point, there will be someone whose reaction really matters to you. You might not want to tell them. You might dread the thought of losing them forever if they reject you. But it’s better to tell them and have them walk away than it is to keep your status a secret. They need to choose you for all of you.
Besides, they deserve your faith! They deserve the opportunity to live up to your expectations. They deserve the chance to prove your fear of rejection wrong. In disclosing your STI status, you are showing them your character. If they’re truly worthy of you, they’ll see this conversation as proof of the love you have to give.
If I’ve learned anything during my seven years of herpes, it’s this: Confidence isn’t a personality trait. It’s a muscle. In order to get over your fear of rejection, you have to train.
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.