Getting herpes made my sex life better.
I’m aware that this is a big claim to make. Herpes is an unfairly stigmatized sexually transmitted infection, and contracting herpes during my early twenties changed my relationship with my body and my identity. Despite my refusal to be ashamed of my STI status, I am not a herpes apologist.
If I could rate herpes on Yelp, I would give it 0 out of 5 stars.
When I was diagnosed with herpes, I thought my sex life was over. I thought my life was over, period. As I lay back on the gurney in the health clinic, it felt like the plaster drop-ceiling was closing in on me.
How could anyone want me anymore? Who could look at my body and see anything other than a public health hazard? I thought I’d never again be able to take a stranger home from a frat party. (As a college junior, it didn’t occur to me that losing this opportunity might not be a bad thing.)
Let me assure you: A herpes diagnosis isn’t a social death sentence—but it can certainly feel like one at first. Pop culture, mediocre sex education and a disempowering medical system all teach us that getting herpes is the end of the world as we know it. We internalize the myth that herpes is a disgusting, incurable disease that ruins our bodies and renders us unfuckable, unloveable beings.
Worse, STI stigma tells us that we should be grateful for any scrap of affection we can get. Who cares that the fuckboy you’re dating treats you like shit? At least he’s willing to touch you!
I will not tell you that contracting herpes magically improved my love life. Getting an STI makes people vulnerable to unfulfilling—even abusive—relationships, because we’ve internalized the myth that a positive test result is permission for others to treat us negatively. That was certainly the case for me.
But. BUT! Getting diagnosed with herpes forced me to do something I’d always been afraid to do: actually talk to my sexual partners. When you have an STI that can be treated but not cured— like herpes, HPV and HIV—you need to have actual conversations with the people you intend to bone. You can’t just take someone home and bang them without saying a word. You have to clench your teeth, lower your guard, and get vulnerable. Disclosing your STI status is part of getting someone’s informed consent, and it’s the right thing to do.
When I first considered dating after my diagnosis, I waited until the third date to have The Talk. And I did initially approach it as a Talk—my hands shook as I recited statistics to my date and braced for rejection. I made disclosing my status as painful as it could be for both of us. My terror was palpable and infectious.
“I have to tell you something,” I’d stammer. “I’m so sorry, but I have herpes.”
I do not recommend this approach. Unsurprisingly, it really freaks people out.
With practice, not to mention the help of several unflappable sexual partners who truly did not care about my STI status, I learned how to disclose without setting myself up for failure.
First and foremost, there is no need to apologize for having herpes—plenty of people do! You shouldn’t try to convince them that you are still worth their time—if they’re good people, they already know! As for how you got herpes, it’s none of their business.
The “hey I have herpes” conversation takes different forms for everyone, but the basic essentials are: “I test positive for this virus. Here’s how we can manage it. Is that cool with you?” No begging, shame or tragic backstory required.
So yes, herpes did complicate my experience of dating and having sex. But that added step of disclosing created something surprising and cool: a check-in with my partner about what we’re actually doing. I don’t mean a “define the relationship” talk; I mean a moment of honesty about our bodies and our desires.
Disclosure doesn’t have to be one-sided soul bearing. When done right, it becomes a chance for both parties to share. Even when you’re having a one-night-stand, you have the opportunity to talk proactively about condom usage, turn-offs and expectations. It breaks through the awkwardness of casual sex, or deepens trust at the beginning of a relationship.
After all, telling someone you have an STI is a not-so-subtle way of confessing that you want to do things with their body. When you disclose your status, you’re coming on to them. You’re saying, “I want you.” That’s not a shameful confession, it’s a compliment.
Disclosing your STI lets your partner know that they can trust you. You’ll be amazed by what they might tell you once that trust is established.
What does this actually look like in practice? In my case, it’s sitting down with a potential one-night-stand in a hammock outside of a Halloween party and telling him I have herpes. It’s texting my crush about my status and hearing that his ex-girlfriend was herpes-positive too. It’s having sex on a softball field in the middle of November with a guy I’d been sexting long-distance for months. It’s talking about condoms and dental dams with a new fuck buddy and learning about his interest in kink. It’s a new partner feeling safe enough to tell me what triggers their PTSD.
All of us bring our own needs and wants to a sexual encounter. Talking about those needs and wants can make the sex better. Shocking, I know! I’m waiting for my Nobel Peace Prize.
Getting diagnosed with an STI wasn’t the end of my sex life. It wasn’t even the end of my casual sex life. But it did wind up being the end of disappointing, dehumanizing sex. Herpes taught me how to embrace vulnerability and find intimacy with both committed and temporary sexual partners.
A herpes disclosure doesn’t have to be the end of a conversation. Done well, it’s only the beginning.
Want to learn more about herpes and healthy intimacy? Read my micro-memoir, LIFE RUINER, about my experience getting diagnosed with herpes and leaving an abusive relationship. You can find it exclusively on my Patreon, along with other essays about sexuality and mental health.
Read a free excerpt here.