If You’re Sexually Active, Do Me A Favor And Think About Partners With Herpes Now.

Full disclosure: I don’t have herpes.  But as am actively polyamorous man, I have (and continue to have) sex with people who do have herpes.  (Safely, of course.)

So do me a favor and think about your comfort level with herpes now.

Because I’ve had people actually stammer when I’ve informed potential lovers of my elevated risk.  “You – you’re touching them?” they’ve said, sometimes shocked that I’d even cuddle someone known to have it.  “Oh God. I have to… I have to check with people. I don’t know. I’ll – I’ll get back to you.”

That makes me feel like shit, and I’m not even the one who has it. So I get real ugly whiffs of how people who do have herpes must feel.

And I think that’s because most people haven’t considered what their stance on people with herpes is. Which is ridiculous. It’s a common disease – more common than you might know, given how negatively people react to it. About one in six people is estimated to have it.  It’s going to come up, if you date around enough.

Not formulating your policy in advance means that you spring some pretty unthinkingly cruel reactions upon some poor soul who has it.

Thing is, I get that you don’t want to have herpes – hey, I don’t – but having it is often something that the folks with herpes absolutely couldn’t help. In the case of one person I know, her boyfriend had been tested negatively, they’d been fluid-bonded for three years, and his first outbreak after literally decades of dormancy happened on a weekend when they were visiting. In the case of not just one but several other people I know, sadly, they got it from their father when he molested them.

So it’s not like these folks were guilty of poor safe sex practices.  Some didn’t have a choice.  With others, the tests for herpes are poor, and often misunderstood, even at professional clinics. It’s hard to know if you have it until that first outbreak happens.

Yet there’s still a lot of shame in kink communities associated with this.

Now, I take the stance that as long as my partner isn’t having an outbreak, and we have safe sex, the risk is as minimal as it gets when you’re exchanging bodily fluids. And after seven years as an active participant, I’ve not caught it. Nothing’s a guarantee of safety in sex – but given the right treatments and practices, you can reduce risks to very small percentages.

And having seen my share of people who do have herpes, I’m not saying I want to get it – but I am saying that if you removed the fearful social stigma associated with herpes, it looks a lot like shingles.  Nobody wants shingles either, but it’s usually not a death sentence and it’s usually something that doesn’t ruin the entirety of your life if you take the right medicines.

But even if you’re not comfortable with those percentages – and you’re well within your rights to conclude that you’re not, particularly if you have autoimmune disorders – still, take a moment now to consider what your stance on the topic is.

Because if someone has herpes, they are often stigmatized and demonized for something they have no control over. When your first reaction is a freaked-out flinch, that just hurts their fucking feelings like you wouldn’t believe.

So stop now. Think about how it would be if this was someone you liked a lot, revealing this secret of theirs to you. Think about the risks now, and do some research, and make a decision in advance in case someone you’re dating sits down to have “the talk” with you.

Because there’s a good chance that talk might come up. One in six, in fact. And if it does, you’ll be so much kinder if you’ve mapped this out in advance.

(NOTE: My Uncle Tommy, who raised me like I was his kid, had AIDS in the 1980s, back when misinformation ran amuck and people refused to touch him or use the same bathroom as him because they’d get “the AIDS.” As such, I’m very touchy about contagious diseases, having seen the hurt he felt. You not wanting to have sex with someone who has herpes is within your right, but any shaming will be met with such a banhammer.)

6 Comments

  1. Tony
    Oct 14, 2015

    The yearly odds of getting cancer from smoking is pretty close to that of getting herpes from sexual contact. We go to great lengths to tell people how bad that is.

    It is true that while condom use is not perfect protection it does help, and that there are anti-virals out there, which can be extremely expensive without insurance, you’re odds of getting herpes while taking all precautions is still significantly dangerous around 5%.

    I’m not saying people who have Herpes have done something wrong or that it’s “their fault”, no one willingly has this disease or the desire to spread it.

    What I am saying is this article treats playing Russian Roulette far to lightly for my taste. However, people absolutely should think about how they would approach this situation beforehand if they want to mitigate hurting another human beings feelings.

    • TheFerrett
      Oct 14, 2015

      Well, a couple of problems with your stats:

      1) Smoking kills. Herpes, as noted, does usually not. As such, comparing fatal cancer to herpes is a bit of a douche shaming move, whether you intended to or not.

      2) Right now, transmission rates for herpes are roughly about 3% annually for condoms, or 1.5% if you’re using condoms and suppressants. So not at around 5%, really.

      3) All of that assumes regular sex, which may or may not happen if you’re say, polyamorous and only connect with someone once every few months. If you’re in an LDR or have a secondary relationship, that may be a lot less.

      Basically, yeah, it’s certainly a risk. But we go to great lengths to tell people how bad smoking is because it’s a disease that can kill them. Herpes can be very bad for some, which is why you have to look at the risks and weigh them yourself, but in general the terror comes not from the symptoms of the disease – and I’ll note you never mentioned those – but the terror of being stigmatized.

      Which is why I’d strongly suggest you re-ponder your attitudes. Your unconscious hip-shot comparison to a fatal disease is part of the problem.

    • ozymandias
      Oct 14, 2015

      You know cold sores? That thing just about everyone has? And most people have no outbreaks, or one outbreak, or outbreaks every so often when they’re stressed but to be honest it’s not a big deal?

      That’s herpes.

      Genital herpes is literally the same thing as getting a cold sore on your lips, except you get it on your genitals instead.

      By your logic, sharing a straw or a mother kissing her infant is playing Russian roulette.

  2. Gayle
    Oct 15, 2015

    I have a close friend who got it because he had unprotected sex with a girl who knew she had it, but was so ashamed and in such denial that she just ignored it. She got it in much the same way. Her behavior was abhorrent to me; however, in my opinion, the demonization of being a carrier isn’t just douchebaggery, it is actively dangerous. Maybe this girl wouldn’t have gotten it, or passed it to others, if the shaming wasn’t so severe.

  3. AT
    Oct 16, 2015

    A lot of people get genital herpes from oral sex with someone who gets cold sores. Both HSV-1 (which is typically oral) and HSV-2 (which is typically genital) can give you either cold sores on your mouth or genital herpes. Most of the CDC literature is based on HSV-2, but if you include the population that could give you genital herpes from having HSV-1, you’re looking not at 1 in 6, but 54%. Assuming people don’t have both (it’s uncommon, but possible), a conservative estimate is that 2/3 of people could potentially give you gential herpes depending on what you do with what body part and when. Demonizing people that have a very common virus because they have it in one particular place is unnecessary and shitty. It’s also important to note that the CDC does not recommend routine screening for herpes so just going and “asking to be tested for everything” likely means you did NOT get tested for herpes.

  4. Carl Wilt
    Oct 12, 2017

    It should be noted that, in the grand scheme of things, there are significantly more risks to your long term health with curable STD’s, especially if they go untreated. Adam Ruins Everything did a piece on herpes once (linked here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU4VcOQzQm0 ), and basically gives the same conclusion. Cracked even wrote up an article that included how the “herpes epidemic” was one of the more successful forms of disease mongering from the 1970’s ( http://www.cracked.com/article_20324_5-basic-facts-life-were-made-up-by-marketing-campaigns.html ).

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