How To Turn Someone With Herpes Down Without Being A Jerk

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

FIRST, A DISCLAIMER: Invariably, when I post an essay on “How to be nice to people,” some folks get offended. “Why are you asking me to put in extra effort for strangers?” they sneer. “I’m so sick of being told how to talk! Why do I have to learn these things?!”

Alas, the relevant clause here is “Without being a jerk.” There are plenty of no-extra-effort ways to turn someone down; they also happen to be methods that hurt people’s feelings.

Top tip: Being nice to people usually involves going the extra mile.

So rather than dealing with the usual blowhards who are furious about having to burn their poor, overworked brain cells on superfluous concepts like “empathy,” I will delete the comments of anyone who complains about having to be nice to HSV carriers and replace them with a comment saying, “@USERNAME would like you to know they are a jerk.” Commenting on this blog post means you consent to this.

THEN A SECOND DISCLAIMER: Remember that not turning down someone with herpes is also a perfectly acceptable default. But if you’re not comfortable with someone’s status…

“Why Do You Want To Die In A Car Wreck?”
You probably got in a car sometime in the last year or so. It’s well known that people die in car crashes a lot; it’s one of the most common causes of death.

Why did you want to die?

Your answer, of course, is probably “I didn’t want to die, I just needed to get to the mall.” And yet you accepted that risk of dying, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people have died in car accidents, knowing that car rides are inherently dangerous.

“But the only way to ensure you never have any risk of dying in a car accident is never riding in a car!”

Bingo.

(Well, not actually true, as someone my wife knew once died sleeping when someone crashed through their bedroom, but close enough.)

Point is, at some point most of you tallied up the risks of driving in a car – an act so dangerous you have to be professionally trained and get a license for it – and said, “Yeah, I’m willing to risk death for convenience.” (And bonus points if you ever said, “I’ll get in a car with a stranger I summoned from the Internet and pay them to drive for me.”)

You didn’t want to die in a car crash; you just wanted to get places more conveniently. And you wanted that benefit so much that you weighed the risks, decided the benefit was larger than the potential downside of losing a limb to a drunk driver, and proceeded to hurl yourself into harm’s way.

Nobody wants to die in a car crash.

Nobody wants to get herpes, either.

So when you say, “I don’t want to get herpes” to someone you’re turning down, you’re being unthinkingly snide by implying that the people who have sex with these folks do want to get herpes. They don’t. Like you, they’ve looked at the risks, calculated them – albeit differently from the way you do – and decided that the benefits of fine sex with this person outweigh the slight potential of getting herpes.

And it is – or can be – a low risk. With modern treatments, the risks of having sex with someone with known herpes are pretty slim. I know of at least three married couples who’ve been partnered for ten years minimum where the one has yet to catch herpes from the other. I get that you don’t want to get it, but managed properly it’s roughly as distant a risk as dying in a car accident.

…a risk made even more complicated by the fact that you may have herpes right now and not even know it. True story: I had a friend who was dating a guy for six years – a man who’d been tested negative for herpes on multiple occasions over decades, simply because either the right tests weren’t being used or he hadn’t had his first outbreak. He was as safe as it could be ascertained. And it turns out he had a latent strain, and he had his first outbreak, and she caught it.

Again. This isn’t an ad for “WHY YOU SHOULD WANT HERPES” – there’s a reason I wear condoms – but as a disease, there’s a lot of people who do have it right now and don’t even know because for them, it’s not that inconvenient.

Which is why some other people take other risks. You don’t have to; in fact, I assume you won’t, and that’s fine. I’m not shaming anyone for deciding not to have sex with anyone for whatever reason you choose. But when you say “I don’t want to get herpes,” that carries some bad implications.

What should you say? “I’ve read up on it, and I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable with the risks.”

That’s honest, and it doesn’t look down on anyone who chooses to say “Yes” instead. Because the only way to absolutely ensure you never pick up herpes is not to have sex with anyone – and if you’re out there having sex, the best you can do is mitigate the risks, not eliminate them.

Don’t Assume Herpes Was A Conscious Choice.
Some people did pick up herpes by having sex with people – and as I’ve argued in the past, that should carry no more stigma than picking up a cold from work. Just like getting in a car risks death, interacting with other people on any level risks catching some disease.

However, there are some folks who picked herpes up through nonconsensual means. Their mother had it and passed it on to them, or someone who sexually assaulted them had it and passed it on.

Which means when you’re talking with someone about their herpes status, it’s best not to imply in any way that this was some sort of punishment for sleeping around. You don’t know. Don’t be a jerk.

Offer What You Can Outside Of Sex.
One of the things that hurts people the most is the way that revealing their HSV+ status gets them insta-dumped. They’re having a good time talking with someone, sparks are flying, and then SEE YA.

Now usually that’s a way of saying “If I can’t fuck you, I don’t need you,” which is a pretty jerky way of interacting with people anyway. And I’m certainly not saying you need to continue to talk with someone as a friend when all you want in your life right now is a date.

But if you’ve started to make a friend, and you could use a friend, why not see if they’re amenable?

That’s not universally applicable, of course – the “If I can’t fuck you, I don’t need you” attitude isn’t unique to the non-herpetic population. And many folks would see the friendship as a sad consolation prize they don’t want. But some might want to still have a scening buddy, or someone they can get whipped by but can’t get fucked by, or just someone to chat with online.

The cold disappearance is what often hurts the most. Sometimes that’s necessary; by no means should you hang around someone out of pity, because that road leads to disaster. But sometimes you can hang a left on that road and wind up in buddytown, and if you can, that’s helpful all round.

Ask In Advance.
So you’re hip-deep in a hot makeout session that’s trending towards Teh Sexx0r, and your partner wriggles uncomfortably and says, “Um…. you should know… I have herpes.”

That’s a bad time to find out, hoss.

My friends have told me stories that boil down to “Formerly amorous person leaps off them like a scalded cat, backs out of the room with the air of a man escaping a plague zombie” or, even worse, “Lust-addled person goes for it, freaks out, has lots of tests and then decides crap, they can’t handle the HSV thing.”

Look. HSV is startlingly common. Somewhere between 10 and 25% of people have it. If you’re dating, it will come up. So discuss it. Proactively. If sex is in the air, say, “Hey, the last time I was tested was in November, and my results were negative.”

Start the discussion in advance rather than just assuming it’s all good.

Read The Comments.
If past experience is a guide, people with herpes will weigh in on the shittiest (and, hopefully, nicest) ways they’ve been turned down. Listen to them. Take notes. Because if you want to be kind, part of that kindness involves keeping your eyes open.

11 Comments

  1. seisy
    Mar 5, 2019

    I hope I’m not being a pedantic jerk, but I believe hsv is way more common than 20%. I have read that between hsv1 and hsv2, 80-95% of the world has one or the other. Most people are just asymptomatic. In the United States, it’s a bit less, but not enough to justify how weird people get. If you’re sexually active, you’re more likely than not to have it. It’s harder to test for in the absence of symptoms as well. For sure, safe sex & talk to partners and steer clear of getting up close and personal during outbreaks, but I think the prevalence means no one should be acting particularly precious about it and even more underlines the complete hypocrisy of being awful to people who know they’ve got it.

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 5, 2019

      Well, I was being specific in terms of genital herpes, which is what people frequently freak the fuck out about. If you go to all HSVs, basically anyone over 50 can be predictably assumed to have a strain.

  2. Anonymous Alex
    Mar 5, 2019

    I must be sadly uninformed in this area, because it never occurred to me that it would be that big a deal. I guess people find it to be so.

    -Alex

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 5, 2019

      Alas, they do. They really do.

    • Argent Raptor
      Mar 5, 2019

      For me it is because I’m immunocompromised. If I get HSV my body, even with the help of medication, may not recover. I’m an outlier case, true, but a lot of my friends who have a cervix treat HSV like a big deal due to the potential of getting other STD’s more easily, like HPV that can result in cancer. It seems like (seems) that guys care less because a male might not have the same shame baggage a female can over sex and then being “dirty” and “unclean”.

      • Anonymous Alex
        Mar 6, 2019

        When I wrote “big deal,” I meant in the kind of moral repugnance sense that was being described, not in a “hey, I don’t want to catch your cold” kind of way. And I wish I didn’t need to make this explicit (but I feel like I do), but whatever you need to do to keep yourself healthy is of course reasonable.

        -Alex

      • The Ferrett
        Mar 8, 2019

        And being immunocompromised is an entirely valid reason not to go. But you understand how the rejections can go, if you’re unthinking about ’em.

  3. Elly
    Mar 5, 2019

    Hi from someone with 20 yrs of accidental HSV. I’d count both type 1 and 2, since oral sex happens (hooray!).
    I do a fair amount at play parties, and have a standard “intro” for tops or potential partners. I’ve had one or 2 people say no thank you when arranging scenes online, and that’s been fine.
    Also, hubby and I have been together 24 yrs, and he doesn’t have any cold sores. (Smug grin)

    My intro:
    medical caution – I am on a daily suppressive med for cold sores ‘down below’ and take treatment dose to decrease the possibility of viral shedding the day before and the day of play parties. I’ve not had an outbreak with this prep (going on 3 yrs now), and none of my partners have gotten cold sores either. If you want to be really safe, use gloves for vulva play – I dont mind a bit!

  4. backfromvegas
    Mar 6, 2019

    I had my first outbreak a little while ago (possibly acquired from a recent fling but if it was latent, who knows). I told my main sweetie about it, and he was totally chill, to the point of being nearly offended I’d felt the need to break it to him gently. As he said, for something as common and not-a-big-deal and oft-undetected as this, it would be silly to have sex with people at all and not assume this risk as a given. 5 stars, would (did) bang again.

  5. Merry Contrary
    Mar 7, 2019

    I “only” have HSV1, and I mention it on my dating profiles and I’m very upfront about it, but because men rarely read my profile (women and NB’s always do) when I mention it again during our face to face meeting, they run like I have the plague.

    Too bad they will never read this. As far as I’m concerned, the flu is worse and it KILLS.

    • The Ferrett
      Mar 8, 2019

      I said that to a guy once and he went apeshit. THE HERP IS FOR LIFE.

      Well, so is the flu if you get the wrong strain, y’know?

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