Last week I launched my Ask Emily platform, a safe space for readers to submit questions related to herpes and sexual health that they would like to see covered on my blog. Surprisingly, most questions I received this week revolved around dating and disclosure to potential partners, but one in particular stood out:
One of the most common questions that people ask me is, “How do you tell someone that you have herpes?” As picture perfect as the idea of herpes disclosure templates may be, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It is dependent upon variable factors, such as preferred communication style, type of relationship, knowledge about and comfort in discussing herpes simplex and its associated risks—the list continues.
A disclosure to a close friend or family member can be just as daunting as a disclosure to a potential sexual partner. Common reflective questions are centered around the idea of acceptance within social groups. “Will this person still treat me the same after revealing my diagnosis? Will my family still love me? Will this person still be my friend? Will I find acceptance” The root of these questions stems from the social stigma and the perception of placement in the realm of socially ascribed normalcy.
I like to think we disclose on a daily basis. We disclose our identities through our language, our style and clothes, our hairstyles. The way we walk, talk, and carry ourselves. Disclosure is relevant to our preferences and comfort levels, and as many of us know from adolescence, we may not always be widely accepted by the larger “in” group. Of course, there are pieces of ourselves and our experiences which we reveal to select communities (friends, families, partners, classmates, etc.), and herpes likely falls under this category.
My parents were the first to know. As an only child, I am fortunate to have loving and supportive relationships with both of my parents. My Dad actually accompanied me to the appointment at the urgent care center. Nearly all my friends’ responses immediately began with, “Oh my God, Em. Are you ok?” I never questioned their love for me, however, I did question how potential partners would perceive me.
After my then-partner (the person whom I contracted herpes from) ended things between us, I began to reiterate those initial self-inflicting questions of acceptance. Shortly after making the decision to go public with my diagnosis on social media and my blog,
I was faced with dating disclosure. This person was not new to me, as we had been friends for some time, and consequentially, friends on social media, too. Therefore, it was loosely known before conversations about sexual involvement that I was herpes-positive.
Although I do not recall a formal disclosure, per se, I do remember conversations about navigating safe sex between us. I remember him asking how he could best protect himself, and an expression of wanting to learn more. He never made me feel like any less of a person. This unspoken acceptance and desire to educate was an integral part of my healing process, and I am grateful to have such a positive disclosure experience.
While it is my hope that STI+ individuals would have similarly positive experiences across the board, the unfortunate reality is, not everyone will be so receptive or responsive to these sensitive conversations, and I think that this reality is something to consider when disclosing. I did a bit of anthropological research on the herpes Reddit boards, curious as to current perspectives from those who were recently diagnosed. Despite (what seems to be) increasing numbers of “out” STI+ resources, the content and questions asked were similar to those from my own diagnosis nearly three years ago. To counter the negative disclosures, there were, however, several individuals who shared their experiences of receptive partners and so-called happy endings, which I do not remember seeing as much of. It may seem counterintuitive, but I think STIs and their disclosures have given space for conversations that we should have been having a long time ago with regard to our sexual health and histories.
Overcoming Fear of Disclosure
The potential rejection that we fear from others may result in a lesser number of individuals sharing their diagnosis with partners, further increasing chances for herpes transmission. Fear has the potential to shape our daily lives; think back to the example of daily disclosures. Are we incorporating trends into our wardrobes for the sake of being considered trendy? Are we shielding some part of our culture or heritage for fear that we may be judged by our peers? Do we feel that we’re at our fullest expression of self, or are we living under a cloak of fear?
Of course, some aspects of our identities are more malleable than others, just as some pieces of our stories are easier to share, while some we would rather keep to ourselves. We all have a story that has yet to be told, and it is only up to us to share at our discretion. For many of us, herpes becomes interwoven into our stories, or is a story all on its own. Just as we may fear sharing our herpes+ status, someone may equally be afraid to share their lack of sexual experience. This goes beyond the realm of sexuality, too. Maybe we’re afraid to share our fear of heights, or our preference for meat in a room full of vegetarians. These may seem like silly examples, but fear is relative. We all know what it is like to fear revealing a part of ourselves that has the potential to be ill-received; and in that shared fear is immense power in finding similarity within human connection.
Overcoming Fear of Fault
So you’re herpes+ and your partner is not (a discordant couple). You have informed your partner of his/her/their chances of contracting the virus and associated risks. Both of you are probably wondering how to navigate your sexual experiences in a way that still allows for pleasure and fulfillment. While suppressive antiviral therapy and condoms are a great starting point, it is imperative to acknowledge that condoms are not 100% effective at preventing the transmission of herpes since the virus is spread through skin-to-skin contact.
A 2010 NY Times article notes that it is difficult to determine the exact risk and transmission rates of contracting HSV-1 and HSV-2 in discordant couples. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that more women are infected with HSV-2 than men because the virus is more transmissible from male-to-female rather than female-to-male (based on biological body parts). Increasing studies are including same-sex couples in their research, however, to date, I have not found representative data for the transgender population.
So you've educated your partner about the realities of herpes, and have said your ABC's of the CDC and WHO. You are practicing safe HSV+/HSV- sex, but you still fear that your partner will contract the virus. Just the thought of a partner contracting herpes from you fuels impending guilt. Although a herpes+ status can often make you feel like one in a million, the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) states that 1 in 2 sexually active adults will contract an STI by the age of 25. Further, 1 in 8 people in the United States has genital herpes. And these are only considering those who have been diagnosed. An estimated 87% of HSV-2 positive people have yet to receive a clinical diagnosis, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I have found enormous solace in these statistics; Sharing in sexual experiences with someone who is aware of his/her/their herpes+ is less likely to result in a transmission because they will more than likely know how to navigate their outbreaks. Of course, this is not inclusive of everyone, but when you take the facts into consideration, it makes logical sense.
Regardless of the facts, the numbers of new infections each year, and endless posts on just how common herpes really is, we still convince ourselves otherwise. I have always been someone who struggled with feeling as though events were my fault--even when they weren't, I would still acknowledge some kind of responsibility; I've always been "too nice." As someone in a discordant relationship, I have mulled over the idea of guilt. What If my partner contracted herpes? What if it came from me? What would I do? How would I feel?
Despite his acknowledgement and acceptance, I think that I would be lying if I said that I wouldn't feel bad, at least for a period of time. I know that I am not personally or emotionally responsible for the potential transmission between shared cells, but I would be reminded of my own initial experience. I think it is of importance to investigate the true meaning of safe sex. Is sex ever safe?
Most sexuality education programs in the US stress the importance of risk-prevention and do little to explore pleasure and consent (although this is starting to change!). Generally, sex is taught as something that is sacred and can result in serious consequences. I was never taught the value of consent or healthy relationships, and was instead taught about the horrors of abortion and STIs. Feelings of impending guilt may naturally arise during those "what if" moments. While I am unsure if it can be eliminated, I do believe we can cultivate a shift in our mindset about how we approach safe sex and the realities of engaging in any type of sexual play.
Although the changes since my diagnosis seem micro, I do believe the increasing amounts of out herpes+ individuals seen on social media is proving helpful for those recently diagnosed. I see increasing coverage from popular magazines about navigating relationships and sex with STIs. It is much more normalized than when I was first scouring the internet in the wee hours of the night. I am hopeful that one day in my lifetime, STI disclosures will be seen less as an act of bravery and more as a cumulative part of life as a sexual being.