Herpes affects approximately 25 million people in the United States. Despite its prevalence 9 out of 10 people do not know that they have it. When considering the stigma that surrounds herpes, this presents an interesting paradox. It is entirely possible that some of the most vociferous critics of people with herpes may have herpes themselves and not know it. Let that sink in for a moment. A good friend of mine, Adrial Dale, started a movement called the Herpes Opportunity. The Herpes Opportunity includes a blog, e-book on disclosure, audio podcast and community forum which attracts nearly 20,000 unique visitors per month.
How is herpes an opportunity? Think of it this way. If you’re a reasonably ethical person, you realize that informed consent is vital to having a healthy sexual interaction with someone. If you have herpes, that means that you need to tell prospective partners about the condition before you become sexual. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you care enough about that person to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s not easy to have the herpes conversation.
I was diagnosed with herpes in September 2009. It was three months after I was raped by an acquaintance I was still emotionally recovering. I had just started dating someone new and he was surprisingly accepting of my condition. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then we broke up two months later. When I attempted to get back into the dating scene, I realized that not everyone was so understanding. I was rejected countless times. It got to the point that I started disclosing on the first date just to get it over with. My reasoning was at least if (and when) he rejected me, at least we would have only wasted one date. Feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and depression came flooding to the surface. I became convinced that I was never going to find someone who would want to “deal with” my condition.
Fast forward to October 2011. I was once again having the conversation on a first date. I was out driving around with Declan and we pulled into the parking lot of Denny’s. “There’s something that I need to let you know about,” I said. “I have genital herpes. It’s not a big deal, and I’m on daily suppressive medication so the risk of transmission is really low, but I wanted to let you know up front in case that’s a dealbreaker for you.” I remember sort of rushing my words toward the end, trying to get them out as quickly as possible. I clenched my jaw, waiting for his inevitable rejection. “That’s okay,” he said. “I don’t think herpes is a big deal.” A year and a half later, we’re still together, living happily in an apartment with our cat. I’m incredibly grateful for that night and for his understanding and acceptance.
Declan is a little different than the other guys I’ve dated. He believes in consensual non-monogamy as a viable relationship option. That’s quite a difference from my past relationships where they just believed in cheating. I was a little hesitant at first, due mainly to my impressive history of boyfriends who cheated. I was convinced that if I allowed our relationship to be open, that would mean Declan would leave me for the first girl that came along who was prettier, smarter, better in bed, (insert other insecurity here). I was also convinced that he would have a much easier time finding partners than I would since he still doesn’t have herpes. I envisioned Declan out with a different girl every night and me sitting alone in our apartment with our cat.
After an incredible weekend at CatalystCon East, I realized I was wrong. First, since herpes is so prevalent, there are plenty of people in the sex positive community who either have it or know someone who does. There is exponentially more understanding and compassion there than in the general population. Second, since non-monogamy requires extensive communication, it is slightly easier to get into the “when were you last tested” conversation. (Reid Mihalko has developed a fantastic “safer sex elevator speech” that I encourage everyone to check out.) Finally, disclosing about a positive STI diagnosis creates intimacy with another person. It takes courage and vulnerability to put yourself out there and say those words. There is always the possibility of rejection. I’ve experienced it plenty of times. However, when I find someone who is open minded enough to get past the initial conversation, they tend to be pretty fantastic people. Think of it as an asshole screening tool. Not to say everyone who wants to avoid herpes is an asshole, not at all. I’ve just found that the people who are informed enough to want to continue the conversation after I disclose seem to be pretty evolved in most aspects of their lives.
I’m excited to be traveling down the road of non-monogamy with Declan. In just the past six week since we’ve agreed to open up, I’ve seen positive changes in myself. I’m more confident, more flirtatious, and Declan’s and my sex life has exploded. We communicate even more honestly and openly. It feels like this invisible force that was holding me back has vanished and I’m now able to embrace the world and all its opportunities.