(Note: occasionally I will blog as an advice columnist, and am happy to offer you some feedback on issues you might have regarding love, sex and relationships. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask me something. I will, of course, keep your name and identifying characteristics on the down low….)
And now, for our first question:
Recently, I met someone that I am actually interested in dating. We met, had chemistry, and ended up kissing. Three days later we both ended up with cold sores. In the process of dealing with our sordid pasts, my new “friend” disclosed that he also has HSV-2. He told me that his ex-wife did not have the virus but that he prefers to have non-sexual contact with partners since being diagnosed. I myself have HSV-1 and occasionally get cold sores. Usually the outbreaks are far and few between but usually associated with extreme stress, fatigue, and anxiety.
I am incredibly impressed with his honesty. He definitely scored points for having the balls to put totally up front. He didn’t have to be and so many people fail to be straight up about having STD’s. I am genuinely interested in dating this dude but I need more information about the virus, his past, the occurrence patterns, and whether or not I want to put myself at risk.
First off, you should be glad that you actually have a choice about this. STD’s often get passed around because of the shame that surrounds them. Many people who contract an STD and try to be honest about it get hit with a barrage of comments like, “you filthy, disgusting, plague-ridden whore! How dare you think that you deserve to experience sexual pleasure? Do us all a favor and close your legs and never ever ever have sex again! People like you make me sick!”
“you filthy, disgusting, plague-ridden whore! How dare you think that you deserve to experience sexual pleasure? Do us all a favor and close your legs and never ever ever have sex again! People like you make me sick!”
Of course, what these people don’t realize is that their fear and shaming is what helps get STD’s transmitted. Few are the people who can go through a few rounds of this without realizing that they better keep quiet about their dirty little secret lest they face involuntary celibacy. I knew a guy who had HIV who told me that 9 out of 10 people who are HIV+ say that they will not voluntarily admit to being infected (I don’t know if 9 out of 10 also lie and withhold the information when directly asked). And so, another unwitting person gets an unpleasant surprise, those who are uninfected get to feel morally superior, and fear, ignorance and misinformation rule the day. All kinds of people get STD’s, even those who act like judgmental assholes. And it’s more likely to happen when you don’t know a whole heck of a lot…or are too embarrassed or ashamed to even bring up the topic to begin with!
Ooops – someone just kicked my soapbox out from under my feet. Sorry, but this is a pet peeve of mine. Let’s look at the practicalities of your situation. The first thing you can/should do is educate yourself. Do more than just read about it. I recommend a visit to your city’s STD clinic, as these folks have the latest information, lots of practical advice and you can avoid an unpleasant go-round with your family physician (who won’t know nearly as much as the clinic peeps anyhow). You can also call the excellent 24-hour hotline sponsored by San Francisco Sex Information and pick their knowledgeable brains. And, of course, get a full panel of tests on a regular basis if you’re sexually active.
As you will discover, 1 in 6 people is infected with HSV-2 (Herpes Simplex Virus 2, the Genital Edition™). And, you will also realize, that it’s entirely possible that 15% of the people you’ve slept with in the past have had HSV-2 and haven’t told you about it, so you’re probably lucky you didn’t get it before. You will also discover that HSV-1 (Herpes Simplex Virus 1, the Cold Sore Edition™) is exceedingly common (estimates range from 60-90%) and that mouth-to-genital contact with someone who has HSV-1 can cause the oral sex recipient to contract HSV-2. Good times!
While having sex with someone who has HSV-2 does not automatically mean that you will contract it, there are a couple of things about HSV-2 that make it kind of tricky. Sores can occur on the groin area, and not just on the shaft of the penis, which renders condoms safer, but not completely safe (or on the labia instead of inside the vagina if you have girly bits). The other thing is that even when people aren’t having outbreaks (a lot of people who have HSV-2 only get one horrific outbreak and then never have another one), the virus does this lovely thing called asymptomatic shedding where the infected area will give off the virus for several days prior to an outbreak occurring. Asymptomatic shedding also occurs a few times a year even if the person isn’t having an outbreak. So while you can sleep with an infected person for years without contracting the virus, you can never be 100% sure that it won’t happen.
How can you decide if this risk is worth taking? As with navigation of all things relationship: communicate. With a little luck, your potential partner is an expert on his particular flavor of HSV-2. He should be able to tell you how aware he is of his outbreaks, how frequently he gets them, if he gets any warning signs in his body, etc. Does he take medications or supplements that might keep it at bay? Does he take good care of himself, and is he physically healthy? He will be able to answer your questions much better than I can. Hopefully you will be satisfied with his responses. This is also a fantastic opportunity to find out how well he communicates about unpleasant, contentious topics; people who are capable of doing that are rare indeed.
It sounds like he’s pretty damn conscientious about it, and has avoided situations where he could transmit it. While I would say that I admire his chasteness, and his commitment to a life of celibacy, and freedom from romantic entanglements, I also think that infected people deserve to have great sex lives just like everyone else (and doubly so if they are honest and upfront, as he has been). Ironically, sex can be a great stress reducer, thus potentially contributing to keeping his outbreaks to a minimum.
Ultimately, though, the only person who can decide whether or not to move forward is you. I will say that, STD or no, sex is always a risk. Whenever you open yourself up to another person, you take a chance. And I would say that heartbreak and pregnancy are way more likely to occur than getting an STD, but if you want to make sure you truly stay 100% safe, then get thee to a nunnery. I don’t mean to make light of your situation (because there is obviously a risk here), but very few of us blissfully skip a way from a sexual encounter without being changed in some way. It’s impossible to guarantee utter safety when it comes to matters of the heart; even shutting down and turning away from the possibility of connection carries its own sort of pain. Sometimes you have to grab for the brass ring. And besides, if you’ve been dating for a while, you know how hard it is to meet someone you actually click with. All of them are going to have some marks against them.