Q: I was in a long-term relationship for the last decade and am freshly back in the dating scene. It’s been interesting facing this terrain during COVID, but it’s been helpful having this obvious reason to be cautious and deliberate with people. Recently, I met a really lovely woman on one of the apps and we started texting every day. Eventually, it built up to meeting in person and making out. Before we were going to have sex the first time, she disclosed that she has herpes. I was able to retain my cool while we talked about it, but I’ve been anxious since then. If I go forward with a sexual relationship with her, am I just agreeing to having herpes too? It doesn’t make me any less attracted to her, but will that necessarily add a level of seriousness and commitment onto an otherwise fairly new, casual thing?
Shhhew *wipes brow* Honestly, given the setup, this is a refreshing question.
I was preparing to slip on my sexuality educator hip waders and spend the whole article combating stigma about STIs. Instead, you have presented a specific flavor of the universal conundrum of dating as an adult: Navigating the present as humans who have lived lives.
In our teens and early 20s, our partners have usually had prior experience with sex and dating, but there’s still a degree of tabula rasa. Add a decade – or several – and it becomes rarer to find someone who doesn’t have an ex-spouse, significant debt, a semi-public scandal, or a kid or three.
“Can you imagine hoping that you get the most pure pilot? ‘If he’s had to steer through turbulence like this before, it won’t feel as special when it happens on our flight!’”
We can view those complications as scary baggage we must avoid (*cough Leonardo DiCaprio’s entire dating history cough*) or we can embrace that we are complex creatures who learn and grow with experience. It is only through survival that many of us learn perspective, compassion, and what we truly desire out of life: Traits that make for a good partner.
Add to that the implicit sex-negativism of our culture where pleasure is treated like a scarce luxury and our bodies assessed as commodities. Then there’s the absurdly damaging fetishization of female “purity.” It’s only in the arena of sexuality where we prize lack of experience, skill, or comfort.
Can you imagine hoping that you get the most pure pilot? “If he’s had to steer through turbulence like this before, it won’t feel as special when it happens on our flight!”
Anyway, that’s a subtext present in our narratives about dating…And it’s not helpful. It also contributes to a culture where nearly every adult who has had sex with another person has – at some point – had an STI, but we almost never discuss it. It’s normal to have sex, yet there is often stigma from getting an infection from sex. Though we manage to eschew this shame with other communicable illnesses, like colds and flu, there’s a pearl-clutching undercurrent of “ewwww, you touched another person!”
That stigma can keep us from getting tested, so we can maintain plausible deniability about our status. Other times, we simply don’t know: Some STIs, like HPV, can go away on their own. In other cases, symptoms are hidden or easy to chalk up to something else, like a UTI or ingrown hair. It’s entirely possible to have an STI – herpes included – and have no idea. The images shown in middle school health class rarely depict an average outbreak. Instead, we’re shown the worst-case-scenario incidents, folks who don’t have regular access to medical care, in an attempt to scare us into abstaining.
“Given the fact that one in five people has herpes, and add to it the fact that Philadelphia is third in the nation for STI rates, odds are good that this new potential partner is far from the first of yours to have an STI. She’s just the first to be upfront about it.”
In practical terms, your decision to have sex with her is not a blanket acquiescence to herpes. It is, of course, a potential outcome. But that is true of any partner. In this case, you can reduce the risk by using condoms and other barriers (like dental dams) and skipping oral and genital contact when an outbreak is present – though herpes can spread even when there is no visible outbreak and even when condoms are used. She can also take medications to prevent outbreaks and further reduce the odds of transmission.
Given the fact that 1 in 5 people has herpes, and add to it the fact that Philadelphia is third in the nation for STI rates, odds are good that this new potential partner is far from the first of yours to have an STI. She’s just the first to be upfront about it.
Frankly, that bodes well for her as a potential partner, whether it be for a serious long-term relationship or just a short fling. It means that she is ready to discuss sexuality and prepared to be met with boundaries or even rejection. I don’t know if she’s an emotionally mature person in general or particularly good at active listening and open communication, but it’s a really good sign.
Good luck to you both!
Have a question for Timaree? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.