Dating sucks. But dating when you have herpes sucks way more.
Because I know you’re going to ask, I’ll just say that I trusted a guy more than I should have and believed he was faithful to me when he wasn’t. A broken heart is bad enough, but I got a broken heart and genital sores to remember him by.
I was 25 when I found out. I’m 30 now. After my ex and I split up, one day I started feeling what I thought were symptoms of a UTI. I used to get really bad UTIs, so I called my doctor and was able to get an appointment with her the next day. But I was in so much pain that I knew something else was amiss. Drinking water and cranberry juice didn’t help. They just made it worse. Then my doctor told me what was wrong: I had lesions on my vagina. It wasn’t a UTI, it was genital herpes.
When I learned I had been diagnosed with gential herpes, I couldn’t stop crying. I thought my life was over. My doctor was really patient with me and explained that about one in six sexually active Americans have HSV-2. An even larger portion of the population — 80% to 90% — have the virus for oral herpes, but some people never have symptoms and never know. That made feel less alone. There are two kinds of herpes, oral and genital. I thought that since I didn’t have cold sores I couldn’t have herpes, but my doctor explained how herpes virus type 2 (HSV-2) only shows on the sex organs.
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I spent some time educating myself about genital herpes — and healing my broken heart. When I finally felt ready to get back out into the dating world, I dreaded broaching that conversation with guys. I even considered getting back together with my ex just because it meant I wouldn’t have to tell other men about herpes or worry about someone else getting it from me. (I’m glad I didn’t get back with him, for obvious reasons.)
Telling guys that I have herpes doesn’t get easier as time goes on, even though I have the conversation down cold. Since I don’t have oral herpes, I can kiss guys without a problem and don’t have to worry about cold sores on my face. But once things start getting physical, I have to bring it up. Nothing kills a mood like saying “By the way, I have an incurable STD,” believe me. Some men have reacted by freaking out and leaving; of course I understand why they’re bugging out, but that response also makes me feel like I’m a monster. Although, to be honest, if my ex had told me he had herpes (he didn’t even know he had it until I called him crying from my doctor’s office), I probably would have run out of the room, too. I wasn’t very mature when we went out and I don’t think I could have handled a responsible conversation about it.
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There are some men, though, who are really cool and respectful when I tell them I have herpes and want to talk about it. We always go over our options for how we can be safe: I use a male or female condom every single time for intercourse, dental dams for oral sex, and I make sure the guy washes his hand if he puts his fingers in me or gets vaginal fluid on him.
Overall, older guys are way better about this stuff: Some of them have had other STDs in the past and are understanding about the whole thing, and they’re better educated about sex in general. I have some websites saved on my computer and we can look at them together; I also always keep condoms around because it shouldn’t have to be the man’s responsibility every time. One guy even had herpes himself, which was pretty cool because we could be intimate and not have that ever-present worry about not passing it to our partner.
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But to be honest, even with protection, I’m never 100 percent at ease. Every time a guy has sex with me, even if we’re in a relationship and have good communication, I think in the back of my head that he’s not committing 100 percent because he’s too worried about getting herpes from me.
As controversial as it may sound, I think it’s more socially acceptable to have HIV/AIDS than to have herpes. Think about it: many celebrities speak out publicly about being HIV+ and they’re applauded for being brave, which they are. But it’s not the same with herpes, which carries stigmas about being “dirty.” No one speaks out publicly about having herpes. Blogs like to make jokes about Paris Hilton having “the herp” and needing to take her Valtrex — basically calling her skanky, gross and stupid. Herpes has nothing to do with promiscuity, though: You can get herpes if you’ve slept with one person or with a hundred. Yet there’s something about herpes that everybody thinks is really funny. I guess because AIDS can kill you, it’s not so funny. But herpes just makes you get warts or sores sometimes, so it’s OK to laugh at people who suffer from it. I probably laughed at some of those jokes, too, before I had herpes. I wish everyone was more considerate about all sexually transmitted diseases, because, trust me, no one asked to contract one.
I can say from years of experience that the physical aspect of herpes are not a big deal as long as you take care of yourself properly. You won’t die from it. You can’t get it from accidentally using my toothbrush or from sharing a Coke with me. I’m not gross or a freak or a slut (nor is anyone else who has or had an STD). I’m just a person who made a mistake when I was younger and is stuck dealing with the consequences for the rest of my life. Luckily, I don’t have a bad case of it. I don’t have to take a daily medicine like Valtrex and I haven’t had an outbreak in years. The only time I really have to think about herpes is when I start dating someone. The rest of the time I just go about my business. Herpes affects my life, but I’m way, way more than my STD.
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