I Have Herpes & I’m Zero Percent Ashamed

This is a story of sex, shame, getting dumped, and real love.

My first thought when I got my herpes diagnosis was, “Fuck, Brad’s gonna flip.” Brad was a boy I was seeing at the time, and although he’s pushing 50, the word “boy” definitely applies — as you’ll see when you read on.

My second thought, however, was, “Yay! I can finally work to destigmatize herpes!”

I realize this reaction is unusual, and I wish it wasn’t. When you read people’s personal accounts of how they dealt with this particular diagnosis, it’s too often a heartbreaking story of shame and secrecy, followed by the eventual realization that herpes is nothing to be ashamed of and life goes on.

My heart goes out to every single person who has had to go through that difficult emotional process. It’s why I’m so excited that I got herpes. I’ve been a very loud advocate for sex positivity and education for most of my adult life, so I’ve known for years that herpes is just a rash.

Let me say that again. Herpes is. Just. A rash.

It kills me that a stupid little rash, an absolute nothingburger of a minor medical condition, causes so much emotional trauma and shame, and I’ve wanted for years to help destigmatize it.

But, of course, if you don’t have herpes, no one takes you seriously when you tell other people it’s no big thing. I imagined people saying, “Easy for you to say it’s not a big deal — you don’t have it!”

Well, kids, I have it. And I’m here to tell you it’s really not a big deal. More on that later.

***

Before we get into some herpes-stigma-killing badassery, I’m going to share my diagnosis drama with you. I don’t want you to think I didn’t suffer at all over contracting herpes. I did — but it had nothing to do with shame, at least not my own.

Remember little boy Brad? I had been seeing him for about three months, and things were pretty awesome. I was on birth control at the time, and since Brad told me he had no other partners, and neither did my only other partner, my fiancé (I’m polyamorous), I had decided it was reasonably safe to become fluid bonded with both of them. My fiancé was out of town for an extended period of time, and Brad was my primary sexual partner.

And I was falling in love with him. We were having epic sex and lots of sleepovers. We’d laugh our heads off every time we hung out. He liked to take me on motorcycle rides and loved to hear me sing. We’d just gotten to the point where the word “love” had been uttered a few times, and we were holding hands in public.

Then, we both got mysteriously sick on the same day.

For me, it felt like a mild flu. I had swollen lymph nodes, body aches, and low energy. I had also been dealing with terrible insomnia for weeks and traveling a lot to visit my fiancé, so I figured it was all just catching up with me.

On the second day of this mystery illness, I texted Brad to let him know that I would’ve been trying to fuck him senseless that evening if I wasn’t sick. He was sick, too, he said. Except he had painful blisters in his mouth.

Oof. That sounded like herpes.

I told him as much and said I’d go get tested, just in case, and that’s when the blaming began.

“Is there any reason you can think of that you were exposed to a herpes virus?” he texted.

Oh wow, Brad. Coooool. So obviously, if it was herpes, it had to have come from me. Couldn’t possibly have come from him, a man who never uses condoms with any of his partners. (That was my first red flag, which I really shouldn’t have ignored. Don’t be like me, kids. If you start seeing someone who insists condoms ruin sex, run screaming in the other direction and warn everyone you know about them.)

I told him what I knew: both strains of the herpes virus are incredibly common, and there’s no real way to protect yourself from it. You can get it from kissing, from oral sex, and from sex even with condoms.

“Have you ever been diagnosed with herpes?” he asked.

As if I would fuck someone all summer and not tell them I had a rash that they could get. Just fucking insulting.

“I would’ve told you if I had, and we would’ve used protection. I can’t believe you would ask me that. Besides, it’s really and truly not a big deal, if that’s even what it is.”

Then he reveals his ex-wife of many years had genital herpes, in order to let me know that it is, in fact, a big deal.

Oh wow. Yeah. Obviously, it had to have come from me.

Needless to say, when the test results came back positive, Brad flipped out like a tiny angry baby. He slut-shamed me, calling me out for my “dangerous polyamorous lifestyle,” a lifestyle he’d admired and aspired to up until that point. He blamed me for the fact that he’d already given it to someone else, someone he never told me about, by going down on her with sores in his mouth. He told me I’d ruined his life and hers.

He wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone, and I never saw him again. He broke up with me by telling me to go fuck myself, and then he blocked me on social media.

Over a rash.

And I thought this man loved me.

Now, I’m not happy with his reaction, but I do understand where it came from. Brad thought his entire sex life was over. He was certain he could never have sex with any woman ever again and that his life as a sexual being was dead. And he blamed me for it.

“Go fuck yourself” one week after “I’m falling in love with you.”

This is what the overblown stigma around herpes does to people. It makes them insane. It makes them hate themselves. It causes deep shame and emotional trauma. It can destroy perfectly good relationships, and it can also prevent them from ever getting started.

It’s not worth any of this. Let me tell you why.

Your sex life is not over.

For most people, herpes is a minor inconvenience. Symptoms are usually mild and rarely dangerous. You can still have sex — even single person sex!

Before I got it, I slept with single people who disclosed to me that they had herpes in advance of the hook-up. It never bothered me—I loved that they were responsible enough to tell me and take measures to prevent spreading it to me. It’s not the end of your sex life, I promise.

And now, post-herpes-diagnosis, I’m still having dimension-skipping sex with my husband, who has never given two shits about my herpes status.

My first outbreak was the worst, which is usually the case. I haven’t had body aches or swollen lymph nodes since. The sores, when they finally appeared, were extremely small — so small that I could barely see them — and they itched about as much as a minor mosquito bite would. They lasted about as long as a mosquito bite, too: a little less than a week.

My subsequent outbreaks have been so mild that I have been confused as to whether or not I should start taking Valtrex, because I couldn’t tell if I was having an outbreak or if I’d just gone too long without a shower. I think I might be in the middle of an outbreak now, but I can’t tell for sure. I can’t see or feel any bumps. There’s just a strange tingling sometimes, which could be my imagination.

And that’s it. That’s been my experience. Brad’s reaction was the worst part of it, and nothing else has been more than an extremely minor inconvenience.

Herpes is potentially dangerous if you’re pregnant, but even then, serious issues are rare and usually only occur if you have your initial infection and first outbreak in the late stages of pregnancy. That puts your baby at risk for neonatal herpes, which is a serious condition that can cause damage to the nervous system and even death.

But again, this is incredibly rare — less than a tenth of a percent (0.1%) of babies born in the US have neonatal herpes, and something like a quarter of pregnant women have genital herpes, according to the American Sexual Health Association. If a pregnant woman has had herpes for a while before becoming pregnant, her body’s antibodies will usually protect the baby from contracting it, even if herpes is present in the birth canal during birth. There are also measures that doctors can take to reduce the chances even further, like putting the mother on a course of antiviral drugs in the late stages of pregnancy.

The only other danger is that herpes can increase your risk of contracting HIV, and if you already have HIV, the two viruses can make each other worse. Using condoms, especially if you’re single, have a partner with HIV, or have HIV yourself, is really, really important.

That’s where the dangers end.

Also, some really cool good news! There may actually be an upside to having herpes: bacterial resistance. By putting your immune system on alert, the presence of the herpes virus may actually protect you from bacterial infections. Mice that had herpes were able to fight off the literal plague.

There are two strains of herpes, but they are basically the same thing now.

Herpes simplex I is known commonly as “oral herpes,” and everyone knows that everyone has it — estimates range from 50–80% of all Americans. It’s so common that people aren’t afraid of it. There’s no stigma around cold sores.

But herpes simplex II, which is thought of as “genital herpes,” is camping out in the nerve endings of over 1 in 6 Americans ages 14–49. Nearly 20%. Wowza. And yet, people are terrified of it. Because it’s your genitals. Because it’s sex (cue: sinister music and clips of slasher films where only the virgin survives).

What most people don’t seem to know is that HSV-I (the “oral” one) can also cause genital herpes, and HSV-II can also cause oral herpes. In recent years, more and more cases of genital herpes have been found to be caused by HSV-I, and doctors are now saying the two strains are virtually interchangeable.

That means if you think cold sores are no big deal, but genital herpes is THE END OF THE FREAKING WORLD, thennnnn…you make no sense.

Most people either have no symptoms, or their symptoms are so mild they legit don’t notice them.

There are a ton of people out there carrying and spreading herpes who have no idea they have it, because they’ve never had a single symptom or had symptoms so mild they didn’t notice them.

It’s entirely possible that good ol’ Brad was carrying genital herpes asymptomatically, gave it to me, and then was reinfected orally after going down on me. Yes — it’s possible to not have symptoms in one location but to develop symptoms for the first time when you become infected in another location on your body.

It’s also possible that either one of us had been carrying the virus asymptomatically for weeks, months, or even years before having our first outbreak, which then infected the other one of us. Most people have their first outbreak within 2–20 days of infection, but in some cases, the virus lies dormant for a really long time before showing up.

Furthermore, even if you do have symptoms, they are often so mild that you don’t even notice them. I doubt I ever would’ve gotten tested for herpes if it wasn’t for Brad’s mouth-sores. I would’ve thought I just had a mildly infected ingrown hair and moved on with my life.

There are a ton of people who have herpes and have no idea, because it’s never been noticeable.

You can get herpes even if you use condoms religiously.

While condoms reduce the likelihood of spreading herpes, the sores often lie outside the areas that are covered by condoms, and all you need is skin-to-skin contact to contract it. Friction increases the risk of spreading it, and what’s sex without friction, amiright?

Also, even though lots of people in the sex-positive community have been trying to get people to use dental dams during oral sex for ages, have you ever even seen a dental dam? In real life? My guess is you haven’t. My guess is you don’t think barriers are necessary for oral sex.

And if you think barrier-less handjobs are the one safe sexual activity left to you, let me introduce you to my next point…

Both types of herpes can infect you literally anywhere, including your fingertips, mouth, eyes, and anywhere there is broken skin.

Yup!

You can get a herpetic whitlow, a delicious little herpes infection in your fingertip. This is actually way worse than genital or oral herpes as far as pain and discomfort go, but most people only get one outbreak of herpetic whitlow. It lasts a few days, and then it’s gone forever.

You can get herpes in your eyeballs. It acts kind of like conjunctivitis, better known as pink-eye, and it’s only caused by HSV-I — yeah, that’s right, the really, really common kind that gives people cold sores. It can cause serious issues if it gets into the middle layers of your cornea, but that’s pretty rare.

You can get it in your nose! You can get it literally anywhere on your body! And all you gotta do in order to spread either strain of herpes from one part of your body to another is touch a sore and then touch yourself in any place with broken skin or a moist hole.

I apologize so much for the phrase “moist hole.”

Herpes is sometimes contagious even when there are no visible sores.

The virus can also be contagious when there are no visible sores, so you actually cannot ever fully protect yourself from herpes unless you never touch another human being ever. And what’s the fun in that?

But what about the fact that I have to tell new partners I have herpes now? That BLOWS.

I realize that the idea of having to tell every potential sex partner that you have the most overly stigmatized STI out there is frightening and discouraging, and I’m going to be writing a piece soon about how to have the sexiest disclosure conversation ever with new partners. I was nervous about this, too, but for me, there’s a silver lining in the tricky disclosure convo: From now on, I will only fuck people who actually care for me and who are intelligent and educated enough to know that herpes is not a big deal.

No more Brads.

***

I’m not trying to scare you with all of this. I’m trying to show you that it makes zero sense to be afraid of this virus or to judge people who have it. It does not make you dirty. It’s just a virus that anyone can get, very easily. You’ve probably already been exposed to it, and there’s a good chance you have it and don’t know it.

Please, if you have herpes and feel ashamed, try to absorb the information in this article into your soul, and release that shame. You don’t need it or deserve it. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong.

But good luck getting a doctor to agree to test you for it without symptoms — doctors won’t usually test for HSV because, in addition to the fact that the tests for it are famously inaccurate, the stigma surrounding it is more damaging to people’s health than the virus itself.

In fact, when I asked to be tested for herpes even though I had no sores, I had to sit through several rounds of the doctor telling me it wasn’t worth it. I had to demand the test. Even after telling him one of my partners had painful sores in his mouth, the doctor still didn’t want to test me for herpes.

Please, if you have herpes and feel ashamed, try to absorb the information in this article into your soul, and release that shame. You don’t need it or deserve it. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong.

My fiancé and I are very happily married now, and I contracted herpes while we were still engaged. After what happened with Brad, I was frightened to tell him. But when I did, his first reaction was to ask if I was okay. He was full of concern for me. And when I asked if he wanted to use extra methods of protection from now on, he laughed and said, “Nah, I’ll just get it from you.”

That’s the attitude I’d like to see become the norm. Because herpes?

Pssssssh. It’s no big deal.

If you’d like to get checked in the comfort and privacy of your own home, Openlove101 has partnered with Lets Get Checked, who offers testing kits sent directly to you. Check them out!

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