I always imagined my life would be exponentially better than the classic American Dream. 2.5 kids and a white picket fence seemed safe, but I’ve always known that I deserved more than predictable comfort. I visualise passion, yearn for communication, and dream of a healthy challenge. Despite knowing my worth and wanting more than what’s been advertised to me, dating has historically been challenging for me, and it became increasingly challenging when I was recently diagnosed with HSV-2, otherwise known as genital herpes.
Herpes is an extremely common virus which causes periodic genital sores or blisters which can also affect the mouth. This specific incurable sexually transmitted infection affects one in every six people between the ages of 14 to 49, and can be managed with medication and other anxiety-reducing methods. Symptoms, aside from the physical sores, can include tingling, itching, or burning sensations and typically first occur 2-10 days after transmission. 50% of those with genital herpes experience recurring symptoms; however, I have yet to have a serious outbreak due to keeping stress levels low and taking Valtrex, which is an antiviral that significantly reduces chances of transferring the virus and experiencing outbreaks. The condition is more common in women than men.
With 80% of the population having herpes of some form I have joined the least-exclusive club in the world. Chances are you’ve already engaged in sexual activity with someone who has it. As any responsible human would, I disclose my diagnosis to my partners and any potential partners, and the reactions I’ve received have been quite mixed. Some run away right after it rolls off the tongue and others express being more attracted to me after having been honest with them. Because just under 20% of folks aged below 50 have this condition, and 270 million people use dating apps alone, it’s safe to say that there’s likely a large sector of our population who is trying to navigate dating with genital herpes. I am one of these people, and I am not ashamed.
As a Black woman I’m already told that the coveted American Dream, while barely admirable, is out of my reach, not for me, and a waste of my time to desire. I am advised to lower my expectations and take what I can get. That being said, when you’re a Black woman with herpes you’re supposed ‘worth’ becomes even less appreciated and dating becomes an extremely daunting experience at first. This devaluation due to the fear, stigma, and lack of education in modern society originally led me to issues with my self-esteem, but over time I have come to look at my diagnosis as a superpower: I am able to be increasingly more self aware, honest, and bold.
Getting diagnosed with HSV-2 forced me to take a hard look at my past, present, and future sexual interactions. I was faced with the reality that I used sex as a way to control my happiness and self worth. After my diagnosis, I had to decide who was worth both my sexual engagement and the potential of rejection rather than just having sex with anyone I thought would give me the non-violent touch I so craved. I was encouraged to be vulnerable with myself and others about my STI and other subjects too. And most importantly: I was less tolerant of stigma and began to hold people accountable for willingly believing misinformation.
There’s a deep intimacy associated with exploring intimacy by way of pre-coital disclosure. I explain my sexual past, I detail what I’m comfortable with, and I clarify that I’m open to any and all questions to keep lines of communication as open as possible. I’m able to establish boundaries clearly and confidently as a result, both because there’s a level of comfort associated with being so exposed with another human, but also because I have undoubtedly created a sense of values for myself in the process of having this type of conversation. I am truly a better person as a result of contracting herpes.
So how do I inform my potential partners of the fact that I have genital herpes? The answer is simple: I treat the disclosure as if it’s just another facet of my life and don’t wait until after sex to familiarise them with my condition. There is nothing shameful about contracting an STI (and might I add, by accident), I am not dirty, less than, or bad because of my herpes. The only thing that has changed is the fact that I take a 500mg pill every night, I am still the amazing human being I was before obtaining this condition.
In conclusion, dating with genital herpes isn’t as explicitly or permanently horrible as one might think, but this does depend on how someone affected by the virus feels about their infection. I urge all allies and unaffected folks to help combat stigma by taking advantage of the many resources available to learn as much as possible about the virus and dismantle fear in themselves and in their communities. Yes, potential contraction can be scary but solutions such as barrier methods (like condoms) and antiviral medications are extremely accessible at local drugstores and through organisations like walk-in clinics. And while a diagnosis is important there is so much more to that person than their STI status: get to know them, try to love them, and always respect their limits. And for those who’ve contracted it? Remember, there is both life and love after HSV-2 contraction, who knows – it may even change you for the better.