I was included in this story that was originally published in The Kit by Briony Smith, July, 2019
ILLUSTRATION BY POONAM CHAUHAN
“I’m a 27-year-old woman living with genital herpes, and I’ve mostly been single since contracting it five years ago. I find navigating the dating scene to be humiliating and exhausting: Each time I get rejected because of it, it makes me less likely to try again. How can I feel less discouraged about trying to date with herpes? And how do I tell someone I want to be intimate with?” —Wendy, North Vancouver
How did we become so insensitive about sexually transmitted infections? (Like, stop it with the herpes jokes, guys.) Well, for one thing, sex education fails to give enough weight to A) how common chronic STIs are, and B) how not to be an asshole about them. (My main memory of STI education, BTW, was the teacher wheeling out the TV and playing a graphic slideshow of weeping chancres.) No wonder STIs became the boogeyman for so many—we fear what we do not understand.
You’re not unclean—you’re just one of millions who picked up a l’il ol’ bug in the course of living your life. “We don’t judge or blame people for getting a cold. It’s bad luck if you get an STI, but it doesn’t mean you are a bad person,” says Barbara Lamb, a sexual health educator at Toronto’s Birth Control and Sexual Health Centre.
Right now, one in seven people in Canada has herpes. “Herpes, both oral and genital, is extremely common,” says Shelley Taylor, a health educator with CATIE, an organization that provides HIV and hepatitis C information. “The Canadian Health Measures Survey indicated that about 19 per cent of people aged 35 to 59 years had HSV-2 infection and it was present in 6 per cent of people aged 14 to 34 years.”
The overall rate of STI infections is on the rise; possible explanations include easier access to casual sex partners via apps; condom use going down because of the (false) perception that all STIs are easily curable; and a lack of education, accessibility for testing, and treatment.
“Rejection comes from both the fear of the STI itself—which stems from a lack of information—and the moral judgment people make about what it means to have an STI.”
Despite the huge number of Canadians with herpes, there isn’t a ton of support for folks who have it, and often they face active discrimination. “Rejection comes from both the fear of the STI itself—which stems from a lack of information—and the moral judgment people make about what it means to have an STI, because of a sex-negative culture we are raised in and surrounded by,” says Frederique Chabot, director of health promotion at Action Canada, a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization. “The fact that we don’t talk about it means that we don’t normalize it, which would happen if people realized it is a very common experience. Most people will experience one in their lifetime.”
There’s another reason why you might feel so awful—women suffer the majority of herpes shame. First of all, cisgender women are more proportionally affected by herpes (thanks, mucous membranes!). “And, traditionally, women are portrayed sexually as either vectors of disease, or victims,” says Jane Greer, director of the Hassle-Free Clinic in Toronto. “This is a massive stereotype, of course, but women frequently take it on. The shame they feel is that they’ve really done something wrong, even though the only thing they’ve done is have sex. It also brings up this built-in shame that women can have around being sexual at all.”
Taylor from CATIE has 30 years of lived experience with herpes, and her own painful record of dating rejections. “Rejection also comes from living in a culture rooted in fear of sex and pleasure. We use sex to sell pretty much everything, but we’re surrounded by messages that tell us we’re not worthy of sex or love unless we’re perfect,” she says. “This message gets internalized, and we start looking for that perfection in our partners. It’s a damaging cycle.”
“Having an STI is only a small part of who you are.”
One way you can start shedding some of that shame: Talk to a pro about it. “Having an STI is only a small part of who you are. If you find it is really upsetting your emotional equilibrium, maybe this is an indicator that there are other issues getting triggered, and so it might be a great opportunity to go for counselling,” Lamb says. If you have the cash, hire a shrink. If you’re in penny-saving mode, ask your nearest sexual health clinic if they offer free counselling.
Finding your tribe can be powerful, too. Chabot advises seeking out “people who can keep us grounded in the fight against the discrimination we experience and can help create community around it.” Seeking out art made by people with similar experiences can help you feel less alone (we highly recommend the Instagram comic My Boyfriend Has Herpes), as can joining a few online STI-support communities. “I’m in a private herpes group on Facebook and there are lots of really awesome people there talking about how to date and how to talk about having herpes,” says Lynn Barclay, president and CEO of the American Sexual Health Association.
This kind of support is so important because it can help you build your confidence, which is essential for dating. If you approach potential new relationships from a place of misery, you’ll always feel less-than and spend every minute dreading The Talk. Instead, if you can reframe your herpes as just one small, annoying facet of your lived experience, it loses its power as a monolith destroying your dating future.
It can be easy to catastrophize, though. A few bad dates becomes “I’ll be alone forever” —we’ve all been there, herpes or no. Remember that everyone faces dating rejection for all kinds of ridiculous reasons—weight, height, age, job, background. But we can’t control other people’s behaviour—only our own.
All you can do is keep going on dates and educating people until you find one who is super into you and doesn’t give a damn about the herpes. Some things in life just boil down to a numbers game. And think of the good you are doing in the world by educating others! “Every time one of us comes forward and speaks the truth about our lives, whether that’s about having an STI or any other aspect of sexual health that’s often kept secret, we take away the power of shame and stigma and normalize what should already be very, very normal,” Taylor says.
Wait until you’re a few dates in, but “do not bring it up in the heat of the moment when you might be about to have sex,” Barclay says. Pick a non-bedroom locale for this chat—toward the end of brunch, perhaps? Doing it in person may seem terrifying, but people may respond more compassionately to a human being in front of them than to a text or DM, which are just easy-to-dismiss words on a screen.
Remind yourself, right before you open your mouth, that they’d be lucky to have you, not the other way around. “Being calm, well informed and self-respecting is important and will make the other person feel more at ease, too,” says Lamb. “Most partners will appreciate the honesty.”
The key is to become so comfortable giving your disclosure speech that it becomes a non-scary prospect—and so do any rejections.
The key is to become so comfortable giving your disclosure speech that it becomes a non-scary prospect—and so do any rejections. Practise that speech on your dog, the mirror, your therapist. Recite it in your head on the subway. Try it on your friends (the more people who know their friend has herpes, the more the stigma subsides, remember?). See disclosure as empowering, rather than disturbing—there is real power in confronting your fear and sharing your truth.
Try something like this: “Hey, this is a little awkward to bring up, but I’m into you and I’m a big fan of being open and honest about sexual health stuff. About five years ago, I contracted an STI. I know herpes can sound scary, but it’s actually pretty chill, and super common. I seldom have outbreaks, and I don’t have sex when I do. This way, the chances of transmission are very, very, very low. Sexual health educators say that people who know they have it rarely pass it on—and I’m one of those people. I’d like to keep hanging out but just wanted to give you a heads-up so you can give informed consent before we do anything else. No need to decide anything now; just think on it. And feel totally free to ask any questions!”
“You may have herpes, but it’s still a privilege for someone to be with you.”
This speech works just as well on a formal date as it does on someone you want to bring home from the bar. Deliver it with confidence. Don’t apologize for anything. You may have herpes, but it’s still a privilege for someone to be with you. If they don’t have any questions, have another conversation-starter in your back pocket and move on to that. Keep it light and breezy. And remember: If they get weird, that’s on them, not you. As Lamb says, “You can learn a lot about a potential partner by [how they react to you] bringing up the subject of safe sex and STIs.”
Eventually, you’ll find someone who wants to leave brunch and go home with you immediately because they’re so hot for this badass babe before them. It might take a little while to shed that shame, gain that confidence and find that person, but you’ll get there. “There’s nothing sexier than someone who knows who they are and what they want and has the courage to share that with others,” Taylor says. “Even if their voice occasionally wavers.”