How Do I Tell A New Sexual Partner That I Have Herpes?
LAS: Why is it important to you to be open about having herpes and publicly involved in education about HSV (herpes simplex virus)?
AM: It’s important to me to be open about having herpes because I believe that by speaking openly about something stigmatized (like herpes), we help to break down some of that stigma and increase empathy and compassion. The idea for me is to break down ideas of what “people with herpes” look like. They could be anyone—your sister, your best friend, your grandfather. When educating about herpes and opening up the conversation by self-identifying as a person living with herpes, I’m modeling for those in attendance that it’s okay to have herpes. Having a community of supportive people gave me the courage to stand up and say, “I have herpes” in public and on the Internet. That community was the Herpes Opportunity, [where I was able to talk] about the emotional baggage that comes with having herpes, ways to manage symptoms and even celebrities with herpes. Each time I spoke about having herpes, it became easier. I’m a little obsessed with Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, and the most important thing I’ve learned from her work is that vulnerability is the key to connection. It creates space for shared experience, which allows people to connect in an authentic way.
LAS: What advice do you have for people with herpes about disclosing to new sexual partners?
AM: Disclosing to new sexual partners is tough. It is vulnerable and scary. It’s also necessary, because consent is vital to any healthy sexual interaction. More specifically, informed consent. The scariest part is the fear of rejection. I’ve certainly had my share. I found it to be easier to get the conversation out in the open right away. On the first day with a prospective partner, somewhere around the middle of the date, I would disclose. I’ve spoken to others who prefer to wait until it seems like the relationship may become sexual. For me, I’d rather get through the conversation early, so that if does turn out to be a deal breaker for someone, we both know up front. I try to be direct, letting them know about the diagnosis, how long I’ve had it and asking them what they know about herpes (for most people, it’s not a whole lot). If they’re interested, I provide some transmission-rate information and share what I’m doing to reduce my outbreaks (I take daily suppressive medication). If that goes well, I invite them to ask any questions they might have. If they’re okay with it, we talk about what barriers I need to honor in my relationship agreements, and ask if there are any additional barriers they might require to feel more comfortable. If it’s not going well, I thank them for listening and let them know that I understand if they choose not to become sexual with me. It’s not about me as a person—they’re not rejecting me. They’re simply making a choice based on what they feel is best for them and their sexual health. Consent means that it’s okay to say no and that I will respect your “no.”
Read more of Ashley’s advice about living with herpes at the following sites:
Growing through the Yuck (The Herpes Opportunity)
Herpes and Non-Monogamy (Life on the Swingset)
If you want to start exploring or talking about your own experiences, the Herpes Opportunity has a new home self-study course and will be offering a weekend seminar in Raleigh, N.C., this summer.
Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than 15 years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.