“I thought a lot about it and this is the best way for me to stick to my values.”
*Quick note: This post gets pretty personal with topics about sexual health, STI’s, and hook-up culture.*
His words were sweet and tender, and he whispered them in a soft, respectful tone, but even his nurturing voice couldn’t mask the truth laced into his carefully chosen words. I don’t believe that he meant to hurt me, or make me feel like a direct threat to his morals – this was the response that changed how I perceived my diagnosis, how I altered the narrative I used when contemplating my own sexual health and the stigma that I’ve perpetuated in every conversation about it since October 2019. I totally understand being cautious around your new partner, one who recently disclosed their HSV status in an apologetic, and self-pitying kind of manner. However, the phrase “sticking to my values” suggests that the person you were just making out with is now suddenly immoral and dirty.
I thought by starting the conversation with an explanation on how I got the virus would make me seem tolerable to him. I hoped that the monogamous detail of that past relationship would make me seem less.. Immoral? Promiscuous? Gross?
Another update: I’m going to talk about HSV (herpes), like a lot.
HSV isn’t exclusive to wild nights on the Vegas Strip. I’ve personally partied until the early hours on that infamous Strip: In one evening, 23 year old me poured cheap tequila into a gas station slurpee, almost got married to a New Zealander from my hostel, and then made out with a random Semi-Professional Golf Player in the backseat of his car, but I didn’t catch herpes in Vegas.
There’s also the false belief that catching herpes is only common in foreign countries, ya know.. Don’t party too hard in [insert city name here], you might end up with herpes. I’ve partied in several cities all around the world and I made plenty of questionable decisions but I didn’t catch herpes overseas.
You want to know where I caught HSV? From a relationship with a handsome guy who went to a prestigious university, carried a degree in Mental Health, worked as a counselor at a well-respected mental health facility, and he came from a supportive, loving family. You know, not “the type that would have an STI.”
…whatever that even means.
This wasn’t another casual fling so commonly accepted in the hook-up culture I was, and still am a part of. My initial response to the diagnosis was shock because I never thought I’d be “the type” to get herpes. (Once again, whatever that means) I got HSV from a new boyfriend who unknowingly carried it. He didn’t have any signs of an STI in the beginning, so I believed him when he assured me that “he was clean.” The details of our relationship get a little murky (I’ll save that for another post), but he assured me that sex wasn’t a risk (safe sex is not a thing, there is always a risk but we just don’t like to talk about that) because we were monogamous. It’s unclear when or how he got it, but thats how it works for many people. My self-confidence plummeted, and I looked to him for validation. His self-confidence also deteriorated, but instead of seeking validation he turned inward. I got angry, and then deeply depressed, he simply closed the blinds on the outside world. We were both complex human-beans with different approaches to unexpected/unfavorable news. We broke up shortly after for a variety of different reasons.
It’s been a year and a half since I received that diagnosis, and I’m still actively learning how to reclaim my sense of confidence.
While resting my head on that guy’s bicep last summer, I watched him explain how I was a threat to “his values” before nodding in agreement. I agreed because at that time, I felt like this diagnosis made me dirty and less worthy of intimacy so every conversation had to go something like “I like you, but I have herpes.” When the conversation should really go something like “I’m into you and this is what you need to know before taking my clothes off.” That realization put into perspective just how degrading that statement actually was and I knew the change of narrative had to start within myself. Disclosure of any sort will always be a heavier conversation because it adds a new layer to dating. Disclosure requires communication, transparency, and honesty – and the strength to accept that not everyone will react positively. I’m not someone “who’s great, but has herpes.” You’ll never catch me on PositiveSingles, nor will you find me trying to justify my worth to someone who sees me as a threat to their values.
While we’re on the topic, I’m going to set some stigma’s on fire so we can work on sweeping them into the trash where they belong. Before getting diagnosed, I only knew what they taught in sex ed and from what I read on the pamphlets in the PP waiting rooms as a teenager. I still thought STI tests check for everything (Spoiler: they don’t) and I thought that if someone had an STI, well.. you’d KNOW (Spoiler: you won’t)
First of all, receiving a negative STI panel does not mean you’re “clean” because the standard STI panel does not check for everything – also, saying you’re “clean” suggests that catching an STI is a degradation of personal character. 1/4 people have HSV-1 (typically oral) and 1/6 people have HSV-2 (typically genital). Ever had a cold sore on your lip? If so, you have herpes and you should be disclosing that you anyone you’re about to get intimate with. This is not talked about, so its no surprise that there’s been a rise of genital HSV-1 because… well a majority of us enjoy oral sex and going down on your partner is super hot. Once again, if you have cold sores, you should 100% be telling your partners about it so they can fully consent to being intimate with you. Consent is sexy. Communicating about how we like to be touched is sexy. Being secretive or unaware of your sexual health is not. Also, it would make conversations about herpes so much less intimidating for those with genital herpes, or any history of STIs. I’ve taken it upon myself to talk about herpes to anyone and everyone. This may have started as a way to protect myself from rejection or to justify my own experience, but somewhere along the way, I realized that my sex life isn’t over.
I’m honored to be the “sexual health fairy” within my friend group and I will immediately throw (verbal, not physical) hands at any biological male who says “babe, I can’t feel anything with a condom on, I’m clean, I swear.” One of the most common symptoms of an STI is not having any symptoms at all. So, If you unknowingly catch a STI but don’t show symptoms, and you don’t realize that the STI panel doesn’t check for everything, you’ll continue telling everyone “you’re clean” until maybe one of your partners starts showing symptoms. Standard STI panels don’t check for herpes or HPV, and biological males cannot physically be tested for HPV (which can actually cause serious health concerns to those with uteruses) SO I never want to hear a biological male ever say they’re “clean” ever again.
I know, some of you might be reading this like WHAAAAAAT?! Yeah, health class was a fucking joke, wasn’t it? They only test for HSV if you’re having a visible outbreak because the psychological toll of finding out you have it will do far more damage. There’s a startling statistic somewhere of how many adults are estimated to have herpes. This shows two things: hsv is not a threat to your physical health and it can be so inconsequential to daily life that you may never have an outbreak. I’m not saying this to make it seem like getting herpes isn’t a big deal, I have severe anxiety over accidentally transmitting it to new partners and sometimes it makes it difficult for myself to be present during certain moments. I’m extremely cautious when it comes to intimacy now, but things would be so much easier if these things were just common knowledge. Like, herpes shouldn’t only be associated with bad jokes, immorality, and/or poor life choices. I decided to have sex with my boyfriend at the time and I’d say being intimate with a significant other is a pretty normal thing to do.
Sex of all sorts comes with the risk of getting STI’s, just like existing in the world automatically comes with the risk of getting a cold. As an example, chlamydia is like the common cold of STI’s – I caught it once a few years back and immediately felt like a gross monster until learning that you literally take one, single antibiotic and its gone. I’ll save the conversation about just how much misinformation and fear-based health resources exist out there for another time because boyhowdy, it is terrifying.
Sex Ed shouldn’t focus on abstinence or traditional heteronormative beliefs, nor should STI’s be described as disgusting diseases that only impact immoral heathens. They’re also not “disgusting diseases,” most of them are totally curable and a lot of them are sneaky/asymptomatic. According to the CDC, 1 in 2 sexually active Americans will contract a STI by age 25. These things are SO common, yet they’ve become so stigmatized that we refuse to talk about them. If you’re sexually active in any way, STI’s are inevitable. And let’s be real, most of us aren’t “waiting until marriage” so pushing that “abstinence only!!!1!!” narrative is useless, instead of pushing fear – imagine if we worked on de-stigmatizing sexual health and making these conversations more normal and approachable…..
Receiving a STI diagnosis isn’t a death sentence, and it took me until that night last August to realize that yes, it did change a LOT of things- but that doesn’t necessarily mean things changed for the worst. I’ve disclosed to a few people over the past two years readily expecting them to freak out, but that hasn’t been the case. Luckily, the partners I’ve had since have been super cool and understanding about it. Aside from the initial psychological impact, my life has been surprisingly normal since the diagnosis. Also, most OB’s are caused by stress so this diagnosis has actually taught me to chill the fuck out which is something I really needed to learn. This diagnosis caused me to reflect on the relationship I had with myself, and all the ways that loving myself was possible without constantly seeking validation from rando’s that happened to swipe right. I’ve gained a sense of confidence that I never thought was possible.
I recently had a conversation with someone who thought she had HSV for almost a year. Before she discovered it was a false alarm, she went through the entire process (shock, grief, anger, self-pity , acceptance, etc). This was my first time having a conversation with someone who actually knew what I was talking about, and that is WILD to me because of how high the statistics are. I was reluctant to post this, but after talking with that friend we both realized that it was the first time either of us had a conversation with another person who actually understood. So, if we’re considering the statistics – roughly 1/6 or 1/4 of the viewers reading this will have that same moment of being like “fuck yessssss I hear that!!!!” so here ya go, friends.
If you’re one of those friends, or someone who’s just curious to learn more about STI/HSV stigma – this is the link to Ella Dawson’s TedTalk.
BTW: I got diagnosed sometime after Halloween. It was my first time ever wearing a couples costume and it was 100% my idea. We were supposed to go to a party with my friends, but he ditched me to play DnD so I went to that party by myself. The following day, I went with him to his friend’s Halloween party because I just wanted to wear the damn costume. I’m so happy that I took this selfie because I looked cute as hell sans brooding Cosmo.
Processing this diagnosis has led me to become the STI-Fact fairy in most of my friend groups, so using this photo just felt right.
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