How do I tell my partner that I have herpes?

This article was first published on tressugar.com.

“I contracted genital herpes in my last relationship. I now feel like I am cursed to never be in a sexual relationship again. How do I tell new partners that I have herpes? If thanks to my prescription I haven’t had an outbreak in a really long time, do I have to tell?

There’s a lot of stigma attached to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and it’s always seemed so strange to me. After all, lots of people who don’t think twice about spreading the flu or other illnesses often freak out about STIs. (FYI, sex experts started calling them “sexually transmitted infections rather than “sexually transmitted diseases because you can have an infection without ever having a disease, especially if your immune system is strong.)

Part of that STI reaction comes from our legacy of sex-negativity. For centuries, STIs were seen as divine retribution against sex. But these days, we know that they’re caused by bacteria and viruses, just like colds, measles, and such. So I think it’s important to remember that herpes is just a virus. That’s all it is- it doesn’t mean anything about you, any more than chicken pox does.

The herpes viruses (there’s more than one version) set up house in the nervous system. When your body is stressed, such as when you’re sick, tired, or such, the virus takes advantage of the opportunity and you get an outbreak. But even before the outbreak, the virus is present on the surface of the skin and can be transmitted to someone else. That’s called viral shedding.

Herpes medications make outbreaks less likely and they reduce the amount of viral shedding, but they don’t give you a 100% guarantee. So even if you never have another outbreak, it’s still possible to transmit it to someone else.

You sound pretty sure that you got herpes from your last partner. But for other folks, it’s worth knowing that lots of people have the virus and have never had an outbreak. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four women and one in eight men in the US have genital herpes. We often blame our most recent partners when we discover that we have an STI, but that’s not always where we got it. Some STIs can be in our bodies for years without any symptoms, especially for men, so rather than blaming and shaming someone, I think it’s more helpful to think about how to move forward.

So with that in mind, let’s get back to your question. First, you are definitely not “cursed to never be in a sexual relationship again. It’s true that some people will have concerns or fears that will get in the way. And there are also lots of people who understand how herpes works and how to have safer sex. So while it’s a bit more complicated for you, it’s nowhere near as hard as it feels right now.

As far as whether you have to tell someone, that’s an ethical question and I can’t tell you what your decision should be. But I suggest that you think about how you’ll feel if you don’t tell someone and they end up getting the virus from you. In my experience, the sense of hurt and betrayal that comes from discovering that important information was withheld is a lot bigger than the worry that comes from telling someone something that they feel uncomfortable with. My personal belief is that a healthy sexual relationship depends on informed consent and that can only exist when someone has full information.

Assuming that you decide to tell potential partners, there are a few different elements to consider: when to tell someone, what to tell them, and how to tell it. I’ll take each of these separately.

When to tell someone: I think this works best before things get too far along. When we’re turned on, we sometimes let our boundaries slip and make decisions that we later regret. You’ll likely be better off if you let a potential partner know about your situation before things have gotten past the point of being able to make a good decision. On the other hand, it’s also not really necessary to tell someone before you’re even sure that you want to have sex with them. So somewhere in the middle is probably the best time. Perhaps after a first kiss, so you at least know that there’s some chemistry, and before clothes come off.

Every situation is unique, so I can’t be more specific than that. But I can say that if someone is going to have a negative reaction, it’ll probably be a lot bigger if you tell them after you have sex with them and it’ll almost definitely be much bigger if they find out by having an outbreak. That’s the sort of thing that can lead to a break-up.

What to tell them: It can be as simple as “I have herpes. I take medication and I haven’t had an outbreak since¦ Or it can be more detailed, depending on how much you know and how much you want to share. You can get lots of great info at www.herpes.com or check out the books Managing Herpes or The Good News About Bad News: Herpes. (I’ve read and was impressed by the first book. I haven’t read the second one, but it looks good.)

You could also tell them where you have had outbreaks since those are the places that the virus would be most likely to spread from. That can help you strategize around safer sex. One of the hassles of herpes is that condoms don’t always cover all of the places that it can show up, so here are some other tips.

If you’re going to receive oral sex, you can use a dental dam. Dams come in latex and non-latex versions. If you’ve never used dental dams before, page 12 of this guide tells you all about them, along with lots of other great safer sex info.

The Female Condom covers more of the vulva, giving you some extra protection. The manufacturer is currently producing the FC2, which will be less expensive and feel somewhat better, so I expect them to be available soon.

Gloves can also help reduce the risk of transmission and they’re really easy to use. They can take a little practice, but a lot of people find that once they’re used to them, gloves can be kind of sexy. Plus, they make clean-up a snap: pick up used condoms or other trash in the gloved hand, take it off inside out, and toss it in the trash!

How to tell them: I find that the best way to do it is to be upfront about it and not let embarrassment or shame creep in. The calmer you are and the more direct you are, the easier it’ll be for a potential partner to hear. If you’re nervous about it, that’ll send a message that this is something to be anxious about. If you have a friend or two that you can tell about having herpes, it’ll give you a chance to practice saying it without the pressure of worrying if it will complicate things.

Think about how you might tell someone you’re going to have dinner with that you’re vegetarian or that you’re allergic to seafood. It’s important information that you’re sharing in order to find a solution. Try to tell a potential sexual partner about this in the same way.

Herpes is definitely not the end of your sex life. It’s simply something to take into consideration. It might take a little practice to figure out when, what, and how to tell someone, but plenty of other people have found ways to do it and you can, too.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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